The Transition from Magic to Religion

The nature and practice of magic and religion underwent a fundamental change after settled agriculture replaced nomadic hunting and gathering roughly twelve thousand years ago. Because sedentary agriculture produced an economic surplus, demanders of religion were able to support a permanent or quasi-permanent priesthood. As a result, exchange between demanders of religion and the priests who acted as supply agents grew more formal. There followed a predictable supply response:

a proliferation of gods and goddesses, most derived from the earliest mythologies. Gradually, over a long period of time, magic became disconnected from religion, though it could be argued that the break was neither final nor complete.

In the early temple societies, gods and goddesses were either assimilated from competing cults or created to meet a specific need. One god supposedly brought the rain that made crops grow; another brought the sun. Along the gulf coast of Mexico, Mayans prayed to the god Hurra-can to spare them from violent storms (from which we derived the word "hurricane"). Single-purpose deities were common and as they grew in number, so did the amount of ritual surrounding their worship. In the case of ancient Egypt, distinct economic interest groups developed around gods and rituals. Egypt and other temple societies, such as such as those of Abyssinia, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and pre-Columbian South America, tended to embrace religions that were highly authoritarian and monopolistic. Greek and Roman religions were more democratic but were no less disposed to violence in the form of blood sacrifice or in the form of religious persecution (as in the case of Christianity, which Rome considered primarily a political rather than a religious threat).

Suppliers of religion, whether ancient or modern, encounter the same basic problems as businesses. They must decide on the nature and quantity of services to produce and the price to charge. As with businesses, the solutions to these problems depend in part on the type of market structure within which a firm operates. Although the object remains the same—to maximize utility—the rules of competition differ from the rules of monopoly. Competition promotes consumer sovereignty, product innovation, and cost reduction—monopoly does not. Ironically, however, violence may be common to both: Competitors may resort to violence to gain market share; monopolists may engage in violent acts in order to maintain market share, or to prevent encroachment of new firms. The fact that religious organizations are nonprofit entities does not change the fundamental facts. Church-firms supply different things to different groups, attracting adherents and donors. In some cases, their leaders are enriched in the process, but even without economic gain religious leaders receive considerable perquisites in the form of power, status, and prestige.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between this world and the next, the priest in contemporary society defines the parameters of religious technology. This technology defines the contract between customer and supplier, specifying the duties, responsibilities, and expectations required of both parties. For some people this bridge is built on faith; for others it stands on science (e.g., secular humanists). But regardless of its foundation, such a bridge is generally conducive to order and stability in society. As guardian of a theology derived from higher authority, the priest also acts as keeper of the calendar.43 However, because religion is a credence good, theology is eventually pressured by change—it is likely to be in a state of flux in societies that are economically and socially progressive. Supply agents must have a fallback position in the event temporal predictions fail. Generally that fallback position is to argue that more faith, sacrifice, repentance, or prayer is required, which effectively amounts to saying that quality comes at a price; that is, a higher full price will get you a higher quality of religion.

Despite the fact that societal and cultural idiosyncrasies shape particular beliefs, and the fact that technology alters religious content, the law of supply nevertheless applies in religious markets. Political and regulatory powers permitting, higher prices tend to bring more competitive suppliers into the market, other things being equal (including the state of scientific knowledge). Many early agriculturally-based temple societies, such as ancient Egypt, allowed competition between gods, but more advanced agricultural societies enforced monopoly conditions by means of political arrangements (as in ancient Babylonia or the medieval Roman Catholic Church). In the final analysis, market structure depends on economic and political considerations.

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