Six Billion Believers
Three months ago, when the Oslo mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was reviewing his plan to save Christian Europe from Islam, news was emerging of the discovery of the world’s oldest-known worship site – possibly the birthplace of sacred ritual. The 12,000-year-old site is located in Turkey, near Şanlıurfa. All signs indicate that it was an important pilgrimage destination maintained by workers and priests, and thronged by hundreds of the faithful. The June issue of National Geographic and a recent Turkish radio and television documentary gave details of the discovery.
Because the rings of six-meter-tall limestones at Göbekli Tepe go back to hunter-gatherer times, and pre-date any other temple findings by seven millennia, we can guess that these pillars and their elaborately-carved, animal bas reliefs could mark the start of organized religion.
If that is the case – if communal worship was first practiced at Göbekli Tepe – was that beginning a good thing for the future of mankind, or a step in a darker direction? The question comes when we look back at the Oslo killings and countless other massacres provoked by religion. If those early rites did shape and set apart a first congregation of true believers, is it far-fetched to think that their carefully-tended collective rites might have begun to point the human race down the path of sectarian enmity that animates the minds of people like Anders Breivik?
For the present, Göbekli Tepe gives the earliest evidence of organized religion. With its discovery, archaeology seems to have buried the belief that temples had to have been a product of settled agricultural societies. Archaeological advances today are such that still earlier places of worship could be unearthed before long. But wherever organized religion came from, whatever its origins, it stands as the most divisive force on the planet today, and it is everywhere. Of the seven billion people on earth, six billion declare a religious faith.
Fear must have figured largely in the development of religion – fear of storms and eclipses, fear of fierce animals and enemies, fear of death. In the face of those fears our nomad ancestors tightened the cohesion of their groups and worked out cosmic narratives centered on angry and benign gods. Early leaders were quick to see the uses of fear in social organization, so that classes of priests were able to emerge as interpreters of the moods of gods that might send or ward off calamity. Those priests were the ancestors of today’s popes and ayatollahs.
There’s no question that religion has done some good, cementing societies and giving hope and solace to millions. But these benefits pale against its role in setting people against each other. The holy books repeatedly enjoin the faithful to strike off and smite the infidel. And the faithful have been quick to obey. In the Yugoslav wars of the Nineties it took no time for rival Orthodox and Catholic Christians to be at each others’ throats, and then for the two of them to join in slaughtering Muslims. The wars began, by the way, when the German government, egged on by Catholic factions, supported the secession of the Catholic Croats from the Yugoslav federation. Religion has a long and bloody reach – see the revenge bombing last summer by Somali Muslim terrorists that killed 80 Ugandan Christians.
The bloodshed goes on. Faith-based rage is the cause of the clash of civilizations that divides the world today. Across the globe there is an intermittent murderous free-for-all – not only among Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, but among their sub-groups, the Sunnis, Shiites, Catholics and Orthodox. Religion pleads loving kindness, but has always had blood on its hands.
It may be that deep in human nature there’s a tendency to rally ferociously around beliefs anchored in the supernatural. Possibly this tendency is innate, like our killer instinct, and has simply found a channel in religion. Whether or not the beginning was at Göbekli Tepe, the record of devastation is there. The Oslo episode is just the latest entry.