Friday, August 31, 2012

Religion And Food Production

Consider the following conjecture.

For any given technological tool kit and ecological niche there are favored approaches to producing food and more generally overall basic form of economic organization.  Some of the medium grained possibilities (between coarse grained and fine grained) might be terrestrial hunting and gathering, fishing, herding, hoe based farming, plough based farming, irrigation based farming, raiding, mechanized farming and industrial production, post-industrial economic organization.

For any of these modes of food production (although types of basic economic organization might be a more accurate terminology), there is a particular set of values, cultural norms, modes of collective organization, scale of collective organization and type of political culture that is favored.  The values and social organization that works for a herder is to a great extent determined by this mode of food production and is something along the lines of a "culture of honor."  Plough based farming may favor patriachal societies, while hoe based farming may not have that bias.  Irrigation based farming may favor authoritarian political structures, while terrestrial hunter and gatherer societies may have a natural bias towards a more democratic political bent.

A religion's metaphysical structures and concepts don't matter much.  Mostly, in practice, religion serves as an embodiment and means of transmitting a set of values and collective organization techniques and structures associated with a particular method of food production.  Iron age Judaism and current era 7th century Islam both coded similar herder values and modes of collective organization, even though the former has only angels, while the later has both angels and jinn, as subordinate metaphysical actors.

Different forms of the same religion can occupy different places in this typology of religions.  Iron Age Judaism as it was practiced then may embody a set of values and collective organization associated with a different mode of food production than Rabbinic Judaism.  Southern Baptist Christianity as practiced may embody a different mode of food production than Episcopalianism.  In terms of their cultural message two religions with the same name, overlapping ceremonial components, and the same holy scriptures may be entirely different in practice.

The cultural message and collective organization approaches that a religion as practiced codes is much more important than the labels and window dressing of metaphysics that officially embody a religion's core metaphysical doctrines which can be deceiving and create a false sense of unity where none exists in the important essentials.  Interpretive doctrines have a great capacity to overcome otherwise obvious direct pronouncements of an ancient religious text.  Contrawise, it is possible to have a coherent culture associated with a particular mode of food production, in some modes of food production anyway, without some of the metaphysical elements we have come to think of as definitional components of a religion.  For example, concepts like karma and tao can be perfectly servicable alternatives to a metaphysical structure in which the way the metaphysical power acts with moral purpose in the world is through anthropomorphic beings conceptualized as "gods" rather than as pervasive cosmic forces or principles.  There may be some metaphysical structures, however, that are an easier fit to particular methods of food production and collective organization than others.  The natural tendency is to have a metaphysical world whose organization mirrors the way people understand their own world to really work.  Structures like the feudal language of the Christian New Testament, or the Olympian Council of Greek mythology mirror the political structures of their days.  Animist metaphysical structures may come naturally to people in hunter-gatherer societies who live at the whim of the countless plants and animals around them rather than the judgments of select groups of human leaders.

Connecting this economically determinist chain of reasoning together, the content of real world religions suddenly becomes far less random.  Rather than being arbitrary, a religion as practiced by a particular group of people at a particular time starts to look like something largely determined by the technologies and ecological circumstances that are formative for its adherents, which in turn drive their mode of food production in their formative period, which in turn drives the values and collective organizational forms that work best, which in turn drives much of the substantive content of the religion of those adherents as they practice it.  When a society has more than one mode of food production operating as parallel subcultures of the society at the same time, each subculture or caste of each society that practice a particular mode of food production may have its own way of practicing its religion, even if some or all of them on the surface claim to be practicing the same religion, or at least, the "true" version of the same religion.  Complex societies with multiple subcultures and centeralized government may need either a doctrine that calls for the toleration of multiple religious views as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does, or a religion succeptible to have subcultures within it that publicly claim to be the same creed, in order to function.

When a society undergoes a transformation in its food production mode, sooner or later, its religion as practiced will catch up, although there may be some lag time from a most recent formative period to the present particular when a society or subculture is evolving to a new food production mode rapidly.  It may take a number of generations, for example, for a religion which was a herder religion in its most recent formative period to adapt to the economic realities of the present through intepretive, organizational and ritual adjustments.  For example, many religions practiced in the United States are in the process of adapting to new conceptions about gender and sexual orientation which are driven by a shift towards a postindustrial mode of economic organization which are driven by  new technological developments within the options made available by our evolving ecological constraints like those associated with the tail end of a century old petroleum based economy.

While not entirely inevitable, and while the specific formalisms and symbols that a religion expresses itself may be driven by historical baggage and may be path dependent, the substantive aspects of a religion that influence how people act in real life a strongly biased by economic realities that are in turn strongly biased by technological realities.  People who have values and inclinations about how to organize people in the society that work for its current stage of development and mode of food production will prospect and religions that reflect these views will prosper with them or be intepreted to become congruent with them, while people who have values and inclinations about how to organize people that are a poor fit for the current mode of food production will not prosper and religions that reflect their values will stagnate or die.

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