illustrated profile of a man spitting in the same direction that a pistol and three steel bars are pointing

Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Religion's evolution with complex societies according to Guns, Germs, and Steel

Summary:

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that religion evolved with the rise of complex societies to serve social and political functions. It helped to unify large groups of people, justify political power, and maintain social order by promoting moral codes and rituals that reinforced communal bonds and hierarchies.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does religion evolve with complex societies?

The answer to this can be found in Chapter 14.  Basically, Diamond is saying that religion becomes more important as society becomes more complex and has a higher population density.  In such societies (which come about because of agriculture), there are many unrelated people living together who could easily come into conflict and even kill one another.  Therefore, there needs to be a government to keep the peace.  But the government becomes what Diamond calls a "kleptocracy," taking resources from the people.  There needs to be a way to get the people to accept this and organized religion is one way.  Organized religion, then, develops as a way to justify having the sort of strong and kleptocratic government that is necessary in a complex, agricultural society.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does religion evolve with complex societies?

As societies become increasingly complex, they become, to varying degrees, kleptocracies, extracting wealth from their people to their leaders. Diamond observes that the difference between "a kleptocrat and a wise statement" is "one of degree," and that the popularity of elites in these societies is dependent on their ability to justify the appropration of wealth from their peoples. The alternative is to maintain control through repression at the hands of an armed elite. Some rulers maintain popularity by distributing wealth, but historically rulers have turned to, in Diamond's words, constructing an "ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy." People already had spritual beliefs, and because all societies ask their peoples for sacrifices in the form of their liberties, their wealth, or their bodies, many institutionalize these beliefs in such a way as to justify these sacrifices. Religion also, Diamond says, brings two other benefits to the leaders of societies:

First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other by providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others.

Source: Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 278.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how does religion evolve with complex societies?

Jared Diamond's answer to this question can be found in Chapter 14 of Guns, Germs, and Steel. He argues that as societies become more complex, they develop governments, classes of elites that maintain power through a number of ways. Most, it seems, are kleptocracies, who maintain power by extracting wealth and labor by the people they govern. Obviously, this is not exactly a palatable proposition for the people being governed, so rulers devise on of several ways to stay in power. One is to arm other elites, so as to maintain a monopoly of force. Another is to give out, or redistribute the wealth taken from the people in ways most people will approve of. Still another is to use the wealth to maintain social order and welfare. The final method is to develop an ideology of justification that people will accept. Often, Diamond argues, these ideologies are founded, on some level, on religion. It should be noted that religion did not begin with the development of complex societies, but rather with the development of complex societies, elites were able to standardize and shape existing popular religious practices to the service of power.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on