The idea of a universal impetus for the initiation of religious institutions has been widely discussed (Durkheim, Freud, etc.). These have ranged from the
momentous (read ridiculous) totem narrative by Freud, concepts of the institutionalization of numinous experiences by Otto, or as a mechanism for social conditioning by Durkheim, just to name a few.
But a new hypothesis has recently been presented that has got me rethinking the beginning of religion. I’m part of a faculty reading group that began discussing David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The book is an anthropological examination of the historical and contemporary ideas of debt. The topics explored are vast but mainly focuses on the embedded social notions of economics and debt in modern civilization. Graeber questions:
What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?
[As someone who loves anthropology and loves less economic theory, the book is absolutely fascinating and is a great read.]
In his research, Graeber suggests, in a round about way, that religious entities started as “societal debt management” (my phrasing, not his). The proposal highlights various religious scriptures regarding the idea of debt (i.e. debt to God, debt to ancestors, debt to society). Thus the notion is religion was initiated as a mediator of economic situations by attaching transcendental beliefs to daily exchanges. Just think about how the statement “You owe me X” is modified when one says, “God said you owe me X” or even “God demands repayment.” This could be taken further into social classifications systems such as “God said your value is X and you owe society X because of your position.”
The interesting thing that Graeber states is that almost all religious traditions concluded that debt is somewhat absurd and cannot be repaid. For instance, what would we repay God(s) even if we could? Additionally, ideas of economic and social justice would also come into play in this conversation.
I enjoy thinking about the beginnings of religion; however, I’m not a proponent of the idea that all religious entities started due to one overall reason. Yet, Graeber offers a fresh hypothesis that must be considered.