29 May 2012

doubt #3

In part two we do a bit of time travelling to speculate about where the beginning of belief and of doubt may come in the human story. 

Today, some people claim that you won't find many atheists in foxholes; Richard suggests that you wouldn't have found any AT ALL in the caves where our ancestors sheltered from the terrors of the wilderness. 

It does seem plausible that, as soon as evolution gave us the ability to reflect, to be self-aware, that our primordial fears would have intensified greatly. We have the beginnings of reason, but it's hard to reason away a nightmare, the terrors of nature, the dangers of the night, the mystery of illness and the sheer fickleness of fate. 

All that stuff is still with us isn't it?  Anyone who has children knows this, even if they've forgotten, (or blocked out), the primordial fears of childhood.  It's all there still, lurking away in the depths of our lizard brains, waiting to be triggered by some modern, (or some old), calamity of life.

But this is now and that was then.  Then, there was no cognitive tool box with the drill of reason or the ratchet of science with which to construct some sort of understanding of an incomprehensible world, and the goto short cut for that sort of situation is to make stuff up. Any explanation is better than no explanation, neh?

As Richard speculates "What was it like for my forbears 50,000 years ago, as reflective self-consciousness began to fire into existence in their brains?  Was it frightening to be subject to these flashes of awareness?  Or was it more like a slow climb to wakefullness out of sleep?  Does that hyper active agent detection device or defense mechanism explain the emergence of primitive religion, a clan-like response to the dangers of existence?"

I don't know.  Maybe.  It seems likely that primitve animistic superstition could morph fairly easily into more rigid forms of belief, especially when settled agrarian communities grew up to replace nomadic tribalism.  It can't have taken wannabe leaders long to realise what an extremely powerful tool for social control they had in a system of belief which placed authoritative control in an unseen power over and above themselves, which that leader, as it happens, has a hotline to.  The divine right of kings. All that.

"Over the years we saturated the earth with blood to keep our Gods quiet."

"So far," Richard continues, "this is what we might call reactive religion - an instinctive response to perceived danger with little thought behind it. But now we come to one of the earliest religious theories: Superstition, which was the way we explained natural processes to ourselves before we fully understood how the world worked."

and to quote Baron d'Holbach.......

"If we go back to the beginnings of things, we shall always find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that imagination, rapture and deception embellished them; that weakness worships them; that custom spares them; and that tyranny favors them in order to profit from the blindness of men.

"Superstion... was a way of making sense of suffering, chaos and misfortune.  Traces of it remain in modern consciousness."

I think things are slightly back to front here.  But only a bit.  I take issue with the line "Traces of it [superstion] remain in modern consciousness."  I would take that much much further and say that the modern world is still RIDDLED with superstition and that we are a long long way from letting that go.  It is evident in all the animistic religions like Shinto and Paganism, evident in all the attraction towards paranormal phenomena, towards ESP, tarot, rhunes, fortune telling, conspiracy, spiritualism, UFO's, new-agey woo woo and all the rest of it.

As an explanation for fortune and fate, for good or ill, nature spirits and sprites and kami and ghouls and gods and demons will do very well.  You may be able to influence them, have some measure of control, invoke their protection and blessings. "The Lord shall not forsake his faithful ones, the righteous shall be kept safe forever. But the children of the wicked shall be cut off."

It isn't that clear to me why Richard now makes a longish incursion into the book of Job, but he does make a rather exceptional claim about it. Essentially, we are dealing with the problem of evil, which is a huge topic, and Richard recognises that Job does not leave us with any new explanation for suffering or misfortune, nor does it stop people from being superstitious, but.... "What it does do, is to rule out the theory that suffering is a  punishment for sin."  And, "Job's challenge to god makes him one of the earliest doubters on record."

No, and no.  While a reading of Job is required here, it must still be obvious to everybody that pays attention to modern religious commentary, (never mind the old),  that the theory that suffering is a punishment for sin is very much alive and kicking.  There is a shed load of religious commentary from all faiths that attest to this, and I am surprised he makes this claim here.  Also, it's my impression that Job never doubted God, more, that he just chose to keep faith with him, despite the temptation to say STFU. 

The problem of evil is going to rear its ugly ahead again soon so lets not get too deep into that yet.

So, Richard suggests that the two factors that have diluted the power of superstition in our time are the change from nomadic to settled community and our increasing ability to understand cause and effect i.e. a more scientific understanding of the way the world wags.

"....For most of our life, we human beings were nomads, we accepted that we were transients.  When we settled down in one place and built stone houses, our religion, and our sense of ourselves, began to look for constancy and stability and we forgot the old sense of transcience."

Maybe we did.  But I say again, we might have achieved some of that, but we did NOT, and have not, let go of superstition.  I think he is either quite wrong about that or I am misunderstanding him.

Richard ends todays piece "...and one of the ways we satisfy our craving, [for certainty], is by manufacturing comforting images we could get our heads round and our hands on.  The great Hebrew liberator Moses hated them....he called them idols."

Ooooo. Scary! I don't know where that's going tomorrow....but the omens look good ;-)

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