Saturday, January 26, 2013

Culture and Religion

When I was an archaeology student 600 or so moons ago, it was a bit of a standing joke that if one unearthed an artifact of no obvious utilitarian purpose it was classified as "of religious significance." Of course that really only meant that nobody had figured out what it was good for, since generally the excavated didn't leave any clues as to their actual religious views, if any.

A more subtle point is that it's not generally possible to clearly fence off any part of culture cleanly and call it religion, so that even if the artifact in question did turn out to be used for scrambling quail eggs or something, it might still be an item of religious and mythical consequence. Perhaps that point has something to do with the (to me largely incomprehensible) protestations that the Hindu have no religion.

Our present culture goes a long way towards making that separation. The separation has fairly deep roots in Christianity ("render therefore onto Caesar..."), but probably precedes it. The Romans made a point of tolerating foreign religions as long as they observed certain minimums and didn't cause trouble. It's a convenient point of view for any minority religion immersed in a larger culture.

It's a lot of trouble to enforce that separation though, as anybody paying attention to the war on the constitution by Christianists in the US, still a popular cause in some places several hundred years down the pike.

It's a challenge for any cosmopolitan civilization. Given that a lot of major gods started their careers as tribal war gods, how do you get a bunch of them to live together in relative harmony?