How can you look better than your neighbors? In the world of social competition, no area of civil life is safe from one-upmansship. Religion happens to be one place where you can blow lots of money to look good.
Most religious buildings are not built by the state, they're built by individuals or collections of individuals. Go into any church and you'll see quite a few areas where people are memorialized or thanked. This is because they donated money to the church to build these areas, and in response, the church helped them to look good, be you they king or peasant. The term for this sort of phenomena is memorial architecture.
When you look at at many of the most famous religious buildings in the world, they trace their origin back to powerful kings or powerful empires. Building those structures cost a literal fortune, so the ruler made sure that his story was carved all over it. These buildings may be for the glory of the gods, but the king makes sure that he gets his own due, too. It's due to building like that, and other structures like statues and obelisks, that we know anything about ancient history at all.
Not all memorial architecture is religious, but all of it serves the social status of the memorialized.
Another area where people with money can look good is with sacrifice. Cattle are wealth, so the more cattle that you give away as sacrifices to the temple, the more wealth that you display. You can tell who has more and who has less. Strangely enough, those who benefit from lavish sacrifices are the poor. Meat is generally out of their reach, because they can't maintain cattle, but the temples need to do something with all the meat left over, so they sell it for far less than cost, because they produce so much of it every day, or if there's excessive sacrifices, they give the meat away. In this way, the rich supplement the diets of the poor.
Being seen inside the temples is also good for your reputation. To throw yourself behind the gods is to throw yourself behind the establishment. It's that kind of looking good to others that Ben Franklin understood very well.
Getting your relatives into religious institutions is another way of social climbing. If you could get your relative a good religious position, you did. The religious position was proof of your piety, even if you did pay through nose to get it.
Of course, worshipping the right gods is always a smart move. When someone new is the ruler, and he has a favorite god, he becomes your favorite god, too. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. People brought as prisoners to other countries often take on the worship of those countries, going native rather than maintain a separate identity. Keeping your own identity in a foreign land is bound to keep down on the social ladder.
Even among the non-elite, these rules of looking good apply. The wealth may be less grandiose, but churches and temples still need to get built, and usually its the people in the locality that do it. Some people want to be seen sacrificing, or be those who sit in the front of the church. Somebody is always richer than somebody else, and somebody is always hoping for a marriage alliance. While people are everywhere during the week, a religious ceremony may be the only place where all sorts of people may mingle, and that's good for business.
Even in death, social climbing keeps happening. Tombstones, plots, cemetery memorials, all of these show a piety to the family, and once again you can see who had the money and who didn't. Not to be outdone by anybody, the greatest kings built elaborate tombs to commemorate themselves, filled with wealth unimaginable, which is why they got routinely robbed.
Clothing is another area where social climbing and religion meets. You don't go before a god in your worst clothes, you wear your best. Piety gives you an opportunity to show off your wealth through clothing in a situation where you are bound to get seen. Even showing up becomes an ado, because you bring family and servants along with you, making yourself even more noticeable.
The dark side of this social climbing is that others get stepped on. When the early kings were buried, hundred of their servants were ritually murdered and buried along with them, so that in the afterlife they would provide service. Fortunately for humanity, this grandiose extravagance proved disastrous, because killing off everyone who's competent in the government is a sure way to fuck shit up. This sort of thing didn't happen for more than a handful of generation before a new system was devised. The Egyptians ended up burying little statues of servants, probably invented by someone who didn't want to die.
Religion perpetuates class divides. Religion is used to keep others in their place. People in power create new insiders, allowing them to also create new outsiders. Because religion defines these insiders, outsiders cannot advance without extraordinary circumstances.
Those at the lowest end of the social ladder, the most disreputable, are often seen as the most dirty or unholy. To be poor is to be morally corrupt (even if that's not the case). In this way, wealth means piety, receiving the favor of the gods, while poverty means impiety, and the disfavor of the gods. Everybody loves a winner, and the losers can get lost.
In some societies, these divisions multiply, creating multiple tiers of insiders and outsiders, of privileged and unprivileged, producing a caste system. Religion relegates you to a status entirely dictated your birth.
Religion itself can be turned against your enemies. False accusations of impious or unholy behavior have been bandied about as long as there's been religion. The accusations may be rumor, designed to undermine your opponents, but sometimes it erupts into public accusations, trials, and spectacle. The nature of these events is always divisive because they are entirely political and entirely unfair. They know full well that religion has been hijacked to pursue a personal vendetta.
No all religious experiences get you social status. Prophets and visionaries can wander off the religious deep end in the pursuit of a true religious experience, you can wind up totally outside the establishment, losing all social status and credibility with the ruling group while winning status and credibility with a lower status group. The path to legitimacy for these movements can be long and difficult, but by the time that they establish themselves, they are the establishment. They are now the insiders, and so the cycle begins again.
Return to: Religion in Fantasy