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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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How does religion evolve with complex societies according to Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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Diamond claims that the "combination of government and religion has...functioned, along with germs, writing, and technology, as one of the four sets of proximate agents leading to history's broadest pattern" (267). In other words, the development of organized religions accompanied the formation of governments, and this was a major factor leading to the different patterns of development followed by different people around the world. The reason is that all governments engage in extracting the value of labor from the people they rule over, or represent. Diamond argues that the difference between a state that uses the resources of its people to provide valuable services to them and a state whose elites simply consume the resources of the people to finance their own lavish lifestyles is a difference of degree rather than of kind. In short, all states are to some extent kleptocracies, and all states are fundamentally inegalitarian, in that they are founded upon inequalities of resources and power. He says that elites have historically justified and propped up their status by a variety of means including force and redistribution of resources. But one of the most powerful and enduring strategies was to "construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy" (277). Religion itself creates a bureaucracy of priests that are instrumental in extracting wealth from people, and they provide what Diamond calls "ideological justification" to the state. It also provides a group of people a shared ideology that helps them get along, and "gives them a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others" (278). Each of these is crucial to creating what a historian named Benedict Anderson called the "imagined communities" necessary to the formation of a complex state-level society.

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According to Diamond, religion evolves to be more of a support to the government as a society becomes more complex.  That is, religions become institutionalized and more formalized and they are used to bolster the power of the secular government in a complex society.

In Chapter 14, Diamond argues that complex societies are ruled by "kleptocracies" that take resources from the people and must somehow keep the people happy as they are being robbed.  This is where religion comes in.  In complex societies, Diamond says, it evolves to be a formal religion where the priests help to justify the leaders' power.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does society change over time?

Diamond breaks human societies down into four basic groups: Band, Tribe, Chiefdom, State. This allows for variations on societal norms, and the eventual creation of the "kleptocracy," where the rulers deliberately exploit their workers for personal gain.

Bands tend to be nomadic, moving around as the environment and other factors change. This society is based in survival, and puts little time and effort into political maneuvering.

Tribes are the first fixed society, and as their population increases they begin the steps necessary to create a top-down, class-oriented society. However, their day-to-day life is still based in hunting/gathering and survival, and so political issues are relegated to clan or territory disputes.

Chiefdoms are the first explicitly kleptocratic societies; the chief and his men rule over the lower class, claiming a portion of their work as "owed" and organizing rules and laws. Chiefdoms as they existed in history are extinct; they were too numerous and powerful for European society to ignore, and so they were wiped out by advancing "civilization."

States are the current mode of society; a group of people, united by a common religion, heritage, or landmass isolation form a government body and use it to rule over workers. Despite the claims of equality, even democratic and representative governments are kleptocracies; the government takes an undue share of the working-class's production, ostensibly for the upkeep of government or protection of the people, but more often for personal enrichment.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does religion evolve alongside the increasing complexity of societies?

You can answer this question by reading in Chapter 14.  There, Diamond tells us that religion becomes increasingly institutionalized and connected to the state as society becomes more complex (until the highest levels of complexity, at least).

As society becomes more complex, people within it have fewer natural connections to one another and to their society.  Therefore, Diamond says, religion becomes important.  Religion serves to legitimize the leaders.  It gives people a reason to submit to the authority of those rulers.  Therefore, religion becomes more institutionalized and tied to the government because the government needs it.  In this way, religion becomes more organized and official as societies become more complex.

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