“Religion Created Civilization?” A Response to Brad Hirschfield on Göbekli Tepe

It’s an interesting concept.  Brad Hirschfield writes:

For years, historians, archeologists, anthropologists and pretty much all of the other “ologists” have agreed that agriculture created civilization, including religion, as we have known it for the past 12,000 to 15,000 years. The assumption was that settling down to lives of farming, people built cities, created art and made up organized religions to suit the new needs they faced in the transition from hunter-gathers to farmers. Or not.

via Brad Hirschfield: Did Religion Create Civilization?.

Go read the whole thing.  Then come back.

Back?  Good.

There are some serious problems with this article.  I am hesitant to draw the same conclusions, in the same manner, about the site of Göbekli Tepe that Hirschfield draws here. There are two main arguments that Hirschfield makes: (1) that Religion, not agriculture, was the foundation of civilization and (2) this is due to the inherent human nature to be religious.  Both of these are oversimplified constructs of what the data (we have) actually suggests.  In truth, the information highlights a much more convoluted reality than the one idealistically devised by Hirschfield.

On his first point, problems persist.  Very little of the site has been excavated overall (about 5%) and though that is still quite substantial, there is more work to be done and I doubt that we will have a great understanding of the site for at least a few decades more.  So it is a little presumptuous on the part of Hirshfield to claim:

The evidence from Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion is both more real, and more human, than is often admitted. The ultra-orthodox in both camps in the ongoing debate about what religion “really is,” where it came from and what purposes it serves may find this difficult to accept.

I fail to see how the existence of a cultic complex dating to the pre-neolithic revolution somehow points to a ‘more real, and more human’ meaning to religion. The evidence suggests nothing of the sort. If anything, what this site shows is that there was, at this point in time, a religious caste which must have yielded some power. The real value to this site is that it exists without a permanent settlement. This implies that a group of hunter gatherers journeyed to this location for a ritual purpose (but maybe not so much ‘religious’) of specific intent rather than settle first and build later. But this does not imply that cultivation, in some form, was not practiced.  Instead the presence of obsidian and flint tools at this location has led to the determination that cultivation did take place–not after the building of the cultic structures, but around the same time.

But there is a darker reason why I feel Hirschfield might want to reconsider his argument.  Under the alter of one of these cultic buildings is evidence of hundreds of human and animal remains.  If we were to place the start of civilization on the shoulder of religion, we must also accept that this was the start of human sacrifice, the start of war.  Agriculture has, for the better part of the past century, taken the burden of these dreadful human faculties–particularly the faculty to wage war–onto itself.  And it has done this under the reasonable observation that once man became stationary, began to plant seeds and grow crops, it needed to protect that land from other hunter-gatherers, other scavenger animals and also required land to feed more people, to provide better protection from predators.  This is where civilization ‘sprouted’.  First permanent dwellings, fortifications, and other communal structures were built.  From here, deity-worship developed along with the crop-growth (something like: God is mad, so poor crop yield and less food; God is happy, so great crop yield and more food).  But what Hirschfield is suggesting is that religion should actually be bearing this burden.  If he were to accept that claim, I might be more inclined to accept his.

But it needn’t matter in the scheme of it all; according to his second argument:

The evidence from Turkey suggests that the pilgrimage impulse, the collective worship impulse, the sacred space impulse, are all supra-natural, if not super-natural. There is something within us, not necessarily from outside us, which compels the building of Gobekli Tepe and places like it. That “something” is not simply accounted for by the usual explanations which seek to explain, or, too often, explain away, people’s attachment to religious expression.

The word ‘impulse’ is quite misleading in the manner that Hirschfield uses it.  Humanity has an ‘impulse’ yes, but not to worship (I wonder if Hirschfield’s rabbinic training is leading his conclusion in this direction).  Our evolutionary psychological reason is either to follow or to lead.  What this site demonstrates is the human propensity to form into social groups and use those social groups or castes to its own advantage. In this instance, ‘religion’ has just replaced ‘government’, but that does not mean man has an ‘impulse’ to create governments!  Next we’ll be told man has a ‘impulse’ to be a member of a political party.  Worship is a form of ritual, it is not the worshiping itself that is the impulse.  That is to say, people don’t have an impulse to worship.  Rather the ritual–or the participation in a ritual–like the desire that baseball players have to perform tasks they feel will help them win, before the game is the impulse.  When a sports figure does things a certain way he feels will give him an edge over something, he doesn’t do these for any spiritual figure (unless, of course, that sports figure participates in a ritual prayer), they just exist as part of a function that man has gained through the process of evolution.

And I am not so certain ‘religion’ has anything to do with it anyway, as Philip Davies reminds us:

Many scholarly books mention the “religion” of “Israel” as “Yahwism.” As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a “religion of Yahweh”? There was no “Baalism” “Mardukism,” or “Elism.” Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word “religion” to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their “religion” was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one “religion.”

Returning to the neolithic site, the size and the weight of these structures, including the sculptures and roof supports, suggests that this was not something built over a few days, or by any small number of people.  This was a herculean effort, wherein plans were probably ‘drawn’, and these structures did not come about ex nihilo.  There must have been a gradual build-up to these sorts of structures and, also, they must have left a legacy on the region of the ancient Near East.  We know of a few other sites which resemble PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) sites like this in Anatolia.  So there must have been a social reason for the construction of these complexes and this social reason seems to be limited to the PPN.

And it seems as though this sociological stimulus (possibly predicated on the origins of agriculture and crop cultivation and the start of caste structures that are seen possibly in sites like Göbekli Tepe) lasted for only the PPN.  In fact during the PN (Pottery Neolithic), the 3,000 or so years following PPNB, communal ritual goes away almost completely and is replaced by a smaller amount of rituals, almost always domestically.  The social structure during this period might rest upon the growth of communities to large sizes relative to the size of their structures and the inward turn of importance from the communal setting to domesticity and family life.  Even burial rituals, though communal in the PPN, became domestic practices during the PN.  As a consequence of this data, the ‘impulses’ to collectively worship and make pilgrimages seems to completely disappear and leaves Hirschfield with more problems than solutions.

So did religion create civilization?  No, of course not.  Civilization grew out of a complex web of dynamic social situations which were flourishing based upon a number of factors relating to climate change, the availability of food, the discovery of cultivation (even squirrels plant seeds, for goodness sake!), and sure, even ritual and deity worship.   Göbekli Tepe does indeed change our understanding of the human world and does alter what we thought about the Neolithic Revolution, about agriculture, and about the state of human ritual before the tenth millennium BCE.  But it does not, in any way, suggest that religion created civilization, nor does it suggest that without religion, civilization wouldn’t have come about on its own.  Clearly the perception of the social setting of that period is going to shift as more data comes available.  Hirschfield has attempted to throw his understanding of religion and worship anachronistically at these prehistoric peoples.  The idol that needs to be smashed is not,  as Hirschfield suggests, the failure to accept the deeply religious and the human impulse as one, but the blanket claims such as ‘religion created civilization’.  To say this is to prove how completely simplistic ones understanding is of the ancient past.

Further Reading:

Schmidt Klaus. Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. In: Paléorient. 2000, Vol. 26 N°1. pp. 45-54.

Verhoeven Marc. Transformations of society : the changing role of ritual and symbolism in the PPNB and the PN in the Levant, Syria and south-east Anatolia. In: Paléorient. 2002, Vol. 28 N°1. pp. 5-13.

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