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Author Topic: Instinctual Religion and Scientistic Atheism  (Read 4554 times)

Matt Koeske

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Instinctual Religion and Scientistic Atheism
« on: July 13, 2007, 02:37:33 PM »

The following is excerpted from an e-mail I sent to Kafiri discussing the acknowledgment and rights (or lack thereof) of atheism and atheists in America.  For reasons that can only be labeled as "chronic Mattism", I decided to frame my critique of certain contemporary forms of atheism by outlining a brief biological history of religion as I imagine it (meant as a disproof of the kind of rationalistic atheism espoused by the Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris school, that ignores or drastically misunderstands biology's role in human religiosity in a way I consider unscientific).

I thought the result might be of interest to others, so I'm posting it here.  Of course, it is a gloss, skimming over tens of thousands of years of history like a stone skipped across a pond . . . but I would be happy to discuss and/or debate an particulars if any anyone is interested.

All nonsense about atheists being miserable, immoral people aside, from what I've seen, many of the atheists that have spoken up recently (e.g., Dawkins, Harris, etc.), in my opinion, have taken the wrong tack.  They have tried to rationalize with theists, painstakingly explaining why religion is founded on delusions that frequently lead to the zealous or "righteous" abuse of innocent others.  In other words, religion is dangerous and wrong (and at least by implication, moronic).

This approach has never appealed to me, even when the rationalistic thinkers espousing such views make many sensible points.  The problem with the uber-rationalists is that they (as the theists perceive) have a superiority complex . . . or, in their shadows, they are just as religiously righteous about rationalism and scientism as the theists are about spiritualism and theism.  The secular naturalist vein of atheism (that sees what could be classified metaphorically as "spiritual meaning" in nature) seems much more balanced to me.  Some of the things I've read coming out of this group are trying to see religion as something like a human instinct.  They aren't as far along in this investigation as Jung was, and many might not be willing to use the term "religious instinct", but that's the path they are on.

The key investigation, then (and certainly in my opinion, the most important) must deal with what exactly is this religious instinct, how does it work, why did it evolve, in what ways does it manifest and influence our behavior . . . and finally, what might we do (rationally and scientifically, but also ethically) to adapt this instinct to modern life and our huge societies?  That is, to treat religiosity like it is a delusion is unscientific (any quick glimpse around the globe will show one that religiosity is a universal human characteristic, and therefore, unless we reject biological science, biological).  This is why I associated the Dawkins and Harris school with "scientism".  It's rational, yes.  But scientific?  No.  Because it prejudicially ignores available data to suit a preordained agenda.

The uber-rationalists and the theists have one important thing in common (aside from zeal): literalism.  Both groups seem incapable of thinking about religion as metaphor or psychic phenomenon.  I would argue that this kind of literalism is one of the core elements of religiosity (rather than a core element of materialism as it is often considered to be).  It is also, I think, where much of the danger lies.

I find no conflict in calling myself an atheist while being able to think about religious experience and feel religiously.  I am an atheist because I don't literalize metaphysics.  This has never dulled the experience for me . . . but it did take work and a lot of reflection to achieve.  Literalization (or projection) is, I think, a natural human way of perceiving and thinking.  It's the animism instinct.  As long as we can live in our Eden, our environment of evolutionary adaptedness (a kind of hunter-gatherer tribe), our egos will fall into an "unconsciousness" and operate more or less collectively and instinctively, or for the group ("egoism" serving the group, essentially).  It is, I believe, removal from that environment that stimulates the typically dormant capacity for innovative consciousness.  I don't mean to suggest that the "primitive" or tribalist ego has no sense of self, merely that the sense of self is almost entirely designed by group affiliations.  "This is what a man is.  This is what a woman is.  This is what a hunter does.  This is what a mother does.  Etc."  And all according to the tribal dogmas or totemic beliefs and taboos of the group.  Such ideas are not philosophies, but affiliations, pieces of identity based on the group identity.

And, generally speaking, that behavioral paradigm works.  It worked in most (prehistoric) situations for millions of years and that was why it evolved as a sociality instinct.  But it wasn't the most effective strategy.  Sometimes this instinct for collectivism and participation mystique did not protect the tribe.  Sometimes more innovative thinking was required.  In primitive tribalism, my guess is that a token innovator or individual would suffice (in a tribe of maybe 50 to 150 people.  The shaman.  But today, greater demands are placed on the individualism instinct than ever were in the prehistoric environment of evolutionary adaptedness.

Like many of our behaviors, literalization or projection belongs to the tribal dynamic.  Projection is a method of allowing our instincts to interact with the environment.  Projection is maybe strongest when it encourages sexual attraction, fear of the unknown, and tribal cohesion.  All of these things are clearly adaptive (in all social animals).  They are obvious evolutionary traits.  But they are significantly less adaptive in the modern world, where individualism is required to survive.  The individual must differentiate potential mates from non-mates, potential enemies from non-enemies, potential friends from non-friends with great precision while faced with a deluge of information and diverse possibilities.  We can no longer trust these particular instincts to guide us wisely . . . because they are very general (requiring the, now extinct, environment of evolutionary adaptedness to become functionally adaptive).  Conscious discrimination is now needed to effectively adapt these general instincts to modern situations.

Religion (and "culture") seems to have begun about 40,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic Revolution.  It seems fairly obvious that one of its major functions was the maintenance of tribal cohesion, perhaps through a sharpening or celebration of the instinct behind this cohesion.  That is, the sociality instinct was ceremonially projected and ritualized, allowing the instinct for tribal cohesion to be reinforced in the environment, tangibly, visibly.

But I haven't read any scholar who doesn't think primal religion was shamanic in nature.  Which would mean that innovative individualism was probably in the mix from the beginning.  The shaman would be the vessel of religious experience, but his (or her) function in the tribe was still cohesion.  And perhaps more specifically, keeping that cohesion adaptive to new situations and the problem of changing environments.  This would have been, we might imagine, even more necessary in nomadic tribes . . . and this era, the Upper Paleolithic, is supposed to be the time that people started migrating out of Africa en masse and covering the globe.  In other words, the more environment changes (as one travels or migrates), the greater the need for innovative adaptations.  The greater the need for innovative adaptations, the greater the need for innovative individuals or shamans.  The greater the need for shamans, the greater the need for more organized, ritualistic, ceremonial religion (to reinforce tribal decisions with sacredness).

But the shaman's experience of religion (as an individual or an individuated consciousness) was different than the tribe's experience of religion.  And as tribes grew and splintered and came into conflict with other tribes (and had to both fight and cooperate in order to survive), population must have grown . . . or at least diversified.  Otherness and interaction with it increased in the human experience.  The more otherness we are surrounded by, the more demand there is on our individualism to sort out this otherness and our relationship to it.  We know this (among other reasons), because we know that our brain size is a product of our social group size.  Basically, our intelligence is a factor of how many people we can know and interact with comfortably (before resorting to stereotyping and categorization).  So prehistoric man might have been able to relate fairly well to the 100 or so people in his kin-based tribe, but when it came to the five other tribes his tribe interacted with, he may have had to rely on stereotyping (another matter of projection).  We tend to define ourselves in terms of otherness.  "I am not at all like him or him, but a little like her and a lot like them."

This definition of self and tribal cohesion in relation to otherness would have definitely been incorporated into religious rituals and beliefs, since those rituals and beliefs had mostly to do with tribal cohesion (as rituals and beliefs still do today).  That is, I suspect relationality itself was at least partly responsible for tribal identity.  I doubt tribes formed elaborate religious beliefs before they started interacting with other tribes.  If this notion holds any water, then it might be useful to think of the development of differentiated religious beliefs as emergence from increasingly complex elemental interrelation.  [Thank you for introducing the ideas of complexity theory on Useless Science, by the way.  It has been very helpful to me as another lens to see through.]

Whatever the case, as population grew (and grew more diverse), as otherness as a social phenomenon increased, individualism was increasingly called upon.  When the agricultural revolution got into full swing, my guess is that the elements of religion were already in place.  The ability to increase population density that agriculture provided allowed the birth of larger religious systems.  When I say the "elements of religion", I think there are primarily two components (indirectly mentioned above).  There is tribal cohesion on the one hand and shamanic individualism on the other (religion would then be a function of group survival and evolutionary success).  The latter, I prefer to refer to as "mysticism".  At the core of post-agricultural religions we will normally see a mysticism that will be expressed with heroic journeys of transformation and creation.  These, I think, represent the shamanic or mystical contribution to religion.  They not only sparked the religiosity that surrounds them, they are the spirit of its adaptivity, its relationship to the environment.

In some sense (and especially with larger societies), the mystical core of religion is appropriated by the drive for tribal cohesion.  Perhaps initially, the shamanic/mystical hero's journey helped tell the tribe how to live in a certain environment.  How to find food, how to grow crops, how to focus and project instinct into the environment in order to make the most of that environment.  But as this mystical core becomes appropriated by tribal cohesion, it ceases to become adaptive in the case that environmental change occurs (as it inevitably does).  Usually this change is a matter of population growth and societal transformation.  Perhaps just as typically (maybe more) would be change brought on through warfare with an equal or greater opponent.  We can see that kind of change especially in Judaism.  The Pharisaic Judaism that evolved into modern Judaism was not at all the same Judaism practiced by early Jews (despite the Bible's attempts to normalize Jewish history).  Every time the Jewish tribes were conquered, scattered, occupied, or colonized, Judaism changed.  This is generally not acknowledged beyond what is still probably considered "liberal" religious scholarship, but the Jewish religion has had a tremendous and dramatic history . . . but, that history was one of frequent, major transformation of beliefs and practices (not protected and perpetuated tradition).

When we discussed the differences between shamans and priests before . . . this is where I think the split (probably always expressed as tension between the tribal chieftain and the shaman) really explodes.  The rise of the priestly class is almost definitely an "agricultural phenomenon".  The priests would be treated by the population not much differently than shamans were always treated.  There was always a distinct separation between "Church" and "State" (until Christianity came along to commodify mysticism as had never been done before).  But innovation as a religious (mystical) principle loses much of its significance in large society.  First off, the cohesion of a large society is a much greater ordeal than the cohesion of a 100 member tribe, requiring tremendous attention and energy.  Secondly, if indeed the rise of the priestly class was a product of agriculture, we would expect the larger, denser populations to also be more "settled" around a crop-growing region.  They are no longer nomadic.  The environment (controlled and conformed by agriculture) is more static and predictable.

The demand for innovation is no longer as much a religious one.  Innovation in religion where agriculture has settled a population and a priestly class has grown up to help reinforce tribal cohesion would be dangerously unsettling.  Innovation would be more in demand for technology and warfare.

What, then, happens to mysticism?  Well, it seems that it goes underground as it spreads (while population and pressure on individualism increase).  A more philosophical religion is born, perhaps.  Or religious cults form within a population, practicing their mysticisms in isolation from culture at large.  And my guess is that mystical religion pretty much stays there until a given society has been faced with some kind of environmental collapse: lost a food source, been destroyed from within by disease or maniacal leadership, or conquered from without by another culture.  The mystical arm of religion rises up with innovative suggestions, ways to segue from the old into the new, ways to adapt.  Or else a syncretism occurs between the conquered culture's religion and that of the conquerer.  In some way, the mystical, individual, shamanic spirit is preserved and passed on in a superficially altered form.

But it becomes especially clear in large, diverse societies that the kernel of mysticism is in the individual . . . and in all individuals as a kind of (generally latent) trait, a trait in potentia.  Individuals carry this seed with them through social and environmental changes, and it is sparked and awakened again and again, probably by shamanic or traumatic experiences (which are part and parcel of human life) or perhaps under the weight of evolutionary pressure, a need to innovatively adapt or perish.

As this shift of evolutionary pressure onto the individual occurs, any remaining mysticism is sucked out of large, organized religions . . . which become ideological dinosaurs no longer capable of innovation or adaptation, concerning themselves entirely with tribal cohesion and the preservation of tradition.  The mystics are rarely priests for this reason.  Innovation occurs in the individual, outside the structure of the institutional religion.  Christianity managed to appropriate many such mystics, possibly by keeping its ideological tenets incredibly vague, allowing the tribal cohesionists to claim all sorts of mystical visions and ideas somehow reinforced Church doctrine (Christian expansion in general was wrought with compromise).  Although this typically required some kind of conformity of the mysticism to priestly standards and a substantial period of time to turn the mysticism into propaganda.  But it is worth reflecting upon the fact that Christianity espouses doctrines that are substantially vaguer than any other major religion's.  Even the core Catholic dogma of "faith alone" offers propagandists (and believers) so much plasticity as to be philosophically ludicrous.  It is hardly any wonder that the concept of confession became a Catholic mainstay.  This offers the ultimate conceivable plasticity, because even when one "sins" and breaks the rules of tribal cohesion, one can repent and be forgiven.  The unrepentant were of coursed destroyed or excommunicated (offering further incentive for repentance).

Christianity is the world greatest tribalist marketing campaign . . . and the enormous wealth of the Church (not to mention other more contemporary Christian institutions) is a wonderful testament to the cleverness of the Christian ideology as a profit making machine.

So that's my brief history of religion seen through a more or less scientific, biological eye.  And if this general overview is viable as a hypothesis (and I think it is . . . it's at least as sensible a hypothesis as any I've read), then the issue of religion being a kind of delusion is absurd.  And by extension, the uber-rationalist school of atheists are radically far off course in their atheistic treatises.  That is, dismissal of religiosity based on "rationalism" is just as unscientific as creationism is.
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Matt Koeske

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Daniel Dennett's notion of "Religion as Toxic Idea"
« Reply #1 on: July 19, 2007, 05:49:29 PM »

This is excerpted from the continuing converstaion I've been having with Kafiri via e-mail.

There are a number of Dennett video's on YouTube, but I haven't had a chance to watch most of them yet.

I like a lot of what Dennet says, but I ultimately find his Dawkinsian meme theory of religion (as expressed in this lecture) wanting.  To theorize that religion is based on viral ("catching") ideas (that serve no evolutionary purpose) because "that's the way the brain works", although not (in my opinion) entirely incorrect, is to take an overly naive or not entirely scientific perspective. [Here's a video of this segment of Dennett's argument from the same lecture Kafiri sent me, given elsewhere.  In this clip Dennet talks more about memes as "toxic ideas".  Some of this makes more sense to me, but he doesn't make a differentiation between toxic ideas and evolutionarily purposive ideas.  I suspect that even many "toxic" ideas could be seen as evolutionarily purposive . . . albeit only for the specific tribe that believes in the unconditionally.]

The "way the brain works" is not limited to meme survivability.  To stop at this point in the investigation is to (very distantly) commit the same fallacy as the religionists: the Ghost in the Machine.  That is, it is just another language for separating mind from brain.  Even if we do not exalt mind over brain (as religionists do when they call it "spirit"), we fall prey to reductive epiphenomenalism.  I don't think the "way the brain works" is not dividable from human instinct or archetypes (i.e., brain functioning is evolutionarily purposive, but the "strategic program" of the ego can break down when it doesn't adapt well to changes in environment).  The reason some ideas (religious, instinctual, tribal, etc.) "catch" and successfully perpetuate themselves is not random.  To assume randomness in this process is, I think, unscientific.  It would be scientism, the fallacious misapplication of a scientific paradigm where it doesn't belong.

If our ideas were this random and unproductive, we would not be very well-adapted.  I don't see how we could have survived with such a frivolous mind.  The idea that human civilization (even the modern variety) is either a mistake or a blessing or bestowal of spiritual destiny is a remnant of the Ghost in the Machine.  I.e., we don't understand our behavior's evolutionary purposiveness very well (as it is unconscious for us), so we imagine a splitting off of human mind from animal body.  This effectively negates our ability to see ourselves as evolved animals with instincts.

Meme theory (expressed in the way Dennet expresses it in the lecture) gives ideas themselves "libido", a will to survive.  But that is, of course, a metaphor.  A poeticism.  We know that this is not literally true; it is as-if.  And that is not good enough for science, I think.  The true scientific question must come after meme theory has done its song and dance and left the stage.  Namely, WHY is it as-if ideas seem to perpetuate themselves similarly to genes?  "Because that is how the brain works" is not an adequate explanation.  Not when there is so much more data to consider that suggests greater potential for detail.  Why might the brain (seem to) work this way?  Is this the way the brain works or is this the way our genes work, and is our brain and its functionality an expression of our genes' attempts at better perpetuating themselves?  That is, I am suggesting that brain and genes are not detached as we like to imagine them to be.

I think this is specifically the case for religious ideas.  There is no need to see randomness or "acausality" in these ideas, when there is a perfectly feasible, scientific explanation: that such ideas are expressions of instinctual feelings (archetypes), and that these instinctual feelings are the libidinous impulses of adaptive instincts.  Detachment from our evolutionary environment may cloud the connection for us, but I do think they can be traced back to an expression of adaptive human sociality, at least in the prehistoric, tribal environment (as I outlined in my previous post).

When we look more closely at expressions of religion that would seem to contradict evolutionary purposiveness (as Dennett mentions in the video clip: the Shakers . . . but many cults, and arguably even our major Western religions might also be questioned), we have to think more biologically than "philosophically".  We have to think like genes, not like detached minds looking for memes.  Yes, religious seem to always have at least a small dose or irrationality to them, some quality of non-realness that might seem to contradict evolutionary purposiveness.  But this is, I think (and as I outlined in the previous e-mail) a matter of conflicted instincts.  Most religious irrationality serves tribal cohesion . . . and it is quite easy to see this demonstrated in religions from cults and monastic orders to Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and Christian Evangelicalism.  Tribal cohesion is the main drive behind organized religion.

Religions also tend to encourage hierarchical social structures or some other form of social (pecking) order.  Irrational beliefs define a "togetherness" more than anything else.  And that is evolutionarily purposive.  It is not fundamentally irrational at all . . . no more than any "superfluous" instinctual behavior in any species is irrational.  Mating dances in various animals and birds, for instance.  In themselves they are meaningless . . . but they are meant to demonstrate a genetic and instinctual need, a genetic fitness.  I would suggest that cohesive belief in human culture is also meant to demonstrate a genetic fitness.  But instead of a fitness for mating or individual genetic expression, such belief demonstrates a fitness for tribal cohesion.  This is perhaps why atheists are exiled from politics in America.  An inability to believe and belong is instinctively (and unconsciously) seen as a lack of genetic fitness.  Such non-believers are "genetically flawed" (or as they used to say, "degenerate") and could never benefit the group (which we imagine politicians are supposed to do).  That's, of course, ridiculous when examined rationally, but it makes "genetic sense" when we recognize that the thought is inspired unconsciously . . . and is not consciously adapted to the modern environment.  If we still existed in our tribal environment of evolutionary adaptedness, this thought would be more evolutionarily successful.

I also suspect the instinct in us for tribal cohesion is a "short-term planning" instinct.  "If in doubt, protect the group, keep it cohesive."  That is likely the best adaptation to our environment of evolutionary adaptedness.  And it should come as no surprise to a self-professed Darwinist like Dennett that this is probably so.  After all, we are the world's most social animal.  Our large brains tell us as much.  Brain size and social group size are correlated.  It would make sense that our behavior is more geared toward sociality than any other primate species'.

I think Dennett and Dawkins would benefit from taking a couple more steps back.  They still want to explain religion with an intellectual paradigm, a bit of cleverness . . . perhaps because they are blind to their own prejudices regarding the meaningfulness or naturalness of religion.  They think they are in a bull fight and they have only to drive in the killing blow to drop the bull.

I'm also not sure what Dennet would say about the fact that the same categories of religious ideas crop up in every culture, even when "viral infection" is not a potential factor.  Does he chalk this up to coincidence?  A little classic Jung would do nicely here: (paraphrased) "We do not create our thoughts.  Thoughts happen to us."  It seems to me that Dennet is still saying that thoughts create themselves (in some place outside or transcending the brain).  It takes the paradigm of random mutation and natural selection too far.  Will is excluded from the equation.  Libido.  The will to live.  The will of genes to perpetuate themselves.  That is a non-random factor.

This can also be reverse-engineered.  We can see why certain consistent religious ideas would promote both tribal cohesion and tribal innovation (as in my last e-mail).  These two drives (in proper proportion to one another) would undoubtedly facilitate the evolutionary success of our highly social species.  "Highly social" means that our adaptive, evolutionary success is primarily a factor of our instinctual sociality.

I think religion goes awry when the adaptive proportion of tribal cohesion to tribal innovation gets out of whack.  Understandably innovation would be a dangerous factor in excess, so innovation becomes the demon when a religious system that has grown too large to be adaptive and flexible, when it requires more resources than an environment can provide.  Such a religion would become an "endangered species".  Like most of the species that have graced this planet, it will go extinct (unless it can "mutate" and be refreshed by innovation).  But there is "evolutionary pressure" against successful mutations.  The survival dynamic a religion has established will continue to try to perpetuate itself (and therefore resist and defend against innovation).  It will accentuate tribal cohesion by finding enemies (infidels, heretics, degenerates, aliens, terrorists, etc.) to define itself in opposition to and by eliminating tolerance for deviation from tribal coherence dogmas and taboos.

A religion can go on for a long time in this state, no doubt, but it must increase stress and constraint on its members to achieve survival.  And it will inevitably cross the line beyond which stress and repression of innovation/adaptation cannot be endured by human individuals.

You can always come back, but you canít come back all the way.

   [Bob Dylan,"Mississippi]

Matt Koeske

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Christianity's Coup Against Religious Instinct
« Reply #2 on: July 19, 2007, 05:58:33 PM »

We can see this sort of thing (i.e., religion becoming maladaptive without sufficient innovation) happening in Christianity, for instance.  Christianity has been a dinosaur for a very long time.  Perhaps even forever (since its initial institutionalization, that is).  The proto-gnostic impulse to adapt the mythos of the Mystery religions (death/rebirth of the solar or vegetal godman) is coupled to Judaic messiah lore and placed within the conducive historical setting of Jewish conflict with Roman empiricism and modernism.  It is a very innovative solution to the problem of modernism for religion.  I.e., modernism means the dissolution of tribal cohesion, the shift of emphasis from the group to the individual.  It seems to me that the Mystery religions had the potential to celebrate the individual as a god (i.e., the "godman").  The death/birth ritual is akin to the shamanic initiation experience.  This may have been an adaptive expression of religious innovation.

It seems that the Mystery religions are rooted in agriculture, where the seed dies in the soil and is reborn as the crop.  Solar (death/birth) worship was likely even older, but my guess is that it originally dealt with a sky god, a paternal provider figure (with a terrible moodiness that had to be appeased) rather than the heroic individual.  Ancient Egyptian solar regeneration ideas (in the little that I know) seemed to be reserved mostly for the pharaohs and the very mighty . . . and not surprisingly, the notion was that one would survive death in some form.

It's like introducing egoism to the solar cycle.  The ego doesn't want to die, so it imagines, properly empowered, that it can sustain itself, "keep it up" forever.  One of my poems dealing with this is called "Osiris".  It concludes: "we spend the rest of our lives building big enough graves" (i.e., the pyramids as monuments to egoic/phallic ascensionism).  This is contrasted with the figure of dismembered Osiris as a vegetation god.  I wonder if there was a transition from vegetation religion to solar religion that came about as human power reached a zenith under huge, post-agricultural societies where kings began to imagine themselves as gods (like ancient Egypt's).  In the first century CE in the Roman Empire there was the cult of Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun.  And Mithras, the solar bull-slayer.  Thematically, these point back to the most ancient recorded story of Gilgamesh; this story deals with the problems of deification of the ego and the search for immortality, and we can position the origin of this myth in social history around the time that large agricultural society segued into a proto-industrial society, which in a sense is closer to tribalism than agriculturalism, because industry is a more complex form of hunting and gathering.  Natural resources are "gathered" on a massive scale before they are transformed industrially.  This is different than a purely agricultural society, which grows everything it needs rather than taking it.  In industrialization, the primitive hunter-gatherer tribalism falls into the shadow . . . and we can see this even in modern industrialism and its constant flirtations with shadow tribalism in the form of fascism and "incorporation".  The shadow hunter instinct is also very easily recognized in the prevailing modern business mentality, such as we commonly associate with Wall Street.  It is all about conquering and aggressively pillaging "wild markets" with strategies of stalking, trapping, overpowering.  There is little or no sense in business today of cultivating markets, trying to find equilibrium with environments, developing "economic ecosystems" that are self-sustaining.

Hunting and gathering on this massive scale and in this shadowy (unconscious, irresponsible) way eventually becomes dangerous, because they produce "externalities" like pollution and the harming or destruction of less powerful social groups and other species, not to mention resource-depletion (not to mention resource-dependency mania).  In ancient Sumer and Babylon, Gilgameshian industry still maintained a prevailing fantasy of unlimited resource abundance.  We can see this in the Gilgamesh story where Gilgamesh and Enkidu plunder Ishtar's Cedar Forest sadistically (not only whacking down many trees to annoy Ishtar, but symbolically claiming the forest for industry by killing Humbaba;  see my poem "Slaying Humbaba" for a symbolic/emotional take on this psychic predicament).  The proto-patriarchal heroes go on to slaughter Ishtar's attempt at reprisal, the Bull of Heaven.  This crosses over into mania, and the gods decide that the heroes must be punished.  Enkidu must die . . . in other words, Gilgamesh's instinctual half, his relationship to his instinct (the hunter-gatherer instinct behind industry and egoic supremacy) is severed.  The hunter-gatherer instinct is relegated to the shadow by the ascensionist egoism behind industry and empire.

Without healthy connection to this instinct, egoic king, Gilgamesh, occupies himself with trying to find the secret of immortality . . . an ability to compensate for the lost symbiotic connection to nature that holds death and rebirth in a cyclical format.  In other words, in the primitive tribe, some individuals are born while other individuals die . . . but the tribe lives on.  But with the ascent of egoic man, individuality is no longer a factor of group health.  The ego is estranged from the cycle of regeneration.  When it dies, life is over (because it is equivalent to its achievements, what it can take or do, not its social perpetuation, its cultivations).  This is where the mania for immortality begins driving religious ideology, I suspect.

In this myth, we see the Problem of the Modern spelled out in very clear detail.  Writ large 5000 years ago.  I suspect that it was not so much the Agricultural Revolution that caused the Fall of Man into the modern state of egoic dissociation as it was the descent of the tribalistic, hunter-gatherer instinct into the shadow.  That is, this instinct fell into an unconscious imprisonment where it was no longer being adapted to the environment.  As a result it has been unconsciously driving humanity into an "industrial egoism", a mania to take from nature and bask in providence without an accompanying sense of responsibility.

As I wrote previously (re: the self-deification taboo), the slaughter of the Bull of Heaven and the death of Enkidu have made us Gilgameshites God on this planet . . . but we have floundered in an irresponsible and childish desire for providence, not owning up to the products (externalities) of our "divine" actions.  We are Bad Gods.  And the Work (as I conceive it) is a "cure" for Badgodism.  Individuation: the adaptation of individualism to a state in which it can work with nature, cultivating instinct.  A consciousness of nature's complexity and how to relate to that complexity.  That is, the Work seeks to align consciousness with instinct and adapt that instinct to modern life.

To return to the birth of Christianity . . . .  In the first century CE Roman Empire, solar cults seemed to be supplanting the Dionysus/Osiris/Adonis vegetation cults.  That is, no more of that "death and rebirth" crap.  The sun (as fantasized heroic ego) is unconquerable (sol invictus).  The perpetual erection of patriarchal will.  Mithras slays the bull.  Imperial will dominates the world with aggressive "gathering".  Resources are commandeered.

The mythos of Christianity could have been an expression of the conflict between the vegetal godman and the egoic solar conquerer.  Throughout Christianity, its theology has been problematically divided over the issue of whether Christ was a vegetal sacrifice, a godman who died and was reborn . . . or a conquerer of "darkness", an eternal rising sun whose powerful will should be obeyed (lest his shadow self return in the Second Coming and wipe out all the unfaithful).  The mythos is taken almost entirely from the vegetal Mystery religions . . . but the application of Christian dogma was solar, imperial, converting-conquering, Mithraic, buoying the imperial will of the power elite, harrowing the "hell" of the Other (plundering its resources by "divine right").

This very complicated conflict was playing out in a rather unexpected way even in early Christianity.  This is my guess as to what was happening (psychologically, and in very broad strokes) . . . .

First there was an internal conflict in the Jewish community.  If we assume Josephus was (despite his bias) more or less correct, poor, radicalized Jews were revolting against wealthier, Hellenized (modernized) Jews who managed to find empowerment and status under Roman rule.  These zealot sects characterized the wealthier, Hellenized sects as "Satans" (see Elaine Pagels' Origin of Satan for how this developed).  Not only did the zealots terrorize and demonize the wealthier Jews (like the Pharisees), they agitated against Rome until Rome was aggravated into "putting down" the Jewish rebellion.  The rebellion demanded that all the Jewish sects fight together for their survival against the Romans.  The more radical sects developed the messiah lore extensively at this time, as the messiah was supposed to be a righteous messenger from god who would come down and lead the Jews to military victory against the Romans (an idea so rationally ridiculous that it could have only come from religious extremists like the so-called zealots).

Not surprisingly, the Romans crushed the Jewish Rebellion, although at the expense of the lives of many Roman soldiers.  The Jews were then kept under even more repressive rule (as they were no longer as trusted by Rome).  Rome saw a "Jewish problem" in the still brooding radical sects.  The early persecution of "Christians" (radical Jews whose martyrdoms were later appropriated by the later Catholic Church looking to construct a historicity to justify its new political position) only inspired the radicalized Jewish sects to greater resistance (and rebellion/messiah fantasies) . . . which led to the second Jewish War in the first half of the second century CE.  This rebellion (the Bar Kochba Revolt) was put down with such ferocity that the Jews as a race were nearly annihilated.

In spite of the convention of dating the Gospel of Mark around 70 CE, the end of the first Jewish War, the Gospels show much more influence from the Second Jewish War (132-135 CE).  Mark may have even come along after this period (and in its psychological wake).  All hope for a Jewish military messiah was crushed in this defeat.  But the Romans were taken by surprise in the second war, and the Roman soldiering class was also struck a massive blow.  The psychological fallout of these rebellions was that the Jews (always somewhat suspect to the Romans, but previously tolerated fairly well) now became absolutely demonized by the Romans.  As one might expect (due to first-hand perspective and military mentality), the Jews were hated most of all by the soldiering class of Roman gentiles.

After the second war, Pauline Christianity went into full swing.  The budding proto-Christian lore was repackaged for gentiles.  As many Jewish trappings as possible were stripped from the ideology (it is hard to know whether any of the Pauline epistles are legitimate, because they seem to have been both rewritten and added to extensively toward the end of the second century).  This strange re-interpretation was possible, because of the pre-existing lore about the poorer sects of "true", God-favored Jews in conflict with the Rome-empowered Jews.  The poor Jews became the model for "Christians" . . . and (conveniently) they were "excused" from Jewish demonism, because they had worshiped a peaceful messiah who (again, conveniently) told his followers not to oppose Rome ("render unto Cesar what is Cesar's").  In fact, although Rome (through the historically hated Pilate) had put Jesus to death, his hands were actually washed of the crime, because the throng of Jews cried out for his crucifixion.  The Gospels are de-Judaizations . . . which means that racism is underwriting Christianity from the beginning.  It is unclear whether the pagan elements (remnants of the Mystery religions) entered the Christian mythos at this time to help sell it to pagan gentiles or whether it was an even older aspect of syncretism.

Over the next two centuries, Rome suffers various political and natural disasters and Jews and Christians (not often distinguished as separate from Jews by the Romans) were persecuted as scapegoats and "atheists".  Rome teeters between decadence and regressivism (which always requires a scapegoat).  As the Roman Empire splinters, power is increasingly "up for grabs" based on ambition alone.  The Roman military class has suffered as much as any class, especially in the absence of state cohesion.  Funds for the military have been radically slashed . . . while empirical endeavors have been simultaneously accelerated (or over-stretched).  The soldiering class is no longer a true "middle class profession" as it once had been (at the peak of Roman power).  The military was increasingly composed of the poor, ex-slaves, and "hellenized" (conquered) "barbarians".

In the poor, barbarian, and ex-slave classes, Christianity predominated.  It was becoming the unofficial religion of the majority of Roman soldiers who identified both with the demonization of the Jews as a people and (interestingly) the tribalism of Judeo-Christianity (which was hierarchical, patristic, and militantly uniform . . . just like the Roman military structure).  In Constantine's bloodthirsty grapple for supreme power, he hit upon a very clever idea.  He would rally to his cause the last remaining power in the Empire (the military) by appealing to the religious tribalism that had become their unofficial faith ("in this sign you will conquer").  This stratagem proved effective, and the propagandistic collaboration between Constantine and the Church was only strengthened by the politically ambitious proto-Catholic orthodoxy's desire for empowerment.

That orthodoxy had troubles of its own.  Not only were Christians not politically empowered in the Empire, Christianity itself had splintered into various sects, each vying for supremacy.  One of the most dangerous opponents of the Church was the less-political, more ideological contingent of "Gnostic" (or proto- or quasi-Gnostic) Christians.  This group also claimed to represent the "true" Christianity . . . and although it didn't have the same kind of political ambitions as the orthodox Church, it did have a more middle class, educated, philosophical following.  It was also comparatively "non-tribal", advocating the imitation of Christ for the individual and not even promoting the historicity of Jesus.

When Christianity was institutionalized by Constantine, there was a mad rush in the Church elite to construct a historicity for Christ and his followers.  As we have no Christian texts that predate this period, the shreds of historicity handed down to us have no verification.  A study of other sources from the first century demonstrates no (non-fraudulent) corroborating evidence of early Christian historicity.  What we can learn (from Origen's Against Celsus of 248 CE, for instance) is that the popular pagan Roman sentiment of the time was well aware of the fragile or non-existent historicity of Christian origins.  In other words, the historicity had not been convincingly constructed and canonized in the period immediately predating Constantine's seizure of power.

The institutionalization of Christianity also demanded (or rather, Constantine himself demanded) the catholicization of Christian ideas and texts.  In other words, Christianity was in radical disarray before its institutionalization.  The Christianity we came to know was certainly constructed after it became a tool of political power and propaganda.  Any ideas we might want to entertain about the "purity" of early Christians cannot be even remotely corroborated by other historical sources.  Christianity is a non-entity in the second century and its existence in any form in the first century is debatable.

There are innumerable implications to this theory . . . but what I mean to convey specifically here is that the construction of Christianity was entirely an act of tribal cohesion performed by an empowered Christian elite.  There are no signs in the surviving history that Christianity began as a spiritual system of religious innovation.  The mysticisms we associate with Christianity almost certainly arose after the religion was institutionalized . . . as heretical deviations imagined out of the Christ myth.  Some of these deviations recaptured the association of Christian mythos with the ancient vegetal Mystery religions . . . and as Christianity was spread imperially (especially to northern Europe), the Christian-pagan syncretism more fully emerged and developed.  The conquering of pagan barbarians was achieved mostly through compromise (pagan holidays, heroes, and gods assumed Christian names, etc.).

The alliance of the Christian orthodoxy with Constantinian political ambition led to the eventual illegalization and persecution of heresy . . . and the destruction of the Gnostics along with the Roman, pagan, educated middle class . . . which was the real threat both to Constantinian ambition and to Church legitimization.  The kind of mania of neo-tribalistic belief engendered by Christian righteousness is not a wild idea.  In fact, we saw this very same thing happen in the next emergence of a modernism that closely resembled that of the first centuries of the Common Era.  Namely, fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, and various other totalitarianisms.  I would argue that the first waves of institutionalized Christianity (the producers of the "Dark Ages") had significantly more in common with seemingly "godless" ideological movements like Stalinism and Nazism than they did with spiritual movements like Buddhism.

This corollary can happen without contradiction when we allow ourselves to see that religion largely derives from and is the most common expression of the instinct for tribal cohesion.  Like Stalinism and fascism, Christianity presents a dogma that celebrates the tribe at the expense of the individual.  Like those tribalistic modern fascisms, Christianity does not (in its official dogma) treat the individual as a spiritually significant being or do anything to encourage the cultivation of individual spirituality (quite the opposite, in fact).  Like modern fascisms, Christianity rose to power by purging all Others, heretics, and non-believers.  The destruction of life created by these purgings perhaps equaled (in quantity) the total loss of life at the hands of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.  As horrific as it is to bring up a "cost of life" in numerical terms, I feel inclined to do so, because it is frequently claimed by contemporary Christian apologists that the 20th century totalitarianisms managed a greater death toll in a much shorter period of time (as if in any way could justify or excuse Christian atrocities).

This claim may not actually be accurate, but even if it is, the differences in military technology and world population between the 5th and the 20th centuries negates the claim.  Christianity was a world holocaust.  The destructive power of Christianization may be even better viewed in the loss of civilization it created.  Science, medicine, philosophy, art, engineering, architecture, democracy, etc. were not reestablished at the pre-Christian level for at least a millennium.  A millennium.  And psychologically, we may still be largely unrecovered.  Consider the institutionalized taboo against human instinctuality.  Even post-Enlightenment we are grappling with these taboos (to be fair, Neoplatonic philosophies predated Christianity, but these philosophies were not universally embraced or raised to the status of taboo cross-culturally).

Like many of the Christ-mythers (from whom I have cobbled together this potential history . . . i.e., it may be "wrong" in places, but I haven't made any of this up; there is concrete evidence and logical reasoning to support all claims and assumptions above), I suspect that the 3rd and 4th century CE pagan Roman middle class was likely quite correct in many of its criticisms of Christianity (just as so-called "liberal" critiques of George Bush and Co. are largely factual, even if often ignored by much of the country and its conservative media).

But in the elimination of the innovative (Gnostic) arm of the increasingly tribal/political movement of Christianization, Christianity as a religion became a totalitarian device for wide-scale tribal cohesion.  This cohesion was not so much dependent on an ideology (although ideology was certainly icing on the cake, Christian ideologies have always been notoriously flexible and vague when such vagueness suited their pundits) as it was on the enforced prevention of a middle class (in which economic power would accrue and individuality would be more highly weighted).

To return to a quasi-primal tribalistic religion, not only did the wealth of the middle class have to be eliminated, the entire system of education and the history of modern thought had to be expunged (through mass library and temple burnings and the elimination of schools).  Anything that encouraged independent thought had to go.  And Christian power succeeded at bringing this off.  The return of classical Greek and Roman knowledge, science, art, technology, etc. was preserved by the comparatively more sophisticated Muslims.  It is hardly any surprise that the Christians made the Muslims their arch enemies for centuries.  Yet at the same time, the crusades "re-contaminated" the Christian world with some of its previously expunged wisdom, poetry, and science.  This time, Christianity (eschewing as it had the innovations of culture and technology) was not strong enough to completely wipe out Arab culture (and those scholars who returned to Christendom with Arab-preserved, 1200 year old Greek and Roman wisdom).

That reinfusion became the innovation that gave birth to the Renaissance and the gradual splintering and depotentiation of Christian power in the West.

To our Christianized ears, this all sounds fantastical and horribly bitter, but I think it is all logical and highly possible.  Of course, everything must have been significantly more complex than this guesswork outline demonstrates . . . but this would be a portrait of massive-scale institutionalized religion without any "instinct for innovation".  That is, religion that is non-adaptive and not rooted in the functional instinct for human sociability.  Living for nearly two millennia under this instinct-crushing system has not only shattered our instinctual foundation as a species, it proved relatively non-adaptive until modernism gradually returned and population began to grow.  That is, totalitarian tribalism was a time of vicious warring, horrendous disease, and extremely limited innovation in technology, science, medicine, engineering, and art.  My guess is that the Dark Ages were a time of population decrease (as warring/elimination of Others and disease/lack of useful medicine/unhealthy living conditions increased), but I don't have a specific figure or source to confirm that.  If it is true, then it could be seen as another demonstration of the maladaptivity of Christianity as a totalitarian ideology.

As for so-called Christian morality, such a thing is terribly hard to find in empowered Christendom before humanism and the Renaissance began to reestablish themselves (except of course in fantasy and literature).  I think the morality we have been made to think is Christian today is a product of the the disempowerment of Christian ideologies at the hands of humanism and ethical rationalism.  Ethics in the West increased in direct relationship with the depotentiation of Christianity.  In addition to that, human morality is a biological trait that serves an evolutionary function (social cohesion and survivability).  All humans in all societies during all eras have been capable of morality and empathy (even primates and other mammals display empathy).  Morality predates Christianization by millions of years.  And we would do well to consider that the attempt at wide-scale tribal cohesion that Christianity represents is a tribal cohesion that conflicts with an adaptive instinctual expression of human sociality.  That is, Christianity's global tribalism required unethical totalitarianism to implement it.  Tribally cohesive morality has shown no indication of functionality beyond a small tribal (probably kin-based) population.  As population increases, tribal cohesion begins to oppress the instinct for innovation too severely, and this results in tribal splintering.

It's true that I have an ethical reaction to Christian history (especially after I spent a couple years intensively studying it).  I see no difference between Christianization as a social phenomenon and Nazism or Stalinism (for reasons just elaborated).  The main difference is that we live in an era in which this understanding of ancient history is just being reformed after being repressed for centuries.  The mainstream scholarship of Christian history is still belief-oriented (and in my opinion, biased).  This has slowly started to change, but the Christ-mythers are still considered outsiders and (by many people) cranks.  But as we start to be able to see the history of our Western civilizations and symbol systems through this emerging lens, we also have to face the shadow of Christianity.  Imagine what it would have been like if Nazism or Stalinism had prevailed and taken over the world . . . only to be gradually diffused and its ugly history white-washed or wholly erased (as Stalinism's almost was).  And then suddenly it came to light that the origins of these movements had been as we understand them to be today.

That would be a lot to live with.  We would have been so deeply tied into those ideological systems that extracting ourselves would be tortuous.  It would be resisted beyond reason.  This is what we have in front of us now with re-understanding Christian history.

Beyond ethical outrage and a desire to see clearly and uphold the truth about our history (no matter how ugly), I think there is a much greater and more universal value of re-interpreting the history of the Common Era in terms of the Christ myth and Christianity as a totalitarian tribal-cohesion mass movement.  When we use this lens to view the Common Era, we can see how we have been interacting with our instincts much more clearly.  It all becomes less mysterious.  We can see the conflict between modernism and tribalism . . . and how modernism is associated both with individuality and the middle class.  The puzzle pieces all come together, and instead of a magical history based on spiritualistic fallacies and egoic projection, we begin to see a logical (if not always rational) history of human social evolution.  Only then can we begin to understand how to learn from our mistakes.  We can better study how the human psyche behaves on the long-term . . . and hopefully better devise a system of government (or at least survival) that allows human instinct to be acknowledged and allowed for (rather that repressed into the shadow where it emerges as senseless aggression and tribalistic Othering).

I don't know enough about history to know if my relation of events is entirely or primarily accurate, but I do know that this general rendering of history makes psychological sense.  And all historical theories that I have heard thus far do not take into account human instincts for sociality and individualism.  Historians love abstract ideological theories.  Paradigms.  Clever projections of pattern recognition that suit their individual ideological predilections.  What I think would be most beneficial (even if my outline above needs to be radically revised to come close to "truth") would be an understanding of history in terms of biology and psychology . . . or evolutionary psychology.  The Christian and spiritualistic biases have prevented us from any such understanding.  As we come to shake off those biases, the universe and our species' history will, I think, begin to seem radically different to us.  They will appear more complex, more natural, more logical.

I think that understanding our biology, our instinctual natures, will open up many doors to understanding our cultures and our ideas.

You can always come back, but you canít come back all the way.

   [Bob Dylan,"Mississippi]


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Re: Instinctual Religion and Scientistic Atheism
« Reply #3 on: September 18, 2014, 07:47:31 PM »

A random train of thought based on some of what you have written, Matt (of course, you know I didn't read it ALL  ;))...

From a modern perspective, I have to think of the shaman as a projection on the part of the tribe, including the shaman, of the tribe as a psychic whole.  To the extent that the shaman's psyche could enable that projection, the shaman's creative insight would heal the tribe.  But the gradual differentiation over the course of history through various developments of the individual tribe member's psyche depotentiated this projection. 

The development of technologies such as writing to capture data with more accuracy and specificity than an oral culture could accomplish greatly helped this process.  The differentiation of labor allows our lives to be sustained by knowledge shared with by some but maybe not most.  Organization of society into ever larger groups required more sophisticated systems for understanding how people can live and work together.  Now tribes are made via professions and political parties and other groups.  The power of the mythicly organized tribe is greatly diminished. 

Yet we can see in the world's great religions that their belief systems were organized around some founding individual.  This individual functions as a sort of shaman through endless sermons and commentaries channelled through their functional intermediaries.  So we have priests teaching us about Christ, we have authorized roshis teaching us about our Buddha-nature, etc...  But whereas in small tribes the role of shaman was passed down, in our literate culture our shamans are instantiated in a body of writings to a large extent.  And as our culture and our world changes there is a backwards drag, it seems, caused by the very writings we hold most sacred.

The irony, of course, in this conservative drag is that there are, nonetheless, countless variations on approaches to the teachings of great spiritual wisdom.  Diversity is not a problem solved by efforts at conforming to conservative norms.  But the worst tragedies caused in the name of religion seem to come from conservatism or a misinformed retrospective belief in what a body of faith knowledge originally meant.  They do not seem to come from an exploration of how one might achieve a modern revelation in the context of understanding people fully in their contemporary idiom.  So precisely the issue is of the individual failing through assuming their smaller perspective applies to a greater whole which they are maybe only dimly aware of. 

Today's would-be shamans or spiritual advisors must take their initial spiritual beliefs and put them to the test in a series of ever widening spheres of experience and exploration.  Those who would prescribe spiritual truths must engage in dialog with the various Others and not mount their one-way soapboxes and spout out their vehement, unlistening truths.  What is perhaps lost in the stories of today's great spiritual teachers (Jesus, Buddha, etc) is, perhaps, this sense of process.  So often these great individuals were born perfect and merely lived out their lives exampling their perfection.  Could we ever hope to see someone who is imperfect as a great spiritual role model?  And if so, how could we know there were worthy of our devotion?

To me the answer is that we need to free up our urge to mythologize.  We need to realize that our novelists and our filmmakers, our photographers and our scholars ARE our shamans.  This is, perhaps, where Jung continues to be relevant in that he saw all eras of human history as exemplifying our search for the spiritual. 

I have said elsewhere that today's modern myth centers around the concept of free will.  I may also want to include true love or romantic love now that I am reading a very interesting book by Robert Johnson "We".  Although it read at first as highly simplistic and cheaply Jungian, I have found that his ideas are shaping up into something rather interesting and perhaps profound.  But I must continue my reading...

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