Friday, October 2, 2009


I have written a bit about religion and my lack of empathy for most religions, or their followers. Mainly, as I have noted, I find this disconnect between religion and God, so I find the whole subject to be a cynical exercise in power aggregation. Further, it is akin, I think to one of our more recent sad economic activities, namely Ponzi schemes. In the most egregious, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi. Bernie basically took money from friends and colleagues in exchange for promises of grand returns on their investment, returns no sensible person should have found believable. Yet believe him they did. See, they believed in Bernie, so they followed his dictates, regardless of how absurd his promises. But that’s what religions do. In exchange for your obedience, and often your money, the high priests promise you things they can’t deliver. You want what they are offering so badly that you gladly give up your intellectual freedom in exchange for their empty promises. In the case of Ponzi schemes, eventually the truth comes out, because nobody can keep a Ponzi going forever. Sooner or later, the Ponzi masters run out of fresh sources of money and they run out of their ability to keep the Ponzi going. The whole enterprise then comes crashing down, and everyone involved discovers the awful truth that they have been conned.
In religion, nobody ever literally discovers the fraud, because they die first. Nobody ever returns to rat out the Ponzi master—the high priests. So, the religious Ponzi continues.
But where does all this belief in the absurd originate? My theory is that it originates from tribes and tribalism. Man seems naturally drawn to tribes, for protection if no other reason. Early tribes must have been simply early man and his/her close relatives living within the same caves, and looking out for predators. Acting in concert would have been more effective than acting alone. As the tribes acquired more members, they increased in strength. So, larger tribes could intimidate smaller tribes, forcing them to move farther away.
Within the tribes, physical strength, and eventually skill in fighting or in weapons handling, when they became available, led to leaders, chiefs and subchiefs. Over time, the tribes organized rituals to ward off bad events, or to encourage good events, such as weather for their crops or animals. Periodically, odd events would occur, events for which the strong chiefs had no answer. Over time, some men would have stepped forward with explanations that satisfied the tribe. These men became the wise ones, men less physically able than their chiefs, but more glib. Surely, as rituals were invented by the strong ones, even more rituals would have been invented by the wise ones. All the rituals offered the promise of protection in the future—greater food stocks, health over time, victories over neighboring/warring tribes. The key is that, sometimes the rituals seemed to work—the food stocks increased because the weather cooperated, or the neighboring tribes were subdued. Probability laws figure here. So, what happened when the rituals seemed not to work?
Here is the true genius of religion, even in its earliest stages. The wise men always asserted that, when rituals failed to deliver, they had been carried out incorrectly. Someone, never the wise men, was flawed. Scapegoats could always be found, or virgins sacrificed. The priests always supervised. In early times, the priests actually carried out the sacrifices, but later, the priests withdrew from personal participation, so as to seem above the entire enterprise.
One could imagine that periodically, the strong men and the wise men would differ over policies. While it certainly would have been the case that the two fought, it is as surely the case that the two groups would have decided that working together produced the strongest hold over the larger population to be commanded. The chiefs could command the tribe’s warriors, and the priests could command the people’s fears. Together, they could rule without any fear of tribal revolution.
Over time, it seems clear that the two merged the belief systems, such that the chiefs were accorded even more mysterious and higher order powers—thereby enabling the notion of “divine right” to enter the systems of rule. Kings/chiefs were said to be endowed with their earthly authority by none other than God. Their children were accorded the same mystical authority, thereby eliminating challenges from other earthly sources (the people). Clashes between the two groups proved difficult, as in those cases where kings decided to operate against the wishes of the ruling priests. Such clashes were never easy to resolve, because they involved a clash between raw power—armies, and otherworldly power—threats of damnation and banishment to the burning fires of hell (after priests decided to invent the concept of everlasting punishment through fire, e.g., hell).
It is not difficult to envision the even larger clashes that were to come, between a population that was becoming educated, and that population’s ruling classes. As people become better educated, the people can themselves begin to ponder the questions of life, mortality, its aftermath, and the earthly powers granted to both chiefs/kings, and the priests of the world. Over time, as the population became increasingly educated, or increasing discontented with the privileges accorded the ruling classes, rebellion was inevitable. Thus, in France, the ruling classes were eliminated by the sword/guillotine. In places such as England, the ruling classes also acquired enough education to understand that ceding power to the people was the only way to stave off their almost certain elimination through harsher methods. It is interesting to observe the various ways divine authorities were overthrown. In France, the crowds of discontented—mobs—acquired power and killed the rulers, paving the way for initially rough forms of democratic power-sharing.. In England, wiser ruling heads decided to cede to the people, in the form of elected subrulers, much of the power they had enjoyed. In Russia, crowds prevailed, much as in France, but these crowds simply substituted their own forms of absolute rule, giving rise to the Soviet state, which killed millions of the people, in the name of saving the people from their monarchical rulers. In Iran, a modern version of substitution occurred, when, in 1979, the religious classes overthrew the monarchical classes, throwing out the king, and bringing in an even more absolute dictator, in the form of a high priest, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
As tribes became nation-states, clashes between the tribes were inevitable, and wars became the way to resolve the conflicts. Humans have rarely conceived and implemented intellectual approaches to conflict resolution, when arms can be employed. Modern man seems curiously primitive when it comes to conflict resolution. Tribal preservation seems to represent the dominant motivation in these cases. People are taught to think of themselves as tribal members, as distinct from individuals with free will and a capacity to think. Tribal preservation becomes substituted for preservation of the individual as the “greater good.” People no longer think for themselves.
On average, I see an inverse relationship between education and people’s willingness to be led over the cliff, as in sheep/lemmings, by their leaders (who never by the way, actually lead their people over the cliff, instead, stepping to the side while urging on their followers). Where the relationship exists, it seems to have something important to do with the polar opposite notions of ambiguity--certainty. We must all be born, or acquire as we age/mature, with fear of the unknown—the dark, strangers, other cultures and rituals, and death and its aftermath.
As people acquire more education, they acquire an ability to define more colors in the world than black and white. We begin to see subtlety in the world. We begin to see that many other cultural rituals are just different, rather than inherently threatening. We begin to understand that the world is in fact a more interesting place if variation is preserved. Other tribes and other tribal customs need not be viewed as potentially hostile. Yet tribalism remains the dominant cultural fact of life today, seemingly as alive as it was hundreds of years ago, with all of its sinister implications. I keep wondering whether in a StarTrek fantasy world, hundreds of years in our future, mankind will have overcome this cultural device that divides us all, conquering our seemingly innate desire to look down upon people in other “tribes.” Perhaps in that world, Republicans and Democrats will be able to discuss problems rationally and reach solutions based on what is best for the people at large. Perhaps Christians will no longer seek to demonize Gays who wish to marry, and Muslims will no longer strap on dynamite vests so as to blow up innocents in a marketplace. What a wonderful world that would be.
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