Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Evolution of Belief: Costs and Benefits

Before I move on there is one other aspect of the earliest beliefs I want to consider. There must have been benefits that explain why belief was of use to early humans and there must also have been costs involved with the invention and evolution of their beliefs. Here I consider some of those costs and benefits.

Costs.

  • As touched on before, humans were food fodder for other animals. Brave humans who stood their ground and fought the beasts that would eat them were likely to end up dead. Humans who believed the spirits of their ancestors helped them survive would tend to be braver than those who could not accept the existence of spirits thus negating any advantage of a flight rather than fight response.
  • The ever-increasing use of a large brain required a greater intake of food.
  • Humans needed to band together in larger family groups, with the potential for increased social friction.
  • Some humans believed they could speak to the dead but because of friction with group leaders they tended to isolate themselves, travelling between groups with the increased risk that they would be killed.

Benefits.

  • Humans who turned and ran at the slightest possibility of becoming a meal survived.
  • To explain the shadows that may or may not be beasts, humans invented the concept of spirits of the dead that helped them and ensured their survival.
  • The idea of spirits that exist in the real world and can help humans came from complex and intelligent brain. Those humans who could understand and accept belief in spirits were likely to be intelligent themselves. Those who did not accept the belief would be rejected by family groups and therefore have greater difficult in feeding themselves and staying alive long enough to breed. Therefore more intelligent humans would better fit their violent and dangerous environment.
  • Brains that could accept that spirits lived alongside them would almost certainly be more capable of inventing and using progressively more efficient tools. They would also have been more adept at developing more efficient hunting techniques.
  • Social interaction increased and acted as a significant force, for example in the evolution of language skills.
  • With larger family groups came the ability to recognise behaviour that was detrimental and led to deformities in offspring. This led to social taboos such as the need to limit inbreeding.

Conclusions.

The majority of humans are naturally conservative and once they have a belief like to pass it from parent to child. They do not change their beliefs unless there is a compelling reason why they should. Beliefs can therefore restrict social evolution.

Humans’ natural conservatism meant that human social groups remained stable for many thousands of years and would eventually allow humans to expand into many continents. Constant changes to society and beliefs would have been detrimental to human expansion.

The evolution of human society was delayed by the need, as hunter-gatherers, to move from place to place within a relatively small area with the seasons.

Comments.

These are some of the costs and benefits. You may be able to think of more if these posts encourage you to delve into human belief systems for yourself. You may think of criticisms or have additional ideas. If so, then they have served their purpose.

In the following posts I move on to consider what made humans leave their home territories, evolve greater social groups, expand throughout the world and the role of their evolving beliefs in enabling them to do just that …

Advertisements

Evolution of Belief: An overview of the earliest beliefs

Before I move on and delve further into the evolution of belief I thought it would be useful to consider what I have revealed in the past few postings and discuss what evidence there may be for my conclusions.

  • Throughout the past posts dedicated to the evolution of belief I have stated that the beliefs of early humans did not constitute religion. There was no superhuman controlling the lives of early humans and no rituals dedicated to the worship of a superhuman. Mountains may come to life, seas and rivers may cause floods and earthquakes may rip the earth but these were ruled by their own entities and did not control humans.
  • In Animism I discussed the belief that everything is inhabited by spirits and that spirits are real, part of the physical world. I use are instead of were because animist beliefs are still to be found.
  • In Totemism I covered the social development of small family groups and the refinement of beliefs in spirits, in particular the belief that the spirits of animals could be associated with family identity within groups.
  • In Fetishism I tried to show just how confusing it is to understand the evolution of belief in relation to specific developments in ideas and how early beliefs are in a state of confusion, how animism, totemism and fetishism were and are intertwined.
  • In Shamanism I discussed political rivalry and the special people who could speak to the spirits.
  • In The First Gods I put forward the suggestion that although shaman were supposedly able to speak to the spirits, sometimes things could go terribly wrong, how shaman travelled between family groups and, unlike ordinary humans, had time to think and invent stories. I also discussed how political rivalries continued to develop between family groups’ leaders and shamans.

Future posts will discuss the merging of beliefs as larger social structure developed, the emergence of tribes and the full integration of shaman into those tribes.

Before then I want to discuss examples for my suggestions that early beliefs saw spirits as part of the real world and, in doing so, raise a criticism of other’s suggestions that humans are always searching for new ways of seeing the world and their place in it.

Two examples I want to consider are Australian aborigines and  native North Americans. Both are significant in that they are isolated from European and Asian societies and their beliefs.

In Australia, aborigines, previously semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers but now largely confined to townships, who believe in spirits that are closely associated with the land and sea. Those living near the coast tend to see spirits associated with fish and birds, those further inland with birds, animals and lizards. Aborigines believe in Dreamtime a time before the creation of the Earth. However, Dreamtime and Earthtime are coexistent, extant, one as real as the other, spirits as much a part of the world as physical humans, animals, birds, lizards, fish and so on. They also have gods and goddesses. The god of the mountain, the god of the lake, and so on. These are worshipped, though not in a particularly organised way that could be called religion. Different tribes, also known as clans, have different gods and goddesses. Their beliefs remained the same until the arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century.

Native North Americans arrived in the land we know as America between nineteen and thirteen thousand years ago. It is difficult to establish in what order waves of migration took place, partly because so many hypotheses have been presented. Some of these can be put down to overt or subconscious racism, where the producer of the hypothesis seems to want to prove that ancestors from their own part of the world were the first to discover the land and therefore to lay claim to it or prove that their own people had a reason for the eventual attempts to commit genocide against the inhabitants when Europeans arrived. What ever the truth, by thirteen thousand years ago a wave of migration established peoples with distinctly Asian features. They brought with them their beliefs and hunter-gatherer skills and developed them in their own way as they became isolated by the receding ice and rising seas. The tribes that emerged believed in spirits that were real, as real as you and me. They had some gods who were worshipped and would be consulted in times of need and they too are real. Their shaman became medicine-men, those who would heal the sick and wounded and who could converse with the gods and spirits. Spirits and gods related to the land, the environment anf their social structures. Rituals like dances and discussions developed but became rigid and virtually unchanged until the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

One common factor emerges from both examples. Unless there is a significant change in environment, a significant disaster, a change in social structure or the influence of migration, beliefs do not change. Humans do not look for new beliefs; they favour the beliefs they are taught by their parents, the beliefs in which they are familiar.

A new site that may be of interest:    http://www.navajoindian.net/

Evolution of Belief: The First Gods

Try searching “first gods in history”. Chances are you will find many sites that claim the Christian’s God or the Jew’s Yahweh or Islam’s Allah was the first god. You will also find sites that claim the Egyptian or the Sumerian gods are the first known. You may find more helpful references by searching for information on deities, although the word deity arises from the same Latin root as the word god. The English word God is directly rooted in the Germanic word Gott and arrived in England via the Anglo-Saxons.

The truth is to be found among all those sites but compared to the number claiming theirs was the first god they are relatively few. The truth is that we don’t know. We cannot know who invented the first gods because we can only find written references to gods that already existed, and we know they already existed because they were named. There is no written reference to an unnamed ‘god of the mountain’, to a ‘god of the earth’ or a ‘god of the river’ or even a ‘god of the sea’.

So, how can we speculate with any confidence why the first gods arose and what they were? Gods could not have arisen before humans began to believe that there was a separate spirit world. Had the gods been like the ‘real’ spirits humans first believed their ancestors to be then they would not, could not, have had supernatural powers. Without supernatural powers they would not be gods. Those first spirits were real humans, the only difference being that they were dead. But the dead, because they were real, were able to watch over humans and warn them of impending danger.

Then came early shaman-like characters, possibly storytellers who travelled independently from family group to family group but who gradually decided they wanted a share of the political power of the leaders of those groups. The shaman invented a separate spirit world, a truly brilliant idea that was based on their politically-motivated ambitions. And the spirit world was accepted relatively easily as it merged well with a world with which humans were already familiar: their dreams.

Yet in that emergence of belief in a separate spirit world there came a significant evolution of belief itself. Before the spirit world, human beliefs were much the same as some other animals or birds. They were beliefs about the real world, concerned with whether there was something in the shadows that could be dangerous. There was a gradual evolution into animism with the belief that every living, including humans and even dead humans, had a spirit. In the emergence of the spirit world, however, humans began to use their ability to think abstractly. They had invented their first virtual world. It was a world that would come to influence every aspect of their lives including their arts and crafts and even the way they conducted themselves.

As it was, for the shaman there was plenty more that could be wrung out of the ‘spirit world’ idea. The spirits of the dead could also warn humans, through their dreams – which could only be interpreted by the shaman, of course – when disasters like floods or earthquakes were due or when mountains were coming to life.

Except that some of those predictions failed to come true.

Why did predictions fail to come true? There could only be a certain number of excuses that would be accepted by members of family groups – and especially their leaders – before everyone began to question the shaman’s abilities. Family group leaders had plenty of things they could use to placate the people: a sweet-tasting berry from a tree to which the people could be led to as a reward for hard work; areas where herbs could be eaten that would make people feel good and forget their anger or questioning; areas known for good hunting at certain times of the year. The shaman would eventually take a significant part in this role but that was far in the future. For now, the shaman needed another reason why predictions didn’t always come true. Maybe the spirits had leaders and the shaman were talking to the wrong leader? Maybe the shaman wasn’t able to placate the angry spirit of a dead leader or wasn’t able to encourage the leader’s spirit to act because the shaman didn’t show enough veneration?

But aren’t these suggestions pure speculation? There can be no substance to them. It’s just guess work. OK, well let us see if we can gain any insights from events that have taken place in the the recent past. Religious leaders in America were beginning to lose influence when along came the weather in the form of a hurricane. The devastation in New Orleans brought huge relief to America’s religious leaders. The hurricane was God’s revenge for not venerating him enough, for not obeying his teachings. Come back to God and this won’t happen again! Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! Or the devastation caused by the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was because people were not godly enough and had to be punished. History is full of the ranting predictions and warnings of the religious and especially religious leaders at times of disaster.

Of course, we are not talking about religion here. That is far more organised than mere belief. No, we are talking about belief and how it emerged and evolved. There had to be a good reason why humans should be ready to develop their beliefs in a supernatural world yet further. It would have to be a very good reason. And there was. Humans had an acute desire to understand why something happened, especially the things they had no control over like floods, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Nowadays, we learn about the world using our advanced technology. It is important to remember that technology then consisted of shaping pieces of wood, bone, antlers and flint. Few people these days realise just how long it took humans to discover any form of technology beyond forming these simple tools to make simple huts, boats and clothes made of skin. The first proto human fossils date from around three million years ago. Modern humans, as we would recognise them, are variously thought to have emerged from Africa between one hundred thousand to seventy thousand years ago. By a mere thirty thousand years ago homo sapiens sapiens (us) had become the dominant, if not the only, human sub species left on the planet. Yet technology beyond the use of working stone, wood and bone did not evolve until after the first use of agriculture around twelve thousand years ago and the bronze age began around five thousand five hundred years ago. So, for the best part of human existence humans had not learned to smelt metal. But for around one hundred thousand years human had a modern, questioning brain.

When we discuss the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the age of steel and so on it is easy to think that human technology developed in distinct stages. It just did not happen like that. For instance, in many areas of the world the inability to smelt the constituent parts of bronze continued long after smelting had been discovered in other areas.; the stone age continued long after the bronze age began.

It was the same with thinking and ideas. It has been recently suggested that humans evolved rapidly because of conflict. This is an interesting line of thought, though it is doubtful if inter-family group conflict was the cause. There is good reason for querying this. Humans were relatively few and far between. It can be confidently speculated that humans, certainly in more remote areas of the world, would have lived their entire lives without meeting another human outside of the family group and the odd travelling shaman. The carriers of conflict are more likely to be the shamans who travelled from area to area, spreading their ideas embedded within their fictional but inspirational stories, teaching dances and songs – and challenging leaders for political supremacy. If they won, they would settle in with the family group; if they failed they had lost nothing but face and could move on to the next area where a family group roamed. After all, one family group was unlikely to know what happened within any other family groups.

So, it should now be fairly easy to imagine how family group leaders and then tribal leaders may have learned to fear and respect shaman. A shaman meant conflict.

Shamans had plenty of time to invent their stories and to incorporate their ideas within them because they spent so much of the time alone, travelling between family group and family group. They did not have the daily chores of bringing up children and ensuring that every member of a family was fed and remained healthy. They had themselves to feed and clothe and plenty of time to think. What emerged from their thoughts was the answer to the problem of predictions coming true. It wasn’t leaders of the spirit world who guided shaman; no, there were no spirit leaders. No, it was powerful supernatural beings who could order earthquakes or floods or volcanoes to erupt. The world was held ransom to the whims of these supernatural beings, these gods. And in order to placate the gods, humans must worship them and make sacrifices of their most important possessions to them.

Evolution of Belief: Shamanism

Before we move on to consider why humans devised a separate spirit world we need to fully understand how and why humans could ever have believed that spirits were part of the natural world.

As has been stated many times before, humans are not naturally at the top of the food chain. To many predators, humans were tasty morsels. There were brave humans who stood and fought the beasts who would eat them and there were humans who immediately turned and ran. Human lives were brutish and short but the lives of brave humans were even shorter. Their lives were often so short that the brave humans did not have time to procreate. The humans that did procreate, therefore, were the ones who ran away.

It would be wrong to think that we are descended not from cowards. Our ancestors were those who saw things that may be a predator or maybe not, and they did not take a chance by hanging around. They were not cowards but intelligent. Once far enough away, they could ask themselves if they had indeed seen a predator. If not, what was it? Don’t forget that these humans were fast developing their intelligence. They needed reasons why they ran away when others stood their ground and were eaten. Was it one of their ancestors warning them not to hang around,? Warning them that a predator was in the vicinity?

They did not see their ancestors themselves but fleeting images out of the corner of their eyes. Obviously spirits were part of their own world, ancestors they could see but who hid themselves, ancestors who looked after them and cared for them. But how could they communicate with the spirits if they did not want to be seen?

If a member of their tribe or family group said they could communicate with these hidden spirits, who would want to disagree with them? Especially if those who could talk to the spirits dressed unlike everyone else and shook rattles or went into a trance to summon the spirits from their hiding places. Humans needed to communicate with the spirits to fully understand what the spirits wanted to tell them, so if those who could talk to the spirits were able to pass on their messages then they must be believed.

Those who could talk to the spirits acquired a name: shaman.

Of course, the whole concept of the shaman was ripe for trickery and deceit but once the concept of shaman and their power was established shamans were not going to be relieved of that power so easily. Even so, like today, there were always going to be those who questioned the legitimacy of the shaman. Spirits who hid themselves? Ridiculous, there were no hidden spirits! These spirits were generated by human imagination! And of those who had most to lose by sharing power? Listen to me, I am your leader and I say you must fight the beasts without fear! The spirits don’t need an intermediary. The spirits need to know that you are strong, able to care for your own families!

Given what we know of our own societies, can you imagine the political battles that would have ensued? What could the shaman do to counter the material power of tribal leaders? Remember we are not talking about the Hollywood version of primitive cavemen. Our ancestors were as intelligent as you or I; their brains were fully-formed human brains. Maybe they hadn’t invented the science and technology we have today but they were just as intelligent and just as politically astute. And we need only look at the political and religious battles of today to get an idea of the machinations that would have been employed. Shaman needed to strengthen their position, and there was one way in which they could. If spirits belonged not to our physical world but to another, separate, invisible world: a spirit world that leaders were unable to enter.

How the concept of the spirit world emerged we can only conjecture but we can immediately put forward three possible scenarios.

  • As a result of visions induced by epilepsy or other types of brain damage or mental illness. This is not so far removed from the realms of possibility. It is said that Mohammed suffered from epilepsy and some of the greatest political leaders also suffered from the condition. Other politicians and religious leaders are known to have suffered from bipolar disorder.
  • As a result of drug-taking. We definitely know from interviews with shaman – and yes, they still exist today – that they have used herb and fungi concoctions to put themselves into a trance, which they say helps them communicate with the spirit world.
  • A calculated decision by meetings of shamans to fully devise and introduce the concept. This, also, is within the bounds of credibility. Some of the great religions were either founded or formed by committee: Christianity at the conference of Nicea; Islam under the auspices of a committee formed by Uthman.

Of course, it could have been a combination of all three. We shall never know for sure but for whatever reason there was a leap from belief in spirits as part of our material world to the belief that spirits inhabited their own spirit world.

We can ask again, how do we know humans believed that spirits inhabited our physical world? It just seems silly; we know from our religions that a separate, supernatural world exists! Well, we know because tribes of hunter-gatherers have been found in remote locations whose members believe just that. Beliefs do not disappear overnight when another belief system evolves. Unlike genetics, in isolation old beliefs remain unchanged.

With the emergence of shamanism, family groups and tribes that were not totally isolated would never be the same again. In that one leap of political ingenuity, the shaman had produced a world tribal leaders could not and dare not enter. Word of mouth through meetings passed on the information and spread the meme amongst tribes and shaman themselves.

This did not happen immediately: shamans from different parts of the world developed slightly different versions of shamanism, and in some areas of the world shamanism would never emerge. It’s hard for us to realise but religions have been around for a few thousand years at most and we are talking in terms of tens of thousands of years. It took a long time to develop the memes but the big leap had been made: spirits inhabited their own world!

The next great leap would came when humans began to search for further meaning in their lives and for answers to the great questions. Why were there catastrophes? Why did volcanoes erupt? Why were there earthquakes? The spirits of their ancestors could not and would not cause such devastation, the spirits of ancestors were benign, helpful and caring. But something did …

Rimsha case Court grants 14-day judicial remand to Imam

Rimsha case Court grants 14-day judicial remand to Imam.

After weeks of being vilified and condemned, Rimsha Masih has been shown to be the victim of an ambitious and unscrupulous Imam who lied about her activities and then spread rumours amongst an illiterate population to whom critical thinking is something that belongs to a universe far, far away.

That is a problem not just for Islam but for all the rest of us, for the Koran demands that Islam (submission to Allah) is forced on the whole world. Islam, like all religions, can only be spread amongst those who cannot think critically. Preferably, adherents should also be illiterate. Yet if that is necessarily so, why is it that some of the Muslims who have committed the worst atrocities have been university-educated? The answer lies in the nature of religion itself.

Religion does not rely on the logical, thinking part of the brain. Religion affects the limbic system of the brain, which is more primitive (in that originated earlier) than the cerebrum. The limbic system is responsible for controlling some of the body’s most important automatic functions. It also controls our emotions. Religion is like a virus; once infected, feelings of extreme joy and contentment become addictive, like the effects of chemical drugs. The religious virus then influences all activities of the cerebrum. No longer does the infected person think independently; logic becomes a means of proving beliefs held. Anything that contradicts the beliefs held by the adherent is disregarded or opposed.

The fact that the instigator of the rumours was a religious leader reinforced the belief that this teenager with a mind younger than her chronological age, who was also a member of a minority belief-system, had committed an act of desecration and blasphemy. The ability to think independently was immediately lost. Kill the blasphemer, the mob cried, destroy the blaspheming tribe to which she belongs. Even members of the government were on the verge of being affected by the virus, the meme. The desire for revenge for – what? – became dominant in their minds. It did not matter what. The seed had been sown, the virus released.

Educated people can become no better than the most illiterate, dumb and stupid villager when commanded by a religious leader. It does not matter which religion. In Rimsha’s case it was Islam but adherents to her own religion, Christianity, can be just as ruthlessly affected. It does not matter what the religion; as soon as the meme is activated, bang goes reality. Those affected lose control of their thoughts and behaviour.

Only when the meme is eradicated can those affected be free to fully appreciate reality and to be free to think critically once again. Of course, the adherent to a religion does not know they are infected. Some humans never become infected; some are released over time as they gradually see the false nature of what was drummed into them at school or by parents. For others it takes a trauma of such magnitude that their beliefs fade into insignificance. Losing a loved one, being sure they read something in or heard something from their religious texts, something comforting, but not being able to find it. They pick up another book or read an article or blog instead and by the time they realise what they are reading their most sacred values are being brought into question. Their freed logical, thinking paths open as the mass of restricting weeds collapse and die and a raging thirst for knowledge overcomes the infecting meme.

Regrettably, trauma can also lead in the other direction. Those affected become radical and draw further into their fictional world. People sometimes need help to emerge from the dark, limiting meme before they fall back into religion. Should atheists make themselves available to those affected by the Rimsha Masih case? Or would that make atheists just as criminal as the Imam who lied to further his own ambition? Anyway, atheists are notoriously difficult when it comes to working together. The possibility may never arise. In the meantime, let us hope that Rimsha’s trauma does not result in revenge attacks by Christians on Muslims. Perhaps the trauma of some of the Christians affected will allow them to open their minds to reality.

Post Navigation

Cancer Research UK - Science blog

The latest news, views and opinions from Cancer Research UK

WOW Petition Campaign

Site of the Resistance to the War on Welfare

The Hardest Hit

Fighting cuts to support for disabled people

Ray Ferrer - Emotion on Canvas

** OFFICIAL Site of Artist Ray Ferrer **

No Country for Women

Humanism, Secularism, Feminism

Shit You Didn't Know About Biology

Unrepentantly celebratory insights into life on Earth's under-appreciated, under-acknowledged, and utterly amazing stories

Cell to Self

A Journey Through the Science of Life

Kathleen Van Looveren

- Social & Cultural Anthropologist

The Monster's Ink

Never Hide Your Light

suzzeq's Blog

A fine WordPress.com site

The Secular Society

Ireland's Youth-Led Secular Movement, respecting those of all faiths.

Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

TED Blog

The TED Blog shares interesting news about TED, TED Talks video, the TED Prize and more.

Modest Monist

Secular Snapshots

The Pink Agendist

by E.B. de Mas, reachable at: pink.agendist@yahoo.com