Chewin' the fat over how religion gets started with Tony.

I was chatting earlier with a fellow atheist Tony and we got talking about the origins of religion. We covered quite a swathe of topics, and I thought I'd like to preserve this exchange. It starts with him reply to someone else comment about atheism, communism and Marx.

Karl Marx called religion "the opiate of the masses." He did this because he saw religion as being the pacifier by which the poor could be contented into being complacent to the upper class rule. Therefore, religion was a weapon of the upper class, the bourgeoisie.

Tony's riposte.

Well, that actually isn't what he did say. You have to read the comment in context:

This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

I don't see in there anything about the bourgeoisie using religion as a weapon. Rather he is saying that religion is a natural result of the state of existence in the world, but it is illusory and that to find true happiness you must abandon illusion. He wasn't talking about religion as a control mechanism as many try to twist his comments into, but that it kept people from true happiness by offering only illusions.

Then I chime in....

The other point about Marx, is that that entire book is a riposte to Hegel, who's conception of a popular consciousness was that it would shape society, and Marx is adamant Hegel has it backwards it is the society that structures (and limits) the ideas. That's the meaning of the first sentence. I'd encourage everyone to read that passage again with this in mind. Religions 'natural state of existence' as you put it depends upon the society that sustains it. The protestant work ethic (slave now and reign in heaven) he is arguing is a theological reflection of an economic truth.

Marx saw religion in a societal and economic mode; I would even contend that religion as practised (not just theism per se) might have a peculiarly biological and anthropological reason for existing. Humans as a species have been around for between 100 - 250,000 years, even foregoing the last paltry 2000 years - why societies of non-westernised and other historical kinds have organised around religious practice has often been about sanctifying atypical behaviour because it fits into and supports a narrative of social norms.

Into this it has been suggested a strong component of religious practice (not belief) shows remarkable similarity to certain diagnostic criteria of cognitive disorders, which is not saying all believers are themselves cognitively disordered. Some are - and we can elaborate on the mild forms and adaptive inheritance of schizotypalisms which tend toward concreteness at the point of abstraction. The Archbishop James Usher who thought the Creation in Genesis could be timed to an afternoon on a Saturday some 6000 years ago might just be a case in point) often influential charismatic individuals who typify acts of worship demonstrate diagnostic criteria for mild forms of inheritable traits of brain disorders which then get carried over into ritual behaviour and orthodoxy.

You can find this in the writings of the Apostle Paul there are published articles in medical journals speculating on whether the symptoms of his ecstatic visions and extensive writing might in fact be diagnostic of symptoms following seizures occasioned by temporal lobe epilepsy (which would explain a few things). Take the reformation in Europe. Wildly destructive. The schism of protestantism from Catholicism has a curious if not wholly unsurprising genesis for asceticism and ritual discoverable in the writing of Martin Luther who displays all the hallmarks of OCD (and obsession with dirt and cleansing rituals his thought perpetually bombarded with feelings of his own imperfections ); the point is not protestantism is OCD writ large but that this charismatic individual with these problems was instrumental in starting the revolt that is still with us.

His religiosity which may well have been his OCD writ large spawns a social following which in any other setting other than a monastic order under the thumb of a corrupt and venal empire would have had him seriously disadvantaged but here it made him more devout which in that society made him more acceptable. You can find similar ritualistic behaviour amongst Brahmin in Hinduism and Orthodox Judaism where the rules they have to follow are extensive bordering on the neurotic - and that shouldn't be at all surprising.

What anthropologically is different about a witch-doctor twirling about in the dust before the hunt, and the priest at the lectern giving a convocation before a graduation ceremony is - not very much - in that this is the socially acceptable face of meta-magical thinking endorsing a public event, by a sanctified individual (a priest) who can get away with dressing up and talking to the weather in front of a stadium of proud parents, but if he wasn't in a robe but muttering to himself incessantly on the bus might be a little bit odd, and this is the point: certain behaviours in particular settings gain social approval.

And from this it's not hard to see how in the right time and circumstance, put up the right charismatic figure who says just the right things at a moment when groups of social mammals are wanting to endorse it, and if you pull it off, then no-one goes to work on your birthday for another two millennia. Get it wrong and The Feds pour tear through gas your windows, set fire to your barn and send tanks through the walls.

Prof Robert Sapolsky on Human Behavioural Biology is I think essential viewing.

This was his reply.

I audited a class with Joseph Campbell many, many years ago. He contended that based on what we know from both anthropology and mythology, religion developed as an attempt by early men to influence the world around them.

Earliest religious practices were animistic, appealing to the spirits of the prey they hunted to live. Mostly centred on the idea of appeasing the animal's spirit so that it would be a willing sacrifice to the tribe. That is where the practice of totems and tribal identification with an animal comes from.

Later as people became more agrarian the focused came to ensuring a good harvest, and the spirits
that needed to be placated were anthropomorphised ideas of earth spirits that developed into the idea of Gods.

Today we have everything from Hindus who have an elaborate system of sacrifice and offerings to try to get what they want, to the idea of praying for what you want. What is being asked for typically
changes from culture to culture, and the exact methods have some variation, but ultimately this has been the root and main focus of religion since man started to wonder how to make his way in the world more easily.

And mine..

Certainly, that Sapolsky lecture which I'd recommend everyone listen to at least once, notes that fixed action rituals are not an isolated phenomenon amongst humans but that superstitious rituals can be found in other species (such as dogs) as well as forced in other species to adopt them (like pigeons), this is something which in ourselves our neurology keys us up for, which environment modifies and shapes, and which culture informs.

Have you ever heard of Göbekli Tepe?

It's an archaeological dig in Turkey which is turning up some amazing 3-dimensional relief and sculptures - and here's the interesting bit: it's about 9000 years old.9000 years - that's right around the time when humans are transitioning from hunter-gatherers to domestic farmers (indeed genetic analysis of many edible grasses, wheats etc can be traced back to ancestors from this region which would support the conjecture that it is here that agriculture first appeared.)

Göbekli Tepe - interpretation and importance

So it's very interesting to find such an elaborate spot of architecture in the same place, preserved through burial, which shows such surprisingly intricate designs: it tells us something about the ways humans organise and have organised their societies in the past and continue to do so.

Religious practice seems to be almost our default.

So you have here a coming together of several threads: you have art - humans seem to be almost unique in representing our internal realities externally. You have ritual -though the exact function of the Göbekli Tepe temple is an on-going mystery. The fauna depicted include lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes and other reptiles, insects, arachnids, birds - particularly vultures and water fowl. These may all once have inhabited this area at one time but no longer do so. What is in evidence are bones of local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese. That these have all been found gives some suggestion as to diet as well as possible sacrifice as they were found in the temple itself.

So quite what the pictograms mean is open to be interpreted, but that the carvings were meant to mean something, would be unsurprising as this is behaviour entirely in keeping with our species that routinely relies upon ritual and action to make sense of a world (if not to - as you say - attempt to influence it ) through what would be superstitious meta-magical thinking: the free association of disconnected influence: I bury my father this way up towards the setting sun the venerate the mountain, so that my crops will grow ready for the harvest or I bury my mother face down outside the sanctified cemetery because she's a witch or I chop my father up into little pieces and feed him to the buzzards in order to release his spirit.**

Need we elaborate on how it appears the gods of our imagination are formed in line with our environments? That religions which tend to originate from areas of lush fertility and high biodiversity have tended to be pantheisms of disinterested deities? Also pause here to point out the worthwhile fact that early human civilisations human civilisations have tended to - and still do - crowd around
areas of high tectonic activity. This is becuase water and nutrients and valuable materials and minerals like copper and marble are introduced to the soil by eruptions and faults. Such 'active' regions cry out for an explanation of both the terror and the bounty) while the gods of desert religions have been monotheistic, highly partisan, capricious fierce and cruel, and intervening at the drop of a hat (or a prayer). It is something close to a tragedy that this particular cultural norm for superstitious behaviour and ritual has proven to be so remarkably resilient. There's something inherently quite cool about pantheisms of small forest gods, I reckon.

The point is, human behaviour is frequently very odd and religious practices tend to be some of our oddest and not to bang this drum again, but worth a mention only, this is why science is such a revolution in our way of understanding and checking how the world works, believing in something becuase we can show it to be true stands so far apart from how humans have always done things that it really is very unusual. And worth protecting.

It's why I think casting an eye back over the long history of human belief is very worthwhile because it shows up not the atrocities of believing certain things which can be batted back and forth but rather how endemic religious practice has been. That no more makes the content of the beliefs any more true, but it does tell us something about the way we as mammals of a particular evolution think, believe and behave.

**warning - this links shows a funerary practice in Tibet involving a large flock of vultures, one dead body and a family member wielding a hatchet - don't click if you at all squeamish or unlike me are not interminably curious.)

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