Posts Tagged ‘Atrahasis Epic’

Human Fertility and the Problem of the Origin of Religion

June 2, 2013

One of the other arguments I had with the atheists on this blog a few years ago was about the role of human fertility as the origin of religion. According to one atheist, religion evolved so that humans would have more children. It’s easy to see how this idea came about. There are religions that encourage their members to have many children. In the West, Roman Catholicism is the best known example. In the ancient world, including the Bible, people hoped that God or the gods would provide them with many children and as well as abundant crops and livestock. Children and descendants and agricultural fertility were not just benefits, they were absolute necessities as famine and starvation were all too real. One estimate of child mortality in the ancient world at the time of Carthage suggests that 5-6 out of ten children died in infancy. People, tribes and states thus wished to have plenty of children not just to remain wealthy, powerful, with a strong army and an abundant labour forces, but also simply to survive. The Canaanite religion of ancient Syria made the conflict against sterility and death part of its religion. In its mythology, Baal fought a long battle against his adversary, Mot, whose name meant sterility or death.

There are certainly scholars of religion, such as John Bowker, who do consider the encouragement of fertility as the origin, but not the total explanation, of religion. In his article, ‘Religion’ in The oxford Dictionary of World Religions, states ‘Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for theprotection of gene-replication and the nurture of children.’ This is true even of those religions that consider celibacy to be a higher vocation. Boker himself is certainly not uncritical of this explanation. He states clearly that ‘there is much that is clearly wrong’, and has written a book tackling the subject, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Relgion. His view is that genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution can only explain the emergence of humans capacity for certain activities and behaviours. This accounts why religions frequently share similar features. It does not, however, determine what people do with this biological preparedness.

Religions are also multi-faceted and include a number of different features. This means it is difficult for materialist explanations of religion to reduce its origin and function to any single factor. Early attempts to explain religion materialistically viewed them as attempts by early humans to explain natural phenomena. The sociologist Emile Durkheim believed religion served to organise society and create a vital sense of social solidarity. The view that religion emerged to encourage fertility appears to have been advanced in the 1990s as an attempt by socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology to provide an explanation of religion in accorance with evolutionary biology. This view also has its flaws. Bowker himself was aware that this evolutionary biological theory of the origin of religion was problematic and had its opponents. One of the problems of this view is the role of asceticism in many religions. If religion evolved solely to encourage increased reproduction, it would not explain the ascetism that also forms part of many faiths. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, have members who withdraw from the world to lead celibate lives. In Christianity this includes the clergy in Roman Catholicism, and the higher clergy in eastern Orthodoxy. Monasticism is a part of both Christianity and Buddhism, while Hinduism has sadhus, yogis and yoginis, ascetics, who pursue their devotions in solitude. The ancient Babylonians also had orders of priestesses, who were required to remain celibate. They were aware of the dangers of overpopulation, and these religious orders, as well as disease, natural disasters and infertility, were viewed as being divinely established to prevent it.

The Atrahasis epic, the earliest flood myth from Mesopotamia, states that the humans were originally created by the gods to do their work for them. Over the centuries humanity increased so that

‘Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The earth was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got distressed with their uproar.’

The gods then attempted to reduce humanity’s numbers with disease, followed by a drought. Humans go on breeding, however, and soon are reduced to starvation and cannibalism. People are forced to eat their children. The gods then send a flood to wipe them out completely, but the god Ea warns, and so saves, Atrahasis. The epic ends with Ea advising the mother-goddess Mami/ Nintu on how the danger of overpopulation is to be avoided in the future through the Malthusian checks of sterility, infant mortality and celibacy. He says to her

‘O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…
Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,
Let there be among the people a Pahittu-demon,
Let is seize the baby from the mother’s lap,
Establish Ugbabtu priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.
They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut-off child-bearing.

Now this awareness and desire to avoid overpopulation is just one aspect of Babylonian religion. Nevertheless it, and asceticism and celibacy in other religions, as well as the incredibly varied nature of religion and religious experience, suggest that while fertility generally remains an important part of religion, it cannot be considered its origin.

Sources

John Bowker, ‘Religion’, in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997) xv-xxiv.

Anton Jirku, The World of the Bible (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq 3rd edition (London: Penguin 1992).