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.