Posts Tagged ‘Big Ancestor’

16. Religion explained

 

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought is the title of a 2001 book of Pascal Boyer, a French-American anthropologist. Because of its actuality and its daring title it is a much discussed and translated book. Most of the reviews, however, are not very enthusiast, complaining of its dry and abstract philosophical and cognitive-psychological argumentation. Even more serious is the conclusion that the book does not really explain the phenomenon of religion. Boyer himself excuses this lack of satisfactory explanation with the statement that “religion is not a single entity resulting from a single cause.”[1]

But is he right? Couldn’t religion in essence be just that: a single entity resulting from a single cause? For the humanosopher, who explains consciousness as lingual consciousness, the obvious mission here is to unravel the real evolutionary origin of religious thought.

Our ancestors, now armed not only with stones and sticks but also with fire[2], spread from the tropics to the temperate zones in Africa and Eurasia. It was a slow migration: about 30 miles per generation. When a successful group became too numerous, tensions arose and then soon a little group of young women, children and men would decide to move to a new territory. I assume that this land may already have been known because adolescents had to make a long journey as part of their initiation in adult life – upon their safe return, they were able to recall for the remainder of their lives the faraway regions and people they had encountered on their journey.

The settlers of new territories were the first humans who gave the mountains, rivers, lakes, marshes, fruit trees and wild animals their names. For humans, lingual consciousness became more dominant than the instinctive consciousness of other animals: in that lingual part of our mind, things exist to the extent we have a name for it. For our ancestors, as lingual creatures, those first name-giving settlers were the creators of their tribal territory. People always had (and still have) the practice of defining a total group as one person (The American for all Americans, The Australian for all Australians) and in a similar way, our ancestors spoke of The Big Ancestor.

I dare not to speculate exactly when and where this process began. The first hard evidence (in my opinion) of how these humans expressed the experience of their world in danced singing, is Bilzingsleben: an archaeological site in Germany, a H. heidelbergensis campsite from

370.000 years ago (Reinsdorf interglacial). This is the first known place with evidence of a special dance place between 3 huts[3].

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reconstruction Bilzingsleben camp site of Early Humans, 370.000 years ago

These Early Humans were lingual creatures. But humans are part of the animal world. In their own mind, they were not lingual creatures but animals. Honestly spoken, not even in our mind, dear reader, we ourselves are lingual creatures. I mean: we are not continuously aware of it. Just like fishes are not aware of water. The Early Humans felt they were animals originating from a special kind of animal. Their way of thinking was totemistic.

We may compare the Early Humans’ step into new territories with a newborn baby’s entrance into a new world. Right after the sudden and painful experience of birth, felt as a cruel separation, newborn babies would like to be part of their mother again, just as they had been before. They feel strangely isolated. During the long time they sleep, this isolation is felt less acute, especially when the usual moves, shakes and sounds continue. But when awake, they need the unceasing and loving attention of their mother and others to give them the confidence of safety. Slowly and gradually, neurological programming can then do its work letting them grow up, step by step, to normal childhood and maturity.

The same step by step development characterizes the experience of the environment (world) of our ancestors. As lingual creatures they lived in a named world; a world full of named things. For these Early Humans it was an ever growing number of names for an ever growing number of things. This mass of names would grow into a chaos in their heads if it lacked any structure. The most obvious structure herein is, is the story: the linear a-to-z telling. This structuring function was accomplished by their creation story: the ritual story of how their world had begun and developed, inclusive humans, up to how it was now. (Their ‘world’ was the tribal territory, and ‘humans’ were the people of their tribe. People of other tribes, with strange languages, were not real human because “they couldn’t even talk”; but they could become human by adoption or marriage: by incorporation in the tribe, which for them was humanity.)

We today, being lingual creatures, are in this respect not really different from Early Humans: we still need to comprehend our world in a story. It strings loose facts and events together into a coherent whole that provides meaning. When a moving, stirring event befalls us, we feel a strong need to tell it to others: we feel sharing it is the best way to come to terms with it. For the humanosopher, the loss of the monotheistic creation story in the free world’s consumers society, without replacing it with a new and more suitable alternative, is the cause of the moral decline. Our conscience has no longer a common, universally shared basic story. In the Introduction I referred to Tony Judt and his tormenting concern. In Part Two I will present a potential solution.

The little group of young women, children and men who were the first to settle new territories, were the first ones to give the things in that territory their names. For lingual creatures, this is what defines the existence of things. For their descendants, the ancestral settler group was personified in ‘epic concentration’, The Big Ancestor.

We need to emphasize here that this tribal Big Ancestor is in no way synonymous with the figure of God as worshipped in today’s main monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). That modern God was constructed 400,000 years later: only a few thousand years ago. We will discuss the recent origins of this monotheistic God concept later. The tribal “Big Ancestor” we are talking about here – who was not regarded as a specific person but rather as a reference to the mythical ancestral group – was a very different concept. This was not a man, nor a woman, nor some kind of animal: it was something in between.

The early Big Ancestor is in essence ourselves – it personified the first little settlers group – and even later thinkers and shamans have always remained aware of this. In the classic Greek-Roman culture of the first century BC, this still was the central and deepest mystery of the Mystery Cults and of the Gnosis movement: that God is ourselves. Let us take a closer look at him, in the form he still figures as a central force in the creation stories of present-day ‘primitive’ populations such as the Australian Aboriginals.

The creation story of such tribes still tells how in a long-ago Dreamtime[4], the Big Ancestor entered the tribe land on a special place and began to journey all through the known world. Everywhere on his journey She/He/It deposited mountains, lakes and trees and all the special features of the land. She/He/It also left, in a special place, the little souls who could fly into the wombs of women who passed by that place, the same place to where the souls return after death. The Big Ancestor could travel through the sky or under the ground. Once finished with his creation effort, She/He/It departed from the land through a special hole in the ground: the land now was ready for the tribe.

Special creations (mountains, trees, animals etc.) were also important Figures in the Story, with special tasks or abilities. This Story of the creation of their world was so important to them, that they believed their world would come to an end when they no longer sung-and-danced their world. And that makes sense: it was a named world for them. And it still is for us – but we are familiar with the fact that the world goes on even when we are never dancing-and-singing it.

In the dawn of humanity there never was a tribe without a sung-and-danced Creation Story. Over thousands of generations of singing-and-dancing the essence of our world and our community, this practice has become so-to-speak a part of our genome. It lives on within each of us as our religious feeling. We are born with the expectation of experiencing a sung-and-danced representation of the world and togetherness. When a baby cries, it will be quiet or even begin to smile when mama sings-and-dances with the baby in her arms. This is the base of the religious feeling that remains with us even when we are convinced secularists or atheists. It is this ancestral practice of dancing-and-singing the world that makes us “incurably religious” as theologian Dorothee Sölle defined it[5], even though she herself did not see the link.

This instinctive reaction does not just apply to babies. Many grown-ups will feel an urge to dance when hearing dance music. In a similar way, many people will experience deeply rooted feelings when hearing religious music such as the Matthäus Passion or In Paradisum. And in fact, the chants by the public in football stadiums do also have the same effect.

All these common, instinctive reactions to singing and music led me to presume that the sung-and-danced creation stories by our ancestors played an important role in the group cohesion, which is why this social song-and-dance mechanism is basically still working even in the nature of western people today.

The creation story as described above evolved over thousands of generations, along with the evolution of the prehistoric economy. In the creation stories of a few present-day tribes (such as Australian Aborigines) we can still recognize its original form.


[1] “Religion Explained’ reminds me of “Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennett: this book didn’t explain consciousness either

[2] this position seems seriously questioned in the recent PNAS article of Roebroeks and Villa (March 2011) “On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe”. However, they emphasize that their research concerned (a) the European fire use and (b) the producing of fire: they didn’t question the use of fire by keeping smoldering charcoal obtained from a natural fire

[3] I was glad to read that Steven Mithen in his book Singing Neanderthals (2006) describes this same excavation, with the “demarcated space for performance (!) … to sing and dance, to tell stories through mime, to entertain and enthrall …” [‘mime’: Mithen has no idea of linguality, and even speculates that Neanderthals had not yet language!]

[4] an important concept of the Aboriginals, but one that is found with ‘primitive’ populations all over the world: it indicates the time of the beginning of being human, when the ancestors felt themselves still being animals, a part of the animal world, not yet lingual creatures with their existential incertitude as ‘worrying apes’

[5] Dorothee Sölle (1929 – 2003) was a German liberation theologian and writer who coined the term Christofascism

26. The rise of monotheism

 

Is machismo the reason that monotheistic religions are so hostile towards women?? For an answer, we need to look at the beginnings of monotheism.

Monotheism is a product of the Late Iron Age, when ever more AGR-villages, originally peaceful and egalitarian, were subdued and enslaved and became part of bigger realms of warlords who had become to godlike emperors. Big Men and their guards kept harems of women, a young man could only get a young woman for himself after proof of real manhood: being killer of enemies. In short: monotheism arose in a world of horse-mounted warrior bands of dynamic young males who raided and robbed unarmed peasant villagers under the banner of their war god.

Originally, in the pantheon of the empires of the Iron Age, these war gods were just lower gods under the Upper god, the heir of the Big Ancestor figure in the ancestral creation stories.

Zoroastrianism is one of the first forms of monotheism. Originated in the frustration of the tribal priests by the skewed offering of the young warriors to only the war gods. The loss of their ancestral morality inspired Zarathustra (and presumably other priests, such as Melchisedek, priest of El Elyon, ‘the Highest God’) to create new rituals and offerings to the ancestral Big Ancestor, the Creator of their tribal world.

Around 800 BC, also Zarathustra saw with grief the decline of the old tribal morality. Zarathustra preached the Supreme god Ahura Mazda (‘big lord’), who had to be adored in the pureness of the temple’s fire, and who should be served by noble behavior: thinking good things, saying good words and doing good deeds.

17th century representation of the main elements of Zoroastrian belief

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In the following centuries this new belief, Zoroastrianism, got many followers in Mesopotamia. It posed the belief in one God, The Lord, who was not worshipped in the form of a physical statue. Central in this belief was a dualistic tendency: a continuous struggle between good and evil, as represented by good and bad behavior, by angels and devils, by heaven and hell. It also assumed an ‘end of times’ and a ‘last judgment’. It promised a Messiah, a resurrection, and paradise in a hereafter. For the fire rituals in its temples, it prescribed extensive purity. In short, it was a totally new and modern belief for its time. In comparison with other contemporary religions, Zoroastrianism was more women-friendly and tolerant against other religions.

31. Historical development of civilization

 

NB. In the following lines I handle a more limited definition of ‘civilization’: not as an equivalent of ‘culture’, but: the activity or mechanism of replacing somebody’s loyalty to his clan or tribe into loyalty to a state or land. So more in the classic meaning: civilized versus barbarian (tribal).

Monotheism, as discussed before in chapter 17, is a characteristic product of the Iron Age. An age of warfare. An age of intensifying trade and improving agricultural techniques. An age of slavery and other sorts of exploitation, and of luxury of the exploiting elites. An age also of tribal raider bands, robbing and burning villages and towns. In summary: an age frustrating the social, peaceful core of human nature.

Of course thinkers were pondering about restoring ancestral moral behavior: the human condition of paradisiacal times before overpopulation complicated human life, the times represented by ancient danced and sung creation stories about the Big Ancestor. The most renowned of these early thinkers was Zarathustra. Unlike later forms of monotheism, his belief in Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrianism) focused on morally responsible behavior and mitigating tribalism, and it had a strong civilizing effect on his believers. As we saw before, the early Jewish patriarchs adapted elements of this Zoroastrian monotheism to dress up their own power-establishing ideology.

In this chapter we will discuss the civilizing power of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For generation after generation, the individual adherents of such religions did believe in the goal and the plan, the perspective and the aim, the target and the object, the intention, the scope and the intent, the design and the meaning, of such a belief system. This belief held big states together, and provided rulers with an important tool to quench social unrest and prevent revolution. Belief can make individuals cooperative. Belief is socially important.

Belief is also personally important, as it can be the foundation of self-confidence. Tennis heroes such as Nadal and Federer need to believe in their own power to be motivated for success, and for football players the same applies. To be successful in an enterprise, one has to motivated for putting energy in it; for to be motivated one has to believe in the goal and the feasibility of the enterprise. Belief and trust are closely related feelings. Both are important for building and maintaining one’s self-image.

Belief in one monotheistic God often has a collectivistic character: an individual is nothing and God is all. The individual’s significance depends from his importance to God. The individual’s salvation depends on God’s mercy. Another aspect of monotheistic belief is that it is not innate: its dogmas and laws have to be taught. God belief is part of our human inheritance only in so far that during a million of years, our ancestors were singing and dancing their world as created by the Big Ancestor.

The collectivistic character of monotheism originated from and joined the tribal mentality. A clan member feels himself a part of his clan in the first place: his individual identity comes in the second place. For a western consumer, whose identity is primarily an individual matter, this is difficult to comprehend: he is a product of the Western tradition of individualism that started with the printing press, social mobility, education, humanism, Reformation, Enlightenment, industrial revolution and in the end Free Market. That tradition is absent in the background of Islamic monotheism, which originally had rather tribal roots in Mohammed’s Arabia. For a while (during the caliphate of Cordoba) Islamic civilization became the most advanced in the world, but after a decline of trade the Muslim power waned and Islamic civilization sunk into fundamentalist rigidity and backwardness. No printing press, no social mobility, no humanism, reformation or enlightenment, no development of individuality.

In the Middle Ages, nothing in western Europe was more political than religion. The church in every parish – nearly always the most imposing building – was as much a symbol of worldly control as a shrine to God. Where the western world took over 500 years to become more secular, it would be unreasonable to expect the Muslim world could manage the same feat in just a few decades.

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Back to the Late Iron Age. The newly introduced monotheistic and collectivistic God was grafted onto the stem of an innate, more generic god belief. Monotheism is not part of our natural inheritance, it is part of a culture. It is a recent patriarchal invention. The propensity to religiousness is innate, but the monotheistic God belief is not. This is a relevant notion, because today ever more Western people no longer feel a bond with monotheist God belief. What did cut the threads is the introduction of television in the sixties, which introduced new models of being human for identification. These new models, stemming from a consumer-oriented free market, were far more attractive than the old model of the churches. In a few generations the bond with monotheism was gone for ever more consumers. But the innate religiosity is much firmer rooted in our genes by over 100,000 years of linguality and animistic religion practice, singing and dancing some kind of creation story.

First, let us look at the civilizing character of Judaism. Unlike Zoroastrianism, the new Jewish God belief did not aim at mitigating tribal warfare and raiding: for the Judaic patriarchs, it primarily had a financial-economic purpose. As for Christianity: it was only the episcopal organization of this sect that made it attractive as state religion for Constantine the Great. It did not become a civilizing instrument until under the Carolingian kings. As to the Islam: it had such a civilizing role from its beginning. This was its founder Mohammed’s only purpose, and for creating of a Muslim empire the creed functioned perfectly.

It was this Muslim power and efficiency, that around 750 AD for the Frankish leader Charles Martel was a greater threat than the raiding of uncivilized Saxons. So most of his organizational and military talent was dedicated to keeping the Muslims behind the Pyrenees. It was his formidable political talent that stopped the first Islamic attempt to conquer Europe. Would it have been a disaster if Charles Martel had been a lesser genius and when Islam had become the ruling religion all over Europe? We intend to think that in that hypothetical case, the Islam might have never developed fundamentalism, and might have functioned as a moderated civilizing monotheism. However, it missed three crucial elements: episcopal and papal organization, monasteries and celibacy.

Charles Martel already used missionaries such as Boniface to control the Frisians, and he won the loyalty of several important bishops and abbots by donating lands and money for the foundation of abbeys such as Echternach. He unified the Franks under his banner and defeated the Saxons. But to him, the invading Muslims in Aquitania were the real threat: a powerful military force, quite different from the tribal warriors such as the Frisians and the Saxons. He knew he needed a full-time, trained, professional army. Until then troops were only available outside the sowing and harvesting seasons, but Charles needed them year-round, and he needed to pay them to compensate for the missed harvests. To obtain money, he seized church lands and property.

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With his well-trained infantry, Charles managed to defeat the Muslims at Tours-Poitiers in 732: one of history’s most consequential battles. The result was a Christian Europe: a system of fiefdoms loyal to local nobles and ultimately to the King (later emperor). Charles secured the support of the ecclesia by donating land and money for founding monasteries and churches, as he needed the ecclesiastical hierarchy for its administrative capacities. The pope from his side was highly dependent on Frankish armies for his independence from Langobardic and Byzantine power. The Byzantine emperor still considered himself to be the only legitimate Roman Emperor and thus ruler of all the provinces of the Roman Empire, whether recognized or not. So after the death of Charles Martel (741) the pope crowned his son Pippin, and decades later Pippin’s son Charles the Great, as Emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire”.

Copying monk in scriptorium

Besides the lacking ecclesiastical organization and monasteries, the Islamic monotheism lacked a third important element: celibacy. Without the care for a family and progeny, the Christian clergy could spend all their time and energy for ecclesiastical work. In the libraries of the monasteries, some monks could dedicate their entire life on hand-copying books and other activities related not just to religion, but also to arts, sciences and civilization in general. For example, many classical Roman texts known to us today would have been lost forever, if they had not been copied by monks in the Middle Ages. This applies to works of Tacitus, Livius, Plinius, and Archimedes: the cultural and scientific revolution that began in the Renaissance, was for a large part founded on pre-medieval works that had been preserved by copying monks.

Of course, other factors played a role as well in the surviving of a Christian culture in medieval Europe: such as the moderate climate, the variety of soil types and thus of agricultural products, the potential of large rivers such as the Loire and the Rhine to function as “natural highways” for transporting products, all in combination with the already mentioned “balance of power” between secular and religious authorities.

Charles Martel laid the foundation of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ by establishing monasteries etc. His grandson Charlemagne and his successor Louis the Pious invited scholars from all over the Christian world to their court in Aachen. Famous among them was Alcuin of York (735-804), who standardized a curriculum for use in the Carolingian schools, wrote textbooks, created word lists, established the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometric, astronomy and music). Also famous was John Scotus Eriugena, who succeeded Alcuin at the Palace School. This Irishman was one of the most original thinkers of the entire Middle Ages.

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