Religions as Imperfect Human Understanding

The first creatures that might be called human appeared less than 3 million years ago.  To judge from the slow development of sophisticated stone tools, our ancestors before half a million years ago had inferior minds.  Would seem moronic if we had a time machine and could talk with them.

Religions sometimes had notions of a formless chaos before the world as we know it emerged.  But it never occurred to them to imaging a world entirely suitable for humans to live within, and yet without humans or other intelligences for the vast bulk of its existence.

So if religions are wrong, why do we have them?  My answer is that religions are highly suitable for letting enormous numbers of humans live together without intolerable violence.  Lets us to walk peacefully among complete strangers, which is not possible among any of the social animals.  Not possible even among most tribal humans, unless you arrive with signs of being vastly more powerful and are also a known source of valuable gifts.

Humans with something like the modern concept of deities and temples show no signs of having existed before the first agricultural societies, some 10,000 years ago.  What probably existed before that was the muddle of superstitions, ancestor-worship and fear of imaginary monsters found in modern tribal societies.  Tribes are normally suspicious of each other, with war being the standard relationship and peace requiring careful agreements.

Unlike Professor Dawkins, I do not see religion as some bizarre parasite that was inflicted on ‘rational’ humans.  People who presumably would otherwise have lived spontaneously according to Professor Dawkins’s slightly old-fashioned notion of rationality.  I know history, so I know that the modern Europe’s notion of rationality is a grand innovation that grew out of Christianity.  And I see ancient religions like that of the Babylonians and Pharaohs and Classical Greeks as bringing a degree of order and rationality to the superstitious muddle that is the default human understanding.

I also don’t lump the various religions together.  I accept the standard notion of a further huge advance in the 6th and 5th centuries before Jesus Christ, with waves of religious-philosophical ideas in Greece, India, China, and maybe also Persia.  (Zoroaster as a religious reformer might have lived then, or might have lived centuries earlier.)  It would have been just about possible for a single individual to have seen many of the major figures within a standard lifetime.  Gore Vidal in a highly readable novel called Creation imagines just that, though he omits the Hebrew prophets[5].  Imagines a Persian/Greek grandson of Zoroaster, who is sent east as an ambassador.  Who encounters Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and other lesser-known or part-fictional thinkers.  Also Socrates as an incompetent stone-mason and the early materialist Democritus as his grandson.  It can be inaccurate, particularly about early China.  But it gives you a vision of what was going on.

Why did all of these thinkers emerge?  Did ideas flow along the trade routes that we know existed?  Were there perhaps hundreds of unrecorded names, along with the handful of famous thinkers?  We know of a scattering of other names, from polemics against them by the famous names.  This includes some materialists and some who perhaps were close to modern scientific thinking, though we can only guess at their views based on the fragments we have.  Regardless, human thinking was changed fundamentally.

One could sensibly think of this as a Second Wave of religion and religious philosophy, merging with and partly replacing the First Wave religions that had regularised tribal beliefs.  And this Second Wave was notable in laying down general obligations to be kind and just, whereas the gods and goddesses of First Wave religions were just as emotional and fallible as human beings.

It is also notable that the creeds that won out assumed a hierarchy of wealth and power.  That they merely urged superiors to be nice to inferiors.  Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism also have a category of religious specialists practicing Holy Poverty: but they sit outside the hierarchy of wealth and power.  They do not really challenge it, even when pure and un-corrupt.  And a lot of them do get corrupted and become part of the ruling class, of course.  This was particularly true of Tibetan Buddhism, where monks could eat meat[6] and practice non-penetrative sex with teenage boys.[7]  But even the uncorrupted forms saw the world as an illusion.  In as far as they were concerned with social justice, it was justice within an assumed hierarchy of inequality.

In my view, a Third Wave occurred with first Christianity and then Islam.  Christianity emerged out of the once-obscure religion of the Jews, which had impressed its neighbours ever since the successful Jewish revolt of the Maccabees.  (A revolt against one of the Greek-dominated states created by Alexander’s successful conquest of the Persian Empire, which had provoked them by trying to impose Greek values incompatible with their faith.)  Judaism had great intellectual clarity compared to Greek religion.  But it also included many survivals of ancient tribal oddities, such as circumcision and some vastly complex and awkward rules about what you could eat.  And some of the Hebrew prophets had taken the side of the poor: but the dominant powers in the religion accepted hierarchies and just asked the rich to be generous and well-behaved.

Christianity was originally a creed of total collectivism and economic equality of believers – though there was great inequality of authority, and all authority was male.  It also initially retained Judaism’s ancient tribal oddities: but as revised by Saint Paul, it was happy for non-Jewish believers to drop these customs.  This proved a winner.  An official and corrupted version of Christianity became dominant in the Byzantine Empire.

The second half of the Third Wave came when Islam emerged under Christian and Jewish influence – regarding itself as a purified and corrected version of what Jesus had originally taught.  It gained vast importance, because it was the creed of a wave of Arabic-speaking tribalists.  These tribalists repeated an ancient and world-wide pattern whereby tribalists from fringe areas overthrow exhausted and corrupt empires and impose something of their own way of life.  But unlike earlier invaders, and unlike the later Mongols, they also brought with them a wholly new world-view.

Both of these new creeds included a radical notion of equality for all men (though not women, who were protected but kept subordinate).  That is something that wasn’t really there in the ‘Second Wave’ religions.  Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism had poverty and equality for its monks and nuns, but normally didn’t question inequalities among those outside the religious life.  Those creeds could be seen as endorsing them as differences based on good or bad deeds in the previous lives that everyone was supposed to have lived.  By contrast, both Christianity and Islam include a possible tension and radicalism.  And insisted that there was just one life followed by Heaven or Hell – but that part of the belief was old, going at least as far back as the very hierarchical religion of Ancient Egypt.

These new ‘Third Wave’ creeds also lacked the sharp split between intellectual and physical work that older creeds had expressed in practice, whether or not it was the original belief.  This split was particularly acute in China.  Traditional China was a land of many inventions, but most artisans were illiterate.  Most intellectuals had a very strong aversion to any sort of manual labour.  Christianity saw no contradiction between being learned and being skilled with your hands.

Modern science with its Experimental Method and its insistence on a single discoverable body of solid facts emerged from Christian culture.  it was not initially anti-religious: Galileo and Newton were devout.  So too was Robert Boyle, a pioneering chemist and physicists who was also a sincere Anglican.  Scientists mostly stopped being religious, when their science showed them a universe that remained mysterious, but was very clearly different from the Earth-centered universe described by conventional religions.

For Christians and also for Jews, there were also vast problems raised when the Sacred Texts were looked at with the same sort of analytical methods that had found rationality in the natural world.  It became clear that the Sacred Texts were a muddle of semi-accurate history and historic fiction that had been worked and reworked by many different authors.  The Book of Genesis was an amalgam of at least two separate accounts that used different names for the Hebrew God and often had similar but significantly different accounts of the same event.  Humans were created in large numbers on the Sixth Day of Creation, and also as Adam followed by Eve created alone in the Garden of Eden: with no explanation as to who their sons might have married, or who was supposed to be warned by the Mark of Cain.  And later on, Noah took two of every animal, and also Noah took seven of every clean animal.

Many such contradictions existed.  They make sense as two different Sacred Histories compiled together in some unrecorded Historic Compromise between rival traditions within the Hebrew faith.

For Christians, Protestants preachers had already shown that many of the traditions of Roman Catholicism were not based on the Bible.  This included the existence of a Christian priesthood: the early Christians had recognised no priests other than the corrupt priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, whom however they still viewed as valid pending  a proper cleansing and reform of the Temple.  A majority of Protestants didn’t care to follow the logic of this: they rejected the Pope but kept both priests and bishops.  (Officials called episcopes, ‘overseers’ or ‘guardians’, did exist: but they were very different from the high officials that bishops became.)  A minority of Protestants dropped the names of priest and bishop and much of the system, with power mostly being transferred to preachers with skills in oratory.

Almost all Protestants made the error of transferring Jewish Sabbath rules to the Roman Sunday, which both Late Roman Pagans and Dark-Age Christians had treated as a day of celebration and worship.  The Jewish Sabbath is Saturday: but for Orthodox Jews the day begins at sunset.  You find them going home early on what Christians regard as still Friday, and out again on what people raised in the Christian tradition would regard as Saturday evening.  Of course this is not really a Christian tradition: it was something that Christians absorbed from the Roman Empire, whose month-system with its pagan deities and deified emperors we still use.[8]  But the continuous arguments between Protestant and Catholic and the additional arguments among rival Protestants spread doubt.

The destructive nature of the 17th century Wars of Religion and the lack of any clear outcome helped convince many of the ruling class that it was all nonsense.  Nonsense useful to keep the lower orders obedient, as Edmund Burke noted, though he put it more politely and evasively in his published works.  Hence the European Enlightenment – which mostly involved the privileged and was not originally intended to be democratic.  Enlightened Despots who ignored the ignorant views of the majority were the preference of most Enlightenment thinkers: some of them still seem to think this privately.

(Note also that an Enlightened Despot is a very different being from a Populist Dictator, who would claim to be the true representative of the will of The People, and may actually be such.  Enlightened Despots were generally monarchs: Populist Dictators are mostly from very ordinary beginnings.  Either or both may rule in a way that broadly pleases a majority, whereas mutli-party elected governments can get deadlocked and produce nothing that anyone much wanted.)

We needed religion as part of the process of becoming better humans: humans who more fully expressed our human potential.  We are in an era of outgrowing the need for religion and of raising the human potential to new heights – probably not the highest obtainable.  But to carry out our current tasks successfully – and to avoid the negatives introduced by excessive reliance on money, profit and power – we need to work out what was mistaken in the old creeds, and what was correct.

Many post-Christian thinkers have an unrealistic belief in the efficiency of privatised violence and trickery.  Such methods can give individuals an unfair advantage over their rivals, if applied with a cleverness and modesty.  (A modesty that is very often missing.)  But even when the tricksters get just what they want, the society as a whole will be damaged by them.  I will deal with this at length in a future article.

We current have problems with shifting our moral codes during an era of massive transformations.  Religions mostly get in the way.  But this is no reason to ignore the usefulness of religions in past eras.  Radicals have a coherent program of shifting to a new moral code that is relaxed about sex but still strict about honesty, kindliness and duty – wanting in fact to extend those things.  Sadly, the New Right has dominated since the 1980s.  It has accommodated sexual freedom by letting everything drift and suggesting than no morals are needed.  Their cherished phrase laissez fair could be translated into ‘let things drift’: and this is certainly what it has meant in practice.

This is a from a much longer and more diverse article, Physics and the Nature of Reality