The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, September 17, 2015
Religion ... Society ...

A recent book written by an anthropologist says that as humans transitioned from small hunting and gathering tribes (up to around 15,000 years ago) to bigger and more organized societies (based at first around agriculture, and later also on crafts and trade), they needed to develop “big gods”. Big gods who always keep an eye on us were supposedly needed to inspire people to cooperate with the social and governmental networks that started to develop around the year 8000 BCE. Eventually, one really big “God” was imagined, and monotheism was in business. As was the growth of earthly empires. Other researchers have been pondering this idea, but argue that perhaps societies only needed mini-gods (e.g., magic or nature spirits, or personal superstitions) to keep societies growing. The monotheistic God of Islam and Judeo-Christianity arguably came about by some other process.

The overall idea here is that growing social networks with increasing centralized power (i.e. led by kings and pharaohs) invents god and religion so that it can foster voluntary cooperation among the masses, an internal mental policing to build and maintain trust. The king and his men can’t keep an eye on you all the time, so they rely on a popularly-imagined “big power in the sky” to make sure you stay in line, by threatening you with a cursed life here on earth, or eternal damnation in the next life, if you don’t play nice.

Hmmmm. Interesting idea, one very popular in today’s academic climate where evolution is believed to have the power to explain every social and personal behavioral pattern and belief. THE PROBLEM WITH THE THEORY: unless “big god / big religion” is simply a social meme that was cleverly invented and intentionally promoted by those trying to start big government structures (kingdoms, Pharaohs, etc.) — possible, but were the ancient rulers really all that smart? — it goes against the principle in evolutionary genetics that individuals are NOT selected for traits that cause them to sacrifice for the group (i.e., the disfavored theory of “group selection“). This idea is expressly rejected by evolutionary biology; the main source of any genetic propensity toward altruism is said to be kin selection, i.e. sacrificing to help your close relatives to reproduce. A “fear of god(s)” that generally promotes sacrifice for the group (beyond one’s immediate family) would generally not be the kind of thing that evolution fosters.

Personally, I think that there is an alternative way of looking at the historical relationship between “big gods”, social sacrifice, and growth of society from pre-civilized times; one that might keep the door open to some sort of deistic metaphysical transcendence in the Universe. It doesn’t PROVE anything regarding God, but it doesn’t DISPROVE it either.

I.e., what if god and religion are natural instincts, notions that we gradually form in our minds during our lives, ideas embedded very deeply and subconsciously over the course of our individual and collective societal lives as we experience the world? Somewhere way down in the pattern recognition mechanism, in the connecting neural networks in the human brain, the notion of transcendence emerges (despite all the cynicism stemming from the slings and arrows of daily life, and the ultimate reality of death). And that notion is generally a positive, pro-survival notion, one which ALLOWS society to evolve and grow, e.g. through increased altruistic awareness and action.

Well, it helps to promote civilization at least when the many other necessary “real” technical factors (e.g. transportation and communication mechanisms, trade, technology) that support organized societies are in place. Along with the development of mental technology, i.e. development of reflective psychology and philosophy and self-understandings (made possible by increased leisure time and written symbolic language). Perhaps ALL OF THAT was what allowed the organization and evolution of society over the centuries, leading to the complex (but still very imperfect) governments and social networks that we live with today. A sub-conscious “God-sense” gave people enough moral sense and ethical credibility for social cohesion. Maybe that “God sense” is just an accident, but I believe that is is at least possible that the near-universal human pre-occupation with spirituality and transcendence is a response to something very real, albeit very subtle.

If these pro-social natural instincts are manifest through evolution, and even if they are linked to proposed “God genes” and to spiritual genetics . . . the still question remains, what is the ultimate cause, and what is the ultimate effect ??? And what are the theological implications of this theory? Is the “big gods / Big God” notion just a “spandrel”, just an accidental by-product of the evolutionary process that led to civilization? Or is it a driver, does it point to an ultimate reality behind the illusion?

If there is a life after death . . . then perhaps that is the only way we will ever really know the answer. But for now, it’s still interesting (and fun, in a way), to ponder the question! At least if you’re interested in philosophy, like I am.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:22 pm      

  1. Jim, I think you’re on to something here: I like your idea of “keeping the door open . . . to some sort of deistic metaphysical transcendence in the Universe”. I like ever *more* your idea of stating that “keeping the door open” might be a natural instinct “embedded very deeply and subconsciously . . . over the course of our collective society lives as we experience the world”.

    And your point about all this being “very real, albeit very subtle” is an excellent one; one that science, alone, by itself, will never realize as it requires a step further than science can go. I like the word “subtle”. I’ve tended to use “intangible”; but I’d say both are probably the same in this context. However, the word “subtle” fits better with the idea of science, whereas the word “intangible” is “out of the box” when it comes to science and thus easily dismissed.

    Your questions that follow regarding whether or not the whole big gods idea is limited and needs something to “expand it” (one might say) are excellent. I like the “driver” question which I paraphrase here (and allow for a correction in case I’m missing or misinterpreting your idea): If the idea of god is embedded in the un/subconscious of humans, then is this embedded idea the force that drives humans to figure some way to express how to relate to that god? (I’m limiting this sentence to the singular as the attempt to add the plural becomes very clumsy.) Thus, I see you referring back to your previous idea of a few days back: “that the ultimate theme of the universe is RELATIONSHIP.”

    I also like the last paragraph where this idea leads you to follow with the idea of whether or not there is life after death. I think you have a very good line of thinking here and one that is both defining your idea of the universe being relationship and very early beginning of expanding on the concept of “relationship” as you see it. MCS
    P.S. I think this might be the first time I’ve not disagreed with something in your post, and the first time I’ve just simply agreed with your thinking completely. Is this an OMG? Or a “who’d’ve thunk?” When I first read your idea of “universe is relationship”, I found myself wondering if you’d get to the point where you’d address that concept in some real way. You very definitely have done that here. And might I add, without any sense other than honest regard and respect for your line of thinking that I hope you continue where your thinking in this leads you. You are getting somewhere. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 19, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

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