My reading of the month is Unearthly Powers by an Oxford historian Alan Strathern. It’s a very interesting and thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.
There is much that I like in the book. Strathern avoids the ideological extremes that preoccupy today’s humanities, such as an aversion to essentialism and teleology, and the prioritization of the emic over the etic (if you have no idea what these mean, no worries, it doesn’t affect what comes below). I like his defense and practice of the comparative method in history, and his willingness to engage with questions of large-scale causation. But the most interesting and thought-provoking, to me, was the core argument of his book, stemming from the distinction that he makes between two forms of religion, which he calls “immanentism” and “transcendentalism”.
As a true scholar, Strathern defines these two forms using very precise technical language, listing ten characteristics of the first and fifteen characteristics of the second. But let me try translating the main ideas into human language.
Immanentism is really about the supernatural side of religion. It’s about gods, angels and demons, spirits, and departed ancestors. Its focus is on how these “metapersons” can be induced to avoid harming one, or harnessed to advance one’s interests. Thus, as Strathern argues, it’s primarily about power: ability to avoid bad outcomes and to achieve good ones in the here and now. Morality is local and unsystematized, or even not an important part of religion. The focus is on ritual, propitiation, and sacrifice, including human sacrifice. As a vivid example of the latter, and a great illustration of what immanentism is about, recollect how following a dire military defeat Romans during the Republican Period on several occasions buried alive two pairs of foreigners in the Forum Boiarum to propitiate the gods and to protect the city from invaders.
Transcendentalism is about salvation, liberation, or enlightenment—“escape from the mundane reality” as Strathern puts it. Variants include entrance into the paradise or escaping the endless rebirth cycle. Transcendental religions are profoundly moralizing. Ethical norms are codified and arranged into lists of prohibitions or injunctions, as in the Ten Commandments of Christianity or the Five Precepts of Buddhism. Religious specialists are highly organized and gain great power and potential autonomy from the state institutions. Interestingly, all transcendental religions repudiate blood sacrifice.
Of course, these are “ideal types” and there are many gradations in between. Immanentist religions can have transcendental elements. Furthermore, the switch to a transcendental religion may be rapid (often happening as a result of conquest or ruler conversion), but usually not complete, and the result is often a synthesis between a transcendental religion and the local varieties of immanentism. In fact, a central thread running through Strathern’s book is the uneasy coexistence between transcendentalism and immanentism, with transcendentalism periodically “back-sliding” and needing a revival or reform movement to purify it of creeping immanentism.
Because I have become involved in the debate about the Big Gods theory (see What Came First: Big Gods or Big Societies? Round Two), I was particularly interested in the profoundly different approaches to morality in immanentist versus transcendental religions. Strathern’s book made me look at the whole question of the role of supernatural beings in sustaining cooperation in large-scale societies from an entirely different angle. So here’s how my current thinking goes.
Morality in small-scale societies is sustained by face-to-face interactions. Everybody watches each other and imposes sanctions on non-cooperators ranging from mild ones, like gossip and ridicule, to severe ones, like expulsion and capital punishment. Morality is not systematized—there is no explicit list of rules, because everybody learns them the way children do. Religion is immanentist. Some spirits and deities may care about morality and even punish the bad and reward the good, but the main focus is on manipulating reality to avoid negative outcomes and to achieve positive ones. For example, the spirit of the hunted deer needs to be propitiated so that this hunt and the next one are successful.
With the rise of centralized societies, chiefdoms and archaic states, at first things don’t change dramatically. Morality is still local, which creates problems for integrating these larger-scale societies, because people coming from different local groups don’t cooperate well with each other. The nature of supernatural agents change in that they become more hierarchical, reflecting the social arrangements in the real world. But the main focus of religion is still on power, not goodness.
And then there is an abrupt (on an evolutionary time scale) rise of transcendental religions, more commonly known as World Religions or Axial Religions, because they appeared during the Axial Age. The proponents of the Big Gods theory emphasize the supernatural aspect of world religions. Ara Norenzayan argued that because “watched people are nice people” in large-scale societies the role of watchers is taken over by gods (see Do “Big Societies” Need “Big Gods”?).
The Watcher by Kurt Huggins. Source
But after reading Unearthly Powers I now think that this supernatural part is really a side issue.
First, the supernatural aspect varies quite a lot between Axial religions. It’s quite prominent in the Middle Eastern monotheisms (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), but not so in the South Asian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism) in which the main moralizing force is karmic retribution. As many scholars of Buddhism emphasize, karma is not really a supernatural thing. It’s simply the operation of cause and effect. You kick a ball and it rolls away. You do really bad things, and you get reborn as a frog. No supernatural watchers or punishers are needed. And the supernatural content is almost entirely absent in Confucianism, which many scholars don’t even consider to be religion.
Second, the main watchers and punishers are not supernatural beings but very human people. They include neighbors, agents of the state, and, especially, the clerics. An amusing illustration of how the real-life “Eye in the Sky” operates is provided by the viral video of the Chinese drone operator chiding an elderly woman who failed to wear a mask during the coronavirus epidemic.
A very non-supernatural Eye in the Sky
Third, people who grow up in societies with fully moralized organized religion internalize the rules of morality. Many behave morally even when not watched and there is no possibility of punishment.
To conclude, when I first read Ara Norenzayan’s book, I was quite impressed by its main argument, and wrote a positive review (see From Big Gods to the Big Brother). But the more I learn about the evolution of religion in past human societies, the more skeptical I become. It’s a really neat hypothesis, but, as happens in science, beautiful theories are often slayed by ugly facts.