Agriculture and the Emergence of Religion

As early societies turned away from the nomadic existence required of hunting and gathering toward sedentary, agricultural life, individualistic forms of magic—the direct use of mechanisms to change nature or human behavior, such as spells, chants, amulets, etc.—gave way to more formal ritualized modes of behavior that began to resemble what we now call religion. Human survival was made somewhat less uncertain by the domestication of plants and animals. There are different (not always conflicting) explanations for the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture that occurred about twelve thousand to ten thousand years ago. Jared Diamond, in his popular book, Guns, Germs, and Steel,9 attributes the transition to limited spatial availability of plants and animals that could be domesticated on an East-West axis. This plus the "horizontal configuration" of the Eurasian versus the

North-South America and African continents, at least to Diamond, explains the relative rates of early economic developments in these regions. Taking an approach that is complementary rather than exclusionary, Douglass North explains the major transitions of history in terms of changing property rights.10 Either way, the transition had a decided impact on the forms of myth and magic that held sway in the new era.

We make no attempt here to distinguish between magic and religion. One line of thought holds that there is no distinction. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider how some distinctions have been made. Magic is sometimes characterized as any art that attempts to control or predict natural events, effects, or outcomes by appeal to supernatural forces. Magicians typically employ control mechanisms such as spells, incantations, amulets, potions, and objects such as paintings or effigies. Such magic was designed to heal the sick, punish an enemy, help find a lover, or directly affect some event (forestall bankruptcy or directly obtain a favor). Rodney Stark and Roger Finke declare that magic is "all efforts to manipulate supernatural forces to gain rewards (or avoid costs) without reference to a god or gods or to general explanations of existence.''11 In their view, magic is impersonal and does not generate extended or exclusive patterns of exchange. In magic there is no "system." There is no good reason, given this definition, that individuals cannot create their own system, that is, their own religion, unorganized though it may be. Like magic, religion appeals to supernatural forces (God, the Great Spirit, or Divine Mover), but most often implies an ongoing system of myths, beliefs, values, and practices drawn from a spiritual leader or body of moral principles.

The use of intermediaries in religious markets may have developed from the failure of magic to have empirical content, that is, to work in some predictable, demonstrable fashion. Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rouse characterize religion in its crudest forms as attempts to influence powerful spirits with sacrificial gifts, noting, "The act of sacrifice is based upon the assumption of a contractual agreement between humans and the higher powers they believe in. This assumption is a defining characteristic of religion, and the component that lifts religion above the primitive level of magic.''12 The emphasis they place on the contractual agreement between humans and the higher powers is, we think, a fruitful one for exploring the basic product nature of religion.

Where religion is concerned, the contract is almost never explicit or precise. Hence, the mixture of magic and religion may have occurred very early in the development of Homo sapiens. Even in hunter-gatherer societies there is evidence of some kinds of propitiation or sacrifice to deal with the everyday necessity of survival. But it is generally believed that religion as an organized, propitiating force to obtain favors from powerful gods originated in settled agricultural societies. According to these definitions, neither magic nor religion has ever been absent from any known society. In early forms of religion, human or animal sacrifice, dance, art, music, and a myriad of other forms of propitiation were used to placate the gods.

In contemporary religions that employ organized forms of worship, it is faith, obedience to particular precepts, prayer, and monetary sacrifice that provide protection from harm, remission of sins, deliverance from devils, communication with the divine, and promises of eternal life. Some modern religions require detailed propitiation and intermediate steps to salvation while others ask less. But although the form of ritual may change, the tendency throughout history has been for humans to utilize myth, magic, and religion to try to control nature and the human mind—in other words, to relieve a universal existential dread. Some prehistoric ideas survived the transition to agrarian society, which created new forms of religious observance, which, in turn, gave way to contemporary forms of religion. Religion, broadly conceived to include magic and myth, sets boundaries to define individual and collective reality. These boundaries, observed by rites, rituals, sacrifices, and propitiations, stave off chaos, provide order in human life, and relieve human beings of the existential terror of sentient mortality.

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