Religion doesn’t cause Violence. It’s the other way round.
This is SO counter-intuitive. It’s really hard to get your head around. It seems plain common-sense that much of the violence we see in our world is caused by religion. And here I am trying to tell you that it’s the other way round? That violence causes religion? It’s like saying UP is DOWN.
Exactly. Up IS down. That is a reality that was kindly explained to me by that nice Indian optometrist at Specsavers.
“You know that our eyes actually see the world upside-down,” he explained in his emollient tones.
“Eh?” I replied. I could feel a stupid look on my face. In a moment I would look like a heavy-browed Neanderthal and be saying “Wha(t)” without pronouncing the ‘t’.
“Yes,” Mr Specsavers continued amicably as if addressing a small child. “The lens in the eye inverts what it sees, and projects it upside-down onto your retina.”
This sounded vaguely obscene, so I just said, “Oh.”
“So your eyes see the world upside-down. But fortunately our brains are smart enough to turn it right side up for us,” he concluded.
“Wha(t)!” I replied from some prehistoric brain freeze. “My brain turns the world right side up? Even though I am actually seeing it upside-down?”
“Exactly.” And I experienced a minor inversion of reality.
Religion doesn’t cause Violence. It’s the other way round. Violence causes religion.
And, in fact, religion, and the many aspects of culture that have their birth in religious practice are the responses of human societies to put a lid on violence.
If you’re ready to turn a bit of your reality upside-down, let me start at the beginning.
Once upon a time, about 250 thousand years ago, when hobbits, Neanderthals and Homo Erectus roamed the earth – two hundred thousand years before the First Australians invaded the Land Down Under to establish a thousand aboriginal nations – a caveman watched as a neighbour wandered by, arm-in-arm with a rather fetching cavewoman.
Our caveman (let’s call him ‘Uurgh’) had seen this cavewoman before but today there was definitely something different about her. She was on the arm of his neighbour. His neighbour was looking at her in a particular way. Uurgh may not have had a word for lust, but he knew it when he saw it in his neighbour’s eyes. And he had an epiphany.
He really desired this woman. Uurgh picked up a club he had been using earlier in the day to batter a Woolly Mammoth into mince meat. He delivered a blow to his neighbour’s cranium and took possession of the cavewoman.
Uurgh’s neighbour was not best pleased to see his lady friend dragged off so, once the stars disappeared from his eyes, he went looking for his own Woolly Mammoth Mince Meating Club and went after Uurgh.
A blow for a blow followed. And then it got worse.
The rather fetching cavewoman had brothers. They were likewise not best pleased about the treatment being meted out by the two Woolly Mammoth Mince Meaters. Punches were thrown. And returned.
The WMMMU (the Union of Woolly Mammoth Mince Meaters) saw their comrades under attack and came to their aid. An all-in brawl exploded.
This may have been the moment that Homo Erectus became Homo Sapiens – the knowing human. It may have been the moment when human culture began. Because of what happened next.
Just at the worst possible moment, a wizened old man came out of his cave to see what all the noise was about. His name was Leggone because one of his legs was gone, taken by a Woolly Mammoth’s tusk during the Great Mince Meating Hunt of twelve winters earlier.
“What the …?” yelled Leggone.
There was a momentary halt in the battle. Heads turned to Leggone. Eyes saw the old cripple standing (right way up) at the mouth of his cave.
Someone, later no-one could remember who, yelled, “Shut up you old cripple” and whacked Leggone on the head. As he toppled to the ground, a second combatant shouted “YEAH!” and hit him again. Others joined in and Leggone was soon dead. And all was quiet.
That was what was amazing. All the fighters looked at each other. It seemed as if there was no more reason to fight. Their desire to come to blows seemed drained away. They walked away. Not in silence but amazed and questioning. Something mysterious had happened. The killing of Leggone had stopped the violence. How could that be?
Over the next weeks and months, the community came to understand that there was something special about Leggone. Even something beyond nature. Supernatural. It was Leggone who had stopped the violence. His sacrifice had produced calm and even cohesion within the community.
Someone put a pile of rocks at the mouth of Leggone’s cave. Gradually others gathered more rocks and built the pile into a tower.
Religion had begun.
One branch of modern anthropology suggests this is how religion began. In acts of scapegoating violence that converted the violence of all against all, into all against one. The apparently supernatural power of peace that followed the scapegoat’s death turned that victim into a god. Subsequent ritual repetitions of the original murder, eventually so sanitised as to be almost unrecognisable from the original event, served to safely release communal tensions, and maintain a cap on violence.
And thus, football was invented.