Brett Williams's Reviews > The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe

The Dawn of Belief by D. Bruce Dickson
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The origin and travels of religious belief

This book is about the remains of ancient man and the varieties of interpretation these remains allow in regards to religious beliefs while accepting that the interior space occupying skulls of long-lost humans (and close relations) are hard to extrapolate. There’s excellent speculation on the subject based on the reasonable assumption that humans share the same wiring with fairly consistent brain volume regardless of the timeframe. It’s amazing that different primate lines appear to have ritual, myth, and a sense of afterlife, including Neanderthals, perhaps even Australopithecines 1.7 million years ago. A university text in anthropology and archeology, Dickson’s book joyfully rattles the brain of readers, though in large part it’s written as a “report” on findings and hypotheses. In other words, not a great deal of literary storytelling of the facts, as someone like Peter Gay will do (“The Enlightenment”).

Thrilling are findings on the evolution of religious belief. Cultures will inevitably complicate themselves (through innovations – technical & social) and religious practice tracks this complexity from small groups with a shaman early on, to cities with ecclesiastical organizations, creeds, orthopraxy, and orthodoxy as an end state. A survey of many hunter-gather groups (contemporary & extinct) to complex civilizations reveals the process: 1. Gods are gradually withdrawn from the local setting, 2. Anthropomorphism fades, 3. Religion is increasingly separated from everyday affairs (secularism), 4. Homogeneity of belief diminishes, 5. Religious system fragments (e.g. Reformation), poised for cult-state conflict. At least up to the point of codification, humans keep struggling to invent ways to make their gods greater, more distant, unconfinable, undefinable, as growing numbers of people intrude with greater numbers of common sense eyes laid on claims of priests, prophets, and miracle workers. Like the classical question of large vs. small republics in political philosophy - it’s hard to keep everyone thinking the same. Once the ecclesiastical state is reached, the gods – Olympian, monotheistic or pantheistic – gain universal powers, are difficult, dangerous, and temperamental.

As Dickson notes, the more control (knowledge) humans have over their actions and future, the less they employ religion. A big step change takes place with the shift from hunter-gather to agriculturalist at the invention of agriculture ca. 10k years ago (see Wells, “Pandora’s Seed”). Notable was the hunter-gatherer’s absence of accumulation, low population density, absence of full-time specialization, and feuds but no warfare. (With Ukraine/Russia, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Syria, China / Japan / the Koreas – maybe we should give that hunter-gather model another look?)

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Reading Progress

June 27, 2014 – Started Reading
June 27, 2014 – Shelved
June 27, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
July 16, 2014 – Finished Reading

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