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What about those old gods and goddesses?
on 14 March 2011
When I reached page 190 of Jesse Bering's attempt to show belief in God as evolutionary, I knew I'd been sold down the river, not that the journey hadn't been interesting. What he said on page 190 of a book just 205 pages long was "as we've seen, God was born of theory of mind", so I turned back to the explanation on page 37. Here he starts his argument "what if I were to tell you that God's mental states (too) were all in your mind?" and I though, oh God, he really does mean God with a capital "G". Further down the page he goes on to describe a "strangely sticky sense that God `wilfully' creates us as individuals and `knows' about our otherwise private actions, `communicates' messages to us in code through natural events, and `intends' to meet us after we die" and suggests our Pleistocene ancestors would have felt this too.
The trouble is that the God Jesse is discussing is very recent in terms of human evolution. It's obvious that He is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, such as the One revealed to Moses. I can't find out when this was reckoned to have happened but the Israelites are thought to have entered Canaan circa 1,000BC already cognisant of the Ten Commandments. Circa 1,500BC the radical pharaoh, Akhenaton, tried to introduce monotheism in Egypt. He failed, but perhaps Moses came down from the mountain with his tablets of stone around the same time. Even so, this was a mere 3,500 years ago. Compare this trifle with three million years. If the australopithecine, Lucy, could be said to be part human, she lived longer ago than that. The Pleistocene era Jesse refers to ran from two million to 10,000 years ago and spans the development of homo habilis, homo erectus, homo neanderthalis and, yes, it does include homo sapiens, us, emerging in Africa around 100,000 years ago and spreading to Europe within 60,000 years.
Jesse should read up on the old religions. In his seminal work, The Golden Bough, JG Frazer attempts to define the elements of religious belief common to settled tribes engaged in farming. His thesis is that these early religions were fertility cults centred in the honouring and periodic sacrifice (to fructify the fields) of a sacred king. They weren't anything to do with a personal God but everything to do with getting fed. Joseph Campbell, influenced both by Frazer and psychology, particularly Jungian, attempts to show how religion is part and parcel of a society in the conditions in which it lives. A particularly fascinating example would be the bear cults of nomadic hunter gathers in which there is ritual atonement for the killing of an animal so that its spirit will return to its archetypal source to be reborn as a willing sacrifice. Again, there's no personal God, just the need for food.
The deities of the Ancient Egyptians were of a practical bent, as with those of any agrarian people, but they also propitiated deified menaces, such as the crocodile and tomb-robbing jackal.
As civilisation progressed, Ancient Greeks had a whole pantheon of amoral gods and goddesses who meddled capriciously in the affairs of human kind. There were gods of the sun, moon, sea, sky, rivers, winds, love and war, wine and wisdom, crafts and even abstractions such as persuasion. These deities weren't personal Gods, they just wanted recognition and for humans to know their place. The Greek pantheon was itself a late development and the stuff of art and poetry. In her work, Jane Harrison attempts to find the roots of Greek Mythology in ritual.
Read, Jesse, there's a whole world back there. I haven't even mentioned sympathetic magic, totem and taboo and the intriguing possibility that our early ancestors, not understanding sexual reproduction, assumed fertility was a solely female attribute. Accordingly, they worshipped Gaia, Mother Earth, who they saw as the bringer-forth of all that was.
You could well be right in thinking belief in a retributive deity was an adaptive advantage to be selected in evolution. Say society has reached the stage in which it is settled, agrarian and large enough to need laws which need to be enforced to prevent anarchy. It may have a king and most of his subjects will be engaged in the hard slog of ploughing, sewing, tending and reaping. How does the king, a puny individual, keep control? Along with the overseers, wouldn't it be a huge advantage for him to be closely associated with a god or even regarded as one? In which case, those subjects who believed and behaved themselves would also have had an advantage, especially if those who did not were either cast into the wilderness or done away with.
Of course, this still doesn't explain where the notion of deity, a spirit world, came from. Did it, as JG Frazer suggests, grow out of man's observing his own shadow and wondering why it sometimes existed and sometimes not? Psychologically, might it have something to do with residual memories of helplessness and dependency, as in an infant's utter dependency on his or her mother?
Thank you for your explanation of belief in an afterlife. Unlike monotheism, this does have a history that stretches way back, witness, careful burials with the inclusion of grave goods.