Religion and the Modern World

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How long has spirituality been part of human life? Graham Hancock, in Supernatural, puts it at about 40,000 years, and suggests that psychoactive plants, of which there are quite a number, played a part in the birth of religion. He also argues that religion was what spurred the development of human civilization, not only in terms of religious commandments and ethics, but also in the development of technology and new conceptions of life, its meaning, and the universe.

Some will argue that the date should be earlier or later. In any case, it’s so long ago we can’t remember its beginning and can only live with its effects and try to reason backwards if we’re interested in our own beginnings. Religion has been with us a long time, and has taken a number of different forms, though all the valid traditions (those not simply made up) are related in concept, if not in form or actual influence.

J.G. Bennett, a student of George Gurdjieff (previously mentioned in these posts), said there have been four basic conceptions of God: the Creator God, the Mother Goddess, the Great Spirit and the Savior God. According to him, all originated in different areas, and had different manifestations, also producing different ways of worship.

The Creator God, he said, came from Africa at the time after the last Ice Age, when the climate was changing and people were seeing forms of life they’d never seen before. There were powerful magicians living there then, whose lives were much different from those of ordinary people. Africa has had a stunning variety of life forms ever since, and in Egypt produced one of the greatest civilizations this world has known.

The Mother Goddess was specifically linked to agriculture, and as far as we know, originated around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East. It worked out the idea of sacrifice to ensure fertility to both land and people. The sacred king was sacrificed after marrying the Goddess in the form of a priestess at varying periods: a year, six months, or several years. Eventually the system changed in favor of substitutes for the king being sacrificed. Maybe human substitutes at first and animals later, though I don’t think we know definitively.

The Great Spirit seems to have originated among the nomads of northern Asia, though it was also found in the Americas, whether it migrated there, or (possibly) in the other direction. This produced shamanism, in which the shaman allows himself to be possessed to get God’s instructions for his people.

The Savior God, according to Bennett, came from the Aryans, who at that time lived on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in northern Asia, which had a much milder climate during the Ice Age. Nevertheless, they saw the power of nature there more clearly than people elsewhere, and believed that they could not survive without God’s help. The Hopis, in the southwestern USA, have a sort of parallel tradition: that they had chosen the land where they lived because it was so difficult to live there that they couldn’t forget God and hope to survive.

Bennett said that he had found this view of Aryan origins from an Indian scholar, who noticed that the Upanishads contained a lot of imagery about dawn. Dawn, says Bennett, is very prosaic in the tropics, but very dramatic indeed around the poles of the earth. For six months the sun never rises, then for six months never entirely sets. As winter turns to summer the sun approaches the horizon, but never quite rises. Until summer actually begins.

The above is suggestive. Is there any other evidence? I have some anectodal evidence. In chatting with an Indian friend online, I told him about this theory, and he told me that the ancient Persian and Indian gods had the same names, but the Persian gods were Indian demons, and vice versa. Talking with a young Iranian woman, I was told that many Iranians believe that their ancestors once lived in Siberia.

If religion has built the modern world, how did it do this? People who have experimented with psychedelic substances have talked about a sense that something in the experience has been teaching them something, even if they couldn’t say exactly what.

George Gurdjieff talked about different levels of religion. Most of us who are believers live in the exoteric circle: we have some idea about how things work, but probably not too accurate. The mesoteric level is people who have been to school and begun to actually understand things. The esoteric level is where people experience spiritual reality directly. One possible way of giving humanity a gentle nudge in the right direction is ideas. Ideas can’t immediately force anyone to do anything, but they can change the environment of thought, making the previously unthinkable something worth thinking and even doing something about.

Notice that several religions of world importance arose about 600 BC: Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism,  and Zoroastrianism. Some of the most important of the Hebrew prophets lived around this time too, as well as Pythagoras in Greece. All of these religions (if you count Confucianism) opened the religious life to the ordinary person. Before this it had been only for kings, priests and maybe warriors. The difference, says Bennett, was that previously important people were exhorted to treat common people decently, but common people had no actual rights.

We have only to look at history to see that powerful people didn’t immediately become egalitarians, nor did ordinary people become saints very often. But the idea that everyone could and should seek salvation (for want of a better term) elicited response from unexpected places. When Jesus came along a few centuries later he may have been descended from King David, but he consorted with women and lower class men that most respectable Jews would have condemned. When Christianity started becoming a strong movement, it was largely slaves and women who converted and influenced others. According to the view of many, that’s not how things are supposed to work.

There are a number of ideas current that may point in a better direction than humans in general are going in now. One is the idea of the Earth as a conscious entity, and our common mother. The idea that we should treat our mother better than we do is one that infuriates some, and we can’t claim to have reversed exploitative attitudes, but most people would prefer clean air and water, though we may not have much idea what we individuals can do to make them better.

The idea of equality is another. People are obviously not equal in ability or circumstance, but we can still strive to treat everyone at least decently. That’s another idea often resisted, sometimes violently. It’s easier to count some groups of humans outside the circle of humanity, especially as population rises, and we become more anxious about having enough for ourselves and our families.

We may well be anxious. Selfishness may well be the root of all evil, whether it applies to money or anything else, and it’s a quality few of us are without. To believe that not only humans, but the rest of life as well, deserves to be treated gently implies an immense responsibility that many of us, maybe most, reject out of hand. Maybe not in theory, but in our everyday actions.

How many of us consider what impact driving our cars or throwing out our trash has on the planet? Our cellphones and computers often go into landfills when we’re done with them, and their toxic wastes leach out into ground water. It doesn’t happen before our eyes, so we don’t notice. Maybe we’ll notice when we or our children get sick from the poison of our addiction to convenience and entertainment.

Religion is often taken to be something we do on Sunday, which has little to do with our daily lives. In fact, when actually allowed to influence our behavior, it’s intensely practical in the longterm. Loving your neighbor as yourself is likely to give both of you longer, and arguably happier lives. And if you expand that definition to include all living things, the practical effects are also likely to be extended.

This, however, is difficult, and unlike our American ancestors, we don’t seem to tolerate difficulty very well. We’ve been a wealthy country at least since World War II, but wealth hasn’t brought out the best in us. Many of us are unhappy; some with good reason, others not, and the unhappy tend to make those around them unhappy too. We tend to blame everyone but ourselves for the problems that afflict us, when we ALL have contributed to the problems of the world.

None of us can fix everything, but we can look at what’s immediately around us and try to fix that much. Nothing is guaranteed, but intentions do matter, and so do actions. If it makes us more comfortable we may reflect that we may be punished not so much by God’s judgment as by the impersonal consequences of our own actions. We live mostly in the world of cause and effect, and trying to produce good effects for others as much as ourselves is likelier to have a pleasant outcome than the selfishness we so often allow ourselves. That’s one of the basic messages of religion. If we prefer not to pay attention, we’re likely to have to endure the consequences.

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