Why Churches Are Withering Away, Part I

Why Churches Are Withering Away, Part I June 14, 2016

Leslie White predicted this back in the 1950s. He could already see it happening, because the pressures had been building since the Renaissance. He was one of the great Cultural Historians, along with Toynbee and Kroeber. He was a Marxist—of a school that consisted of him and Karl Marx. We’ll get to the churches—but first you need to understand the historical forces at work.

White took seriously Marx’s insight that history is driven not by abstract ideas, as Hegel thought, but by people’s physical needs. That is, it is not beliefs that create social rules and inspire inventions. Rather, technology—specifically, people’s energy source—sets limits on what kind of society can be sustained, and beliefs then develop to justify the rules of the society (as Marx rather cynically thought).

The major error in Marx’s theories was that he thought the class struggle between the rich and the poor could be explained in terms of historical developments during a few centuries. But White argued that Marx’s basic model was true only if one recognizes that there have been just three Ages of human society: the hunting and gathering age, the agriculture-based age, and us, the fuel-based age.


The Hunting and Gathering (H&G) Age

In the H&G age, the only source of energy a person had was his or her own body. People lived in bands of about two dozen people and travelled south in the winter, north in the summer, following the ripening plant life and the available game. One can calculate about how big a band’s traditional territory could have been, about how much natural food it could have produced, and therefore about how many people the land could support—certainly to within an order of magnitude. An exceptionally lush piece of turf might have supported a band of three dozen.

One can logically deduce some necessary (or at least highly probable) characteristics of such a band. It was an extended family: about half men and half women, about half adults and half children. The adults collectively were about the size of a coven. One man was the chief, the leader of the hunt, the protector of the family, and especially the protector of the women. If a male died, that did not seriously threaten the band’s survival, but if a woman died, if the children she might have had were lost, the band’s chances of survival were seriously reduced. To even threaten a woman would have had dire consequences.

In such a band, everyone, even children old enough to walk, would have gathered food or hunted—with two exceptions: the “shaman” and the toolmaker, for both of whom we have archaeological evidence, both of whom could have been women. (It’s hard not to retroject our assumptions.) Those two would have been worth supporting. The “shaman” was the band’s intellectual, the storyteller, the keeper of knowledge, the healer, the ritualist dancing in animal skins on the cave walls in France. The duties of the toolmaker are, in contrast, obvious to us.

One can speculate—and many have—about what their beliefs may have been. They did bury their dead. Did they believe in an afterlife? As someone pointed out, that’s backwards. We tend to believe in an afterlife (or whatever) because we bury our dead. (“That’s Uncle Charlie! We can’t just leave him there, to be eaten by animals!”) Then we try to explain our behavior afterward.

There is one thing we can be certain about: they did not believe they had to support a class of professional priests who did not hunt or gather food—because doing that was not only impossible, but also inconceivable. As Porphyry wrote (quoting someone much smarter than himself), “No Greek sacrifices a camel or an elephant to the gods, because Greece does not produce camels or elephants.” Once you get your head around that, it explains the majority of human religious behavior.

Nor was a band actually isolated. We are social animals. We get together with others as often as we can. When bands met, by chance or choice, they partied. It is plausible to suppose that, at the northernmost point of their annual circuit, all the bands within about a three days’ walk would gather at the traditional place to celebrate the shortest night of the year (and six months later, at the southernmost point, the longest night). The celebration would have been like that of our closest relatives, the bonobos: every sexually mature person would have had sex with any other sexually mature person who was interested, which was virtually everyone. Of course, all the women would have tried very hard to have sex with the chiefs of the other bands; humans back then were smarter than us. (Rape, pedophilia, and other mental illnesses could not have existed in their society—but that’s a discussion for some other time.)

I was speculating once about whether the bands might have traded marriageable daughters at such a gathering, but someone said to me, “No, a girl’s brothers would help raise a baby.” Oh, damn, I thought; retrojecting those assumptions again. Why would a girl want to leave her family? Why would there have been any concept of pair bonding? The entire band would take care of every baby. There was no danger of inbreeding.

Those were the conditions of our species, the conditions in which we evolved and survived for at least a hundred thousand years, until just about twenty thousand years ago, at the glacial maximum, when the sea level was four hundred feet lower than it is now. We human mammals have not changed very much since then; that is one of the most important facts about us.


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Available on Amazon:

Aradia and the Books of the Sacred Marriage: A Tale of Love, Witches, and Gnostics

 Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches: A Social History of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn

 A Tapestry of Witches: A History of the Craft in America, Vol. I, to the Mid-1970s

 Theodyssies and Paradoxologies: Collected Poetry


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