Religion and politics led to social tension and conflict, then and now: study

December 21, 2015
Associate Professor Sarah Barber found evidence in several Mexican archeological sites that contradict the long-held belief that religion acted to unite early state societies. It often had the opposite effect, the study says. Credit: UCF: Nick Russet

Humans haven't learned much in more than 2,000 years when it comes to religion and politics.

Religion has led to social tension and conflict, not just in today's society, but dating back to 700 B.C. according to a new study published today in Current Anthropology .

University of Colorado anthropology Professor Arthur A. Joyce and University of Central Florida Associate Professor Sarah Barber found evidence in several Mexican archeological sites that contradict the long-held belief that acted to unite early state societies. It often had the opposite effect, the study says.

"It doesn't matter if we today don't share particular religious beliefs, but when people in the past acted on their beliefs, those actions could have real, material consequences," Barber said about the team's findings. "It really behooves us to acknowledge religion when considering political processes."

Sounds like sage advice in today's world that has multiple examples of politics and religion intersecting and resulting in conflict.

The team published its findings "Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization: A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics in Later Formative Oaxaca," after spending several years conducting field research in the lower Río Verde valley of Oaxaca, Mexico's Pacific coastal lowlands. They compared their results with data from the highland Valley of Oaxaca.

Their study viewed archaeological evidence from 700 B.C. to A.D. 250, a period identified as a time of the emergence of states in the region. In the lower Verde, religious rituals involving offerings and the burial of people in cemeteries at smaller communities created strong ties to the local community that impeded the creation of state institutions.

And in the Valley of Oaxaca, elites became central to mediating between their communities and the gods, which eventually triggered conflict with traditional community leaders. It culminated in the emergence of a regional state with its capital at the hilltop city of Monte Albán.

"In both the Valley of Oaxaca and the Lower Río Verde Valley, religion was important in the formation and history of early cities and states, but in vastly different ways," said Joyce, lead author on the study. "Given the role of religion in social life and politics today, that shouldn't be too surprising."

The conflict in the lower Río Verde valley is evident in rapid rise and fall of its state institutions. At Río Viejo, the capital of the lower Verde state, people had built massive temples by AD 100. Yet these impressive, labor-intensive buildings, along with many towns throughout the valley, were abandoned a little over a century later.

"An innovative aspect of our research is to view the burials of ancestors and ceremonial offerings in the lower Verde as essential to these ancient communities," said Joyce, whose research focuses on both political life and ecology in ancient Mesoamerica. "Such a perspective is also more consistent with the worldviews of the Native Americans that lived there."

Explore further: Religion, science often conflict: US public opinion poll

More information: Arthur A. Joyce et al. Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization, Current Anthropology (2015). DOI: 10.1086/683998

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5 / 5 (1) Dec 21, 2015
"the long-held belief that religion acted to unite early state societies. It often had the opposite effect, the study says."

The long-held, unevidenced, brain dead belief in belief. But modern statistics show that religiosity correlates with dysfunctional (unsafe, perhaps non-united) societies. I.e. religion doesn't give rise to united societies. Give me facts any day!
not rated yet Dec 21, 2015
Common religious belief and/or the merging of religious beliefs and the accumulation of Gods into a single larger pantheon binds smaller tribes into bigger regional groupings but at some social scale will have the opposite effect and it continues to do so even today.

Hostility between countries due to an undertone of religious antagonism is evident in Africa and South Asia. But in tribal regions where fighting between tribes would have been endemic, mutual religious belief brings peace and cooperation at some level, but never absolute.

By focusing on one level and ignore the others allows researchers to choose their position and then find evidence for it.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2015
What is needed to unite people is not some stupid religion (being not based on logic or evidence, they all are necessarily stupid) with blind faith (or ignorance if not blind faith) but rather kindness and compassion, neither of which requires a god or gods or a stupid belief in the supernatural.

Now going a bit off-topic, I would like to add:

True morality comes from love, compassion, sympathy and a sense of fairness and not from a belief that there exists a god nor from religion nor superstition.

Only the dangerously stupid could have an essential need of an existence of a god to be moral.

Many Nazis were Christian. That does not mean that being Christian equates with being morally bad but it does mean that being Christian does not equate with being morally good.

When one does not know, it is stupid to explain it away with a god.
Much more intelligent and honest to just humbly admit ignorance.

Better to have no opinion than one based on ignorance.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2015
gods are mere inventions to describe heavenly (sky) and natural mechanics. Their sentience is usually limited to raw emotion or autistic loopbacks

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