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Walter Burkert: Creation of the Sacred:
tracks of biology in early religions

(Harvard University Press: 1996)


“Religion follows in the tracks of biology, even if it is closely related to the aboriginal invention of language, which brought the great opportunity for a shared mental world. At this level, what matters is not the success of ‘selfish genes’ in procreation, but coherence, stability, and control within this world. This is what the individual is groping for, gladly accepting the existence of nonobvious entities or even principles. Baffling details of experience thereby fall into place, and reality itself can ‘have speech,’ logon echein, as the Greeks would say. This is the creation of sense.”
(Burkert, p. 177)

Studies of religion as a general phenomenon basically tend to fall into two camps. Theists are usually too involved & partial to gain the necessary distance - and are frequently defensive when it comes to more unsavoury aspects - whilst atheists usually concentrate upon debunking, and rarely have any genuine feel for the sheer complexity of factors which support and maintain such beliefs. Mainly, their basic contention boils down to what Burkert calls “Priestertrug” - a conspiracy of manipulation targetting the laity - which really does not explain this complex phenomenon at all, once the relevant factors are all taken into account.


“If religion was ever invented, it has managed to infiltrate practically all varieties of human cultures; in the course of history, however, religion has never been demonstrably reinvented but has always been there, carried on from generation to generation since time immemorial.... The worldwide similarity of religious phenomena is easy to point out: they include formalized ritual behavior appropriate for veneration; the practice of offerings, sacrifices, vows and prayers with reference to superior beings; and songs, tales, teachings, and explanations about these beings and the worship they demand.... Nevertheless, it is notoriously difficult to define religion in a general, transcultural way.... Here, as Benson Saler has recommended, it will suffice to assemble some elements that characterize religion in almost every instance.... The first principal characteristic of religion is negative: that is, religion deals with the nonobvious, the unseen, that ‘which cannot be verified empirically.’...To get beyond the barrier of unclearness, special forms of experience - meditation, vision, and ecstasy - are common.... Yet the remarkable fact is not the existence of ecstasy and other forms of altered consciousness; it is their acceptance and interpretation by the majority of normal people.... The second principal characteristic of religion stands in antithesis to the ineffable: religion manifests itself through interaction and communication.... In fact, religious communication always focuses in two directions, toward the unseen and toward the contemporary social situation.... Implicit in the first two is the third characteristic of religion: its claim for priority and seriousness...set apart from other forms of symbolic communication, from play, and from art....In religion, there is a postulate of priority and necessity, of certainty that given thoughts and actions are essential and unavoidable.”
(Burkert, pp.1-7)

Walter Burkert is one of the leading historians of religions in the ancient world, and this  area of specialization offers him major advantages when it comes to dispassionate enquiry. As he observes, few of the belief systems he studies have contemporary advocates, and they are also the oldest religious systems we can study. As such systems form a natural bridge between the first spiritual beliefs - animism/shamanism - and the “religions of the book” that arose since the beginning of the Iron Age, they provide perhaps the best departure point for any investigation of the whole. And Burkert’s in-depth familiarity with several of these - as well as his willingness to explore contrasts and parallels in ethnological literatures of all kinds - makes for an enormously wide-ranging book, even before we consider its subtitle.

And, now, whilst this work only tackles those oldest of beliefs - animism/shamanism - in passing, it is important to note that all of our spiritual beliefs...as undoubted heirs to humanity’s “domestication” (see Peter J. Wilson)...descend from exactly the patterns that Burkert analyses here.

However...on the biological level, it is perhaps regrettable that Burkert is less well-read in some of the more contemporary approaches than sociobiology, as certain of these could have clearly enriched his account. Merlin Donald’s concept of “mimetic culture” in particular dovetails perfectly with Burkert’s disccussion of the ways in which ritual works, while Margaret Donaldson’s ideas on developmental patterns & spiritual experiences would have incorporated a perspective too rarely encountered in evolutionary speculations. Still, the fact is that Burkert makes careful and reasoned use of parallels between animal and human behaviours, and does not let the programmatic over-reach of sociobiology spoil what is an extremely impressive account of how & why “domesticated” religions work...as well as casting a (useful) sidelight upon how they may have worked among our less regimented ancestors:


“Religion may well be older than the kind of language we know, insofar as it is is bound to ritual, which entails fixed behavioral patterns marked by exaggeration and repetition and often characterized by obsessive seriousness.... In principle, ritual reflects a preverbal state of communication, to be learned by imitation and to be understood by its function.... [And] if there are certain predilictions and attractions as well as fear and revulsion, feelings of needs shaped by biology, this complex may account for the stability of belief and concomitant behavior.”
(Burkert, pp.19-21)

“Initiation rituals are anything but natural. It is a mistake to make the assumption that nature transforms itself into ritual, and ritual in turn is followed by language. Rituals are complex, ambivalent, and not seldom opaque even to those who practice them.... Far from being simple transpositions from nature to culture, they rather contradict nature in certain cases. It makes more sense to see them as cultural attempts to make the ‘facts of life’ manageable and predictable; to perform an act of artificial social creation, as if to veil biology.”
(Burkert, pp.74-5)

As the preceding quotations suggest, Burkert is strongly averse to simplistic arguments and categorizations that do not respect the sheer diversity of the evidence. He extends this attitude - natural in a historian - to his readings of the scientific evidence. Moreover, although a reader encountering the book for the first time might (initially) expect sociobiology to dominate this dimension of the argument, he draws upon a range of psychological findings of all sorts:


“Some special forms of learning are made indelible ‘at a stroke,’ without repetition, usually in situations of utmost excitement. Every individual will have unforgettable memories of this kind, especially of a painful or humiliating character.... A special thing to do in manipulating anxiety is to handle blood, which is required in many forms of sacrifice and purification. Terror does not develop rational abilities, but it leaves its marks. Thus we approach the ‘seriousness’ of religion from the experience of fear.... The very means of indelible transmission, threat and terror, are correlated with the contents of the religious part of the mental world: the perogative of the sacred requires the fear of god. Yet anxiety, fear, and terror are not just free-floating emotions brought on by psychological fantasy. They have clear biological functions in protecting life.... Anxiety was bound to multiply at the human level, the level of a conscious representation of the world both near and far, of past and future.... To shield mental life from despair and depression, which are factually lethal, there must be counterforces.... This may be the final necessity for sharing fictitious worlds which employ seriousness, nay terror, to counter worldly fears by fear in a hierarchy that reaches toward the absolute.... [And,] if reality appears dangerous or downright hostile to life, religion calls for something beyond experience to restore the balance. Catastrophes do happen; but in the widespread myths of the flood the endings always tell of the suurvivors preparing to offer sacrifice. Religion is basically optimistic.”
(Burkert, pp.30-33)

Ihave grouped the quotations in this review based upon the extent to which their arguments are strongly dependant upon the subject’s possession of full language abilities. As Burkett argues, ritual - and hence some form of “proto-religion” - almost certainly pre-dates language, and his working definition of religion is not predicated on language, once the possibilities of mime as an aboriginal mode of storytelling are properly factored in. Thus, we can see that, perhaps, “proto-religion” is too weak a term, and that we should seriously consider the likelihood that religious behaviour substantially predated modern humans. However, once language emerged, in its full flexibility, ritual found itself complemented by a far more powerful representational system than mime, in which abstraction virtually invited much more elaborate imaginary worlds...


“The common world of language characteristically produces contents beyond any immediate evidence. Communication works via signs, and what they refer to must be guesswork at first, to be confirmed by repetition, by context, previous knowledge, or additional information and experience.... An accumulation of preformed, verbalized traditions will always transcend individual experience. Nobody has seen the phoenix, but all know about him. Such a process of accumulated verbal tradition may be anticipated by ritual, which refers through formulaic acts to nonpresent partners.... [Furthermore,] in the face of the constantly growing accumulation of data infiltrating personal experience, the common world must be simplified.... By a process of reduction, religion provides orientation within a meaningful cosmos for those who feel helpless vis-a-vis infinite complexity. Certain religious systems go further than others in this function. One way to effect a radical reduction of complexity is to devise a dualistic system, positing two containers in which to place any phenomenon or experience. Hierarchies and links of causality also effectively reduce complexity.”
(Burkert, pp.25-6)

Burkert’s arguments on narrative in religious belief are particularly impressive, even though he makes substantial use of the typological work of Vladimir Propp, too often the straightjacket into which narratives are forced. But, as Burkert argues, not only does Propp’s model only fit quest narratives, but it could almost as easily be described as a hunting narrative, since most of its key stages clearly fit a pattern that predates humanity. By stressing the full range of narrative possibilities, and their close connection with the fundamental realities of life, he makes clear how narrative - rather than the conceptual thrust of theology - is, along with ritual, at the very centre of religious experience. In addition, the deep understanding of narrative conveyed in this passage connects Burkert’s ideas with the best current work on the significance of that form, such as that of Kieran Egan in The Educated Mind.


“Ever since Aristotle, it has been generally assumed that knowledge takes the logical form of statements, predication on a subject.... [But] what we learn in tales is knowledge of a different kind.... The tale is the form through which complex experience becomes communicable...a sequence of events and actions that make sense. While there are tools and props to help remember a text exactly, as in the Brahmanic tradition of Veda or in Islamic Quran schools, they bring out, by contrast, how natural it is to recall a memorable tale. It has an obsessive impact combined with freedom of expression. A tale is a structure of sense.”
(Burkert, pp.56-8)

Whilst on one level religion is dominated by the interaction of ritual & narrative, a similar centrality can be posited in action by the complex of sacrifice/offering/gift which, as we will see, opens the way for the institutionalization of hierarchy...another reason why critics of religion have so jaundiced a view of it.


“I postulate a dynamic program that operates in different civilizations and epochs, from so-called primitives to high cultures, a program dealing with the causality of evil.... By establishing connections of fault, consequence, and remedy, it creates a context of sense and premises a meaningful cosmos in which people can live in health and ease; it is in fact the postulate and the acceptance of a surplus of meaning in the world, sharply contrasting with the reductions made by empirical science.... The invention of guilt is one explanation in this context, as is the statement of nonobvious pollution.... People are quite inclined to accept their own guilt, a readiness which makes the course of events understandable and offers a way to handle or refashion one’s own fate, in contrast to the oppressive burdens of chance and necessity. Hence irrational associations, especially in matters of health and disease, persist to the present time.... People prefer to cling to the surplus of causality and sense, and there is no lack of mediators to explore the hidden connections.”
(Burkert, pp.127-8)

The pars pro toto principle, accepting the small loss in order to save the whole...is highly rational and highly emotional at the same time. It repeats at the intellectual level what biology has long taught before. Yet it retains a mysterious ring and carries religious ramifications in its wake. The sacrifice of one for the sake of all, enduring a small, tolerable loss to confirm all life, is a motif dominating both fantastic tales and strange rituals. The pattern transcends what seems reasonable and functional and leaves a purely symbolic message; it can be termed magical or superstitious. The sequence of events feels right, makes sense to the participants, this triumph of the inherited pattern proves its autonomy.... The tolerable loss may nevertheless leave the survivors with a bad conscience. This can be countered by an alternative projection: the being chosen to perish was guilty, polluted, and detestable; the positive effect is enhanced by the negative criteria of selection. This is the famous and much discussed scapegoat pattern. Alternatively, the victim may be marked by a touching ambivalence, despised and worshiped at the same time. This has been elaborated, most of all, in the Christian tradition.”
(Burkert, pp.51-3)

Amidst the plethora of Burkert’s examples, the most startling is this - taken from the oldest layer of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch (the Christian version - Exodus 4: 24-6 - makes even less sense):


“When Moses returns from Midian to Egypt together with his wife Zippora and their little son, they rest at night in the desert. ‘And Jahweh met him and wanted to kill him. Then Zippora took a flint and circumcised her son, touching Moses’ private parts with the foreskin and said A bridegroom of bloods you are for me. Then Jahweh let him go.’ The writer of the text already wondered at the story; he added an explanatory note, stating that this refers to circumcision. The passage has remained enigmatic. How can the Lord appear in the guise of a killing monster of the nocturnal desert? But that is exactly how it happens. Suddenly, at night in the desert, one is struck by an irresistible fear of god, more powerful than a king and ready to kill. For ransom, man has to renounce his masculinity - in this case, the mother steps in to make the decision. At the same time, a double substitution takes place, child for man, and foreskin for penis.... Doubts may remain whether this is the precise origin of circumcision, but apparently it is the oldest interpretation of circumcision we have.”
(Burkert, pp. 49-50)

“Whether enthusiastically accepted by homines religiosi or criticized by the advocates of emancipation, dependence is a form of ‘making sense.’ It is a truism that we are unavoidably dependent upon a variety of circumstances both known and unknown, whether personal, political, economic, or environmental.... Religion makes all this secondary by turning the attention structure toward one basic authority, thereby achieving a most effective ‘reduction of complexity’ and creating sense out of chaos.”
(Burkert, p.84)

“Submission and sovereignity inhabit the same hierarchic structure. Dependence on unseen powers mirrors the real power structure, but it is taken to be its model and to provide its legitimization. It is a two-tiered sovereignity that stabilizes itself through this structure; god is to ruler as ruler is to subjects. This lends theoretical support to the ruler, who ceases to be alone at the top of the pyramid as a target of potential aggression. In reality, while power games are played out in a continuous dialectic of aggression and anxiety, in the stabilized power structures of the human mental world this duality has become neatly dissociated, producing fear of god or gods along with constant readiness to attack and destroy lower humans, buffered by the good conscience provided by piety.”
(Burkert, pp.95-6)

Creation of the Sacred, as Norman Cohn - the great scholar of millenarian movements - has said, is “a triumph”. Burkert’s eye for detail, and his broad knowledge across a wide range of religions and disciplines, provides a convincing model of what religion is, and clearly ties this firmly to biological imperatives without oversimplification. And, as I have noted at various points throughout this review, his approach clearly dovetails with a variety of other models - of mimetic culture, spiritual development, and educational theory - providing evidence of consilience in this most contested area of human life. Whether or not we are religious - and I am not - this work can lead us to a deeper understanding of religion’s function and appeal in human societies, without the elisions and simplifications so frequently on offer from theists and atheists alike.


“Why must people have religion? In the ancient world, the obvious answer would have been, for the validation of oaths.... Oath is a phenomenon of language which owes its existence to the very insufficiency of language.... The purpose of oath, sworn by responsible partners, has always been to exclude lying in all its forms, tricks, distortions, and fantastical elaborations.... In other words, taking an oath means a radical ‘reduction of complexity’ in an effort to establish univocal meanings and create a world of sense that is dependable, with clear divisions between true and false, right and wrong, friend and adversary, ally and foe.... For this purpose, two concomitant strategies have been devised: the use of witnesses to guarantee a shared mental world, and the use of ritual to create realistic signs, to affix an ineradicable seal by the inprinting function of awe. At both levels reduction of complexity is met by a ‘surplus’ from the supernatural sphere. Unseen partners share the knowledge, and nonobvious causality wields coercive power. Both are accepted in an atmosphere of absolute seriousness.”
(Burkert, pp.169-171)



John Henry Calvinist