Before and after religion

SF often envisages a post-religious future. In other words, it often fails to foresee a role for religion in the futures it imagines. Far from always, which is what you might think from most SF criticism, but certainly a lot of the time.

Usually, this is just by simple omission. There is a kind of unexplored assumption of societal evolution that runs from multi-religious (including non-religious as a range of strands among the range of religious strands) present to monothematic post-religious future (often fully automated luxury communism enabled by post-scarcity) without ever explaining the intervening steps.

I wondered if it helps to understand how a post-religious future might come about by considering how a religious past came about out of a pre-religious past. In other words, was there a time before religion, and how was it?

This question arose in my mind when I was reading about Çatalhöyük, widely considered to be possibly the world’s oldest town.

The site in rural Turkey at its peak during the Neolithic era contained a population in the thousands, and there is clear evidence that even at that early moment in human civilisation, ritualistic behaviour was a significant part of people’s lives.

Exactly what that was, is hard to tell. Some people think the town’s residents were goddess worshippers, others feel it was a cult of masculinity, focused on fighting bulls and bears. Mostly, the evidence is open to wide interpretation, but the nature of burials, the room adornments, the special ‘history houses’ and especially the wall art all seem to suggest ritualistic practices, if not actually spiritual ones.

But at what point does ritual activity become religious devotion? There are various schools of thought on that, which I won’t delve into here, but one rule of thumb is the development of dogma and doctrine, ie precepts which are passed down from generation to generation in terms of behavioural proscription, narratives, or a cosmological understanding.

In Çatalhöyük, this may have occurred about half way through the site’s settlement, at around 6500BC, when building use changed, modes of burial and adornment changed, and the site slowly began to depopulate.

Çatalhöyük, yeni keşiflere kapı aralayacak

Debate has gone back and forth as to what the cosmology or beliefs of the people of Çatalhöyük might have been. Were they goddess worshippers as James Mellaart and Maria Gimbutas believed? Animists? Ancestor worshippers? Shamanistic? A cult of masculine leopard, bear and bull fetishists? One particular opinion stood out to me. M. Bloch wrote a book chapter entitled “Is there religion at Catalhoyuk . . .or are there just houses?” Intriguingly, he concludes there were just houses.

So can we speak of human civilisation BEFORE religion? If so, what do we mean by that? And if we can speak of human civilisation before religion, does that give us any clues, however dim and distant the archeology may be, as to what civilisation AFTER religion might look like?

Furthermore, Bloch’s position is heavily contested, and many scholars insist in various ways, basing their arguments on evidence such as the burial practices, figurines, wall paintings and animal skulls, that religious practice WAS central to the residents of Çatalhöyük some 8,000 years ago.

Fundamentally, in terms of religious futurism, the question I’m asking is whether religious faith is somehow inherent to the human psyche, or at least to sufficient human psyches in any particular polity to make it a significant presence?

We can see from the histories of the great atheistic communist regimes of the twentieth century, all of which sought to suppress religion and clergy of various ilks, that religion in recent times has proved strangely resilient under state disapproval, despite Weber’s disenchantment of society and the slow ebbing away of faith practitioners in Western countries with freedom of worship.

Most SF, as I noted above, tends to envisage a future without room for faith, often predicated on the Enlightenment idea that eventually science will provide answers to our deepest questions. These ubiquitous attempts to depict a future without religion in some senses may well be the most speculative and imaginative SF concepts of all.

More intriguing to me are the narratives in which SF alterities, whether artificial life or alien, emerge with either an attachment to terrestrial religion or else a faith format of their own. These seem to me to be more plausible than the idea that society will at some point casually jettison as retrograde the accumulated cultural capital and transcendence attached to the faith experience.

They are also more plausible than Bloch’s suggestion that houses which contained the bodies of ancestors, imagistic figurines, animal heads and other non-practical items were as he says “just houses”.

Maybe human civilisation and the religious impetus (setting aside its truth content as being a matter for the individual to invest in or not, as the case may be) are intrinsically entwined. We can presume that religiosity predated Çatalhöyük.

Even if we accept that Çatalhöyük was, as Bloch argues, “just houses”, it eventually fell into disuse as a residential site and that region of Turkey is today rather devoutly Islamic (having experienced no doubt many differing religious beliefs in the interim). Let’s agree with him and accept that they were, as far as we can tell, non-religious. Who knows what faiths or beliefs lurked in the hearts of those who, like devout Orthodoxy during the Soviet era, kept their dangerous thoughts to themselves?

If religion is somehow inherently human, would becoming truly post-religious require us as a species to become truly posthuman? Could we, in fact, define posthumanism in terms of non-religiosity? Must we become posthuman in order to become post-religious? And how might we do that?

Assuming there’s no quick answer to that, I’m prepared to accept lengthy ones, especially if they are submitted to our CFP for a volume of essays on Religious Futurisms.