Religion is a set of beliefs, ideas, and symbols that make up a cultural system of world views that are often connected to moral values (Crone, 187). As a collection of concepts, religion can be expressed either through simple myths or complex teleological systems (Crone, 187). However, unlike philosophical conceptions of the world that rely on observation, deduction, and abstract principles, among others, religions try to explain natural phenomena with the help of supernatural invocations (Crone, 187). Taking into consideration the fact that religions provide their followers with “the nucleus of the cognitive, moral, social and political world” (Crone, 217), it is no surprise that the majority of divinely inspired social organizations were intertwined with states. This paper explores the nature of the relationship between the human, the state, and the supernatural in pre-industrial societies. The paper’s main argument is that religion acted as a social glue that was necessary for the cohesion of complex social structures.
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Pre-industrial states emerged due to the development of agriculture (Lecture 1, Introduction to Western Civilization). The pre-industrial West, just like all pre-industrial societies, was characterized by the extremely inadequate nature of means due to a lack of efficient production and maritime transportation capabilities (Crone, 37). Low agricultural output did not allow for sustaining substantial population numbers; therefore, Western cities were scarcely populated by modern standards (Crone, 37; Lecture 2, Early Civilization). Nonetheless, an agricultural surplus was sufficient to support complex societies. Interestingly enough, empires such as the Byzantines and the Sasanids facilitated the creation of statelets, Ghassanid, and Lakh-mid, through lavish subsidies for military services (Crone, 69).
Pre-industrial states were not stable structures and often collapsed due to poor government and scarce resources (Crone, 75). The fragility of states called for a system that could control the state apparatus. Religion is known for its ability to create an organization by interpreting the world in new and elaborate ways. Therefore, religions involved with socio-political concerns and especially the relationship between the state and the divine often provided a framework for gainful social cooperation—a state (Crone, 221). According to Crone, “there have been times when religion provided most of the organization available in a particular society, including the state itself” (221).
One case of a state in which religion provided a structure for the political establishment is the Mesopotamian society in the city-state of Babylon that was ruled by “Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land” (Hammurabi, Code of Laws, 2.1). It is clear that the Babylonian leader had a special relationship with the divine and used religion to justify his rule over “the black-headed people like Shamash” (Hammurabi, Code of Laws, 2.1) as well as other actions of a violent nature. Hammurabi’s devotion to Anu and Bel allowed him to conquer neighboring states without feeling remorse (Hammurabi, Code of Laws, 2.1). Almost all religions in pre-industrial states, “explicitly put social and political organization on their agenda” (Crone, 245). The management of the believers’ lives was a focal point of both polytheist cultures such as Egyptians, Canaanites, and Romans, among others that lived in the Mediterranean region, and monotheist Hebrew and Arab cultures (Crone, 245; Lecture 5, The Roman Republic). Therefore, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and even “Gnostic religions such as Manichaeism” (Crone, 245; Lecture 7, Christians and Romans) were often concerned with changing socio-political maps.
In pre-industrial states, religions played the role of an intermediary between the primacy of people’s selfish desires and the needs of a group. Thus, they acted as a social glue that kept complex social structures together (Crone, 241). It can be argued that religions were the precursors of ideologies necessary for the appeasement of those who had a lower hand in the distribution of social roles (Crone, 241). In other words, for people to accept their roles, the roles themselves had to be dispensed by invisible entities (Crone, 241). Religion was a perfect force for facilitating such social division.
Ancient Greece is an example of a society in which religious justifications are made up of “genetic neutrality” (Crone, 241). Considering that ancient Greeks often engaged in the colonization of the Mediterranean Basin, religion was necessary to provide a divine mandate for their actions (Lecture 3, Early Greece, Athens, and the Peloponnesian War). For example, during the Peloponnesian war, an Athenian politician, Thucydides, called for courage from the military to defeat antagonists of the state (Thucydides, Histories, The Funeral Oration of Perikles, 3.3). He wanted sacrifice without “hesitation and reflection” because gods required their followers to be courageous and leave “imperishable monuments” behind them (Thucydides, Histories, The Funeral Oration of Perikles, 3.3).
The religious elite was responsible for the relationship between the divine and the state (Crone, 259). Priests and clergymen could interpret religious dogma in a manner that could be supported and understood by commoners. Moreover, priests often were a central part of a ruling class in different pre-industrial states. For example, in the Roman world, clergymen often had seats in the imperial court (Lecture 7, Christians, and Romans). Furthermore, priests’ power was not limited to the cities of the Roman Empire but also extended to its fringes (Lecture 7, Christians, and Romans). Therefore, it can be said that religious leaders played mediators between religion and the state. The power they received from the various levels of government allowed them to control almost all aspects of the states’ social and political life in which they lived.
King Charlemagne, who took the Frankish throne during the Carolingian era, successfully created a stable government (Charlemagne, De Litteris Colendis, 8.1). It was possible because of the close relationship he had with central church authority figures. Charlemagne believed that to maintain command over modern Italy and France’s vast territories, it was necessary to educate the elite. He expressed his concern for education in his letter to Abbot Baugulf, a member of the religious ruling class. The king wanted the clergy to be “be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God is able to learn” (Charlemagne, De Litteris Colendis, 8.1).
However, with time, the division between the state, the church, and the people became so significant that capturing religions’ power slowly subsided (Crone, 259). Therefore, most religions were no longer able to provide ideological ammunition for the politicians they supported (Crone, 259). When this happened, more and more societies started to move toward secularity, thereby weakening religion’s grasp on socio-political aspects of life (Crone, 259).
The close relationship between state and religion was necessary to provide commoners with a divine mandate that justified their social position. This state of affairs helped to create complex social structures across the world. However, with time, religious doctrines gave way to secular laws and regulations, thereby ushering in an era of freer societies.