Nature, god and domination

This is more of a mythical story than an essay, based as it is on contested facts and suppositions. Its purpose was to elucidate in schematic form the contrast between power relationships that emphasize egalitarian cooperation and reciprocity with those that value domination and hierarchy.

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A Cosmic Web

Think about what it must have been like to be an early human. You roam the plains in small communal bands. The women gather nuts, berries, roots and bugs for food; the men fish or hunt small game. Spirits reside in every rock and tree and animal. Nature is alive.

Nature can be terrifying, bringing violent storms, freezing cold, poisonous insects and dangerous animals. But it can also be bountiful, providing food, shelter and pleasure.

To a small extent, you have control over nature. You have learned to use tools for hunting and cutting. You have learned how to set traps to catch game and build simple shelters against the elements. But nature also controls you, setting the rhythms of your life, bringing the threat of famine and illness.

You perceive yourself as an integral part of a cosmic web, where every action you take reverberates throughout the environment, and every natural event profoundly affects your life. You don’t see yourself as separate from the earth. The world of nature may be more powerful than humans, but it is not all-powerful. Accordingly, the nature spirits you worship are not omnipotent.

You live in a world of interconnectedness—a junior partner in a great planetary plan. You perceive power as an interplay, an interaction, and your social system is modeled after this conception of power.

It would never occur to you that one social role could be superior to another, or that a certain talent was more important to the wellbeing of the tribe than another. Even though there are elders in positions of authority, every member of your group is valued for their unique personality and abilities. And the elder leaders of your tribe realize they need your support, just as you need their guidance.

 Transcendent power

Now imagine your shock at the revelation of a new idea that is destined to change the world. It was thought up by a group of male hunters who belong to a secret cult. The idea involves a supreme spirit: a single God that is omnipotent. This God is a terrifying being that answers to no one and no thing, that rules over nature, over humans, over other spirits. Judge, jury, executioner—no appeal.

Thus is born the idea of absolute power; power that transcends the world, that dominates everything.

Happy & sad face hierarchy pyramid

Certain people who claim they can communicate with this God now set themselves apart from the rest of the community. They are the priests. They are powerful because they have access to power. They form a class. This is the birth of another new idea: hierarchy.

History

The rest is history (literally the beginning of history and civilization). Hierarchy means there are the dominators, and there are the dominated.

The cosmic model of God ruling over nature and humans is reproduced in the social model of an elite class ruling over other men and women.

The paradigm propagates. Wars of domination begin to shape history into the bloody struggle we know it to be. State power grows. City-states become nation-states, which become empires.

The ideology of domination and control took another ominous turn in the 17th century with the birth of science. God was dead, but now there were new rulers of nature—human beings. The religion of science and technology is all about domination and control: domination and control of nature, domination and control of other humans.

No power is absolute

When we lived close to nature in egalitarian, matricentric communities, we understood the dynamics of give and take among humans, and between humans and nature. Today we tend to think of power as absolute—flowing one way, from the dominator to the dominated.

Lightning over city

We think we can completely control nature through our science and technology. But we can’t, and our attempts will always have unforeseen consequences. We can dam the river, but the torrential rains will eventually come, the dam will break, and the river will wash us all away. We can never fully dominate nature because nature is a part of us—it is who and what we are. Nature lives within us as much as we live within it. All the elements of our highly “advanced” civilization ultimately depend on the natural world.

We may think we are the wise rulers of nature, but in fact we are small children, dependent on Mama for our every need. Click To Tweet

Likewise, despite appearances to the contrary, the rule of dictators and other elite groups is always weak and unstable. Political power is never absolute as long as the dominated maintain their freedom of will and the will to freedom. Even the most ruthless leaders depend on the cooperation and voluntary submission of their subjects.

All power relationships are interactive, mutually modulating, reciprocal.

1997

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Text and graphics on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise – fragmentsweb.org.

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