Should we thank god for civilisation?
The idea that religion led to modernity is gaining momentum. But that doesn't mean it should lead civilisation now
Source - http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530142.800-should-we-thank-god-for-civilisation.html?cmpid=RSS|NSNS|2012-GLOBAL|online-news#.VRROwd-uM8o
Image: Vincent J. Musi/National Geographic Creative
About10,000 years ago, our ancestors began the greatest transformation in human history, abandoning the nomadic lifestyle that had long served them well in favour of permanent villages.
The origin of this "Neolithic revolution" is contentious. The answer once seemed clear: food. Farming was more efficient than foraging and so people gravitated towards it. Cities, writing and organised religion soon followed.
In recent years, though, this model has been challenged by archaeological discoveries. The most important is Göbekli Tepe in Turkey: a cluster of 11,000-year-old buildings with spectacular statues and other monumental architecture. The archaeologists who found it interpreted these as having a ceremonial purpose: a "cathedral on a hill", as one put it.
Yet the people who built them were nomads, not farmers. So the radical suggestion now is that it was not agriculture that drove the revolution, but religion. Some archaeologists oppose this idea, arguing that the ruins could have been domestic buildings, or were once surrounded by dwellings that did not survive. But the ceremony-first model is in the ascendancy, supported by further evidence unearthed in the Levant.
Now comes news that another ancient civilisation – the Maya – may also have had spiritual roots. Their oldest city, Ceibal, seems to have begun as a place where hunter-gatherers assembled for religious festivals.
The parallels are intriguing. Maya civilisation developed in geographical isolation from the Old World, and several thousand years later. If it followed the same path, perhaps that tells us something profound about human cultural evolution.
Some secularists dislike the idea that spiritual needs drove the rise of civilisation. They fret that it will reinforce or restore religion's central place in society. But just because spirituality may have led to civilisation, it doesn't follow that it should lead it now. If religion did have an early founding role, we must acknowledge this, learn from it – and move on.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Thank god for civilisation"