Emotional Urban Apes – A Different Take on Religion and Urbanity

—-Anders Klostergaard Petersen

At the core of the research group Religion and Urbanity at the Max Weber Centre in Erfurt lies a keen interest in the ascription of value to different life forms relating to city and civic life, that is urbanity. Yet such valorisations do not necessarily presuppose one’s physical presence in a city. One may live a perfectly happy life in a villa rustica at a safe distance from interactions with the ‘masses’, but nevertheless – and presumably for that very reason – attributing urbanity to one’s own lifestyle by assuring oneself that true civil life is not found within the city, but either outside it or in the outskirts of it at the Sans souci. In order to understand the valorisations assigned to urbanity, it is essential to unravel the logical positions within the larger semiotic system without which meaning could not be produced. Any attribution of meaning obtains its significance through the web of meanings in which it is embedded. To grasp this net of meanings, it is imperative to have recourse to the ideas developed by Lithuanian linguist and semiotician Algirdas Julien Greimas and the French semiotician Joseph Courtés, who spelled out the basic logic of meaning-making. Other semioticians could also be included, but when it comes to deciphering textual discourses and narratives and the semantic systems underlying them, Greimas and Courtés’ framework always appeared more useful to me than the Peircian one, which otherwise lies behind most of my previous work. In the vein of the theorising of the Paris School, I argue that the notion of city or urban life can only be understood based on the contrary value of non-urban life that equals ‘wilderness’, just as for example the position ‘life’ only makes sense by its contrary relationship to ‘death’, and as does ‘femininity’ contrary to ‘masculinity’. This is the basic semantic axis foundational for any ascription of value in the semiotic system in which city or urbanity partakes.

A secondary axis that equally consists of two terms implicated by the two initial positions ‘A’ and ‘non-A’ introduces differentiation. ‘A’ or the term ‘city’ is negated or contradicted by the term ‘Ā’ that we conveniently shall designate ‘open land’. Correspondingly, the term ‘non-A’ is negated or contradicted by the term ‘non-A’ [with upper horizontal line] that equals the position ‘outskirts of city’. I apologise for the somewhat artificial language used, which unfortunately has the effect of scaring people away from formal semiotics, but the thinking underlying the language is really fruitful if properly grasped in order to untangle the logical system presupposed by the term ‘urbanity’. We are dealing with two axes and four terms related to each other by respectively contrariety, contradiction, and complementarity with the two terms on the sub-axis implying the corresponding terms at the foundational semantic axis, see the left figure below for the abstract semiotic square and the right figure for the application of the logic of urbanity.  

Now, the valorisations assigned to the respective terms may differ dramatically. Early Christian monasticism for example – in line with a tradition originating in Paul and the Letter to Diognetus preferring the heavenly city for the worldly one – chose to settle in the ‘wilderness’, although in actual fact the wilderness was not necessarily that far away from ‘civilisation’. This was a way of expressing that prevalent culture was seen being contradictory or antagonistic to the ‘culture’ of God. Regardless of the specific value attributions, the logic of the semiotic system nevertheless remains the same. Different traditions and the actors embodying them may – based on their ideological outlook – assign positive value to the diverse terms, but the logic of the system persists.

Having unraveled the logic of the system, I proceed to the question of emotions underlying the semiotic investments. This is one point at which my own research tangentially enters into conversation with the Erfurt project. Yet I think that this point needs to be further elaborated upon because it has a much greater bearing in the context of not only the history of religion but of human behaviour, culture, and sociality in general as I also argued in my contribution to the KFG annual conference on Religious Ambivalences.

At that occasion, I sought to show how the period from approximately the seventh century BCE and onwards in important parts of the Eurasian Continent (China, Greece, India, and Israel) witness tensions between two different types of religion. On the one side, we see the traditional urban or archaic religion based on the institutions of temple, the transitive sacrifice, a wordly affirmative view, and confined to the relatively limited ethnic group. On the other side, we observe the kosmos religion emerging in reaction to selection pressures emanating from empires comprising immense multiethnic populations. It exemplifies a universal ethics corollary with the extension of areas of sovereignty and it heralds gods situated at a markedly higher position on a vertical scale corresponding to the horizontal extension. It inculcates asceticism as a reflexive type of sacrifice deemed inescapable for adherents in order to undergo processes of divinisation freeing them from the empirical world and translating them into the divine realm. To grasp the ambiguities, ambivalences, and valorisations intrinsic in this conflict between different types of religion relating to changes in urbanity, we need to research something further.    

From Basic Semiotics to the Unmasking of Super-Emotional Apes

Behind any valorisation lies not only an emotional counterpart, but also one that triggered the assignment of value. Some people choose to live in a city because they find life in rural areas dull and tedious, while others prefer to live at a distance from the boisterous and stressful life of urbanity. Others again find an interim solution finding a neighbourhood in the city with the benefits of serenity and open space, while others are forced to live in crammed tower blocks of dubious quality – both architecturally and structurally. However, most of us also have recourse to creating myths of objectivisation that can undergird our life choices – or those we were forced into given our cultural and socio-material presuppositions – in a way so that they appear as the only legitimate and real option: the really real reality. Often, we support our choices by engaging in processes of schismogenesis or ‘othering’ – another element of our mythmaking – that make those who have chosen (or have been forced to choose) another way of living come forward as dullards. However, were it not for their similarity to us, we would hardly be intimidated or disturbed by their style of life, forcing us to distance ourselves from it. Usually, the need for othering springs from internal doubts projected onto others, so that we can neutralise internal noise and obtain cognitive and emotional tranquility. Yet it is worthwhile to recall what Al Baumgarten sagaciously dubbed the ‘rule of the Martian’: Although we think ourselves so different from each other, it is difficult to perceive the alterity when looked upon from Mars. Ideologically construed extreme alterity often obscures cultural and social close proximity.  

But what has all this to do with religion and urbanity? Very much, I contend. To make the argument exorbitantly condensed, I claim that humans – contrary to what most of us commonly think – are far from being forthright social beings. We are – seen through the lens of cladistic analysis on us and the other extant apes – despotic, selfish, and highly promiscuous beings. Not the best presuppositions for engaging in the types of immense megalopoleis and massive community types that we see in the world today. I do not say this to denigrate the other apes that still live in arboreal areas. If they could enter into larger, stable, and enduring groups, they would undermine their own habitat, which provides only a limited number of kilojoules. So how can we explain the development of large-scale human societies that we see today, and how should we think about it in terms of social cohesion? There are several important transitions that we briefly need to touch upon.

Presumably due to food shortage, our distant ancestors were forced to leave the aboral areas and enter the open grasslands. Other apes did the same but did not survive. Transferal of habitat is always a risky business. The presupposition for surviving on the savanna with a high number of predators and severe challenges for individuals in obtaining food was to engage in stable group formations. Through a long-lasting process of natural selection, the hominin lineage increasingly developed a variety of adaptations that enhanced their emotional apparatus and thereby made them more eligible for partaking in larger and persistent forms of groupishness. Over millions of years, those parts of the brains that are especially connected to emotions grew considerably compared to the other apes. First and second-degree elaborations of emotions – consisting of blends of either two or three of the four basic primary emotions: fear, anger, sorrow, and happiness – evolved eventually turning humans into emotional apes par excellence. As the only species, humans have for instance the emotions of shame and guilt that are decisive for culturally based forms of groupishness without bio programmers. Additionally, emotional attachment between fathers and kin is a human characteristic compared to other apes. The same applies to friendship between males that similarly is critical to diminish aggression in male-male relations. Moreover, enhanced emotional attachment between females and males paved the way for the nuclear family as a core institution in hominin evolution furthering social abilities by providing a foundation that could involve into larger groupishness. Finally, by means of natural selection humans’ increasing emotional apparatus allowed them to engage in enhanced labour division and, thereby, to spend less time on the basic needs of daily sustenance and to concentrate on refining ‘culture’. Now, other apes surely have culture as when a chimpanzee uses five different tools to get access to a termite mound. However, only humans among all other animals have cumulative culture, that is the ability to develop culture in an accelerating way to increasingly complex and refined levels of culture. The culture of other animals does not change. Human culture undergoes escalating accumulative change to an extent, so that some of us are barely able to keep up with the times.    

Despite these changes, the processes towards larger communities have been extremely slow, pointing to the fact that culture and sociality does not come easy for human apes. Cities have been with us for 2.5% of the existence of Homo Sapiens, 0.25% of the history of the Homo-lineage, and only 0.01% of the entire hominin history dating back to our last common ancestor with the Pan Troglodytes. By means of culture and, thereby, not-genetically transmitted learning, which is the basic definition of culture, we have during the past 6000 years increasingly developed abilities for large community living. In fact, during the past 11.500 years – and possibly dating further back – the culture side has gained overhand in the gene-culture constellation eventually enabling us to take a reflective, critical stance on the issue and, thereby, enhancing the prevalence of the culture side even more. Yet our deeply biologically engrained ‘ape-nature’ is not very far away. Culture remains a thin veneer on a nature in which selfishness, despotism, promiscuity, and tribalism are deep-rooted. Yes, we can to a certain extent by means of culture expressed in institutions keep our ape nature at stake, but it takes much effort as current crises patently demonstrate.

The Role of Religion in the Story

In my view, the focus on religion and urbanity is spot on as enhancements of human community sizes throughout most of human history has involved religion as a key factor. To understand this, we need to distance ourselves from the common understanding of religion as faith or belief in God or gods. There are several problems intrinsic to such a view. In this context, it suffices to say that I see religion first and foremost as an emotional investment into the ideals, norms, values, and rules that allow a cultural group to come into existence as a community and to endure. Feelings are ephemeral. They come and go. For a cultural group to persist, the emotions directed towards the social ontology of the group, the emotions need stabilisation. This stabilisation comes through ritual that allows the group to invest its emotions into a – metaphorically speaking – symbolic recharging battery which endures beyond the group’s ritual coming together. Also, when alone I may recall the Torah scroll, the cross or the crescent. I may have iconic representations of them, verging on indexes, in my house and possibly over my bed allowing me continuously to anchor my emotions in the emblem of the community and thereby retain my emotional adherence to the social ontology that in the first place constitutes the group by altogether having enabled it to come into existence.

It is far from coincidental that the words we traditionally translate by ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ did not have this meaning at the outset. In Indo-European, Semitic, and Hamitic languages (these are the language families that I know), the lexemes all meant ‘trust’, ‘faithfulness’, ‘loyalty, ‘reliability’, ‘confidence’, and ‘trustworthiness’ and only after a long genealogical development came to have the meaning they are attributed today. However, I think the old meaning lingers for religious people, insofar as the majority of people, be they so-called cultural Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., not least have their religious relationship in terms of trust or loyalty invested into a shared pool of traditions – that obviously is expressed very differently in individuals, but that is not different from language uses – that may be drawn upon in specific pertinent context-determined situations. If there is any reason for the madness, it means that religion lies at the core of establishing and maintaining groups that are culturally founded. In fact, I will go as far as to claim that there cannot be groups without religion, but that of course rests on the definition of religion that I have stated. Now, what is the point of all this as regards the question of religion and urbanity? Quite a lot, I argue by for the last time having recourse to the apes. If also humans at the depth of their biology (we share almost 99% of our genes with bonobos and chimpanzees regardless of the fact that they have an additional pair of chromosomes, which can be explained based on a fusion of pairs in human chromosome no. 2) are as selfish, despotic, and promiscuous as I have accentuated, then obviously any scaling-up of group-size elicits problems. The larger the group is, the more difficult it becomes to maintain social cohesion and to subdue social vices like free-riding that no matter how you twist and turn the case always will pay off as long as it is not detected.

The Ambivalences and Tensions in Different Types of Religion in Antiquity

As much as I think that religion and urbanisation and their reciprocal formations lies at the core of understanding crucial elements in the historical development of antiquity – broadly speaking – I want to complement the perspective of the Erfurt project by emphasising the question of group size in relation to different social foundations. If I am right in some of my previous observations, then we should expect a change in religion, when group size and, thereby, types of ruling changes in human history. In my view, history unequivocally makes such a causal correlation plausible.

With the emergence of the first institutionally well-organised empires from the Achaemenid Empire over Alexander the Great’s Empire unto the Roman Empire, we observe selection pressures on populations found in the margins of these empires. Classically, the topic has since a famous lecture given by Karl Jaspers in Geneva in 1946 been discussed under the heading of the Axial Age, but even avant la lettre the debate has 250 years of pedigree. Jaspers’ concept has a theology of revelation ring to it, wherefore I do not use it. I prefer to speak of the kosmos type of religion because not only did these movements have a universalising aspiration as regards horizontal outreach, but they also rejected the empirically accessible world in favour of a vertically situated heavenly kosmos towards which the entire orientation of humans should be directed.

Penetrability of gods’ knowledge at varying analytical levels. Dotted lines indicate breadth of gods’ access in urban traditions while solid lines indicate kosmos traditions. In kosmos religions, the distinction between internal (soul) and external realms become especially salient. I am grateful to Professor Benjamin Grant Purzycki for drawing the image.

Obviously, the kosmos form of religion did not replace the urban type from its emergence in the seventh century BCE in Greece and somewhat later in China, India, and Israel. The two persisted side by side and eventually came to engage in increasingly growing tension and rivalry as the selection pressures emanating from imperial political reality grew. Yet the urban or archaic form of religion – built as it was on the temple institution, the transitive type of sacrifices, and an affirmative stance towards the boons of the empirically accessible world – hardly disappeared until the late seventh century, but even this purported vanishing may be disputed, as the kosmos form of religion to gain popular support had to accommodate to the urban type and include several of its elements. Certainly, it is not coincidental that Christian churches of the high Medieval age prior to the reformation movements have a striking resemblance to the temple architecture of antiquity. As Robert Bellah in his late evolutionary work perceptively stated as a maxim: “Nothing is ever lost,” that is anything of importance.

For a full understanding of the relationship between religion and urbanity and their reciprocal formations, one cannot eclipse the dimension of sovereignty and group size. Empires are different from cities and network of cities out of which they grew due to the fact that the area of sovereignty has been extended to such a degree that subjects ruled over do no longer constitute a relatively homogeneous group, but rather a multiplicity of ethnicities with all the problems entailed for keeping human tribalism at stake. And dare I say that tribalism is a collectivisation of our basic ape nature. Now, the great objection that can be brought forward against my argument is that the emergence of the kosmos type of religion did not take place in the empire but in fact on the outskirts of it. Yet this is not surprising. It takes as Seth Abrutyn has argued social entrepreneurs to invent new social ideologies that can challenge and eventually replace those in power. Yet Ardashīr I and Constantine eventually saw the imperial potential in the new type of religion and turned it into imperial religion. It was obvious for them to do so. Perhaps they recognised that the horizontal extension of areas of sovereignty need strong regulation mechanisms that could be met by gods ascending on the vertical scale to a point at which they could gaze into the souls of humans. Certainly, this was also politically pivotal as members of the imperial community would internalise this divinely penetrating look into their souls by committing themselves to training programs faithfully instilling the ideals, norms, values, and rules of the social ontology of the group. As much as it worked, though, it never – similar to every subsequent political, religious attempt at transformation – succeeded in eradicating the basic ape nature that lingers…

Anders Klostergaard Petersen is associate professor in the history of religion at Aarhus University. His primary empirical fields lie in formative Christ religion and Judaic religion of the late Second Temple period, just as he works on Graeco-Roman philosophy. He has a training in semiotics and philosophy of science. In recent years, he has worked extensively on religion and society from a bio-socio-cultural evolutionary perspective as in Turner, Maryanski, Petersen, and Geertz, The
Emergence and Evolution of Religion: By Means of Natural Selection (Routledge 2018).

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, February 7). Emotional Urban Apes – A Different Take on Religion and Urbanity. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vrod

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