Thursday, 14 May 2015

Beyond the Religious Impulse

Millions of words have been written on the subject of human religion, and its origin, in the past two centuries or so. These words have been written in an intellectual and cultural landscape, in the western world at least, that has a very clearly defined structure. This means that each new writer on the subject of religion has had to negotiate these, while framing arguments which add to the sum of human knowledge, and which make sense of the data which is available to us.

The discipline of archaeology has given us a treasure trove of data which we did not have even a century ago, so that it is possible for us to analyse the past to a level of detail which can be quite revealing. Many of the things understood and believed by scholars in the nineteenth century have lost all value, except in terms of waymarkers in the development of a rational response to the evidence for the past.

The archaeologist James Mellaart, who was brilliant, but who did not entirely have the confidence of other scholars for one reason and another, once said in a lecture that ‘the important bit of evidence is always missing’. Meaning that there is no reason at all why the simple act of digging should provide materials which answer the questions you want to ask.

It is also true that the important bit of evidence is sometimes present, but often isn’t recognised, because the scholar is asking the wrong questions, and possibly asking questions within the wrong analytical paradigm. So there is in fact a very large quantity of material available to scholars which can tell us much about the intellectual life of the ancient world, but because of the contemporary intellectual and cultural landscape, with its fixed and defined structure developed over many years, it simply cannot be seen for what it is.

The most common explanation for the human insistence on the reality of the divine, and its long existence, stretching as it does, back (at least) into the Palaeolithic, if rock art is any guide, is that it is an intuitive and natural response to the nature of the reality which presents itself to man. That is undoubtedly part of the explanation, but it has an enormous weakness, in that there is nothing about this response which offers an explanation of any of the complexity of human religious observance and understanding. Of that we have only a phenomenological understanding; we can describe the phenomena represented to us in the evidence of texts and ritual objects, burial sites, temples, etc, and we can infer certain things about the ancient perception of reality, and of the nature of the divine, on the basis of these, usually within a comparative framework.

Analysis of a phenomenon within a comparative framework is always hazardous, because it is necessary to determine what is comparable. It may be the case that apparent parallels are simply phenomenal coincidences, without any deeper common meaning, and so the comparison is misleading. The comparative choices, and the nature of the decisions made in connection with them, have bedevilled comparative study of ancient patterns of thought concerning the divine since modern comparative study began. I remember the archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s confidence in interpreting the monument of Stonehenge as a place of the dead early in the first decade of this new century. He interpreted the routes to the monument, by water and land, as a processional route from some formerly existing and similar monuments made of wood (Durrington Walls and Woodhenge), and read from the whole array that the processional route symbolised passing from life to death.

This easy interpretation even sounds as though it belongs to the late nineteenth century, in its approach and assumptions. Why was he so confident of his interpretation? The answer is that he had met someone from Madagascar, where they have stone structures too, who told him that stone monuments are places of the dead.

So many questions could be asked! Why should practice and meaning in Madagascar be comparable with practice and meaning in Stonehenge? How does the Madagascan know about the meaning of stone monuments in Madagascar – is it still a current practice, and therefore it is possible to ask people what it means? If it is a current practice, why should it be the case that it reflects an earlier understanding of what it might have meant to build these things some four thousand years ago? If it isn’t a current practice, then what basis is there at all for conjuring an interpretation from the stones which is then used to interpret the meaning of Stonehenge?

Underneath this interpretation is the unpleasant notion that the strangeness of the ancient world arises from an essentially irrational view of reality, which we do not share because we are rational creatures (in this case a post-processual academic archaeologist of some standing). If we want to gain an insight into irrational phenomena, we need to find someone to ask who might still be in touch, in some way, with an understanding of that irrationality.


Scholars are looking for a simple set of solutions to the question of the origin of the religious impulse, because we imagine it must be simple. It is after all a universal phenomenon which has existed almost from time immemorial. But it isn’t the case that the set of solutions needs to be simple. It does however need to have been intelligible to the group which first mooted the idea of the divine, as does the idea of connection between man and the divine. Not everyone needs to understand the actual detail of how god was first understood by man, and the nature of the basis of the idea that man can have some kind of connection with the divine. What is necessary is the existence of such ideas. Human beings will do the rest.

So much of modern life depends on things we don’t understand in any real sense – technology, as Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, if sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. But we are able to live our lives on the basis of the knowledge of the functionality of our technology. The function of computers, phones, cameras and televisions is deliberately made simple, otherwise we would not know how to use them, or perhaps even understand how they might be of use to us. When I was a child of about six or seven, I was taught how to count in binary, and also taught how to draw flow diagrams. This was because at the time (the early sixties), this was the sort of knowledge it was imagined would be necessary for people to be able to use computers in the future. Which turned out to be wrong. I’ve had occasion to use this knowledge (rarely), only because I’ve worked professionally in the development of information technology. Very few people outside this relatively narrow group of techno-priests have any idea at all of the practical workings of the technologies they use.

What we identify as the religious impulse is what is phenomenally observed by us, both in the present, and also in the archaeological and literary record, where it takes some very strange forms. This evidence does not give us clear explanation of why our ancestors conceived of both the idea of the divine, and the idea that some sort of human-divine commerce could take place. In the absence of such a clear explanation, we follow the line of least resistance, and assume that the explanation lies in the credulity of the human mind, and that therefore what lies beneath the phenomena we observe is essentially irrational. On this basis, it is hard for scholars to see the history of religions as anything other than an interminable procession of human foolishness through time.

Yet there are many people for whom the human response to the divine is still more important to them than anything else that civilisation has made. They do not know why things are as they imagine them to be, but at some level, the notion of the divine makes profound sense. They need to live their lives in relation to the  observance of the reality of God.


 Much of The Sacred History of Being is an exploration of a hypothesized noumenal core of rational ideas about the nature of the divine, which also provides explanation for the idea that the divine and the world of time and space are in some way interwoven. This hypothesized noumenal core, and its nature, I inferred from surviving discussion which took place in antiquity, and close examination of the detail of ancient liturgy, ritual, and art. Some of the evidence is not obscure, and has been in circulation for a very long time, including materials which appear in the Old and New Testaments. It simply isn't seen for what it is. Other evidence comes from Mesopotamian texts, particularly from ancient Assyria.

Rational argument provides a basis for both the nature and reality of the divine, and also for the existence of connexion between the divine and the secular world. We have this discussion first from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. In the place where the argument is made most explicitly, the conclusion to the discussion is not given. This is to be expected, since it represents an esoteric core of understanding of reality, and therefore a matter of great importance to any group who had religious doctrine built upon it. The nature of the conclusion is profoundly counter-intuitive, which is another reason why only the reasoning was given, and not the conclusion. But it can be figured out.

This counter-intuitive conclusion implies some extraordinary things about the nature of reality in general, and about the nature of material existence. The most striking thing is how closely the implications of this conclusion mirror known models of reality which have been in circulation in various parts of the world since the 2nd millennium BCE.

It is possible to extrapolate from the implications of this argument some things which would have become a focus of special interest to any priestly group who followed the logic of this kind of argument about the nature of reality. The Sacred History of Being discusses both the nature of the divine which emerges as a consequence of this argument, and its implications for the relationship between the divine and the world, plus the mechanics of the kind of interaction which can be predicted to take place. In addition it is possible to specify particular aspects of the world of existence which have the most powerful resonance with the divine world. Some of these were already known on the basis of the observance of these phenomena by ancient societies, but it wasn’t clear why they were accorded such importance.

Now it is possible to focus also on similar resonances, which might not already have been noticed. So the hypothesis has turned into a (so far tentative) reconstruction of a view of the world which was in existence around the Mediterranean and in the ancient near east in the 1st millennium at least, and most likely also in the 2nd millennium. This model is capable of making predictions about what may be found in the evidence, and can also be falsified on the basis of whether or not it is supported by the evidence.

Thomas Yaeger, 14th May 2015 (edited 15th May).

No comments:

Post a Comment