Religion doesn’t need oppression to flourish, but oppression makes finding evidence of past religions easier for archaeologists.

As James Scott writes in Against the Grain,

A peasantry – assuming that it has enough to meet its basic needs – will not automatically produce a surplus that elites might appropriate, but must be compelled to produce it.

Under the demographic conditions of early state formation, when the means of traditional production were still plentiful and not monopolized, only through one form or another of unfree, coerced labor – corvee labor, forced delivery of grain or other products, debt bondage, serfdom, communal bondage and tribute, and various forms of slavery – was a surplus brought into being.

Why deplore “collapse,” when the situation it depicts is most often the disaggregation of a complex, fragile, and typically oppressive state into smaller, decentralized fragments? One simple and not entirely superficial reason why collapse is deplored is that it deprives all those scholars and professionals whose mission it has been to document ancient civilizations of the raw materials they require.

Or, as Karen Armstrong writes in Fields of Blood,

Without the coercion of the ruling class, it would have been impossible to force peasants to produce an economic surplus, because population growth would have kept pace with advances in productivity.    Unpalatable as this may seem, by forcing the masses to live at subsistence level, the aristocracy kept population growth in check and made human progress feasible.   

Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being. 

The early religions we know best – the worship of patriarchal deities like Marduk, Yahweh, or Amun-Ra – are presently known because we’ve found ancient texts prepared by professional scribes and artisans from those eras.

In contrast, the Lascaux cave paintings may have been created by an amateur – an artist who made these after a full day of work (bearing in mind that “a full day of work” might mean something like “hiking around for five or six hours gathering wild foods, cultivating large gardens, or crafting tools,” activities that many contemporary peoples consider to be recreation).

It’s possible that the Lascaux artist(s) were supported by others – hunter-gatherers cared for some people who were unable to provide for themselves – but even then, it’s unlikely that this aid was coerced. With low population densities and an abundance of nearby habitats that could support human life, attempted coercion would likely result in people simply leaving. (In contrast to later agrarians, who had expanded their habitats into regions less suitable for Homo sapiens by cultivating cereal crops, and then depended on the yield of those crops to survive; agrarians were less able to flee oppression.)

We don’t know if the art at Lascaux carries religious significance – not all of the graffiti under contemporary bridges is the basis of a religion! – and our ignorance is due in part to the freedom most people had at that time in human prehistory. They were not oppressed; food was not taken to support professional scribes & tax collectors; no artifacts were created detailing state-sanctioned beliefs. It’s incredible that we still have access to the Lascaux paintings at all: shortly after they were (re-)discovered, they were sealed away from human access, lest our exhalations destroy them.


It’s well-known that football, as currently played, is dangerous for the players. Repeated microconcussions accumulate to cause grievous harm.

Interestingly, football would be less dangerous with lower-quality protective gear. Football as played today would be more dangerous with a worse helmet, but if a generation of players were acclimated to worse helmets, then we would not have a game in which opposing lines of exceptional athletes collided with each other head first.

Also, there is a big difference between acknowledging that the sport of football causes harm – which is undeniable given our current evidence – and implying that any particular player is or has been harmed by football. This is a particularly important distinction because the most worrisome harms caused by football are the accumulated microconcussions – brain trauma.

For instance, Trevor Pryce has spoken about his difficulties being taken seriously as an author after his career playing football. In an article on Mr. Pryce, Brooks Barnes writes:

You know where this yarn is headed: Film bigwigs stereotyping him as a dumb jock. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Snickers about a football-related brain injury.

You’ve got to believe in yourself,” Pryce said. “I remember looking at one studio guy who wasn’t taking me seriously and saying, ‘Hey, man, I’m actually smarter than you.’ “

Still, I personally won’t watch football, nor even commercials from the Super Bowl. Other people make a whole lot of money off a game that’s injurious to brains and bodies, and that doesn’t feel right to me.