Friday, August 17, 2007

Startled by the Obvious

Do not use my name for evil purposes, because I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name.

Exodus 20:7 (Today's English Version)

Also known as the Third Commandment, or the Second Commandment for Catholics and Lutherans


How Religions Start

Thinking back to the time of the earliest Homo Sapiens it seems there must surely have been some highly intelligent individuals who thought of questions like "Why am I so different from the other animals?" He might have noticed that humans look somewhat similar to the other ape species, but how did we end up different?" These are not new questions that have arisen only in the last couple of hundred years.

Maybe some guy thought up something like "I can see some greater wholeness to all of this world and I will call it God." He figured out that we are the "highest" forms of life and tried to figure out how that happened. That intuitive knowledge about ourselves and our universe is what he called "God spoke to me." Where else did these ideas come from? He didn't know about brains and neurochemicals and all the other biological stuff that makes up our consciousness and creativity. At that time his revelations about his thoughts were novel and revolutionary.

So he told others what he knew, and his explanations made some sense of otherwise unknowns and people talked about them because new ideas tend to stimulate people that way, even way back then. ;-) And he was probably the family or community or tribal "wise man" that everyone trusted because he had been right so often in the past. So an oral tradition of passing along these ideas and stories began to grow and spread.

So over time maybe some people would ask, "Why do we believe these things?" And many people would say, "Because so-and-so told us and he's always right." And maybe they got angry when their accepted ideas were questioned without the questioners offering better answers. Some basics of human nature probably haven't changed all that much since then.

Aside: A Question of Time

There is no dividing line or boundary in "real time" evolution. The timeline of human evolution constructed by paleotheorists is rather imprecise in when exactly the different Homo species lived and died. When they say that the Neanderthals disappeared it doesn't mean that one day they all just disappeared. It took thousands of years for them to die off (or be absorbed into Homo Sapiens, my own particular pet idea). What do we think really happened in the time between this species and that species? The changes were gradual, not instantaneous. I suspect one might could apply some kind of quantum or whatever view to the evolving human populations and see that at the individual and small groups levels the forward movement in development isn't always obvious. Well, maybe that's a really whacked out thing to say. I don't really know. Anyway, my point is that it's wrong to think of these different periods of time as distinct or discreet in that one starts and one stops and there is no overlap. There is a lot of overlap.

The Relevance of Religion

Eventually new evidence is discovered that challenges old ideas. Not everyone is open and accepting of their long-cherished knowledge being questioned. But some people can take new knowledge and integrate it with the old, while yet others will completely dismiss the old ideas as worthless and accept the new, sometimes as blindly as some refuse it. Like with the "timeline" of evolution, there aren't always distinct boundaries within the range of beliefs.

Looking back at our guy who "saw" God and thought his intuitions were God speaking to him, we must remember that his language and ability to describe his intuitions were much more limited than ours today. The old stories were told in the ways that made sense at their time. And at one time these stories were novel and revolutionary not because of the words they used but because of the ideas they conveyed. The revolutionary idea behind God was that there is a reason why we are humans and not apes, or pigs. ;-) In our modern time we know the real, scientific reasons we are human, and not apes or pigs, but knowing the ways how doesn't diminish the significance of the idea itself. Well, I don't think it should anyway.

Even today, we are still processing our intuitions and observations of the universe. It's important to respect the origins of these processes, whether the origins are explained in the modern parlances or the old oral traditions (mythology and religion). They are basically explaining the same things if you can reduce the words into the ideas that they convey. And this is one of the reasons why it bothers me so much when Religion is vilified and degraded: becasue doing so completely disrespects the intelligence of our ancestors and the evolution of our minds.

Sure, over history many terrible things have been done in the name of God or religion. But so has it happened in the name of love and any other ideas. Does that make love and other ideas necessarily evil? Of course not. You can't really blame an idea or feeling for the actions of evil or bad people. And that is the meaning of the Commandment quoted at the top. Do not use the name of God for wrong purposes.

Well, here in the Baptist dominated Bible Belt, people are told that this Commandment forbids using God's name in an invective phrase, such as "Goddamn!" or "Oh my God!" or whatever endless variations people can create. Strictly, or Fundamentally speaking, I suppose that's true enough, but it's just completely naive and misses the deeper meaning of the Commandment. Besides, when someone exclaims, "Oh my God!" in surprise or any other strong emotion God knows those are really just prayers. ;-)

The people who are really breaking the Commandment are the ones like Al Gore, the current AntiChrist, who invokes God's name for his own selfish purposes (fame, glory, power, influence, and so on). But there are others who are abusing God's name as well. They are the ones who try to tell everyone that a belief in God and religion is the source of all the problems that have ever existed. How is it not obvious that the Commandment is a warning against any kind of abuse of power and control? And these antireligionists, or militant atheists as some call themselves, are really just false prophets abusing the name of God by spreading lies of ommission about religion and its influence on the evolution of mankind.

Well, of course, who am I to indict anyone? But I do want to show people their misunderstandings about the role of religion and a belief in God in our human development. There is a deeper meaning to the stories and mythology of religion, and to deny that or to demean it is a asking for trouble. ;-)

1 comment:

The Guy said...

Hi Rae Ann!
So glad the rain sent me to you today.

I've often wondered about how much of a roll religion has played in the evolution of humans. Humans may or may not have evolved their religious ideas through memetic propagation but to what degree have the branches of the human tree been pruned by religion? Obviously things like religious warfare have deeply impacted our gene pools but to what extent are things like the selection of mates and numbers of children (which are often dictated by doctrine) affecting the direction our human "pattern" is going.

Do we grow more susceptible to religious ideas as the generations roll by? Or are the depredations of memetic parasites so taxing that those who can overcome them have an evolutionary advantage? Ideas can be a huge biological burden and if they impact survivability and reproduction then resistance will be naturally selected for by that pressure.

Gotta go work in the barn. Hope your day is delightful.