Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How Did God Get Started? » Arion » Boston University

A great article on how religious faith appeared in Western culture as a direct result of the invention of rationality in Greek Philosophy.

With rationality, the Greeks gods are no longer necessary to make the wind blow, the earth shake, and the rivers flow, natural phenomenon began to have naturalistic explanations. And as a result religion splits away from reason, taking on a new purpose and a new set of characteristics.

It becomes:

  • Monotheistic which simplifies and streamlines the pantheon by positing a single god who is seen in various forms, just as natural phenomenon can be reduced to elemental forms.
  • Exclusive which strengthens monotheism by arguing that one god is the true god, and all others are false.
  • Supernatural which in turn privileges the power of unseen forces over the seen. Faith becomes the foundation of religious thought precisely because it places authority beyond the natural and beyond scientific reasoning.
  • Apocalyptic which finally allows religious believers take solace in the promise that their faith will be vindicated when the unseen world unveils itself and the secular world is ruins. A revenge fantasy and payback for those who are marginalized both by their religious belief as well as their relationship to the natural world.
As Colin Wells explains:
Whatever its precise origins, the idea of an exclusive God was crucial for Christianity’s spread among the Gentiles, because it answered so many needs at once. It appropriated the pagans’ own unitary god and trumped it, addressing paganism by offering a compelling rationale for rejecting the old gods; at the same time, it provided a resounding slap in the face to the naturalism that was always implicit in Greek philosophy, even if that naturalism was now being culturally swamped. Indeed, it was being swamped precisely because, then as now, it was so threatening to religious sentiment. Exclusivity fed into that reaction. Nature’s regularity had melded the nature gods into One that enfolded many, but (as Thales saw) it also unavoidably implied doubt about divine agency. Rising supernaturalism allied itself with the blocked impulse to restore divine agency, but couldn’t offer a new outlet for it. Exclusivity at once focused supernaturalism and cleared the way for divine agency, by demonizing the weakened gods and putting the one true God above them and their material realm.

In Darwinian terms, what I’m suggesting is that rational inquiry changed the religious environment, and that exclusive monotheism was the new class of religion that evolved as a result. Since religion’s environment is in fact psychological, to explain how religious “mutations” become successful “adaptations” it’s necessary to explain their psychological appeal. I’ve shown how exclusivity worked by appealing to and ultimately co-opting the rising tide of supernaturalism that reason left in its wake. Apocalypticism, exclusivity’s seeming corollary, has long posed a fundamental psychological problem, but we can explain it in a similar way. It’s easy to see how apocalypticism arose among a marginalized minority, and how it would appeal to Christianity’s earliest pagan converts—women, slaves, the poor. But what was it about the apocalyptic outlook that gave it such broad and lasting appeal as exclusive monotheism was taken up by entire cultures and societies? Why would a sense of marginalization resonate with the mainstream, which by definition isn’t marginal at all? Once more, we can look to reason and its psychological consequences for an answer. Apocalypticism’s message of ultimate vindication for the marginalized resonated with the mainstream because the inherent authority of naturalistic explanation threatened to marginalize all religious accounts of reality, in a way analogous to that in which Jewish authorities had marginalized outcast preachers like Jesus and Paul. The Greek word apocalypsis is usually translated as “revelation.” The original meaning of both words is “unveiling,” or a bringing forth of the hidden—for true believers, this became the time when the unseen will literally come out of hiding to annihilate the seen in a final act of glorious revenge for being so brusquely pushed to the side. From an epistemological standpoint, all believers are marginalized in this world. In pinning its hopes on the next world, what faith reveals is the ancestral mark of religion’s marginalization at the hands of reason.
This is a terrific idea, and the elegance of the explanation makes me want to take it a step too far. What if, for example, the specifics of American religious history can explain the increasingly paranoid mindset in American politics. What if it can explain the way that the dividing line is no longer drawn along party affiliation but also competing ideologies, one explicitly secular and mistrusting of authoritarian nationalism and religious fundamentalism and the other explicitly religious and skeptical of scientific authority and secular institutions.

In almost any debate it is not uncommon to see the two sides split between believers and non-believers. As a result, you repeatedly find this idea that "unseen" forces are in control and that only a few marginalized truth-tellers understand what's really going on. The masses are sheep, the individual speaker possessed of rare insight and special knowledge. We see that the government serves the elite or is ruled by hostile foreign forces, corporations secretly control our waking lives through marketing and misinformation, religious people are irrational for believing, atheists are egomaniacally deluded for their lack of faith, true believers are mocked for their credulity, scientists and skeptics are criticized for selling out the truth to the status quo.

If you think something is true, it's because they want you to think it's true. If you believe something is true it is because you're not one of those weak-minded fools that believes everything they're told.

And of course, the attraction of this style of thought is simple: it reduces the world to a single, simple explanation, separates the sheep from the true-believers, offers the excitement of fantastical events, and promises that the truth is out there waiting to be unveiled.

Faith, therefore, is not just belief in something that may or may not be true, but the potential to rationalize away our own sense of alienation in the name of open-mindedness, individual growth, or psychological healing.