Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Durkheim Versus Marx

Thus far, I am thoroughly enjoying Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. Yesterday I read the chapter about shamans and today I'm just about through with religions in chiefdoms. Taken together, the research presented has gone a long way toward answering a question I've always had -- Did politics arise out of primitive religion?
The shaman's role in cultivating antipathy and violence, both within the society and beyond it, is more evidence against the romantic view of religion as fallen -- having been born pure only to be corrupted later. Apparently one of religion's most infamous modern roles, fomenter of conflict, between societies, was part of the story from very near the beginning.
As Wright explains -- and commonsense would dictate -- any individual who could convince others that he had a personal relationship or inside track with the gods, set himself up as someone who could wield tremendous political power. By and large, whether shamans were viewed as de facto leaders or not, people looked to them as the mouthpiece for the spirits who impacted their lives.

Now, the title of this post has to do with the two schools of thought in regards to the analysis of whether or not religion has served humankind well. On one side are the "functionalists" like Emile Durkheim who hold that religion has served "the interests of the society as a whole." On the other side, there are the cynics or, what Wright labels the "Marxists -- not because they're communists, but because, like [Karl] Marx, they think that social structures, including shared beliefs, tend to favor the powerful."

As I'm confident any regular reader of this blog would surmise, I definitely fall into the Marxist camp! Thus far, I've read little in this book that would dissuade me from that position.

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