Human beings have always tried to create rules and codes for their groups. The survival of the group, or its success, (from a biological point of view) may have relied on the group’s ability to come to a consensus concerning what was a favourable habit or action, and when and why that action was appropriate. If we consider perhaps one of the earliest human groups, which was probably the family group, maybe an extended family group; it would have been recognized to be to the group’s advantage that special privileges or rights would be afforded to the members of the group, as those special rights or privileges would have sustained the integrity of the group.
They would have been aware that they were capable of performing actions upon other groups in competition for food, land, breeding rights, that they would not want to be inflicted upon the own members of their family tribe; so, I think they would have afforded special privileges to their own group which may, or may not, have been demonstrated to all or any other group. Some of these actions that they perpetrated upon other groups they certainly would not want their own group members to display WITHIN their own group. So, I think one of the first structures of a code of conduct was built upon a “us and them” mentality. (As an aside, bonobo chimps regularly hunt, kill and eat other monkeys, though of course not monkeys within their own family group.)
So, it may have been ok to rob, rape, steal, plunder, or kill people who belonged to a different group, as they may have seen this as justifiable for their group’s survival. But those same actions, they would NOT want displayed within their own group, as it may have led to the disintegration of the group. Whether or not these rules, or codes were written or an oral tradition, I think the first codes of conduct may have been based upon the desire to protect the group, but not necessarily OTHER groups. If we also consider our ancient past, and if we are prepared to accept our genetic origins of common descent, (and I know that is a hurdle for many religious believers), we can understand that our human hierarchies have a basis in the hierarchy of our ancient ancestors.
I accept that human beings evolved and that we have a common ancestor with other hominids. I also think that the mapping of the human genome and its comparison with the chimpanzee genome is strong evidence for this claim. (See : Ken Miller - On Apes and Humans ) Primates tend to form what are known as “dominance hierarchies”. Animals higher in the hierarchy tend to displace lower ranked individuals from resources (mates, space, food). They tend to have higher reproductive success (either by mating more often, or by having more resources to invest in their offspring). As I accept that we share a common ancestor with hominids, I also accept that human beings also create dominance hierarchies. It is obvious, nonetheless that we form dominance hierarchies even without accepting evolutionary origin, as hierarchies are evidenced in our modern societies.
A hierarchy is a position of power that is assumed by an individual, or group of individuals, according to various attributes and characteristics. Ancient human hierarchies probably found favourable characteristics which we still find favourable today.
- 1. strength
- 2. intelligence
- 3. leadership
- 4. resourcefulness (etc etc - you get the picture)
So traditionally, though not always in ancient societies and groups, the position of dominance would have been held by “the alpha male” though this was not prescriptive. The alpha male would gain the respect, and trust of the group through deeds.
- 1. a good hunter
- 2. a good negotiator
- 3. ability to forsee danger etc.
So, early human beings developed hierachies which were similar in nature to their genetic origins, and our modern hierarchies, I suggest, also reflect these origins. Alongside the development of human groups, tribes, family groupings was the development of beliefs. Beliefs that most of us today would consider to be myth, legend, folklore and supersitition. And of course this is to be expected in a world where people had virtually no scientific understanding of the natural world around them.
Rocks, trees, plants, volcanos, stars etc were believed to hold special powers which influenced and acted upon the lives of men, either positively or negatively, depending on the circumstance. People looked for the meaning as to why they were injured by fire, and fire became a substance of power, which they harnessed but also worshipped. Meteorites falling from the sky became omens and portents of impending disaster as surely they must have been thrown from the sky by a powerful being/force/entity. Mankind did not have control over this natural environment which was both dangerous but bountiful and they sought to understand it as best as they could.
Those who claimed to understand the messages in the stars, or the powers of the rocks and trees, were revered as they had attained “special knowledge.” It didn’t matter if this knowledge was basically wrong from a modern perspective, as this “special knowledge” learnt through observation and false associations served their primitive purposes. For example: it didn’t take an Einstein to work out, after viewing the smoke and ash displays of a volcano that something was gunna blow. To ancient man, it was obvious that something harmful possibly to them, their family and their environment was about to happen - but why? They had no scientific knowledge of lava, magma, plate tectonics, pressurised gases etc. So, it was inexplicable except as a mysterious power which must reside in the volcano. One that must wish them harm for their misdoings.
So, with the formation of family groups, tribes, and hierarchies, we have the formation of “religious” belief systems. This formation of belief systems opened up a place in the hierarchy for those who claimed “special knowledge” concerning the mysteries. This position became a special position of power sometimes alongside that of the leader of the tribe, sometimes he/she was the advisor to the tribal leader and sometimes he/she assumed the role of leader. These positions of “religious power” had a variety of names depending on the culture from which they sprang. (shaman, witch doctor, seer, prophet, necromancer etc etc), but they were all positions of power within the tribal/ family group.
One way the leader/ tribal elder/ alpha male had of consolidating his power over the group, enhancing his position and retaining it, was to claim the authority, or the agreement from, the member of the group who claimed “special powers.” So, it was inevitable that under some societal structures, the prophet/seer/ shaman (whatever you want to call him or her), would assume leadership based on their claims of special powers or special understandings of the world. Or, that the leader of the tribe would be supported by the shaman who received special privileges due to his support.
Codes of conduct could now be enforced according to NOT ONLY the will of the leader, but also according to the will of seer/prophet. Those who stepped out of line within the group, could be quickly chastened according to the codes, but also with the approval and perhaps at the instigation of the shaman/witch doctor etc. (I am using these terms interchangeably to suggest that their origins are similar - claims of “special powers” and claims of understanding the “special powers.”) The codes of conduct would have reflected not only the will of the leader, and his immediate successors, but also the will of the priest/ “religious advisor”.
This became a very efficient and successful way of dealing with dissent, and also a way to preserve the group, even though the group as a whole may or may not have had a lot of say in the formation of the codes. The belief systems which were formulated would have been “tribe specific”. That is they would have been as a result of the development and the resultant dynamics specific to a region. So, they would have reflected the geo-political specifics of the tribe. Of course, other tribes also created their own “gods” which reflected the geo-political specifics of THEIR tribes but each tribe was convinced and encouraged to support the beliefs of THEIR tribe to the exclusion of other codes which may exist in other tribes.
These codes of conduct, behaviour etc were prescriptive for the members of the tribe, but did not necessarily apply to people outside of their tribe. Battles for resources, land, food, women, slaves etc continued to be waged, but each tribe carried with it, the approval of their “religious leaders” . Homages and sacrifices, chantings and mantras would have been performed by the one with special powers, and eventually by other members of the group; in the hope of effecting the outcome of such raids, or ventures. Of course, if the incursion failed, it was because the group had not ministered well according to the wishes of either the religious leader, or they had displeased the god in some way, and this was punishment for their "bad deeds" or lax behaviours.
This hierachial arrangement was successful until a tribe came up against another tribe which was more powerful. The other tribe may have had more sophistocated weaponry, a larger fighting force etc. In which case the weaker tribe was subsumed by the more powerful one. By some, this would have seemed as an indication that the “gods” of the other tribe were more powerful than their own gods, so the survivors may have decided to adopt the beliefs of the victor. In many instances, according to ancient history, the victors would not enforce the worship of their gods but would amalgamate their gods onto the gods of the defeated tribe. This ensured a certain amount of harmony if the defeated tribe’s religion was not entirely broken and destroyed.
This type of hierarchy has remained popular because of its ability to motivate the group in a common direction. It doesn’t require that any of the gods created actually exist for it to be an effective method of crowd control. All that it requires is that people believe they exist and that they will be punished, either according to a code of law, or according to the laws of the religion. The notion of religious law, based on a belief in the existence of gods, has remained popular because it claims a “higher authority” than that of the leader of the group, the president, the prime minister, or the alpha male.
It claims an authority, which theoretically, unlike that of an elected leader, CANNOT be questioned under any circumstances. It has claimed the position of privilege where it’s rules are sacrosanct. (above and beyond question and criticism). As, I said, it doesn’t require that any of the gods actually exist. Neither, the volcano god, the egyptian gods, the sumerian gods, nor the ant god of africa. Whether or not they exist, (and obviously, I don’t believe that any of them do), has become irrelevant to their political, social and cultural functions.
Religion and god belief has been a very successful political tool, used to apply and encourage all sorts of social, cultural, and economic stances. Though of course this has not been without a considerable amount of bloodshed, but, as previously mentioned, the pattern had been set in those ancient tribal times that when you kill in a political arena for what you believe is for the preservation of the codes and religious beliefs of your tribe, it is not considered murder. It is considered a sacrifice for the benefit of the tribe. And obviously, the most “powerful god symbol”, would be one who was prepared to die so that others in his tribe could live and prosper.
The major problem in our modern times is that most of the religions, god beliefs of the ancients have been subsumed by war, imperialism and evangelism. There are basically 3 powerful political systems which use their tribal religion as a political tool. 1. christianity. 2. islam 3. hinduism. In reality it comes down to the first two. Each seek dominionism over the other. In the competition of the tribes, as from their beginings in ancient tribes, “there can be only one.” Neither in their extreme fundamentalist form, is prepared for pluralism as represented in a secular society. They each seek a monopoly in the political arena, and dominionism over the rest of the planet. They do not seek a society where many people of various religions, or no religion, can live harmoniously within a political climate which offers equal protection for ALL regardless of their religious belief.
This is the position we find ourselves in, and this position, I suggest is evidenced by how, and why we created our codes of conduct and our religious codes to suit our geo-political origins in the very beginning.