Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Confusing Religion with Belief

Last night, I watched a programme on BBC4 about the Lambeyeque (Lam-by-eck-ee) civilization of Peru, South America. While the content was interesting in itself, it threw up something even more remarkable about either the archaeologists and anthropologists who are involved in the uncovering of the pyramids of the Lambeyeque valley and the rituals of the people or, more likely, the interpretation by the BBC of the data supplied to them by the professionals.

Many have asked why the civilizations of South America succumbed so easily to the invasion by the Spanish. It is often attributed to their technology, wood and bronze weapons versus the steel and iron weapons of the Spanish. However, there is an even more fascinating reason that was touched on during the programme but then dismissed: the Lambeyeque had not invented the supernatural.

The media, especially when conveying supposedly factual information about archaeology and anthropology, seems incapable of reporting the bare facts. Like the man who destroyed the Channel4 production Time Team as a serious series, Tony “How wonderful, you’ve found a building; Ook, Ook, it must be a temple” Robinson, who seems to have become the true-life reincarnation of his Blackadder character, Baldrick, the media in general seems to confuse religious with non-religious belief systems.

The programme briefly touched on the fact that the Lambeyeque people believed that the gods were living beings but then departed from the facts by invoking an unsubstantiated belief in the supernatural. A religion has at its heart belief in the supernatural; without the supernatural, beliefs cannot be religious and the there is no evidence the Lambeyeque people believed in the supernatural. Rather, their gods were living, sentient beings that walked amongst them. Their kings were gods. Theirs was a political society and their beliefs were extensions of their political world. Lightning and thunder, water and floods were as real as the person standing next to you; the mountains contained spirits that were just as real. Those involved in the making of such programmes seem incapable of understanding that just because a people believed in spirits does not mean those spirits existed in a separate and distinct world called the supernatural.

This is why the South American civilizations succumbed so easily to the Spanish: they believed them to be gods, as real as you or me but with the power to invoke other gods, particularly the gods of thunder and lightning, as became obvious to them when the Spanish fired their rifles and cannons. Yes, the gods were more powerful than human beings but not in a supernatural way. The fact that the Lambeyeque people succumbed to diseases brought by the Spanish to which South Americans had no immunity only served to prove to them the immense power of the white gods.

There is evidence that the people of South America eventually realised that the Spanish were not, in fact, gods but were just ordinary human beings but the realisation came too late. By then, the Spanish had already won. And imagine the culture shock when Spanish ‘missionaries’ started teaching that there was a god who lived in a separate, supernatural world but who could influence living humans beings. The concept would have been mind-blowing. Any hope that the South American civilizations had of throwing the Spanish from their shores was destroyed by the confusion implanted in their minds.

It is easy for us in a modern society to condemn the indigenous South and Mezzo Americans for carrying out human sacrifice. Realising that they believed their gods were living beings who could only be appeased by feeding them with human blood and hearts goes some way to answering those concerns. It may still feel dreadfully wrong to us but we need to try to forget that our society is embedded with beliefs in modern gods that are part of a separate, supernatural world and try to envisage the Lambeyeque beliefs in living, non-religious gods.

It’s something that comes much more easily to atheists who can view beliefs in gods, whether religious or non-religious, from a factual perspective.

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