Appealing to the divine is a convenient way of making the subjective, objective.

For example:

Person A: You should never commit adultery.
Person B: But adultery is perfectly acceptable to me. That is just your opinion.
Person A: No. God tells us it is wrong.
Person B: Ah. OK.

Is there any evidence that the elite of any early civilisation subversively co-opted religion as a means to influence societal behavior for their own ends (for the benefit of wider society or no)?

Acceptable evidence could be documentary of such a plan.

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    I'm trying to imagine what kind of evidence there could be for such a thesis. I realize that we've decided anthropology is in scope, but it seems like this question rests on a whole bunch of assumptions that aren't available to me. Could I ask you to explain/document/expand the thesis in the first paragraph? That might help to find answers to the question in the second paragraph. – MCW Dec 14 '15 at 13:44
  • What is the difference between cooping the divine as a means of influencing social behavior and a sincere believe that the divine wants society to change behavior? – MCW Dec 14 '15 at 13:45
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    @MarkC.Wallace The difference is the frame of mind of the influencer. Frame of mind is intangible, but evidence pointing to it might exist. For example a record of the decision making process, making the subversion explicit. – 52d6c6af Dec 14 '15 at 13:50
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    There is probably no direct evidence that some ruling class had a plan to create a religion for keeping people in control - they'd have to be monumentally stupid to leave something so incriminating behind. However, I believe the question can be answered with circumstantial evidence demonstrating the old adage that religion is regarded by the magistrates as useful. Asking for a do over for a better omen, comes to mind. – Semaphore Dec 14 '15 at 16:24
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    Is not "modification of human behavior" the only purpose of any religion? And religion is probably as old as the humankind itself. – Alex Dec 14 '15 at 19:35

I think that ultimately this question is opinion based, but it is interesting and has already generated one good answer so we should leave it open.

I think the premise in the first line is unsupported, "Appealing to the divine is a convenient way of making the subjective, objective."

There are a number of ways to answer the question - the best is the test that @Semaphore suggests - a textual artifact indicating that the results of a divination are unacceptable for political reasons. I believe there are multiple examples of that happening. If I recall correctly, the Roman campaign against Hannibal featured several battles that were delayed because the general rejected the augury and sent the augur back for another try. Was that the result of the generals subverting the divine process, or was that the action of a devout general who would not reconcile the augury with the tactical situation. Every divination involves some interpretation, and should always reject interpretations that are at odds with observed reality.

Henry IV's quote "Paris is worth a mass" might fit into the category, although he wasn't attempting to influence society through religion, he was abandoning his fidelity in favor of political objectives. But I cannot say for sure that his comment was completely cynical.

The Chinese dictum of the "Mandate of Heaven" could be invoked - I'm not a Chinese scholar, but I understand this to be a principle that can only be applied ex post facto - the ruler has the Mandate of Heaven, and the only people who can be shown to not have the Mandate of Heaven are deposed and failed rulers. Is this subversion, or a sincere belief that heaven favors the king?

Henry VIII of England, Defender of the Faith, abandoned the Roman Catholic faith because of a contradiction between his duty to his dynasty and his duty to his faith, as interpreted by the political decisions of a religious authority. Was that subversive, or a sincere conversion?

Constantine fought under the symbol of the cross, but delayed conversion to Christianity for years. Some claim that was an example of subversion, others insist that it was a sincere conversion but mediated by political realities.

There are many who assert that the Salem witch trials were an example of young girls living in an oppressively religious household subverting the numinous for practical reasons. Lord Bragg's recent podcast on the subject seems to argue that Tituba subverted her experience with the supernatural to fit a social narrative, influencing them away from killing her.

The conversion of Egypt under Amenhotep and the subsequent recidivism has also been posed as an example.

Similar accusations have been levelled against Pope Urban VIII whose condemnation of Galileo may have been based on the will of God or on the good of the church.

I've read so many narratives that I've lost track, but the last dozen times I encountered writings on the Delphic Oracle, the narratives have assumed that the utterances of the Oracle were bent to fit political realities.

Ultimately all religious leaders act in a nebulous area between faith, pragmatics and inspiration. They make choices that are probably sincere - it would take an act of spectacular arrogance to document ones own heresy.


The elites of several early civilizations co-opted religion for their own purposes through the deification of royalty. One of my personal favorites is Caligula, just because in general he took megalomania to a whole new level :-)

  • VERY much before Caligula, Egyptian pharaons were deified. Alexander the Great tried to do this as well. And what does this have to do with the question? From the very beginning religion was used to modify human behavior. – Alex Dec 14 '15 at 19:32
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    @Alex - The question was: "Is there any evidence that the elite of any early civilisation subversively co-opted religion as a means to influence societal behavior for their own ends (for the benefit of wider society or no)?"... If you don't think deification of royalty is a way for them to co-opt religion &/or influence societal behaviour to their own ends I don't know what is... – Doug B Dec 14 '15 at 22:10
  • Of course it IS an evidence. One of the many. But what is so special about Caligula? – Alex Dec 14 '15 at 22:55
  • Like I said, he's just one of my favorite megalomaniacs :-) – Doug B Dec 15 '15 at 12:57

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