Excruciatingly Large Things

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The Evolution of Religion and the Loss of Oneness

→ by Danieru
In our semantically governed, symbolic understanding of reality we often maintain that true-identity is possible, that the whirling sensations called 'you' somehow cease at the surface of your skin, all else being distinct. Of course the Buddhist conception of reality has superseded this idea for millennia:
"According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.... In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, ...events would never occur." - The Dalai Lama, quoted from New Scientist
I am often struck by how quick Western science is to absolve humans of their natural status. In matters of religion, or more specifically, the evolution of religion, science tends to send me into a quiet rage. Yet the tides are beginning to turn:
"When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer - a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin...

...Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature." - Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident?"
Paul Bloom is a proponent of 'the byproduct explanation' of religious evolution, which in simple terms claims:

"...religion is... an accidental byproduct of stuff that is part of human nature." Religion, in this account, didn't arise because it served any purpose, but because the human brain is amenable to certain supernatural ideas. - link

[see also 'Religion Explained' by Pascal Boyer]

Could it be said that from this perspective religion is just the model which human evolution built to understand an underlying, naturally occurring component of reality? For instance; in his study of neurological damage in his own patients V.S. Ramachandran often makes beautiful leaps of logic to assess his findings. His book Phantoms in the Brain is one of the most engrossing analyses of the human condition I have come across, and yet when religion rears its ugly head Ramachandran resorts to the glorification of it as a unique aspect of human evolution.
"Religion is a uniquely human trait..." - link
It is just my opinion, but this same error can be seen time and time again in the works of eminent scientists and philosophers of mind. But if one extends 'the byproduct explanation' of religion to its broadest horizons the seedling of nature can once again be seen protruding from the human mind. No one would argue that religion is not a response by the human brain to grasp a oneness with the universe, as the quote from The Dalai Lama above would suggest. Yet in matters of a scientific conception of religion the loose ends of logic continue to flap in the wind for me. Surely animals, with undoubtedly a lesser degree of mental capacity than us, have greater access to the universe in indefinable instinctive terms. Their minds do not need to rationalise desires, emotions, feelings of identity. Indeed for many creatures I would suggest these abilities would be a disadvantage to their survival (for more on this see my recent MetaTalk question here).

I have no doubt that the various models ascribed to religious doctrine or spiritual union with creation are uniquely human traits - no animal has an evolutionary reason to have acquired such subjective nonsense. But I find it difficult to believe that the sense of oneness it takes Buddhist monks decades to attain; the rapturous glory the Christian gains from their union with Jesus; the mental infinity arising from the brain of the epilepsy sufferer are uniquely human. That oneness, rapture, seizure, hallucination - whatever you want to call it - is something that animal kind has full access to AT ALL TIMES! In rationalising the universe humanity had to lose its natural propensity with the cosmos. Evolution forged us a rational brain to perceive objective truths, and as a consequence we lost the ability to just be 'at one' with our surroundings. Religion then, and all other irrational systems of acquiring models of existence, are evolutions' mediocre attempts to cope with the infinite peace we lost.

The universe is vast, incredible and awe inspiring for all the same reasons it ever was. It's just that with this brain, this perceptive reflexive consciousness, humanity is somehow unable to just accept that glory instinctively anymore.

When I was a few years younger I mourned this loss. In the religious, spiritual and social concepts I had come across in all my life nothing managed to build for me an understanding of reality I was happy with accepting. These days though I smile gleefully to myself. In the realms of physics, biology and philosophy broad vistas of objective glory stretch ahead of me. To each side of my remaining instinctive vision I catch glimpses of a reality so beautiful in its depth, its intricate infinities, that it took 13 billion years of gradual acquisition for anything to remotely come into focus.

The loss of that oneness is a small price to pay for the knowledge that the concept of God is nothing more than an echo of laughter rebounding in the depths of reflexive consciousness. Religion and the spiritual mind are for me mere evolutionary idiosyncrasies that nature has not yet had time to fully be rid off. Never fear that your existence is meaningless, for in this infinite universe you are the evolutionary pinnacle of a glory yet to be fully realised...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't it peculiar the energy it apparently takes to speak to the inexistence of God? You've taken it to the next level though. It's not enough to say, "Prove it." You've exumed the graves of all of evolved man and ape, sloshed their braincells around a test tube for a while and proclaimed that God himself is the product of evolution!

I'll buy it. Where do I sign up? How do I learn more about this new Truth? When will you be publishing your new tome to replace my outdated Bible? Will I have to understand all the ins-and-outs of evolution and the human brain, or can I sort of take your word on Faith?

Really though. How different is your introspection and reflection from that of Christians or Muslims or Buddhists? Throw it on the pile and refuse to call it a religion, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

February 05, 2006 6:21 AM    

Blogger Danieru said...

Hello 'anonymous'.

I have faith in science because it acknowledges its faults, reorders its systems of belief and continually breaks apart those systems which have been 'out evolved' by newer concepts.

You choose your one God and place him on the pedestal of your choosing. If it makes your reality come better into focus I have no qualms with it. Would it be right for me to assume you are a Christian? That pinnacle of the spiritual knowledge, that unsurmountable peak in the evolution of religions. Not content to wallow in the shadows of a multitude of Gods mankind multiplied itself and cast those shadows on the wall of its cave so the one true God could finally dissolve from the gloom. But I ask you this, was it mankind itself or those endless flickering shadows that God took as the sign to 'reveal his full glory' to his absent followers?

Religion comes in many flavours, and changes as often as the proverbial wind. Man is part of the ebb and flow of nature weaving out beyond the horizons of our understanding. I claimed no more than religion is intimate in that flow.

Maybe like your own name God would have been better off if he'd stayed 'anonymous', for with the abilities he gave us we have managed to systemise him out of any place or purpose. Existence looks better to me without the concept of him and the multitude of 'shadows' that were out evolved by him. You chose your God, I choose none.

February 05, 2006 7:53 AM    

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Faith in science" is instantly an oxymoron in my mind. I suppose I've clumsily glommed "science" and "nature" together and thought of them as one. But to examine science from your perspective is an interesting exercise to me.

Tell me if I have this right. Science is not nature, but the exploration and understanding of it. Nature as a system is then perfect and unchanging. It is mankind's perception of nature that is imperfect and in constant flux. Hence your statement alluding to the concept of an evolving science.

This, again, is not so different from religion or Christianity. The parallels being that God is nature, the unchanging absolute truth and Christianity is science, the component which studies its mysteries and "reorders its systems of belief, continually breaking apart those systems which have been 'out evolved' by newer concepts."

If science and nature complement Christianity and God, then choosing where your faith rests is purely academic. You are proclaiming a belief in some faith-based belief system either way.

The order of things is perfect and infinite in detail, like the perimeter of a penny, or a continent. And as a thinking, exploring, and evolving people, we'll keep looking for an answer, a pattern, a conclusion, but will find none. It would sooner find us.

February 05, 2006 8:01 PM    

Blogger Jennyology said...

Well Entity, it's nice to see you back in your element, and I'd like to add my own bit since having a Mormon spouse gets me into this kind of discussion on a semi-regular basis...

Anonymous, I would ideally like to see more religions questioning themselves and their bases of faith more often... as it is, the more populated groups, like Catholicism, have had to take up some recognition of evolution and many Christian groups as well as non-Orthodox Jewish groups have started utliizing female and homosexual/bisexual clergy. However, I don't see the same level of personal criticism, change in faith-based knowledge, or search for understanding as I do in most forms of science.

To say that one has "faith in science" does not necessarily mean that one has faith in the existence of a singular explanation or an end-all understanding of reality across all fronts. I think people usually mean that they have faith that science protects our ability to question reality. There are certainly instances where scientific knowledge is taken for granted... when we rely on a 'cure' to end disease, when we are hit with unexpected natural disasters... And I agree that some types of scientific thinking border on religious faith. We're trying to answer questions with the knowledge we have, whether it be the Bible, Qu'ran, or the Periodic Table of Elements.

But Christianity (of all religions) has never, within my lifetime or several before me, added another book to the Bible, resolved the contradiction in the first book of Genesis, challenged the text regarding selling daughters, being ordered by God to kill others, or faced any reality regarding birth control, population growth, or HIV.

This is why a separation of church and state in the US means we can fund obesity research with a focus on exercise and not prayer-based weight loss. There is a difference, and though scientific thought may not appear well-defined, may appear hypocritical, and is subject to human error, it provides the individual with the right to turn to God and say, "I want to know what you know." And when Christianity tells me that I may never know, that I can only ask and not expect an answer, it's just not enough.

February 06, 2006 2:07 AM    

Blogger Danieru said...

Dear Anonymous,

I don't know...

Maybe all nature is change, as Leibniz would have had us believe. Could it be that reality and mind are so intertwined that neither can be expressed without the other?

This of course sounds religious again, but here God is 'mind' rather than 'nature'. Yet these questions often intrigue me.

You again draw parallels between the worlds of science and Christianity, but I must insist on outlining the conflict here. Science is of a higher order in our shared metaphor than Christianity. I would allow that Religion and Science have many things in common, but Christianity in this model is no more than an ancient theory whose followers believe is perfect in its consistency. No scientist would EVER suggest that a theory was perfect. The job of the scientist is not to formalise theories to last the test of time but to break them apart to the point where they are replaced by entirely new (better?) theories.

While it is true that my lack of respect for religion fortifies my every word here I have to concede that much of what I say (on this site) is based in the realm of faith, but it is how each of our faiths is aquired that truly distinguishes us. Phenomenological knowledge and scientific enquiry make antipodal bedfellows.

"Truth does not demand belief. Scientists do not join hands every Sunday, singing 'Yes, gravity is real! I will have faith! I will be strong! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!'
If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about it"

- Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker"

The 'faith' I have in the theory of evolution is of the very greatest strength born out by the scientific enquiry of countless other 'believers' over the last century or so. Evolution also stands as a superb model/metaphor for that 'change' we both mentioned earlier. In a purposeless universe the process of evolution makes appear a natural order of purposeful design, such is the breadth of its explanatory power.

Mankind's consciousness may be mysterious, awe inspiring, even incomprehensible once scutinised and it becomes therefore natural to suggest that that consciousness was placed there by some thing for some reason we mere mortals could never conceive of. It is outside the day to day meanderings of human existence to imagine an order without beginning, an affect without a first cause, a goal without an intention, a meaning - but these are exactly the perceptual errors that evolution can explain away.

Science may not have all the answers, indeed it may never do, but religion in my estimations has absolutely none of the answers - though it may pretend it is aiming to solve them. Religions have come and gone as often as the humans which conceived them. Evolution can explain that too...

Yours faithfully,
The Huge Entity

February 06, 2006 2:34 AM    

Anonymous JK said...

I have been thinking about the potential existence of a metaphysical "ether" or one of many mulitiverses or even something akin to "The Force" which "surrounds and binds us". I cannot take my mind off of this possibility any more than I can delete the naturalistic behaviors that propelled me to where I am today. I am who I am (am I god?).

I have perhaps sensed that there are many levels or at least two ;) that demand at least some sort of input from the universe around it. As someone who has spent years maintaining there is no god and that even if there were, I would still deny this truth, simply because it cannot be demonstrated in fact. And then again, nor can it be sufficiently (for some) demonstrated that this laptop upon which I type even factually exists. I can find wispy, ephemeral clouds of truth in all of it, but the fact remains: this existence in and of our limited minds is all still just a wispy, ephemeral cloud. Nothing more and nothing less, it blows where it goes. This much we know.

How we opt to describe this cloud and intellectually muscle, historically often physically muscle others into abject myth reaffirmation is what we call the chief religions of today. However, the chief religions of today are nothing more than simulacrum of what "need #2" for the human soul is. Religion is a bastardized, beaten artifact of human civilization. How civilization crumbles will be how its religions crumble as well, just as it follows, the same about their rise. It is already easy to observe this crumbling now as we speak. In the States, for every Jerry Springer installment or "Girls Gone Wild" commercial we saw throughout the 90s, don't be naive, there was an equal if not more subtly forceful push (or is it pull?) from the other side of the same coin -- the craven, resourceful and tirelessly authoritarian religious right. The result? This. What is this?

Well, I think what this is nothing more than, western civilization for the time being at least, corroding and eroding away into the abyss that always lingered outside of our immediate consciousnesses. It is here where we as humans, both "religious" and "secular" make our stand. We need to begin the process of asking ourselves who we are. What are we? What is this place I inhabit? And in the noble words of Carl Sagan: who indeed, "Speaks for Earth?".

For we are nothing with each other and yet the same case could be made that we are nothing with each other as well. And I suppose this is true, if what we most desire is to hate because of simple, infinitesimal differences in reality tuning then this is what we want. However, if this is not what we want, then again, it is also a simple matter of an inconsequential difference or preference in "tuning". As you see, the Universe, God, does not care. And nor should it. Not because "how could God do such a thing?" But because God speaks in a language you cannot hear, also not much different than Him not being in existence at all. Therefore it is impossible to reliably argue for any position that maintains the factual existence for a God and dare I say, this is precisely the way God would want it were he to divulge his existence.

This is why religions are always far more beautiful and succinct in their message upon their inception. Because the "religion" upon inception is not a message at all! It is the listening to that "still small voice" or the fireside bantering over existential meaning, the day ahead in which it can be pondered once more. In essence, religion is growth, it is learning from your senses and emotions. At least, I have a feeling, that's how they all started out.

And today, a day a good as any, I think we are also now starting out anew. It is inevitable. A religion impervious to central control and shoddy design is being birthed. It will contain both atheist and Christian, Muslim and Jew, etc etc etc. It will be a religion of respect and awe. In fact it is already here. We just have to spread the word!

At least that's this cynical positivist's take on it.

February 06, 2006 7:18 AM    

Blogger Danieru said...

Do you think we were God's dangerous idea?

February 06, 2006 2:45 PM    

Blogger Danieru said...

There is so much great stuff to reply to here; thanks Jenny and JK...

But it is the anonymous one amongst us who I long to engage with these ideas. Could it be that the hand of anonymnity is the most prominent force to sculpt the history of human endeavour?

February 07, 2006 8:46 AM    

Blogger Danieru said...

Seems that anonymous ain't a comin' back... May this blog's door always be open to him/her.

Jennyology: How much connection does your Mormon spouse still have with his Church? I guess family ties will always remain. I have just been reading up on it some, and I must admit I am a little lost:

Mormonism holds that: as the creator, God is the organizer of the universe since in Mormonism all matter (including sentient beings) that exists has always existed and will always exist; God's omnipotence does not transcend logic, or the basic laws of physics, though mankind may not necessarily understand those laws fully; and God's immutability concerns primarily His creations and His future status, not His status prior to that time. - link

Wow... Leibnizian change gets completely blown to pieces here. A fully immutable God. Does this suggest that Mormon's are endurantists? In this philosophical concept the identity of the object, or individual, is maintained at ALL moments in its entirety. This is opposed to the perdurantist who claims that every object is composed of a seeming infinity of temporal parts, each part being distinct and therefore identical only with itself.

To head myself off at the pass here, in the endurantist perception of identity the passage of TIME is irrelevant. This works superbly when applied to the concept of an omnipotent/omniprescent God, I would suggest for all Christian doctrines, but how can the matter composing you, the individual, maintain its identity indefinitely? This allows the mortal beings God created to persist eternally - meaning surely there was no beginning to their existence. How does one posit a God here at all? If "all matter (including sentient beings) that exists has always existed" what possible role did God have in creating that eternal matter? Are we all God in some sense? More Spinozian than Leibnizian (and quite a bit Hindu if my religious knowledge serves me correct).

I'm sure I am missing a whole heap of Mormon doctrine here, but I doubt they could answer my query in its entirety (besides, what's the point in trying to apply logical analysis of anything if "God's omnipotence does not transcend logic, or the basic laws of physics, though mankind may not necessarily understand those laws fully"? - That's a pretty bum job God has done of gaining my faith if I can't even trust my innate sense of reason!)

February 08, 2006 2:43 AM    

Blogger Jennyology said...

Well Entity, your query had me running to the spouse for clarification... although in the sense of endurance of spirit or whatever, there are plenty of religions which hold that belief to be true... probably most of the mainstream ones, really. Although it is interesting to think about those two approaches IN TERMS of physics… I think they would both hold true in some ways.

So to say that all things were created eternal means that all things were created equally is not really what these religions are saying (Christianity et al., some forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.). More emphasis is placed on the difference of spiritual power, or however we should define THAT. I mean, sure every spirit is forever (or just humans or whatnot), but that doesn't mean God has to have the same influence as everything else. And in this Mormon description you found, God itself only has power over these human souls (maybe we're like his little eternal ant farm but he ordered the farm itself through the mail when he realized he had an infestation).

And actually, my spouse (Ben) has had the same questions regarding "creation" of eternal spirits. I think in Catholicism we were just kind of taught that God creates spirits with no end (a start but no finish? does sound strange, no?).

Mormons believe in multiple lives, and that there are spirits "waiting" in heaven to come down and be born into their earthly "temporal" lives. Catholics believe the spirit begins with conception (formerly "first breath" - hence abortion politics). However, both believe in everlasting souls... it's just funny that in Catholicism it takes a sin to bring forth God's master creation. Honestly, I think most religions just treat what you're talking about as a non-issue, or as something we "can't know" like so many other things which don't make sense.

However, Ben says that one of the main reasons he became Mormon rather than Catholic or Baptist (not too many options in Samoa), is that in comparison, Mormonism is more willing to ask and answer questions. It's more willing to be vague and to analyze word usage (like "forever" or "hell"). It allows the individual more agency (you can kind of pick and choose if you're not too fundamentalist). He also sees the Jesus teachings as a way of giving the individual more choices... it's not just the God of DO THIS, DO THAT, as we saw in the Old Testament... it's a God of DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, BUT YOU MAY BE SORRY LATER. So in a sense, maybe these religions are changing to provide for a more individualized setting, a more personalized experience, and a way to "experiment" with the teachings of the Bible... Mormons also believe in 3 versions of heaven in addition to hell, to add some “gray” in there.

For example, in many forms of Protestantism these days, the focus is not on a huge hierarchical, fascist worldly overlord (like in Catholicism or even Judaism), but rather on small groups of believers who talk and pray and see what works and change the religion to suit their needs... for better or worse of course.

I still think it’s all kooky nonsense personally, but religion does change over time, and even without a focus on rational thought (we’re in Japan, after all… land of irrationality), people are SORT OF dealing with this desire for knowledge. In the meantime, it’s interesting to see what springs up and why.

February 08, 2006 12:58 PM    

Blogger Al Rodbell said...

I sent this letter to the editor to Atlantic on the Bloom "God as Accident" article

In this country, the perennial battles between church and state show no signs of subsiding. The central geo-political conflicts of our time are shaping up not between secular ideologies, but rather forces defined by, or associated with, religions. This makes it all the more important to identify the most fruitful paradigms to better understand this subject.

Atlantic, given its audience and prestige, influences what perspectives, what disciplines, and what analyses will become most accepted in exploring this subject. This warrants a deeper consideration of the unstated assumptions and conclusions of Paul Blooms article.

Bloom overstates his case on the ubiquity of religion, giving an impression that because it is rooted in biology, it is normal. Normal, is very different than being the norm-- a differentiation that is lost in Bloom’s approach. He starts by reporting “Just about everyone in this counrty-96% in one poll-believes in God.” He then says that scientists are less religious, “but not by a huge amount.” Not a huge amount? 40% for scientists, his words, on the same measure of belief in God. He avoids more fine grained correlations between education and religious belief, such as the highest levels of achievement, Nobel Prize winners, where a mere five percent believe in God.

He writes of the attempt of religious authorities to “explore and reach out to science, as when the Pope “embraced evolution.” He concludes that it is not the religious institutions that are resisting rationality, it is the inborn needs of individuals that reject their ecclesiastical authorities efforts to “lead religion away from the supernatural.”

The Pope never “embraced” evolution, he accepted it, reluctantly, and not as a force of nature, but as a tool of God. Dr. Bloom’s statement on the ubiquity of religious beliefs, “nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things…..” ignores the third of the world that had been communist, where these beliefs were not integrated into society and thus are much less common.

These are not random errors. He overstates the immutability of biological drives, while minimizing the importance of religious establishments in promoting and benefiting from this need. And this is where his approach has implications that are beyond merely the academic. He presents religion as an inexorable need, a hunger that must be fed, rather than one option among others that flow from the developmental predilections that he describes.

The most serious criticism of his article is that it is not an accurate description of the world. Those who relied on this article for an overview of this subject would not expect that there are many people living full and happy lives while completely rejecting religion. This is far less likely when true biological needs. such as food, sex and companionship, are absent.

We have a President who is an ardent evangelical Christian, legislators who storm out of their chambers to shout, “under God” on the steps of Congress, and a Supreme Court that is on its way to tacitly following strictures not written on parchment but in stone. This is no time for an avatar of enlightenment to endorse a picture of the biological inevitability of belief in God, especially when it just isn’t so.

February 12, 2006 12:23 AM    

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