Category Archives: Philosophy

Dangerous Ideas: Chapter 1 – The Ancients

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.

~ Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians IX. 50-51

Chapter 1: The Ancients

Many people are under the mistaken impression that expressions of disbelief are a relatively modern occurrence that started with the Enlightenment.[1] Surviving examples of atheist thought in ancient history are few, but there are a handful that 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. 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,[2] 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.’[3] Surely, the author of this verse would not have written it unless there was a large enough segment of the population expressing views of non-belief at the time to warrant its composition. Also, note the ad hominem attack and the deliberate insinuation that atheists are immoral people. This unfair character assassination still plagues 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 nonsense.

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 of philosophical history have often taken a narrow view and only looked 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 major 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?’[4]

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.[5]

Around the same time in Persia, 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 who note the dualistic shift in Jewish dogmas following the exposure to Persian religion after being freed from the Babylonian Exile by Cyrus the Great.[6] The Zoroastrian influence on the development of Brahmanism and Buddhism will be discussed in this chapter in the section covering Pyrrho.

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.[7] These references from Classical Antiquity will be the subject of this chapter, documenting the beginnings of philosophical atheism in this survey of atheist thought.

Some contextual background on ancient Greek 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.[8] 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.[9] Consequently, in pluralistic and polytheistic Greece, which had no centralized ecclesiastical 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.[10]

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:

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.[11] 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.[12]

A History of Western Philosophy

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, if not outright atheism. Many of these inquiries into the natural world did not do away with the gods altogether, but just reimagined them as part of nature in a form of embryonic pantheism. 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 in it began the long process of relegating the gods to history.


[1] In two books, (The Blind Watchmaker 1986, 5-6; Brief Candle in the Dark 2015, 144) Richard Dawkins recounts a conversation with philosopher Alfred Wykeham where he 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 an intellectual satisfaction for their disbelief.

[2] This work is an example of a doxography that records the thinking and words of another.

[3] Psalms 14:1; 53:1.

[4] Mandala 10.129.

[5] Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verse 8.

[6] 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 where 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 as an individual. In the older, pre-Exile book of Job, the term used is an article not a noun, hassatan, the adversary, and he 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.

[7] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 8; 11; 241. The EBSCO online version of this book displays related content by numbed 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.

[8] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 21-22; 52.

[9] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 26-31.

[10] Whitmarsh 2015, para. 11; 26.

[11] Steven Pinker (2018, 450-51) makes the same point in Enlightenment Now: 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.

[12] Russell 1945, 29.


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How Buddha Influenced Western Democracy & Secular Humanism

My recent article featured on Medium: How Buddha Influenced Western Democracy & Secular Humanism

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.

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Eastern Philosophical Concepts in Spinoza’s Pantheism & Ethics

My recent article featured on Medium: https://medium.com/@diogenesofmayberry/eastern-philosophical-concepts-in-spinozas-pantheism-ethics-b16ac11439bc

Nadler (1999, pp. 109, 242) cited the influence of Greek Stoicism on Spinoza’s thoughts, based on his education and books found in his personal library. However, to the reader unfamiliar with the Greeks but with a basic understanding of Eastern philosophies, the Buddhist thought in Spinoza is readily apparent; it practically jumps off the page and begs to be acknowledged. Schopenhauer (1909, p. 13 footnote 1) noted the connection: ‘The banks of the sacred Ganges were their [Bruno and Spinoza] spiritual home; there they would have led a peaceful and honoured life among men of like mind.’

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Dangerous Ideas: Hobbes & Spinoza

An excerpt from the draft of the book I am currently writing:


Chapter 5: Hobbes & Spinoza

Two books were published in the second half of the seventeenth century, almost twenty years apart in separate countries, that made nearly identical arguments and utilized a similar structure in presenting their cases. Both books were influential works of early political philosophy and, in the case of one, foundational in the arguments for Western secular democracy. Due to their remarkable similarities and some fascinating details surrounding their arguments, a dedicated chapter comparing their insights is deserved. Given that these are two lengthy works that tend to be very repetitive in places, and in an attempt not to bore the casual reader with an in-depth analysis, this will necessarily involve an extremely rigorous summary of their main arguments.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in England, and in 1669 or 1670, Benedict Spinoza published the Theological-Political Treatise (hereafter TTP from the Latin title, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) in the Netherlands. As the name of Spinoza’s work implies, the topic of both books dealt with theological issues to make political points; specifically, that clerics should stop interfering in civil matters. Under these two topics, they each made several related points which will be outlined below in a high-level grouping by subject. Both men had other writings, of which mention will be made, but the primary focus here will be on these two works which most advanced the cause for freedom of thought and had a lasting impact.

Hobbes published his book openly, even though he advocated for an absolute monarchy and was living through the period of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth of England (1649-60) that had executed Charles I in 1649. Spinoza not only took the precaution of publishing anonymously, but also listed a different city of publication (Hamburg) and cited a fictitious publisher (Henry Künraht). Spinoza’s caution undermined his claim that Holland was a tolerant place—which by contemporary standards to other European countries, it was—in which to voice criticism:

Since, then, we happen to have that rare good fortune—that we live in a Republic in which everyone is granted complete freedom of judgment, and is permitted to worship God according to his mentality, and in which nothing is thought to be dearer or sweeter than freedom—I believed I would be doing something neither unwelcome, nor useless, if I showed not only that this freedom can be granted without harm to piety and the peace of the Republic, but also that it cannot be abolished unless piety and the Peace of the Republic are abolished with it.[1]

Spinoza revealed what he truly thought in his private correspondence, which at times was at odds with what was publicly stated in his published writings. For example, in Letter 30 to Henry Oldenburg in 1665 he stated the exact opposite:

I am currently working on a treatise giving my views about scripture. I am led to do this by the following considerations:

(1) the prejudices of the theologians; for I know that they are the greatest obstacle to men’s being able to apply their minds to philosophy; so I am busy exposing them and removing them from the minds of the more prudent;

(2) the opinion the common people have of me; they never stop accusing me of atheism, and I have to rebut this accusation as well as I can; and

(3) my desire to defend in every way the freedom of philosophising and saying what we think; the preachers here suppress it as much as they can with their excessive authority and aggressiveness.

Spinoza experts, Professors Nadler and Curley, made similar points about the stealth of Spinoza in regard to the TTP. Nadler wrote that after Spinoza’s friend Adriaan Koerbagh was arrested and tried for blasphemy,[2] then imprisoned and died in jail for his Dutch publication criticizing the status quo, Spinoza was well aware of what could happen to him and took the appropriate precautions.[3] Curley asserted that Spinoza needed to make a judgment call on just how far he could go in certain cases, and often ‘pulled his punches.’[4] Curley further pointed out that in Letter 30 Spinoza stated he was working on a theological treatise in 1665, with no mention of politics.[5] Given that Leviathan was not translated into a language Spinoza understood until 1667[6] (in Dutch, and Latin by 1668), this suggests that the political arguments of the final chapters of the TTP were likely an afterthought following his exposure to the ideas of Hobbes, and given further motivation by the persecution and death of Koerbagh.

Main Arguments

Both authors spent, roughly, two-thirds of their content on biblical exegesis—textual criticism, deconstruction, and, often, reinterpretations of traditional views. From a modern context, it is tempting to think this level of detail was excessive and that their arguments could have been dramatically more concise. A casual glance at Leviathan’s table of contents and the plentiful topical subheadings[7] will give the reader an idea of just how long-winded Hobbes could be and the monotonous detail he went into. The breakdown of their points on this topic is presented in the Theological Arguments section below.

Additionally, they both could have used a decent editor to consolidate arguments that were frequently repeated. However, they were writing at a time when religious bodies exercised considerable control and influence over society and government, and as such they needed to make strong cases for delegitimizing ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, a disproportionate amount of their writing is aimed at just this task.

But the world in which Spinoza wanted to make the practical lesson of his philosophy effective was an old world in which rooted institutions and beliefs held sway and truths were embodied in writings which were regarded as sacred. Made of sterner stuff and living a few centuries later, Spinoza would have perhaps demanded the overthrow of the old order with its effete institutions so as to build upon its ruins a new society of a new generation raised on his new philosophy. He would then perhaps have become one of the first apostles of rebellion. But being what he was and living at a time when belief in the potency of reformation had not yet been shaken by doubt, he chose to follow in the footsteps of rationalizers throughout history. The story of his rationalization is the story of his Tractatus Theologico-Politucus.[8]

Spinoza’s thorough analysis in the TTP gave rise to the modern discipline of textual criticism, which has continued to uncover new insights in biblical scholarship to the present day; some of those insights confirming and others disproving certain points he made about the authenticity and meaning of many passages and books.[9] While Hobbes made many of the same points, it will be Spinoza’s references that will be the focus here, with the corresponding citation from Leviathan where applicable. The primary reason for the focus on Spinoza is due to his unique background: an excommunicated Jew from a Portuguese immigrant family that fled the forced conversions in Iberia, who was fluent in Hebrew and educated in the Jewish schools of Amsterdam, giving him unique insights and skills Hobbes and other thinkers of their day did not possess. While the political arguments of Hobbes helped to inform the last chapters of the TTP, Nadler pointed out that Spinoza would have needed no input from his contemporaries in formulating his biblical deconstructions.[10]

The arguments of both Hobbes and Spinoza can be summarized into subjects covering: Political – state authority, church subordination to the state, and social contract theory; and, Theological – the origins/legitimacy of scripture, critiques of religious authority and their usurpation/abuses of power, and in Spinoza’s case, his conception of God as indistinguishable from nature and not an anthropomorphized being concerned with human dealings.

Ontological Arguments

Before exploring Spinoza’s theological arguments in detail, it is first helpful to understand his conception of God as it forms the foundation of his subsequent points in the TTP. In Ethics, Spinoza set out to create a wholly new moral philosophy, the first in modern Western history to be based on a humanist ethic and not a theological one.[11] In 1665, Spinoza set aside[12] working on Ethics and its revolutionary humanist approach to write the TTP to clear the way of religious opposition for the public reception of Ethics. However, his plan to prepare the field backfired given the outrage that the TTP generated, and subsequently Ethics was not published until after his death in 1677.

It was in Ethics that he laid out his proof for the existence of God. In Book I: Concerning God, Proposition 11, Spinoza made the claim:

God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.

Proof. (11:1) If this be denied, conceive, if possible, that God does not exist: then his essence does not involve existence. (2) But this is absurd. (3) Therefore God necessarily exists.

This is the standard ontological argument, the same used by Descartes shown in the preceding chapter. In a book dedicated to deconstructing Spinoza’s arguments in Ethics, Bennett was very direct in his assessment stating that Spinoza believed this was ‘sufficient for a proof’ and it is a natural reaction for one to ‘gasp at the impudence;’ and overall, asserted that Spinoza was not adept at proper reasoning and used logic only so far as it supported his arguments rather than as a purely philosophical means to an end.[13] Bennett’s assessment is an understandable reaction if Spinoza’s declaration is read as nothing more than the bold assertion for the existence of the traditional understanding of a cosmic deity.

However, Spinoza’s deliberate choice to use the word God has confused people about what he meant for centuries, and it is obvious why this term would lead to exactly the misunderstanding it continues to generate. Perhaps he needed to exercise caution in a heavily theistic society that imprisoned and killed people for denying the existence of a heavenly creator, or perhaps he just wanted to use terminology that people were familiar with to relate his concepts about the creation of the universe. Regardless of his motives for using the word God, when Spinoza’s Proposition 11 is read substituting God/substance with nature[14] as simply asserting that the universe follows the laws of physics,[15] which later science has clearly shown that it does, then his argument does not appear impudent but as profoundly intuitive and ground-breaking. Indeed, Oppy provided a detailed account of the history and types of ontological arguments and the invalid nature of their construction, listing Spinoza’s proof as ‘Intimations of a defensible mereological ontological argument . . . e.g., the existence of the physical universe.’[16]

Motivations

Spinoza’s conception of God was important for the advancement of secularism because his premise that God was just the impersonal force of nature removed from the concerns of humanity[17] was a central premise of his attempt to deprive the religious leaders of his day of their biblical authority. By arguing that God was indistinguishable from nature, and that millennia of Jewish and Christian priests had perverted the ‘true nature’ of religion, Spinoza made the case that their self-appointed authority was just as made-up as the flimsy dogmas they had invented in order to subvert and control the populace.

As outlined in chapter two on the Vatican’s accumulation of power and domination in Western Europe, religious authorities repeatedly sought to repress intellectual freedom, and the same was true in Protestant Holland. The specifics of the various political battles and ongoing religious interference from the stern Calvinists of the Dutch Reformed Church are not necessary to this analysis and can be accepted as historical truth; details which Nadler covered in Spinoza: A Life. That Calvinist interference was a danger to stability in the Dutch Republic was central to Spinoza’s premise in the TTP, and why he drew parallels to the Jewish priests and their grasping political power which led to the collapse of the Jewish state. Therefore, the sovereign power should have complete authority in all matters, including religion, in order to ensure peace and end the sectarian divisions.

In formulating his concept for this ideal state, Spinoza made ‘one of the most eloquent arguments’ for secular democracy and why the TTP is essential in understanding the history of dangerous ideas in the evolution of freedom of thought.[18] While many scholars dispute when the Enlightenment properly began, most putting it in the late eighteenth century, Spinoza’s TTP definitively seeded the ground and influenced many of the revolutionary thinkers that came after him. Professor Jonathan Israel, who distinguishes between the radical and moderate arms of the Enlightenment, also credits Spinoza with being foundational to the radical side and its unflinching call for the checking of religious authority in order to ensure democratic freedoms; as opposed to Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke on the moderate side who conceded some measure of validity to religion.[19]

Spinoza decided the best way to make his case for freedom of thought was to amply demonstrate in all the ways the church fathers were wrong, in order to remove their shackles from the minds of the men trying to advance society. Spinoza made the targets of his attention clear, mocking those who would hinder progress for the sake of tradition:

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.[20]

Judging from the rising numbers of non-believers in twenty-first-century, highly secular Western Europe, and the corresponding rapid decline in church attendance, Spinoza was correct that knowledge is the key for attenuating religious authority in the socio-political sphere. Though, he might loathe the exponential growth of atheism that came hand-in-hand with the dwindling wonder of fools, especially as such rigorous secularism was sparked by his own arguments.


[1] TTP Preface, 12. All references to the TTP refer to Spinoza 2016 and employ the Bruder paragraph numbering system used by Curley in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol. 2. Further, Curley affixes a prime notation to the words knowledge and power, providing them differential meanings from their Latin originals: ‘knowledge…where “science” did not feel right for Scientia…[such as] treating scientia as equivalent to cognitio. (637-8); ‘power…very often (not always) refers to power arising in an institutional context from a person’s (or collective body’s) position in that institution. (649-50).

[2] Koerbagh also displayed Socinian (see Glossary) tendencies: denying the trinity and divinity of Jesus. Cf. Nadler 1999, 171.

[3] Nadler 1999, 269.

[4] Spinoza 2016, 53-56.

[5] Spinoza 2016, 14.

[6] From Curley’s ‘Spinoza’s Contribution to Biblical Scholarship’ in the forthcoming second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza by Don Garrett (Ed.). Professor Curley generously emailed me a draft version of his submission for my consideration. See also Nadler 2011, 119.

[7] Lacking a similar paragraph numbering system as in the TTP, or page numbers from the online version, subheadings will be given to guide the reader to the correct citations. The Project Gutenberg file for Leviathan lists all chapter and subheading titles: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207.

[8] Wolfson 1934, 330. See also Hyman 1963, 190. In another age, Spinoza would ‘have ignored Scripture’ altogether.

[9] Spinoza 2016, xv; Nadler 2011, 106.

[10] Nadler 2011, 119.

[11] Goldstein 2018, 585.

[12] Letter 20 to van Blijenbergh in 1665, ‘I also read in that preface that you will shortly publish these Metaphysical Thoughts [Ethics] in an expanded form.’ Letter 30 listed above, also from 1665, indicated he had begun the TTP due to the ‘prejudices of the theologians.’

[13] Bennett 1984, 72; 75; 28.

[14] He is clearer in his meaning in Letter 73: ‘My opinion concerning God and Nature is far different from the one modern Christians usually defend. I maintain that God is the indwelling cause of all things, not the cause from outside.’

[15] Rebecca Goldstein used this analogy in our personal conversation (July 2020), which confirmed what I had suspected from piecing together Spinoza’s thoughts across his various writings.

[16] Oppy 2019.

[17] See Chapter 1 for the conception of the impersonal God described by Epicurus and Pliny which Spinoza copied.

[18] Nadler 1999, 283–5.

[19] Israel 2011, 10.

[20] Ethics I, Appendix.

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Big History of Religion: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on the Rise of Belief

I first became aware of the concept of Big History from the TV documentary on History which aired in 2013, and I was thoroughly fascinated from the start. Recently, I took the Coursera Big History: Connecting Knowledge series, and while proceeding through the course I realized that both my book, Manifest Insanity, and my recently featured article, Psychology of Faith, examined religion from the Big History perspective. Here, then, is a summary of the Big History of religion.

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.

Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

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?

Human Evolution: Crash Course Big History #6

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.

Bering

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.

Migration and Intensification: Crash Course Big History #7

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.

First Civilizations, Episode: 2 — Religion, Video 6 of 11, Nabta Playa, PBS (2018).

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.

Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always.


Cultural Anthropology

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.

Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

In another section of the documentary, Campbell goes on to discuss how societies separated by vast distances evolved the same ideas of the supernatural.

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.

Ep. 6: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘Masks of Eternity’, PBS (1988).

The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival.


Archaeology

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.

Tristant, Coursera — Big History: Connecting Knowledge — How did people live in the Palaeolithic?

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.

Source: NPR

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 Josiah in 621 B.C.E. into a pilgrimage festival, to be celebrated at the central sanctuary [Jerusalem] and was combined with the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible

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.

Neil Silberman (L) and Israel Finkelstein (R), The Bible Unearthed (2005)

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments.


Philosophy

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.

Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?


Neurology

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.

Through the Wormhole, Did We Invent God?, Science (S03E10, 2012).

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.

Bering
Source: Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

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