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Societies without religion?

Discussion in 'Research' started by nwillmott8897, Aug 1, 2013.

  1. nwillmott8897

    nwillmott8897 Scribe

    In my current WIP I would like to have a society that doesn't worship any deity. It's quite hard to explain my exact idea some I'm going to give a few examples that will hopefully help you understand.

    -My civilization treats animals much like the Native Americans treated Buffalo; Animals were sacred, but killing them was a necessary evil that needed to be done for the people to survive, so as a way of thanking the Buffalo they would try and use as much of the animal as they could. (skins for clothes and tipis, bones for knives, fat for soap, etc.) My people are also a lot like this, they understand that an animal isn't just a mindless creature and needs to be treated with respect, so when animals are old they are killed and used for many things (Blood for blood-meal, meat for food, hide for clothing or house decor.) Because of this, my people hate when animals are ill as they cannot make as many uses of the animal, as the meat and blood are not safe to be used as they could be infected.

    -Crops are also an integral part of surviving for my people. As a result of this my people believe that the only way for crops to grow properly, is if they treat the land, and crop sprouts, with respect or they will die or will only produce pitiful amounts of crop. So they keep the soil treated with blood-meal and manure, and keep the soil well watered during the dry summers.

    -Finally, ( and you may need to read this to understand this one: http://mythicscribes.com/forums/world-building/9377-humanity-after-apocalypse.html ) because of the harsh surroundings the people live in, any kind of crime is met with a zero-tolerance response. However, because of their ideas that everything (including humans) is sacred in it's own way they believe that whatever the person has done, it is wrong to condemn them to death. Petty crimes such as stealing can result in penalties including a week in the village cell or a fine of double the cost of the item they stole. More serious crimes such as harming another person would result in a sentence of at least a month in the prison or, depending on how bad the wounds are, may result in a physical punishment such as whipping. Serious crimes such as murder and rape are very rare, but on the occasion that it may happen, the criminal is branded to show other areas of their crime, given a small bag of rations and a blade, and then thrown out to survive in the wilds. Being sent into the wilds in this world means that normally within a week a wild animal would have killed you, or you would have gotten lost and starved. Although this is also practically condemning that person to death, it is deemed okay because the criminal is given everything they need to survive - food, water and a weapon - so if they get killed it's no one's fault but there own.

    Hopefully with that explanation you can understand the belief system of my people. Do you think that this is a smart idea? Do you think that people would be able to live like this without some form of deity or should I try and think up some kind of pantheon to represent these beliefs? Also, any negative or positive feedback will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    First, you can most definitely have a society without religion, but here's the thing. When you say animals and the land are sacred, then that's kind of a religion. Holding something sacred is holding something in reverence, basically worshipping them. When you say they believe the only way that crops grow properly is if they treat the land with respect, that implies they think the land is alive and can respond to their actions positively or negatively instead of thinking it's just dirt to be used, then that makes the land a being that lords over them, that they must please in order to survive, like a god, so it's kind of like a religion.

    IMHO a society with out religion can exist, but to get to that society they must go through a phase where they have religion and move beyond that for what ever reason. That would be an interesting part of the story to explore at least a little, why they abandoned religion.
  3. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    In the interest of being pedantic, I would say that a society that treats animals as sacred is technically religious, just atheistic. Religion is any set of spiritual or supernatural beliefs; theism is specifically the belief in one or more gods.

    There have been numerous small groups that never created gods, some even with few spiritual beliefs, often in remote parts of the world where they wouldn't have been in contact with a large civilization. Before written history, there were probably hundreds more, but they all sort of assimilated into larger cultures and adopted beliefs to fit their neighbours. I don't know of any large societies that started out and remained without religion, but there are several belief systems that do not have gods. Buddhism is the largest of those, for the most part (there are some sects which worship Buddha and occasionally other bodhisattvas as gods). I know some practitioners of Hinduism do not believe in any gods, as well. I feel like there was a Native American nation, somewhere in one of the corners of the continent, that had a spiritual but godless belief system, as well.

    I see no problem with having an atheistic society, though. I think they are mostly popular out of love for the European pantheons - the Greco-Roman gods, the Nordic gods. Gods are cool, but definitely not necessary for giving people spiritual beliefs or a strict moral code. It is, however, certainly a lot easier.
  4. phillipsauthor

    phillipsauthor Minstrel

    I was a sociology major in college, so we studied this question pretty extensively. You can certainly have a culture without gods or spirits, but it is very unlikely that you would ever have a culture without religion. Religion - a separation of life into sacred and common (profane) spheres, and the practices and beliefs pertaining to the sacred - is an incredibly powerful and vital force in every culture. It is part of what binds any group of people together, and how they explain why life is the way it is.

    Any religion will include beliefs and practices, as mentioned above. For an atheistic religion, the beliefs would need to center around either cultural heroes (e.g. the founder of the culture, or a great warrior hero, or the person who introduced farming techniques, or something of the sort) or, as you mentioned above, the animals that represent the culture or are important to the culture. These beliefs would explain why people treat the animals the way they do, and will need to be accepted as truth either because a cultural hero/icon said it, because it is what the ancestors have always believed (if the culture is very tradition-oriented), or because it is what a governing institution decrees is so.

    Practices revolve around how people interact with the sacred. (Anything sacred is, by its nature, not interacted with on a daily basis.) Most cultures have religious leaders who take care of the sacred on behalf of the people (shamans, priests, elders, etc.). Other cultures have rituals whereby everyone deals with the sacred at given times of the year or given times of life (e.g. vision quests).

    Practices are vital for maintaining social cohesion. "We are the people who do this, we do this because we are the people, and doing this makes us the people." Every culture throughout time has had practices and rituals that it follows, largely to separate it from other groups and bond people together, and religion is the main excuse for doing these practices and rituals. No society will exist for long without these rituals and practices, and while they may be based on atheistic reasoning, these rituals are still defined as religious when they become important for themselves.

    So I would say that if you choose to go this direction, you will need to make sure to create rituals and practices - traditions, if you like - based on the culture's beliefs and that make sense with their history. Not to invoke spirits or appease gods, but to bind the community together.
  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    Nazism and Soviet Communism do spring to mind as societies that overtly ignored, if not outright oppressed, religion. That said - both [especially Nazism] used a lot of Xtian and earlier imagery to create a mythos.
    Personally I think there is something in the human brain/soul/dna that requires a "bigger picture". It can be superstition, faith, religion, or rationalism but there has to be a place for the unexplained...
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Ummm... I'm no expert but wasn't Hitler Catholic, and I remember reading somewhere that the Nazi's wore belt buckles stamped with the phrase "God with us"?

    I just did some googling and this wiki entry came up Religious views of Adolf Hitler - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Here's a quote from it " Prior to World War II Hitler had promoted "positive Christianity", a movement which purged Christianity of its Jewish elements and instilled it with Nazi philosophy."

    I also found this link Hitler's Christianity It's some of Hitler's speeches where he mentions religion quite a lot. Here's a quote from one of his speeches. "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter."
  7. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    It is debatable - that is certain. Perhaps I should added - when it didn't suit their needs.
    Hitler might have been Catholic at birth and he used Xtian rhetoric for public effect [almost all his audience would have described themselves as Xtian at the time] but the ethos of Nazism was a spurious mix of myths and legends. I don't see it as Xtianity. There was a positive move with the Nazi party [by some but not all it is true] to replace the current dominant religions with a new warrior cult.
    If a church or organisation agreed with the Nazis then all was well and good for them. for those that didn't, less so. The Nazis closed hundreds of Churches and Chapels and killed thousands of priests and ministers that didn't go along.
    Across Europe and America more people that would care to admit it thought Hitler was doing a good job and had the right ideas before and even during the war. Anti-Semitism was all but endemic, Eugenics was seen as the way forward and a lot of people feared the "communist threat". Hitler used the right words to get to his audience. I don't see it as anything more.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2013
  8. phillipsauthor

    phillipsauthor Minstrel

    In sociological terms, it has been said that these cultures tried to replace theistic religion with religion of the state. The state itself, and its leaders, became the sacred objects around which beliefs and practices were established. For example, in Communist China, a portrait of Chairman Mao could be found in every home, and his Little Red Book was considered just as sacred as the Bible is in Christianity. It's impossible to ignore or suppress "religion" in a culture; what is done is to replace one religion with another. In these cases, religion based on God/gods with religion based on man/the state.
    Mindfire, CupofJoe and Ophiucha like this.
  9. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    Some form of belief in the supernatural / spirits etc is inherent to every culture I can think of. Whether you regard some sort of panentheism as a true religion or not is another matter. I remember reading somewhere that eighty thousand years ago they found graves of stone age tribes, quite possibly Neandethal, with flowers, indicating that even they had some form of belief system.

    So to write a culture without some form of belief system would strike me as unrealistic. In fact it woul almost suggest an unimaginative society. One that has never learned to ask the question 'why'.

    However there might be one way to achieve it, the so called post religious society. My template for this would probably be the Nietzschians from Andromeda. A society that has rejected religion and the belief in the divine for whatever reason. The chances are that this won't be for a simple lack of interest type reason - it will have some basis in a historical event, quite possibly one that has left a huge mark across the culture. Remember Nietzsche didn't say God is Dead for no reason. He rejected God for the acceptance of the greatness of man, and quite likely it was due to the events of his life - a father and priest who died when he was six or seven and physical health problems that could never be diagnosed but which affected his entire life. In the same way societies can have similar traumatic events, and it's not hard to imagine that a society that suffered say a horrific plague in its past rejecting religion because the priests could do nothing for them.

    Cheers, Greg.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I agree that it's a tough sell for humans, but I could totally buy a godless society of mermen (or whatever fantasy race you care to choose).
  11. Edankyn

    Edankyn Minstrel

    It's already been mentioned, but holding something such as animals sacred is a form of religion in itself. If your aim is to create a completely non-religious society then you can keep your current structure but simply replace practicality as the reasoning behind the morality. Animals are sparse so practicality means the entire animal needs to be used. People want grace if they commit an act outside the law so they build relatively lenient systems of punishment. Etc.
  12. bjza

    bjza Dreamer

    For an example that better fits the OP's world, I recommend looking into the Pirahā people of the Amazon. They've been studied in depth by Daniel Everett. Here's the transcript from a talk he gave to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2009. According to Everett, the Pirahā don't believe in deities, an afterlife, or a transcendent spirit.

    There's loads more out there on the subject. Everett's ideas have been pretty controversial among anthropologists and linguists.
    Ophiucha likes this.
  13. Asura Levi

    Asura Levi Sage

    About the Pirahã People, quoting Wikipedia

    They might not have the same concepts as others cultures but they still are religious, in a very primitive way.
    I personally don't think it is really possible to have a culture, not just a few people but a whole culture completely alien to religion.

    Now, running away a bit from the subject. I think (might be wrong) this Pirahã are the same that has no concept of time. Which always confuses me. I can't imagine living in such culture.
  14. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

    It is fascinating to look at cultures that don't have concepts we'd consider so commonplace. There is one, an Aboriginal culture, that doesn't have relative directions (right, left, etc.), only cardinal ones. So you'd always say 'it's to the north'. Apparently they have a fantastic sense of direction, by proxy. They just sort of keep track of their direction subconsciously, so even if they can't see where the sun is coming from or where the north star (or whatever they use in Australia, it could very well be different) is, they know if they're facing north, south, east, or west. Language is weird.

    Slightly off-topic thoughts on supernatural beliefs vs. religion.

    I think it could be worth while to narrow the definition of religion somewhat. For instance, one wouldn't have called Victorian era people religious for using mercury like it was penicillin and thinking any woman who wanted an education was suffering from a madness. It was a belief, a ludicrous and non-scientific belief, but that would not be a basis for a religion. Similarly, when one looks at some small cultures - most dead and ancient but a few lingering in the jungles and small islands of the world -, there are a handful which don't believe in anything outwardly spiritual. No gods, no after life. They may believe in a few strange things, things which are scientifically impossible or disproved, but if we were to limit the definition to either 'of or relating to the afterlife' and 'moral codes reinforced through supernatural incentive/punishment', you could make an argument that there have been a few of those.

    Another angle, consider a medieval Christian who believes in faeries. Perhaps not as a demonic entity, like a witch or a werewolf, but a mischievous creature of the earth. A belief entirely separate from their religious faith. I don't think it would be fair to call a belief in faeries religious under those circumstances, particularly if they are representative of non-moral ills in the world. Like, sometimes, you just have 'supernatural' beliefs to explain hurricanes or tornadoes. Or to explain why the tide is high on the full moon. But if they don't dictate morality, which many of them didn't, and they're not about heaven or hell or God, then is it really religious? Particularly if there are no rituals or prayers. Just... explanations.

    I don't think the OP's culture falls under this category, this is just a bit of speculative musing.
    Also, in regards to whether or not unsavoury historical figures were or were not religious, I often can't help but roll my eyes at the 'well they weren't a good _____", as though that negates what they likely did believe in. It's the 'No True Scotsman' fallacy.
    Ennokos likes this.
  15. Ennokos

    Ennokos Dreamer

    Asura, I would call the charms to ward off evil spirits a spiritual belief rather than a religion. The whole concept of religion is that it is an organised group believing in the same thing. Like Ophuicha said, you can have spiritual or supernatural beliefs and be completely void of religion.

    To add on to the OP, although that is certainly one way of excluding religion, you can kind of go the other way on that issue as well. If the people of a certain culture are just so ignorant of everything outside of their immediate surroundings, they might not care to establish a religion at all.
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't see why you can't have a fantasy culture devoid of religion. Even if there is no human analog in the real world, does that matter?
    Ophiucha likes this.
  17. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Or spiritual beliefs that are briefly mentioned. It seems contemporary fantasy stories have this more and more, or at least the ones I've read. With the focus being more on the characters and story, it goes somewhat unnoticed. I think the OP has a spiritual system down that is just fine. It sounds interesting, intricate, and like this world really exists. And honestly you don't have to put anything in your story that doesn't jive with the overall plot/happenings. I agree with Steerpike, fantasy cultures don't have to have religion.
  18. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

    I've been trying to steer clear of this conversation, because of three reasons:

    1. The dictionary definition is neither comprehensive nor completely accurate, which is what most here appear to base their answer on, and, I believe, the op's question is likely based upon that definition.

    2. The answer is not one that can be given in an attention holding post.

    3. When it comes down to it, it's all semantics.

    The short and quick answer:
    Yes, if you are defining religion by Webster's, Oxford, or whatever dictionary you have handy, then you can have a society without religion. In all honesty, since the general public follows that definition, stop reading and carry on.

    I'm not going into great detail here, this is the subject of a college course and you would be bored silly by the third paragraph. If you are sincerely interested, dig into The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7, or The Religious Experience. There are other resources, but that is the first pair that come to mind.
    The long answer:

    The layman may not call it a religion, but in the scholarly sense, it is.

    What we ordinarily call religions manifest to some degree the following eight elements:

    Belief System - sometimes referred to as Worldview, basically "what is our place in the universe"; spiritual or supernatural.
    Community - The belief system is shared and practiced by a group. (animals are sacred because...)
    Central Myths - Self explanatory.
    Ritual - Beliefs enacted through ceremony.
    Ethics - Rules of behavior established, either socially generated, or given by a "higher power".
    Characteristic Emotional Experiences - guilt from breaking a more, devotion to the belief system, inner peace, etc.
    Material Expression - statues, paintings, instruments, clothing, architecture, sacred ground.
    Sacredness - There is a line between ordinary and what some consider special, or sacred.

    All religions do not share all 8 elements, but all religions do have some of the 8. Take special note here, a deity, or several deities, are not listed among those elements.

    Buddhism is a religion, just as Islam, just as Shinto.
    Many scholars argue that Environmentalism is a religion.

    In a nutshell. Do whatever and don't worry about it. If I read your novel and you claimed these people had no religion, I wouldn't care about the semantics, I would care about whether or not the story was any good.
    Asura Levi likes this.
  19. Chad Lynch

    Chad Lynch Dreamer

    It might also be worth remembering that societies seem to be more dynamic in terms of military, culture, economics and even science when they have prominent religious beliefs. I suspect the reason you find people sans religion only far out in the jungle or some similarly remote locations is because those tribes/kingdoms with a developed spiritual belief system are more cohesive, driven, and confident.

    It's also good to remember that practicality often trumps religion, at least in real life. Plains Indians were known to run hundreds of buffalo off of cliffs at a time, killing many, many more of the animals than they could use before the meat went bad simply because it was easier and safer to do so than hunting them one at a time with bow and spear. The animals were sacred, but when it comes to nut cracking time folks are going to go with a sure bet.
  20. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I've come to the position that what we call "religion" is little more than a catch-all term for beliefs or traditions we judge to be "supernatural" or otherwise non-scientific. We might call the belief in souls religious or superstitious, but to believers souls could be every bit as real or part of daily existence as gravity is to us. "Belief system" better captures the full range of opinions and beliefs that you can find in a society, and everyone around the world has their opinions.

    As long as there are gaps in our scientific knowledge, people will probably come to all manner of conclusions about whatever we don't understand. That's how inventive we are as a species.

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