Atheists are very fond of critiquing “religion” (by which they usually mean the three most recent forms of Western monotheism) for causing so much death and destruction in the world. From the Crusades to the Inquisition to modern-day Islamic suicide bombers, the record for religious conflict seems superficially to be as comprehensive as it is damning. But today is the fourth anniversary of Marvin Harris’ death, and the theory of cultural materialism he championed so effectively suggests a very different reading of those facts: not that people die for religion, but that religion provides a convenient excuse for the blood-curdling violence that our economic situation so often demands.
The classic example of cultural materialism serves as an excellent introduction here: it is Marvin Harris’ “Sacred Cow of India.” The Hindu injunctions against the consumption of beef seemed so bizarre and superstition to their European conquerors that the phrase “sacred cow” has become a euphemism for whatever strange, arbitrary beliefs a person or people cling to. But of course, we all have our “sacred cows,” and it is only our ethnocentrism that blinds us to our own. Yet, as Harris so effectively argues, they are anything but arbitrary:
During the First Millennium B.C., the Ganges Valley became one of the most densely populated regions of the world. Where previously there had been only scattered villages, many towns and cities arose and peasants farmed every available acre of land. Kingsley Davis, a population expert at the University of California at Berkeley, estimates that by 300 B.C. between 50 million and 100 million people were living in India. The forested Ganges Valley became a windswept semidesert and signs of ecological collapse appeared; droughts and floods became commonplace, erosion took away the rich topsoil, farms shrank as population increased, and domesticated animals became harder and harder to maintain.
It is probable that the elimination of meat eating came about in a slow, practical manner. The farmers who decided not to eat their cows, who saved them for procreation to produce oxen, were the ones who survived the natural disasters. Those who ate beef lost the tools with which to farm. Over a period of centuries, more and more farmers probably avoided beef until an unwritten taboo came into existence.
Only later was the practice codified by the priesthood. While Indian peasants were probably aware of the role of cattle in their society, strong sanctions were necessary to protect zebus from a population faced with starvation. To remove temptation, the flesh of cattle became taboo and the cow became sacred.
The sacredness of the cow is not just an ignorant belief that stands in the way of progress. Like all concepts of the sacred and the profane, this one affects the physical world; it defines the relationships that are important for the maintenance of Indian society.
Cultural materialism suggests that people do not fight simply for religion’s sake; they fight for basic, economic reasons, and then dress it up with religion after the fact. So let’s take a look at some of the favorite examples of “religious conflict,” and see if they’re really about religion, or something else entirely.
The Crusades are an obvious first choice. Ostensibly, the Crusades were fought to regain Jerusalem from the Muslims, who had conquered the holy city in 638 CE. In response, Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, a swift 457 years after the fact. If the crusades were really fought to regain Jerusalem for Christendom, why did it take five centuries for that kind of religious devotion to kindle, and so suddenly spark into a blaze? Wikipedia’s entry on the Crusades touches on the two main reasons:
The origins of the crusades lie in Western developments earlier in the Middle Ages, as well as the deteriorating situation of the Byzantine Empire. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in the later 9th century, combined with the relative stabilization of local European borders after the Christianization of the Vikings, Slavs, and Magyars, meant that there was an entire class of warriors who now had very little to do but fight amongst themselves and terrorize the peasant population. The Church tried to stem this violence with the Peace and Truce of God movements, forbidding violence against certain people at certain times of the year. This was somewhat successful, but trained warriors always sought an outlet for their violence. A plea for help from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I in opposing Muslim attacks thus fell on ready ears.
The economics of a feudal, warrior aristocracy made sense in the context of the collapse of Rome, but made less sense in the relatively stable peer polity that followed. To justify their existence, the warrior aristocracy needed a war–and so, would fight one another. Even more important was to find an outlet for the second-born sons of medieval primogeniture to prove themselves and gain land. The fragmentation that led to the dissolution of Charlemange’s empire was solved by simply passing lands and titles to the first-born alone. This left a large percentage of the warrior aristocracy with no land, no title, and the martial prowess to press a claim. These same needs would find an outlet in Iberia’s Reconquista, as well.
This is where the Crusades’ leadership came from; its rank and file was populated by all manner of individuals seeking refuge for some legal infraction. In an increasingly legalistic world with an increasing number of arbitrary, local laws and harsh penalties, this was a growing, and increasingly desperate, class. The offers of clemency and the promise of fortune on Crusade enticed many individuals who’d found themselves in a difficult position in Europe.
At the same time, Byzantium was vulnerable. Rome only expressed an interest as the East-West schism was beginning, and when Alexius I asked Pope Urban II for help against the Muslims. He expected an army of mercenaries to back him up–not a horde of Crusaders to make a grab for part of his empire. The Western European peer polity system had to take advantage of Byzantium’s weakness–because all civilizations must grow, at any cost. In the medieval mind, Jerusalem was the center of the earth. The Crusades were a bid of conquest for the Roman Catholic Church. Xenophobia and piety were exploited to motivate the foot soldiers, but even these were only secondarily motivations, behind the promises of lands, titles, booty, and sometimes, relief from running afoul of an oppressive legal system.
The Inquisition, another favorite example of murder in the name of religion, came directly out of the Crusades. The Albigensian Crusade was a fiasco so clearly rooted in imperial ambition that even devout medieval clergy could not ignore it. The Count of Toulouse was very nearly independent, and gathering increasing autonomy. The diversity of Toulouse allowed the region to prosper economically far more than most of Europe at the time. The King of France was not only challenged by barons in the north, he also risked losing the wealth of Toulouse, and even the possible ascendancy of Toulouse over Paris–and the Trencavels over the Capetians. So, using the excuse of the Count’s tolerance of Cathar heretics in his lands, a crusade was called. After conquering the Languedoc, another figure, loyal to the Capetians and the church–Simon de Montfort, father of the Simon de Montfort involved in England’s Barons’ War and the establishment of Parliament–was installed. When he was removed by the guerrilla actions of the last scion of the Trencavel family, it was obvious that more drastic measures would be needed to hold the region. Once it was regained by treachery, the Inquisition was imposed. It very effectively rooted out the last of the Cathars–and brutally enforced the will of king and church. As a result of the Inquisition, the Languedoc became very much a part of France, and all hope of independence was lost forever. What crusade could not accomplish for the economy of France, the Inquisition did.
Much the same occurred in Spain, in the context of a more “traditional” crusade, the aforementioned Reconquista. Wikipedia’s entry on the Spanish Inquisition states:
While the Castilian Isabel was a devout Catholic, the Aragonese Ferdinand was not above using religion as a means of controlling his people. He wanted the Jewish and Muslim religions wiped out in his domains, and the Inquisition was his method for achieving that. Many historians believe the Spanish Inquisition was instituted as a way of weakening Ferdinand’s primary political opposition at home. It is also possible that there was a financial motivation. Jewish financiers had lent Ferdinand’s father many of the funds which he had used to pursue the alliance by marriage with Castile, and many of these debts would be wiped if the noteholder were condemned in court. The Inquisitor whom Ferdinand installed in Saragossa Cathedral was assassinated by New Christians.
Ferdinand was an astute politician, and developed close ties with St. Peter’s in Rome as part of his political manoeuvering, aimed at consolidating the independent realms (joined by his marriage to Isabella) into a single state to be left to his heir. However, he did not want the Pope to control the Inquisition in Spain, as he was jealous of any other power within his borders.
The Pope did not want the Inquisition established in Spain at all, but Ferdinand insisted. He prevailed upon Rodrigo Borgia, then Bishop of Valencia and the Papal Vice-Chancellor as well as a cardinal, to lobby Rome on his behalf. Borgia was partially successful, as Pope Sixtus IV sanctioned the Inquisition only in the state of Castile. Later, Borgia was to have Spain’s support for his own papacy as Pope Alexander VI.
In other words, the Inquisition was not a campaign to wipe out heresy–it was a political campaign that cynically exploited religion to justify the consolidation of imperial power. Religion was an excuse, not a cause of the Inquisiton.
The successful end of the Reconquista in 1492 left a large of class of conquistadors with no war to win–the very same second-born sons of primogeniture that had necessitated the First Crusade. Fortunately for them, in that same year, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon a continent, and showed the Spanish Empire a New World to conquer. The conquest of the New World is often used as another example of religious conflict–with Spaniards conquering the New World to convert the Indians. In reality, converting Indians was an after-thought. Rather, it was another game of Prisoner’s Dilemna: Spain had to conquer the New World and gain its advantages before other European powers did. Moreover, they needed to give the conquistadors something to do–and preferably, something that did not involve civil war or a coup d’etat.
In thew New World, the conquistadors encountered our last example of religious killing: Aztec human sacrifice. In “Aztec Motives for Mass Sacrifice,” Eric Pettifor writes:
Given the scale of Aztec sacrifice, it would be surprising if no one suggested that they were using people as a domesticated animal source of protein. There are many references in the Spanish sources to cannibalism, the estimates of number sacrificed annually ranging from Cortes’ three to four thousand annually to 20,000, to 80,400 in several sources.
Any kind of resource stress, such as the drought of 1450 would have been totally disastrous. The Aztec answer to this precarious situation was large scale cannibalism. Unfortunately, given the figures for population, percent of population belonging to the nobility, and number sacrificed which Harner gives “for the sake of discussion” (all very soft), human flesh might have been very marginally adequate in Tenochtitlan, and not at all anywhere else in the Aztec empire.
For all its flaws, the nutrition through cannibalism theory is at least looking in the right direction. Tenochtitlan was not self sufficient. Its population could not be supported by even the most copious yields of its technologically advanced intensive agriculture. Tribute from neighbouring states was required to make up the difference.
This was exactly the approach of the Aztecs to territories they wanted tribute from. Both the Aztecs and the Spanish liked to make offers you couldn’t refuse.
Perhaps the greatest difference between them, however, was human sacrifice. While the Spaniards were familiar with the virtue of dying in the service of God, King, and Country, and more generally with the virtue of service to these entities, they did not see clearly how human sacrifice could be rationalized as being in terms of these virtues. They were not conditioned to it from birth as the Aztecs were. They came upon it from the outside and it must have seemed diabolically incomprehensible. Yet for God, King, and Country was the pretext for not only human sacrifice, but all forms of tribute due the state.
The strongest motivator was economic. The religion walked in perfect step with that. The hunger of the gods was the hunger of Tenochtitlan. When the gods were well fed, so was Tenochtitlan. The chief god of the Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli, was the god of war for a militaristic people. He was very hungry. The prime food of Huitzilopochtli was not, however, the prime food of the people. The consumption of human flesh, Huitzilopochtli’s leftovers (Harner, 1977), functionally established the nobles as divinely privileged and empowered.
Only nobles could eat the god’s leftovers. Only warriors could be nobles. All adult men were expected to do military service, and the potential for social advancement served as an incentive to valour in warfare. Capturing live prisoners for later sacrifice was especially valued, and could result in the bestowal of special insignia.
Only warriors were exempt from paying tribute, a further incentive for belonging to that class. Everyone else, Aztec citizen and citizen of the subject state, paid with either goods, services, or their lives - the latter honour serving as a disincentive to refusing to pay.
The ‘option’ of not being sacrificed had very great appeal. A neighbouring state from which Aztec’s wanted tribute could pay in goods or services, or it could pay with the hearts of its warriors first, then pay with its goods and services
Masive human sacrifice may have provided some sustenance, but not enough to be a major food source. Instead, human sacrifice played two very important roles in the Aztec empire: first, to help control the population of the overpopulated basin, and second, to instill a sense of terror to ensure the continued extraction of tribute from neighboring kingdoms–tribute on which Tenochtitlan, being completely unsustainable, was utterly dependent. In the classic mode of all hierarchical exploitation, the Aztecs made the entities they depended on equally dependent on Tenochtitlan. In their case, they did so via human sacrifice. It wasn’t motivated by religion; it was motivated by economics.
In fact, this is a general principle. For any such conflict where a naive, superficial analysis might lead one to think that people are “killing for religion,” a deeper analysis will show that hey are doing no such thing. Every war comes down to the same factor: EROEI. Energy Returned on Energy Invested; the marginal return curve on the abstract energy economy itself. The Romans very explicitly stated that their conquests were geared towards acquiring more farmland–that’s EROEI. The expansion of the Western European peer polity system at the expense of its Byzantine rivals, to create economies of scale and generate greater comparitive advantage–that’s EROEI. The need to conolidate political power, so that more energy goes into the kingdom and less goes out quelling dissent–that’s EROEI. Bringing energy into the imperial center and keeping a cap on the population–that’s EROEI.
Of course, individual human beings can hardly live with themselves in such a way. We cannot fave the gruesome reality of such violence with only the cold economic reality. That is where religion comes in, to help us sleep at night and to give us an excuse for what we’ve done.
Cultural materialism teaches us that every society is dictated by its economic reality. Violence entails a significant risk of our own death; no society engages in violence for trivial reasons. Religion, no matter how deeply held, is always a trivial reason. Societies do not go to war because they believe it is just; they go to war because they believe they have to.