Friday, July 24, 2009

Part II, Traditional Society, a short definition

The following passage from John Reader's Africa: Biography of a Continent set me to thinking:

The generally hostile and unpredictable environment of sub-Saharan Africa inspired a highly conservative approach to the business of making a living. Sustaining existing levels of population was difficult enough, and the communities which endured were those that directed available energies primarily towards minimizing the risk of failure, not maximizing returns. For them, innovation and change were unacceptable risks. (p. 263) [emphasis added]

That makes this passage particularly relevant is the blunt recognition that error whether through carelessness or otherwise would likely lead to disaster. The conservatism as described in this passage means like frogs doing those things that have already been show not to lead to bad ends. Looking at the Christian myths of Heaven, Hell, and the Last Judgment through this prism shows the essential conservatism in Christianity: it is a matter of eternal torment and torture to make the wrong choice. But I run ahead of myself.

Watching my younger daughter at times emphatically imitate her older sister strongly suggested to me that there is a genetic predisposition to this kind of conservatism in the human genome. The rationale is straightforward enough: those that have come before are still here, therefore they are doing things mostly right. Following those that have come before is a viable survival strategy.

As I teased yesterday about frogs, instinctual, meaning genetically predisposed behavior will be conservative in the same sense as in the above passage from John Reader.

But this inborn predisposition to conservatism is hardly sufficient to explain religion. The strong objection is simply the fact of innovation in human history. If there were also not a capacity to innovate human beings would still be using stone tools. As a thought experiment, if there is the twin necessities of conservatism AND innovation, then how is the innovation to be accommodated in a strictly conservative and traditional society?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Theory of Religion: Part I of Several

I haven't completely abandoned this blog. I think about it almost everyday. Trying to come up with a good post topic. I realized that I want to end this blog, but I also don't feel like I'm quite done with the topic of religion either.

I had thought that explaining the originating impusle of religion as a propensity to obedience was sufficient. I no longer believe that. While religion and obedience are certainly connected, the latter is hardly sufficient to explain the former. Obedience is a significant clue as to the nature of religion. An understanding of religion that would allow me to let this blog languish in peace would also have to provide evidence for a naturalistic explanation of religion without getting bogged down in the absurdities of faith, consciousness, morality, and other mostly Christian foolishnesses.

Three observations troubled me. First, the historical and geographical extent of religion strongly implied that religion could not be reduced to obedience. Or a need for obedience. Second, religion is overwhelmingly tied to community and organizing social life of human beings. These two observations are strong evidence that while obedience might be necessary for the continued existence of religious institutions, they could not explain the appeal and development of religion as it has existed in the past and continues to exist. The third observation does not appear to be specifically about religion, but it's relevance will hopefully become clear: homo sapiens for the vast bulk of its history has existed in traditional societies. Further, the vast majority of the members of homo sapiens exist in traditional societies even today.

Two questions at this point present themselves: what are "traditional societies"? and Even in the Educated & Progressive West is religion a vestige (or maybe more than a vestige of traditional society)?

Tomorrow I'll explain what I mean by "traditional society". But now I would like to suggest that religion rather being an expression of the highest and best of human beings reaches back to the oldest and most primitive elements of human society and personality.

My hunch, no doubt highly offensive to the religious every: religion unites us with the animal kingdom. Religion, to speak theologically, is an expression of our animal nature and in no way is it an indication of possible divinity. Given the intrinsic connection between religion, fanaticism, and violence on show for all the world to see, this hunch is almost prima facie reasonable.

Oh, and just to be a tease consider that a given frog exists because other frogs have behaved in the have done what the frog under consideration already behaves. The best proof that frog-behavior works is that frogs exist.

Anyone care to unravel this last bit?

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