Social Constructs and Society (which is a social construct too)

This is a slightly modified argument I made on the Pirate Party Australia Discuss instance as a response to some strong attacks on religion.

Humans have the ability to imagine and construct models of the world, and then act upon the model as if it was real. It is the underlying way that both religions and states are created. I think the idea of socially constructed ‘reality’ needs some discussion, in part to de-claw the constructed realities and in part to create some common ground from which belief and lack thereof can be debated without everyone getting really upset.

I like bits and pieces of various religions. I, at times, and depending on my mood, call myself a Discordian a philosophical Taoist, mainly a fan of Zhuangzi (I like the underlying philosophy, as opposed to someone who believes in the mythology) and I also like the idea from Hinduism that the Universe is some giant incomprehensible being that we are all just parts of.

The way I look at it, there is little difference between believing in Australia and believing in Yahweh (The Christian god). Both are equally made up, both only have power because people believe in them.

Once upon a time humans lived in small social units, there was no need for discussions about government because they didn’t exist. You only had to deal with a handful of people on a regular basis and the social situation could be expressed in specific terms. ‘If we both hunt, what happens if we don’t catch anything? How about you hunt and I forage.’

Over time we gathered in larger groups as we domesticated animals and plants. The population could be more dense because more food could be created in the same space and enough food was created that theoretically they could stay in one place all year.

To organise groups of people various ideas were created. According to conventional wisdom, tribes were confederations of bands that shared language and mythology. Group identity was established through the mythology. Eventually these calcified into what we now call states.

Gilgamesh was thought to be a king who ruled over Sumeria about 4,500 years ago. He embodied both religion and state. His word was law in both a religious and legal sense. There was no differentiation between the two concepts.

I will use Christianity to belabour the point. Assuming Jesus existed (glossing over archaeological debates), he created a critique of both Judaism and the various gods of the Roman world, that made religion relevant to ordinary people, whereas the Roman gods were all about the Emperor and heroes. He had the idea for his new belief system, then went out to spread it. The idea existed before the religion did.

It was popular among the lower classes because it put them on the same footing in relation to god as the most powerful, or even at an advantage. ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ IMO this is why it spread like wild-fire.

Eventually Christianity took over the Roman Empire and then the remnants of the empire morphed into the Roman Catholic Church. The parallels between the Pope and Emperor are quite strong. The Pope even has the title Pontifex Maximus, which Julius Caesar first combined with being Dictator, and his adopted son who became Caesar Augustus, combined with his official title as Emperor.

In Europe Kings ruled with the blessing of the Pope for hundreds of years, until the power of the Church was challenged by Martin Luther who kicked off the Reformation. In England, King Henry the Eight split from the Catholic Church because he wanted to divorce his wife against the wishes of the Pope.

The English revolution (1640–1660) was at times about which version of Christianity was going to be the official state religion, the debates around this is what gave rise to the idea of having a secular state, something that didn’t happen until the American Revolution (US war of independence). One of the driving factors for the colonists going to the Americas was to get out from under the official Church of England, many were Puritans and their influence can still be seen in the religiosity of people in the USA today.

Just as Jesus imagined a ‘better’ version of Judaism and it took off, the founders of the USA imagined a better government than being a powerless colony of the British Empire and then willed it into existence through fighting off attempts by Britain to bring it back. There was no one dominant Church or one dominant view of religion, so they enshrined religious freedom to ensure people could follow their conscience to believe any religion or none at all.

The idea of the state preceded its existence. Rituals were born and celebrated, like the Declaration of Independence, the signing of the Constitution, the ceremonial inauguration of the President. People give their lives even today in a sacrifice for the Constitution. People are willing to kill and die because they believe in the good of the state that strongly. The US even has Capital punishment, which is actual human sacrifice to the power of the State.

The religious nature of the state is more obvious in Australia. Parliament is opened with The Mace of The House of Representatives all politicians, despite evidence to the contrary are referred to as ‘The Honourable…’.

Going to Court has even more religious overtones, the Judge sits on a platform above the rest of the Court room, they often wear ceremonial robes and wigs which makes the point that they are the representative of the state, not the individual they are when not sitting in Judgement. Laws were made up and written down before they were voted on, they too, like religion, are creations of the imagination. The Law is enforced by various legal officers who derive authority from the State. They are priests of the ‘secular’ state.

There are seven billion people on the planet, society needs to be organised. States are a fact of life for the time being, as much as they are just creations of the imagination, we derive benefit from living within these systems. That people believe that money has value means we can exchange goods and services without having to barter random items. There is utility in the belief. The same can be said for people who believe in religion. Followers obviously perceive benefit, so who am I to argue? Again, as long as I don’t have to follow their beliefs I don’t care.

Understanding how society is constructed can hopefully give us the tools to construct better ways of managing social relations. Understanding how myth and ceremony underpin even the secular state can help us construct or do away with myths and ceremonies to underpin a better world.