Thursday, June 03, 2004

Religion, Evolution, and the Borrowed Template

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in a given society. It is so influential, that it almost seems like an evolutionary necessity. Why is it that so many people, perhaps 98%, invest their time and effort in a belief structure that at best is a mythical representation, and at worst can lead to countless wars and quite possibly the extinction of a society? The obvious answer is that religion is a force that binds a given society together, preventing any loss of social identity. Religion in essence is a pan-societal factor. Just as language, dress, music, even choice of cuisine reinforce a society, religion provides yet another common ground between various different individuals.
When one analyzes any pan-societal factor, they must first understand the prehistoric and evolutionary reasons for such a powerful force. Human beings are essentially the same creatures that existed 100,000 years ago in Africa; motivated by an irresistible urge to keep moving and exploring. We are physically identical to those early humans who hadn't yet lived in cities, or domesticated animals, mastered agriculture, or developed metal production. Those early hunter-gatherer humans were composed of small wondering bands, in a clan-based social hierarchy. Evolution provided humans with the tools to strengthen and socially bind each small clan together. The larger ones numbers, the more strength, and less stress each individual in the clan would have. As long as resources were abundant enough, people were happy and more then willing to serve beliefs that reinforced and identified their bond. In fact, it was an evolutionary necessity to find commononalities and pan-societal factors. Artwork such as cave painting, rock carving, tattooing, ornamentation, and other such aesthetic bonds were a method in which a clan could have formed a social identity. An example from today's world, would be gangs. They are like the early clans, each having a strong self-identity, whether it's the color of their bandanas, or the hand signals, or any number of identifying factors. In this context then, it's not difficult to see religion as a social binding force and an early necessity for self-identification.
Religion works great as a force of social identification. It's a belief structure that each member can follow, and share with one another. But unlike mythology, religion is taken far too seriously. Mythology was once religious in nature as well, and only through the course of history, can one look back and laugh at the irrationality of people (without realizing their own irrational beliefs). We now look at Greek Mythology, and find it amusing that their pantheon was composed of gods who had such "flawed" human characteristics. They were vengeful and spiteful, highly jealous, and sometimes truly enjoyed causing a complete mess. They were constantly meddling with people and really enjoying it. They not only drank, but ate, slept, laughed, had sex, played music, and pretty much enjoyed life to the fullest. However, as society developed and advanced, it evolved to embrace highly metaphysical concepts. The gods were not identified as flawed humans, but as flawless beings (or being, in monotheistic thought). They now lived in a metaphysical realm that was far different from the physical world that we know. Instead of living on the top of the highest mountain (such as mount Olympus) they now resided in a metaphysical world called heaven, out of reach for a corporeal body. In some religions, the idea of deities all together was shelved, and instead, the purpose of existence became to reach fulfillment. In Buddhism, the whole purpose of existence is to attempt to attain a state of perfection. Hinduism also has similar concepts involving the attainment of Nirvana.
In current matters of religion, there is a wide rift developing between those who follow their beliefs literally, to those who take it half serious and in vague terms called spirituality, and the minority who have completely distanced themselves from any concept of it. I for one am in great conflict as to where I stand in this matter. I definitely don't fall in the serious religious category, but I am grateful to religion in some ways. I am Christian by birth, my denomination being Armenian Apostolic (similar to Orthodox Christianity), and I'm very grateful for the church. It has helped preserve the Armenian culture and given us a social identity. Without such a strong cultural influence, we would have become islamized. Armenia is located in the middle of the silk route on the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It has been a source of contention since time immemorial. Countless cultures have come and gone through Armenian land, yet the general social unity remained, due in part to religion. Before Christianity, Armenian pagan religion was a strong enough force to outlast invasion, however, something more powerful and culturally invasive would be needed to outlast the modern era (after 1 AD). Christianity thus became such a force, binding and strengthening the ties of Armenians. This force was further strengthened, when a unique literary alphabet was created to assist with the religious literature. Armenia in fact was the first nation to adopt Christianity (301 CE). Although persecuted and tormented, especially during Muslim rule, Armenians remained unified, and still maintained a cohesive culture, due in no small part to Christianity. For this, I am grateful, but I can't take religion so literally.
The Bible as I see it is mythology at it's most absolute. It was long assumed that Christianity had it's roots in Judaism due in part to the adoption of the Old testament (which is completely Jewish mythology). However, one must not forget that Judaism itself borrowed many concepts from Zoroastrianism. Monotheism itself, the God that Christians, Muslims and Jews believe in, evolved from the Zoroastrian God Ahura-Mazda. I will speak more about the Zoroastrian religion in another essay, but for now, suffice as it is to say, Judaism not only has some roots in Zoroastrian thought, but also borrows heavily from Sumerian and general Mesopotamian beliefs. Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, and many other such concepts are not rooted in Judaism but instead, in Sumerian religion (mythology as we call it now). In fact, the world was shocked when fragments of cuneiform tablets were discovered in what is now Iraq, that attested to the earliest flood stories. As it turned out, this belief was so pervasive in the Middle East, that one such group, even after relocating, maintained these multiple stories (the Biblical Jews) and eventually abridged them into just one legendary feat by a man named Noah. Even the Mountain of Ararat that is so oft mentioned, was not anywhere close to the Biblical Jews. If the story of the flood was a creation on the Levant (the region that extends from along the Eastern Mediterranean coast), then perhaps Mount Lebanon would have a been a better choice, since it clearly was the highest mountain near. However, the very fact that the Mountains of Armenian, and Ararat are mentioned attests to the fact that it was closer to a Sumerian myth, since the life giving waters of the Tigris and Euphrates (which supported Sumerian society) have their source in Armenia. The flood myth in essence is an analogy to the start of civilization. Just as the story of Adam and Eve is an analogy to the beginnings of humanity, the flood myth is the pre-cursor to civilization. This is another concept I will delve into later.
Finally, as one can see, even the strongest of religions has been influenced and borrowed concepts from another. Each religion is a borrowed template from a thought that has existed before it. We have reached a global point now, to understand that even though religion is a unifying cultural force, we can finally start to distance ourselves from it. Cultural identity does not have to be based solely on religion. I am, and will always be an agnostic. I am not an atheist, because I am not even sure on whether existence is based solely on our corporeal life. I think being atheist itself is as extreme as being religious. Since there is no way to prove or disprove of any metaphysical concepts, it's best to be willing to admit to ones ignorance and play it by ear. As I always tell the Jehova's Witnesses, I'll wait till I'm dead, then I'll tell you who was right. This is the philosophy that anyone with a religious disagreement should follow.


Michael S. Foster said...

For the most part I thought your essay was well written but it seems to me that it is mainly made of assertions with little evidence. Now, I'm not saying your assertions are wrong but just weak because they lack evidence in your essay. For example, you made the following claim, "The Bible as I see it is mythology at it's most absolute. It was long assumed that Christianity had it's roots in Judaism due in part to the adoption of the Old testament (which is completely Jewish mythology)." Why should I believe this claim? What has led you to this conclusion? When a claim is made it should be backed up with some proof. You spent a long time saying what religion is but now I wondered if you would share how you came to this conclusion?

AgnosticThought said...

Glad to hear your comments on the subjects I have written, in regards to what I meant when I said Physican evolution, I wasn't talking about the science of Physics, I was talking about the natural evolution that an organism goes through. Basically, there are 2 types of evolution that I meant to illustrate, one, the physical evolution, basically, larger brains, apposable thumb, and you can take this further back in history, with vertebrae, and even further back to the first Eukaryotic organisms (basically, individual organisms that had a nucleas, or central enclosed region where the DNA can be found). The second type of evolution I attempted to illusidate, was the Cultural Evolution. By cultural evolution, I mean language, music, art, architecture, etc. It's funny you should mention Physics, because I am currently reading an amazing book on Physics, written by one of the best authors on the subject. It's not overtly complicated, but you have to read it carefully enough to fully understand it. The author's name is BRIAN GREENE, and the first book he wrote, THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE is about SuperStrings, and interesting modern day theories of physics. His second book, which I believe should be read first, before the previous, is called THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS. Both these books are quite interesting, and should definately be looked at if you have an interest in Physics.