My latest Medium article for a new series I am calling ‘Hyperlink Philosophy’
Kahn identifies and illuminates three separate, but interrelated, developments within fifth-century BCE philosophy which culminate in the Sisyphus fragment. He writes that the fragment is not only the ‘most outspoken’ and ‘aggressive’ account of fifth-century atheist thought, but that it captures the best examples of thinking on the origins of religion.
The opening section of my forthcoming book, Dangerous Ideas.
Of those, then, who have inquired as to the existence of God some say that God exists, some that he does not exist, some that he has existence “no more” than non-existence. That he exists is the view of most of the Dogmatists and the general preconception of ordinary folk; that he does not exist is the view of those who are designated “atheists,” such as Euhemerus—A hoary braggart, penning wicked books—and Diagoras of Melos, and Prodicus of Ceos, and Theodorus, and a host of others.
Chapter 1 – Early Skeptics: Thales to Ibn Rushd (~600 BCE to 1200 CE)
Many people are under the mistaken impression that expressions of disbelief are a relatively modern occurrence that started with the Enlightenment. Surviving examples of atheist thought from antiquity are few, but there are a handful of ancient freethinkers who have come down to us across the millennia. One reason for the scarcity of evidence is because, obviously, atheists built no temples or statues to their disbelief. Another is because there was no accepted canon of atheist literature that was passed down from generation to generation, as with the religious writings of many cultures that were considered sacred and subsequently preserved. Further, a number of ancient writings have been lost, and in many of the cases to be presented here, we have only fragments or what has been preserved in the writings of others by doxographers, such as Plato, who recorded the supposed sayings of Socrates and others.
To those who would claim there were no atheists in antiquity, why should they be mentioned in the Bible if they could not have existed so long ago? ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.’ This verse in all likelihood was not directed towards actual non-believers at the time when the Psalms were compiled (~400s BCE), but as will be shown throughout this work, it was often an insult directed at people with different opinions. Also, note the ad hominem attack and the deliberate insinuation that atheists are immoral people. This unfair characterization of atheists continues to plague the minds of theists today, and this passage is definitive proof as to where such prejudices arose, and which continues to taint the perspectives of those who believe such blatant misrepresentations.
While this book mostly covers the European philosophers who shaped the development of secularism, some relevant examples from non-European cultures will be presented, as elements of other philosophies came to influence the Greeks and the later Enlightenment ideals. Some studies take a narrow view and only look at a single perspective, missing the bigger picture, a deficiency which this survey attempts to correct. As will be documented below, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic thinkers played a role in influencing some of their European counterparts; and vice versa.
One of the earliest examples of skeptical thinking appears in the Rigveda, from circa 1300 BCE, in what could be considered the first recorded instance of agnosticism and which comes from the Hymn of Creation:
But, after all, who knows, and who can say Whence it all came, and how creation happened? the gods themselves are later than creation, so who knows truly whence it has arisen?’
Another example comes almost one thousand years later, from the Charvaka school that emerged during a period of Hindu reformation in the 600s BCE. This school of thought rejected the Vedic tradition and much of what are standard theistic beliefs, such as the afterlife and any supernatural explanations. Instead, they favored empirical observations and perception as the source of knowledge. Consequently, one of their adherents harshly dismisses traditional religious ideas, writing:
There is no other world other than this; There is no heaven and no hell; The realm of Shiva and like regions, are invented by stupid imposters.
Around the same time in Persia in the 500s BCE, the dualistic Zoroastrians made the concept of truth (asha) and its counterpart, falsehood (druj), a core tenet of their system of belief. As the Persians expanded west and began butting up against Greek territories, elements of Zoroastrian philosophy began to be absorbed into surrounding cultures. For example, the Zoroastrian influence on Second Temple Judaism is well-documented by scholars. Biblical experts note the dualistic shift in Jewish dogmas following their exposure to Zoroastrianism after being freed by Cyrus the Great.
An understanding of the socio-political effects the Persians had on the cultures they conquered requires a detailed introduction. This background will be of critical importance for a full understanding of the philosophies of Parmenides and Pyrrho to be reviewed, given that there are aspects of Greek and Indian philosophy which overlap.
Scholars debate the exact nature of possible intellectual cross-pollinations, as ideas from Greece and India are thought to have each influenced the other. For example, Thomas McEvilley, an expert in Greek and Indian culture, distinguished linguist, and philosophical historian, asserts that the monadic concept influenced the Greeks via India; and the Greeks brought formalized logic and dialectic to Indian philosophy.
McEvilley devoted the entirety of his second chapter of The Shape of Ancient Thought to examples of the monadic development in the late Bronze Age in Egyptian and Sumerian mythologies, the latter which influenced the Indians beginning in the Middle Vedic period, around 1000 BCE. As polytheistic mythologies ran out of explanations for the natural world, concepts began evolving towards ideas of oneness, creating a new philosophical monism. Indian writings from the Middle Vedic on began to reflect this new monism, while the Greek literature of Homer and Hesiod maintained its polytheistic hold on Greek mythology for several more centuries before elements of monism began appearing in Greek thought and writing.
Both McEvilley and Christopher Beckwith, a philologist and expert in Central Eurasian studies, commented on the nature of common ideas. Anthropologists have long noted this curious tendency, and professor of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, discussed the two possible origins: cultural diffusion, or independent development which Jung characterized as archetypes of the collective unconscious. McEvilley speculates that these Jungian archetypes of independent development were involved in the interchange of ideas between India and Greece. On the other hand, Beckwith suggests the cultural diffusion option is the likely candidate. Beckwith asserts that a network for diffusion was created by the trade and diplomatic links that followed Darius I’s conquest of the Indus Valley in 515 BCE, and the addition of Thrace and the resubmission of Ionian Greece by 510. Given these strong ties, there would be no need to invoke Jasper’s premise of separate development which characterized what he coined as the Axial Age—the period around 500 BCE when several spiritual thought leaders emerged contemporaneously from China to Greece, such as Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius.
The influence of Zoroastrianism also played a role in the development of Buddhism and Brahmanism in India. The Persian soldiers and government functionaries administering the Gandhāra region, the northwest corner of India corresponding with modern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, brought with them their Zoroastrian religious beliefs. It was in the Indus Valley where Buddhism was born in opposition to the dualistic absolutism of Zoroastrianism, as Buddha rejected the premise that things are either truth or falsehood. Early Buddhism also rejected the Zoroastrian concepts of a creator deity, heaven, hell, and karma; ideas that Brahmanism accepted and incorporated. Some of these beliefs would be absorbed into what Beckwith calls Normative Buddhism, the set of beliefs that evolved in later centuries and which people still associate with the philosophy, but were not part of the original tenets of Early Buddhism. This development will play a decisive role in the philosophy of Pyrrho, and upon the Greek schools which were infused by his ideas.
McEvilley and Beckwith both note Buddhism’s similarity to Pyrrhonism, and connect their origins to the Indus Valley where Alexander’s expansion stopped, and Hellenistic culture had made the strongest inroads. McEvilley notes that cultural diffusion of philosophical ideas was the norm, and asserts that maintaining a ‘pious Indian’ purity stance to their cultural heritage is inappropriate, particularly as later Pyrrhonist skepticism is speculated to have informed the development of Mahayana Buddhism.
Among European cultures, evidence for atheist thought only survives in the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers and the later Romans who took their inspiration from the Greeks. For those who think atheism arose as a product of the Enlightenment, Cambridge Professor Tim Whitmarsh, an expert in the classics and Greek culture, notes this misconception is primarily caused by a ‘profound ignorance’ people have for the Greco-Roman classics. These references from Classical Antiquity will be the subject of this chapter, documenting the beginnings of philosophical atheism in this catalogue of atheist thought.
Additional contextual background on Greco-Roman society will be useful to put things in perspective, especially given the tendency of people to project modern perspectives back into antiquity. Unlike Catholic priests in the Middle Ages, priests in ancient Greece did not have any say in secular matters and served one purpose: to make sacrifices. Ethical and legal matters were none of their business; nor was speculating on the nature of things, which was the domain of the philosophers. There was also no conventional uniformity to Greek religion to which all were expected to subscribe, nor were there any writings regarded as sacred scripture. Epic tales of the gods, such as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey or Hesiod’s Theogony, were just that, literary tales not theological works. Consequently, in pluralistic and polytheistic Greece, which had no centralized religious authority, disbelief was a more palatable alternative than in later monotheistic societies. In a monotheistic culture, such as Europe in the Middle Ages, with its strong, centralized Church that exercised a high level of socio-political control, the atheist position was a direct rejection of the party line and was inherently dangerous. But in ancient Greece, atheism, while at times repressed, was generally accepted.
The first philosophical stirrings emerged during the sixth century BCE among a group that has been labelled the pre-Socratic Ionians, the first of whom was Thales of the Milesian school. The iconic British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, commented on the importance of this school, writing:
The Milesian school is important, not for what it achieved, but for what it attempted. It was brought into existence by the contact of the Greek mind with Babylonia and Egypt. Miletus was a rich commercial city, in which primitive prejudices and superstitions were softened by intercourse with many nations. Ionia, until its subjugation by Darius at the beginning of the fifth century, was culturally the most important part of the Hellenic world. It was almost untouched by the religious movement connected with Bacchus and Orpheus; its religion was Olympic, but seems to have been not taken very seriously. The speculations of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes are to be regarded as scientific hypotheses, and seldom show any undue intrusion of anthropomorphic desires and moral ideas. The questions they asked were good questions, and their vigour inspired subsequent investigators.
The pre-Socratics were noteworthy for challenging the epic tales of the gods in their questioning of tradition. By rejecting supernatural explanations, and being amongst the first recorded written seekers of rational answers to the workings of the natural world, they ushered in the era of philosophy and skeptical questioning that would ultimately lead to expressions of outright atheism. Many of these inquiries into the natural world did not do away with the gods altogether, but just reimagined the gods as part of nature in a form of embryonic pantheism—a complex concept that could, in an overly simplified view, be stated that the universe is inseparable from God. By recasting the gods into the role of designers of an orderly universe, yet ones wholly disinterested in human affairs, these early attempts to understand nature and our place within it began the long process of relegating the gods to history.
 In two books, (TheBlind Watchmaker, 5-6; Brief Candle in the Dark, 144) Richard Dawkins recounts a conversation with philosopher Alfred Wykeham where Dawkins expresses his doubts that anyone could have been an atheist before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. While Dawkins concedes it is ‘logically tenable’ to have been an atheist before Darwin, Dawkins thinks it was Darwin’s explanation that would give an atheist the intellectual basis for their disbelief, an opinion which demonstrates a lack of awareness of the evidence from antiquity.
 This work is an example of a doxography that records the thinking and words of another.
 Psalms 14:1; 53:1. The composition of the individual Psalms are difficult to date as they span a long period of time, but are generally thought to have been compiled in the 400s BCE.
 In the book Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, the author Randall Rauser (a Christian apologist) speculates that this verse is more likely aimed at Jews who claimed to be observant and faithful practitioners of Mosaic Law, but who failed to act as such in their daily lives. Further, Rauser notes that this verse is precisely the one most frequently used by believers to reinforce their prejudice of the immoral atheist. Rauser also incorrectly claims there were no atheists in the region at the time the Psalms were compiled, an assertion clearly demonstrated to be false in this chapter.
 The Exiles returned to Jerusalem with Zoroastrian concepts, beginning the period of theological evolution characteristic of the post-Exilic Second Temple Era. It was towards the end of this era when Satan had begun to emerge in the apocalyptic literature as an independent character in direct opposition to God, a distinctly Zoroastrian concept. Only a single verse in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Chronicles 21:1, describes Satan with a proper noun and as an individual. In the older, pre-Exile book of Job, the term used is an article not a noun, hassatan, the adversary. Hassatan is a role, not an individual, and one that is controlled by God. Chronicles was one of the last books of the Hebrew canon to be written, capturing this dualistic evolution. These ideas were then transmitted to the later Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam, both of which incorporated dualistic ideas of God and Satan into their theology. For a fuller understanding of the evolution of the concept of Satan, see The Birth of Satan by Wray and Mobley.
 See the Glossary for a definition of the monad. The concept is elaborated in more detail in the section on Parmenides.
 McEvilley 2002, 60-61. Obviously, Hinduism never evolved into a monotheistic religion, but maintained its plurality of gods. Regardless, monadic ideas appear in Indian writings centuries before the Greeks.
 Jaspers 1951, 98. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was a German-Swiss psychiatrist who developed his concept of the Axial Age while attempting to explain the seemingly simultaneous emergence of several diverse great thinkers of many religious systems. Steven Pinker (2018, 23; 411) notes that the Axial Age may have been the result of agricultural advances that freed people from subsistence farming, providing an increase in caloric intake and facilitating the development of a priestly class. Further, humanist ideals begin to emerge in these new belief systems with thinkers who have spare time to contemplate.
 This will be covered under Sextus Empiricus below.
 Whitmarsh 2015, para. 8; 11; 241. The EBSCO online version of this book displays related content by numbered sections, and citations are noted accordingly. Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods, provides the starting outline for many of the thinkers covered here, with additional material primarily referenced from The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and the relevant entries from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Where a translation of an original work from antiquity is available, every effort has been made to cite it directly from an online, open-source version.
 Pinker (2018, 450-51) makes the same point: new and innovative ideas accumulate in crossroads cities, where they can be expanded upon and traded onward, enriching and enlightening those repositories of knowledge with incoming fresh perspectives.
From Buddha to Pyrrho and on through Epicurus and Lucretius, the ideas on striving to achieve peace of mind and a rejection of dogmatic absolutes came to influence and inspire some of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In this regard, the modern secular West can trace its existence to a man living 2,500 years ago in the Indus Valley who rejected Zoroastrian absolutes.
For the second edition update of Manifest Insanity, I added detailed content on the political and literary background behind the rise of Islam. Given that this is an obscure topic for most of the general public, I have excerpted it here with hyperlinks to the references made.
“There are two interesting points about the Council of Chalcedon. The first relates to the on-going political interventions of the emperors to influence the trinitarian formulae at the various Councils. As the Council was debating the precise dual nature of Jesus, one of the issues that was argued involved a Christological concept that became known as Nestorianism; named after the Archbishop of Constantinople who had been denounced as a heretic and removed from office at Ephesus in 431, and died the year before Chalcedon. Nestorius had rejected the title of God-bearer given to Mary at Ephesus; and counter to the Ephesian formulation of a single substance, he advocated for the idea that Jesus had two separate and distinct natures, divine and human, seeking to find the middle ground between the factions who believed God had been incarnated as a human and those who believed it was impossible for God to be born.
“Oxford University Professor of the History of the Church—and with a title like that he knows what he’s talking about—Diarmaid MacCulloch, hosted a brilliant and comprehensive six-part BBC documentary in 2009 called, A History of Christianity. In the first episode, The First Christianity, Professor MacCulloch wryly commented on the situation:
The emperor must have breathed a sigh of relief. Empires longed for unity, inconveniently for them, Christians repeatedly valued truth rather more. One hundred years later, in 428, a clever but tactless scholar was appointed the new bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius. Bishop Nestorius wasted little time in plunging the church into a fresh quarrel about the nature of Jesus. It would end the unity of the church once and for all, and in the process consolidate Eastern Christianity as a distinct and formidable force. . . .
. . . But, Nestorius’s supporters remained, and so, once again, a Roman emperor was left fearing that his state would fracture. He had to call yet more councils. Eventually, in 451, the bishops of the empire gathered just across the straits from Constantinople for another landmark council in church history. The Council of Chalcedon met to define the future of Christian faith. The Council . . . tried to do what all emperors want: to sign up everyone to a middle-of-the-road settlement. When you do that, it always helps to have a few troops around. So, the council decreed a compromise.
In essence, it backed Nestorius’s oil and water emphasis, that whilst here on Earth, Christ, the divine and human being, was ‘recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change.’ But in a nod to Cyril’s followers, it straight away added ‘without division, without separation.’ And that compromise is how the Churches which descend from the emperor’s Christianity—the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—have understood the mystery of Jesus ever since. . . .
. . . The losers at the Council of Chalcedon refused to fall into line; it was a watershed. Imperial and non-imperial Christianity would never be reconciled. Instead, something new happened. The church split for the first time, something that would happen many more times in its history. The imperial Church now found itself focused solely on the Mediterranean—it had no choice; Eastern Christians were not going to be pushed around by the emperor. But unlike their Western cousins, Christians in the East would now have to survive in the midst of hostile and alien religions, without the backing of an emperor.
“This split between the Eastern and imperial Chalcedonian Christians of the Mediterranean became known as the Chalcedonian Schism. Those with dissenting views split off to found churches that became known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches, such as the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch, or the one in Alexandria, Egypt which subsequently became known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. Of course, followers of the Oriental Orthodox Churches do not recognize the legitimacy of Chalcedon, and its denunciations of their determining ideologue, Nestorius.
“This schism led to the second interesting point, that being Chalcedon’s indirect influence on the rise of Islamic doctrines. Professor MacCulloch went on to note: ‘Nestorius died in exile in Egypt, but his supporters helped build the Church independent of both imperial Christianity and the Syriac Orthodox Church. They based their headquarters further east, in modern Iraq. They called themselves, appropriately, the Church of the East.’ These migrating Christians settled in the Sassanid, or Neo-Persian, Empire where the followers of Nestorius came to influence Mohammad’s understanding of Judeo-Christian monotheism.
Peter von Sivers, professor of history at the University of Utah, in a 2017 lecture at Brigham Young University titled, Islamic Origins, noted:
The Lakhmids were part of the Eastern Arabs. Their king converted in 594 to Nestorian Christianity. . . . Now, he converted to Nestorianism, and then one of the sources says once he had converted, he chased the Jacobites from the provinces. So, in other words, only Nestorians now remained in the east among the Eastern Arabs. . . . Now, the Eastern Arabs had established their form of Christianity as dominant in the eastern steppe. . . .
“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah Jesus, the Son of Mary, was but a Messenger of Allah and His Word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and his messengers. And do not say “Three;” desist—it is better for you.” Koran 4:171
. . . The Koran is actually very friendly towards both Jacobism, Monophysitism, and Nestorianism; and in fact, in many ways, comes out of Nestorianism. . . .
. . . Mohammad is actually not really a name. It literally means “the praised one,” and is probably, therefore, then the notation for that particular sage, scribe, or other person who worked on the various parts that eventually came together and made up the Koran, participating in a collective scholarly reworking of all Christian traditions in order to come up with this notion that Mohammad is really the last prophet and not Jesus. . . .
. . . I mentioned this idea here of convergence, so in other words, if you know about these Christian roots that Islam has—Islam did not emerge sui generis out of the revelations that Mohammad received on a mountain near Mecca. . . . So, we do not even know who revealed the Koran. All we know is that of what we talk about as the revelation of the Koran was the communal work of scribes who were deeply steeped in all of the scriptures of Christianity, including all the non-canonical ones of previous centuries, and put together what we can maybe call a concordance of all of the Christian writings; this is the original meaning of Islam, by the way. . . .
. . . I would say: look now, there are Christian roots and these roots, furthermore, appear in the Koran in mostly convergent form, so that there is actually a lot of commonality between Christianity and Islam. And if you are willing, then we count you Muslims among those who inherited the common concordance heritage of Judaism and Christianity; even though Christianity within itself was, of course, deeply conflicted. So, we are heirs of all three things, and so the Muslim—the Islamic Koranic revelation—is therefore just another version of the revelatory tradition that comes out of the Middle East. . . .
. . . We cannot use the Islamic tradition anymore. Let me give you the example: the Mohammad biography, the so-called sīra, was composed, the final version, in 823. That is for the first time the source where we then learn about Mohammad was born in 570, he grew up in Mecca, he has his first revelations in 610, and so on and so forth. Among ourselves, if we open ourselves to what the Christians had to say about the rise of Islam in the 600s, like I did here in my presentation, then we would come to the conclusion the origins of Islam can be nicely compared to what Christianity was all about in the 500s, and all of the problems that it experienced; you see them continued here in the origins of Islam.
“Holy Christopher!” Mr. Hand blurted out. “I had no idea Islam was so closely related to Christianity.”
“You, and about two or three billion other Christians, Jews, and Muslims. A little insight goes a long way; it’s a shame no one ever takes the time to disarm their prejudices about other religions.”
Big History covers eight thresholds, the first five of which are a given: 1: Big Bang; 2: star formation; 3: build-up of heavier elements, nucleosynthesis; 4: planetary formation; 5: emergence of life.
Starting from threshold 6, the evolution of collective learning, along with threshold 7, the agricultural revolution, we will examine how religious thought arose in our ancestors with a series of quotes from leading thinkers in evolutionary psychology and cultural anthropology, and how other disciplines (archaeology, philosophy, neurology) illuminate our understanding of the subject; something made increasingly easier by threshold 8, the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world.
Inhibition is very often the key to our survival.
Evolutionary Psychology — Threshold 6
All but a handful of scholars in this area regard religion as an accidental byproduct of our mental evolution. Specifically, religious thought is usually portrayed by scholars as having no particular adaptive biological function in itself, but instead it’s viewed as a leftover of other psychological adaptations. . . . . . . The private perception of being intelligently designed, monitored, and known about by a God who actively punished and rewarded our intentions and behaviors would have helped stomp out the frequency and intensity of our ancestors’ immoral hiccups and would have been strongly favored by natural selection.
In the Big History: Connecting Knowledge course, was a video on evolution that noted the similarity between chimps and humans regarding these immoral hiccups:
While all primates have a hierarchy of alphas and betas, humans and chimps, who share 98.4% of their DNA, are the most prone to team up together and launch a revolution against the alpha male. We’re also both prone to ganging up, roaming our territory, and beating up unsuspecting foreigners of the same species, and not for direct survival reasons. Chimpanzees have been observed finding a lone chimp male from another group and kicking, hitting, and tearing off bits of his body and then leaving the helpless victim to die of his wounds, and humans definitely bear this stamp of our lowly origin, where indeed, the imperfect step-by-step process of evolution made us highly intelligent, but still, with prefrontal cortex’s too small, and adrenal glands maybe too big. Aggression and blood lust are definitely part of our shared heritage, and, looking at more recent human history, does that really surprise anyone?
Therefore, according to evolutionary psychologists, religion played a role in moderating our baser instincts.
Patience, restraint, modesty, humility — these are all desirable, biblically endorsed features of humanity not because they are heavenly virtues, but because they’re pragmatic. . . . For us, inhibition is very often the key to our survival.
In other words, the illusion of a punitive God assisted their genetic well-being whenever they underestimated the risk of actual social detection by other people. This fact alone, this emotional short-circuiting of ancient drives in which immediate interests were traded for long-term genetic gains, which have rendered God and His ilk a strong target of natural selection in human evolution.
This is the beginning of religion as we know it. Now these people have to appeal to the gods to make sure nature does what they want it to do in order to survive. This is exactly how religion operates today.
Agricultural Revolution — Threshold 7
In every world zone the invention of agriculture was a precursor for the rise of states. The key to having a state is agrarian surplus. If you produce enough food, you can have a class of people who don’t need to farm. They can then fulfill other duties in this increasingly numerous and complex society whether they be leaders or judges who settle disputes, bureaucrats who deal with administration, and infrastructure doctors who heal the sick, priests who make sacrifices to vengeful gods or soldiers who provide security or at least extract a portion of the agricultural surplus for the leadership through some kind of taxation. And with more people filling new jobs and generating new ideas about them, this is also good news for collective learning. Diversification of labor is also the first step of early states toward hierarchies and classes — aristocrats and popular and despotic kings and pharaohs and sultans, shahs and emperors.
For 99% of our time on Earth, we had no organized religion. But then, we settled down, grew food . . . . . . The longest-lasting civilization in the history of the world was in ancient Egypt. . . . It was here civilization and religion became fused as one. Every major civilization since has adopted the same formula. . . . . . . Begun over 7000 years ago, it’s one of the oldest religious sites n he world. . . . This is where the building blocks of religion began to merge. For over two million years we were hunter-gathers, and hunter-gathers typically practice a religion called animism. . . . But, when they switch to herding, this changes their worldview. While hunter-gathers roamed freely across the landscape, herders settled for weeks at a time wherever they could find pasture. This led to a new kind of religion. The first thing that happens when people start herding, they start building sacred spaces. If you want to pray, or you want to worship, you’ve got to come to this space. And what this does, is it brings people together, from all over the place, into this one area, to worship together. . . . . . . This giant megalith, here, this thing weighs several tons and would have been carried a few miles just to get it to this point, and that requires organized labor, that requires people working together. We can surmise that they would have had some kind of spiritual significance to these things to put that much effort into this. And if that’s the case, we’re looking at some sort of prototype church. The first monuments were all inspired by religion. . . . . . . What we’re seeing here at Nabta Playa, this is the beginning of religion as we know it. Now these people have to appeal to the gods to make sure nature does what they want it to do in order to survive. This is exactly how religion operates today.
While Göbekli Tepe in Turkey is considered the oldest temple site, 1–2,000 years older than Nabta Playa, it was created on the cusp of the agricultural revolution, and as such, it is not an altar dedicated to crop fertility but to ancestor worship.
We don’t normally associate this idea with agriculture, but at least in their beginnings theist religions were an agricultural enterprise. The theology, mythology and liturgy of religions such as Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity initially centered on the relationship between humans, domesticated plants and farm animals.
Biblical Judaism for instance, catered to peasants and shepherds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals. People today imagine the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a kind of synagogue where priests clad in snow-white robes welcomed devout pilgrims, melodious choirs sang psalms and incense perfumed the air. In reality, it looked more like a cross between a slaughterhouse and a barbecue joint. The pilgrims did not come empty-handed. They brought with them a never-ending stream of sheep, goats, chickens and other animals, which were sacrificed at the god’s altar and then cooked and eaten. Priests in bloodstained outfits cut the victims’ throats, collected the gushing blood in jars and spilled it over the altar. The perfume of the incense mixed with the odours of the congealed blood and roasted meat, while swarms of black flies buzzed just about everywhere.
The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always.
Legendary professor of world mythology, Joseph Campbell, discussed how the local terrain shaped and defined our ancestors’ perceptions of the divine.
Moyers: Geography has done a great deal to shape our culture and our idea of religion. The god of the desert is not the god the plains —
Campbell: — or the god of the rain forest — the gods, plural, of the rain forest. When you’re out in the desert with one sky and one world, then you might have one deity, but in a jungle, where there’s no horizon and you never see anything more than ten or twelve yards away from you, you don’t have that idea any more.
Moyers: So are they projecting their idea of God on the world?
Campbell: Yes, of course.
Moyers: Their geography shapes their image of divinity, and then they project it out and call it God.
Campbell: Yes. The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always. . . .
Moyers: I wonder what it would have meant to us if somewhere along the way, we had begun the prayer “Our Mother,” instead of “Our Father.” What psychological difference would it have made?
Campbell: Well, it makes a psychological difference in the character of the cultures. You have the basic birth of civilization in the Near East with the great river valleys then as the main source areas, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and then over in India, the Indus valley and later the Ganges. This is the world of the goddess; all these rivers have goddess names finally.
Then there come the invasions. These fighting people are herding people. The Semites are herders of goats and sheep, and the Indo-Europeans of cattle. They were formerly the hunters. They translate a hunting mythology into a herding mythology, but it’s animal oriented. And when you have hunters you have killers, and when you have herders, you have killers, because they’re always in movement, nomadic, coming into conflict with other people and they have to conquer the area they move into. This comes into the Near East, and this brings in the warrior gods, like Zeus, like Yahweh.
Moyers: The sword and death, instead of fertility.
another section of the documentary, Campbell goes on to discuss how
societies separated by vast distances evolved the same ideas of the
Moyers: Now, what do you make of that, that in two very different cultures, the same imagery emerges?
Campbell: Yes, well, there are only two ways to explain it, and one is by diffusion, that an influence came from there to here, and the other is by separate development. And when you have the idea of separate development, this speaks for certain powers in the psyche which are common to all mankind. Otherwise you couldn’t have — and to the detail the correspondences can be identified, it’s astonishing when one studies these things in depth, the degree to which the agreements go between totally separated cultures.
Moyers: Which says something about the commonality of the species, doesn’t it?
Campbell: Well, yes, that was Carl Jung’s idea, which he calls the archetypes, archetypes of the collective unconscious.
The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival.
At Nazlet Khater archaeologists found another burial, the burial of an adult, dated 30 to 35,000 years old. This example is also important because just beside the head of the skeleton was a stone and axe, an offering in the tomb. This is the first evidence of an associate artifact with a human body in a tomb. That means that people, at this stage, were interested in the protection of the bodies in the afterlife. When you protect a body after it’s dead, that means that there is a belief in the afterlife. Why do you want to protect your body if your body is useless after the death? In this case, when you protect the body, we can guess that these people had a very complex belief in the afterlife, and maybe a religion.
Above, Harari mentioned how Judaism and Hinduism sprang out of the agricultural revolution, meaning the religions they gave rise to, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, and that a sizeable number of people who subscribe to a major world religion are also tied to these agricultural origins.
Just as P [the priestly source] grounded the Sabbath in the creation story, so it grounds the Passover in the story of the exodus. The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival. . . . The celebration was changed by the reform of King Josiahin 621 B.C.E. into a pilgrimagefestival, to be celebrated at the central sanctuary [Jerusalem] and was combined with the Festival of Unleavened Bread.
As with living organisms, religion has continued to evolve and change over the centuries, with, in some cases, substantial shifts in the core tenets. I will focus on Judeo-Christianity, as that was the subject I covered in my book and with which I am most familiar; but I will return to Buddhism in the neurology section. Archaeology, in particular, has shown how Israelite theology changed fundamentally over its duration. The reform of Josiah, mentioned above, was when monotheism first became the official state religion of Judah, not earlier in its history as its texts portray, and which the excerpts below elaborate on.
We know from text and from archaeology, that traditional Israelite religion involved venerating the ancestors, the gods of the underworld so to speak. We know from texts, at least, and from iconography that we find in the ground, that traditional Israelite religion involved venerating the stars and the planets. We know, therefore, the traditional Israelite religion was polytheistic.
Baruch Halpern, Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies — University of Georgia, in The Bible Unearthed
The book of Deuteronomy perpetrates one of the great reformations in history: it imposes a strict philosophical monotheism that banishes all other gods from traditional culture. This was part of a reformationist program in which King Josiah attempted to centralize not only power, but the ability to reach the realm of the divine into his own hands, in Jerusalem, in the temple,the temple, which, sat in the backyard of the Royal Palace. . . .
. . . Deuteronomy was hugely important for Western civilization because for the first time the individual was singled out from the crowd as the focus of moral responsibility and duties . . . .
. . . Many elements of the reform actually precede the reform. . . . Effectively, what you see in the 7th century BC is the development of individuality. These social changes were reflected in radical new laws in Deuteronomy, an ideological change of great enduring consequence . . . .
. . . What it testifies to is a new consciousness at the end of the seventh century. . . . The power of the governor was subject to some greater laws, some greater morality, and it’s here on this broken piece of pottery, as archaeological evidence from the time of Josiah, that what we now still believe as biblical tradition and biblical morality, was born among the people. . . .
. . . That is the mindset, the self-conscious mindset, on which science, and monotheism, and Western civilization have been found.
After centuries of a repressive Vatican controlling much of what happened in medieval Europe and the affiliated intellectual stagnation, the Protestant Reformation lit the match that would eventually culminate in the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, European philosophers opposed to blind faith, tradition, and superstition, advocated for the increasing application of reason and scientific rationalism, and advanced the ideas of humanism as an alternative to theism. As many Western secular nations have evolved beyond traditional religion, secular humanism is coming to be the dominant philosophy in a number of these societies. Statistics confirm this trend, as the least religious countries are correlated among the happiest; whereas, religion continues to have the most influence in countries with less-developed economies and greater degrees of uncertainty. Citizens in self-actualized societies don’t appear to need the crutch of religion, allowing our common humanity to be our moral guide.
Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.
What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?
In a relatively new field of neurology, coined neurotheology, modern science can now demonstrate how gods manifest in our brains; and here is where we come back to Buddhism, as Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer activate a completely different part of the brain.
This is the resting scan, this is the prayer scan showing increased activity in the frontal lobes and in the language area of the brain. . . .
. . . When a person feels deeply focused on their prayer, we see increased activity in the focusing area of the brain. This area of the brain, the frontal lobe, is intensely active when we hold conversations; it allows us to speak and to listen.
Andy believes that in Judeo-Christian prayer the frontal lobe activates, just as it would in normal conversation. To the brain, talking to God is indistinguishable from talking to a person.
When we study Buddhist meditation, where they’re visualizing something, we might expect to see a change or an increase of activity in the visual areas of the brain. In Buddhist practice, the divine is an abstract presence, not a person who is directly spoken to, but rather an essence that can be visualized during deep meditation. And when Andy looks at the brains of people who do not believe in God, he finds that simple quiet meditation produces none of the brain activity of believers.
A multidisciplinary analysis gives us the Big History view that from an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation, divine agency was born and took root in our brains, and we can now see our god neurons activating with magnetic resonance imaging.
What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.