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article imageStudy: Religion has led to tensions and conflict since 700 BC

By Karen Graham     Dec 22, 2015 in World
The old adage that says history has a way of repeating itself may have a grain of truth if we are to believe the latest study that shows religion has led to social tension and conflict, not just in today's society, but dating back to 700 B.C.
University of Colorado anthropology Professor Arthur A. Joyce and University of Central Florida Associate Professor Sarah Barber found evidence in several Mexican archaeological sites that seem to contradict the long-held assumption that religion was a catalyst in uniting early societies. They found it actually had the opposite effect.
Barber explained the team's findings this way: It doesn't matter if we today don't share particular religious beliefs, but when people in the past acted on their beliefs, those actions could have real, material consequences. It really behooves us to acknowledge religion when considering political processes."
But is this good advice for governments in today's world where there are multiple examples of religion and politics clashing and resulting in open conflict at times?
After spending several years doing field research in the lower Río Verde valley of Oaxaca, Mexico's Pacific coastal lowlands, the research team compared their findings with the data collected from the highland Valley of Oaxaca. The study focused on the period from 700 BC to 250 AD, a time when states were beginning to emerge.
The team found that in the lower Verde, religious rituals that involved offerings, and funerals in local communities, were often kept at the community level, actually strengthening the community without the need for state institutions, impeding the formation of those state institutions.
This was in contrast to the people of the highland Valley of Oaxaca, where the well-to-do, or elites, became the mediators between the various communities and the gods. This eventually led to conflict between the two groups, including outright war and the emergence of a regional state with its capital high on a hilltop, the city of Monte Albán.
Aerial view of Monte Albán.
Aerial view of Monte Albán.
Bobak Ha'Eri
"In both the Valley of Oaxaca and the Lower Río Verde Valley, religion was important in the formation and history of early cities and states, but in vastly different ways," said Joyce, lead author on the study. "Given the role of religion in social life and politics today, that shouldn't be too surprising."
The researchers describe the rapid rise and fall of the lower Rio Verde's state institutions as being the result of that conflict. At Río Viejo, the capital of the lower Verde state, the people had built labor-intensive grand monuments by 100 AD, but they, along with the towns, were abandoned less than 100 years later due to the continuing conflicts.
So the study seems to say that humans have not learned the lessons of history, and perhaps, too, that politics and religion are not good bedfellows.
This interesting article, "Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization: A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics in Later Formative Oaxaca,” was published in the December issue of the journal Current Anthropology.
More about Religion and politics, social yensions, Conflict, actions have real consequences, Archaeologists
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