Ancient Science and Religion

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In Western culture science is separate from religion. This is generally accepted as inevitable, but is it?
In ancient Egypt it was not. There was no word for religion in that language, and almost certainly none for science either. Most Westerners probably think of that Egypt as a primitive culture, but there’s a lot they have to overlook to do so.
The most obvious thing is the Great Pyramid. Built of more than two million blocks, most weighing at least a ton, Western science has never proposed a plausible explanation as to how it was built. When Herodotus visited Egypt, the priest he talked to said the pyramid had been built in about twenty years. When you think about it, that sounds like a ridiculously short time.
The archaeological narrative in the West has the Egyptians cutting stone with copper tools, transporting them with human muscle power, sailing them across the Nile from quarry to building site, then placing them, and very precisely too.
A modern group, almost 40 years ago, tried to build a scale model of the pyramid using these techniques, and were able to make NONE of them work. Copper tools wouldn’t cut the stone. The blocks got stuck in sand, and human muscle power couldn’t remove them. Sailing them across the Nile didn’t work either, and neither did trying to place them in the pyramid they were trying to build. Modern technology was necessary to do all those things.
So how did the Egyptians do them? Clearly, the Egyptians DID have technology, though we don’t know what form it took.
The Pyramid is only the most obvious example. Colin Wilson, in Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals, recounts a conversation with Emil Shaker, and authority on ancient Egypt. They spoke at a temple with hieroglyphics on the wall indicating a ritual that included chanting a hymn and presenting the god with offerings. The hieroglyphics specified how many times the ritual had to be performed. “‘The ritual must be chanted three times, or it will not work,’ he said.
I asked, ‘But what does the ritual do?’
‘It activates the temple,’ Emil said.
‘You mean like switching on a light?’ I said, giving voice to the first image that came into my head.
Emil nodded. ‘Exactly like switching on a light.'”
What does “activating” the temple mean? An experiment performed in the Great Pyramid may give some idea. A sound engineer named John Reid stretched a plastic membrane across the top of a sarcophagus, then placed sand on it, then turned on a sine-wave oscillator connected to a small speaker. The sand then began arranging itself into Egyptian religious images: an Ankh, the Pharaoh’s ritual headdress, and an Eye of Horus.
We can at least give a name to this sort of science: acoustics, but I doubt that we presently have the ability to produce the same effect. Nor do we know what sort of effect a ritual conducted in the Pyramid might have caused a group of people to experience.
Some contemporary “religious” people refuse to allow science any validity, at least the parts they disagree with. Some scientific people do the same with religion. The ancient Egyptians had no such dichotomy. Rene Schwaller de Lubicz, who studied ancient Egypt in great depth said they didn’t classify their various forms of knowledge as we do. Architecture, mathematics, astronomy, acoustics were all part of their civilization, and their lives could be called “religion”, rather than religion being a separate category. But in our culture we insist on categorizing and imposing definitions on phenomena that may not be accurate. And then getting upset if anyone questions our interpretation.
About twenty-five years ago, for instance, Robert Schoch, a geologist, studied the Great Sphinx, and noted that the signs of erosion on it were characteristic of water, not wind erosion. His conclusion was that the erosion had occurred when there was a LOT of rain in Egypt, and said the Sphinx couldn’t have been constructed before 5,000 BC. There’s some dispute about whether there may have been periods of heavy rain in the third millenium BC, when mainstream Egyptology supposes the Sphinx to have been constructed, but the general consensus is that Egypt was as dry then as now. So the Sphinx could be 2,000 years older than previously thought, and possibly a lot older than that. Egyptologists didn’t want to accept this conclusion. Schoch said he had no agenda in the matter, but had gone where the evidence led him, as a scientist is supposed to do.
In any case, Egyptians weren’t shy about using what technology they had (and we don’t know just how much or what kind they had) in the service of their religion, apparently seeing religion as a necessary part of their civilization.
In Supernatural, Graham Hancock says that the earliest remains of a modern human being found, just like us physically, and presumably neurologically too, has been dated to about 196,000 years ago. A large rock in Botswana was found in 2006 shaped like a gigantic python head, and many man-made artifacts were found buried in front of it. This has been dated to about 70,000 years ago, and may represent the earliest religious artifacts we’ve so far discovered.
But between 30 and 40,000 years ago cave paintings began, and raised art to a much higher level. What caused that sudden change? And with it human behavior that transformed our ancestors from little more than just another large mammal to a force that has transformed the world?
Hancock believes that Professor David Lewis-Williams’ theory that ingestion of psychoactive plants was beginning to be widespread at that time may provide at least part of the explanation.
The colors of the paintings are bright and vivid, but why should they have been painted in caves, where it was difficult to see them? Not all were. In Africa they were often painted on rocks in the open, but in Europe mainly in caves. Could it be that people who had ingested hallucinogens felt impelled to record their experiences artistically? And is it coincidental that from that time religion is found all over the world?
Hancock suggests that the only reason religion has lasted from then until now is that it confers some evolutionary advantage. Colin Wilson suggests the same when he describes a European anthropologist’s trip with a few pygmies who conducted a ritual before hunting and killing an antelope. If that behavior goes back some 40,000 years, surely humans would have discarded it by now if it didn’t work.
The question, then, is how religion ought to be defined. Many in Western civilization have turned against religion in general because of its record of promoting wars and other cruelties. That record is undeniable. I suggest that institutionalized religion (like any other institution) becomes dogmatic, which means it departs from the sort of experience that the cave paintings seem to represent.
This isn’t entirely surprising. Shamanism, probably the earliest form of religion, demanded a great deal of suffering by anyone who became a shaman. Not everyone would want to undergo that. But suffering seems to be demanded to keep religion in touch with life. Without it, and without the self-knowledge and self-development it brings, religions (as we see in our time and historically) become more concerned with power than with truth, and find it profitable to impose their views and values on others.
Not that religions are the only organizations to do this. Germany, Russia, and China, to name only a few, made nationalism into a quasi-religion, and imposed misery and death on millions in the last century. That practice hasn’t ended, and nationalism isn’t its only form.
It would be nice to see a civilization in which all forms of knowledge and experience have their place, and in which religion isn’t separated from the rest of life, as seems to have been the case in ancient Egypt. No doubt there was misery there too, as in any human society, but we may conjecture, given the sort of technology practiced there, that each individual felt that his or her life was significant not just because of the nation they belonged to or how much wealth each was able to amass. That consciousness seems to be generally lacking today.

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Graham Hancock

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Graham Hancock is an author who has fascinated me the past few years. He began as journalist, wrote a book about corruption in international charity, at least one about Ethiopia, and then the book that would serve as a sort of template for his later work: The Sign and the Seal about the Ark of the Covenant.
He believed that the Ark, from its description in the Bible, was a technological artifact difficult to control, sometimes killing the Israelites’ enemies, sometimes those who incautiously touched it. Curiously, once it is brought to Jerusalem by King David, little or nothing more is heard about it in the Bible, and by the time Judah was conquered by Babylon it had already disappeared.
Hancock believed it had gone to Ethiopia, via the island of Elephantine in southern Egypt, where there was a large Jewish colony from early times, and that it still resides there today. He says this was commonly believed believed by the Ethiopians when he visited there, but he never got the glimpse of it he sought.
This book was a template in the sense that Hancock believed human civilization extended over a much longer period than we commonly think. His next book, Fingerprints of the Gods, explored evidence for ancient civilizations in western South America, Central America, Mexico, and especially Egypt. He also vividly describes the very geologically and climatically unstable period following the last Ice Age, which he believes lasted some seven thousand years (longer than the human history we know anything much about), and is the most probably period for the Great Flood, which was universally believed in until about the beginning of the 19th century (here in the West) when science had begun to separate itself from the “supernatural” in general, and Biblical accounts of just about anything.
The 19th century was when archaeology really got started as a science, though, and suddenly the remains of civilizations mentioned in the Bible were being discovered, and their writings often decoded. Hancock adds that the legend of the Flood isn’t confined to the Middle East, but is found in some 400 separate legends all over the world, often replicating the narrative of the Bible, in which most people are killed, but a few (sometimes just one couple) are saved by intervention of the gods.
There’s a great deal more to that book, and Hancock followed up the success of it with more books about Egypt, a book about sacred monuments around the world, one about Mars, another about cities under the ocean (much evidence of ancient civilization was probably flooded when sea levels rose after the Ice Age), about Gnostic and Hermetic competitors to Christianity, and about psychedelic drugs and their probable contribution to religion and the modern world. His view of history is wider and deeper than most.
Of course he’s not the only one to have investigated these areas. Ignatious Donnelly wrote about Atlantis in the 19th century, the theosophists talked about Atlantis and Lemuria, Immanuel Velikovsky had his own theories about ancient history, Erich von Daeniken and Zechariah Sitchen thought aliens did it all. There are still other recent authors that have tried to uncover evidence that things were not as ordinarily portrayed too. Many of them have written fascinating things; Hancock may be the most distinguished of them, though.
Alternative history, as it’s called, is a field in which cranks can get a hearing. Hancock seems to have done his research on a variety of subjects, and has traveled widely to gather evidence for his books. No one has to agree with his view of things, but more mainstream authorities tend to be less imaginative, and to view things too narrowly. Thus we have archaeology which has yet to plausibly explain how the Great Pyramid was built, to say nothing of other megalithic architecture all over the world. Such subjects tend to be ignored, since we don’t know any good answers to the questions they raise. Science tends to be good at nailing down details, but many scientists lack vision. People writing alternative history have imagination, but not all of them have rigor. I think Hancock manages to keep a pretty good balance.
He’s written some novels too, in the last few years, which I haven’t encountered or felt inclined to pursue, mostly a sort of historical science fiction. Not all his books are great, but his view of things is always at least interesting, if not always compelling.
He’s open to alternative views of religion, which I find interesting. He sees shamanism as being the first human religion, and considers it the precursor to the civilization that has developed in the last 8,000 years or so. He chronicles the power-seeking of Christianity and its attempt to suppress any alternative views, and how its Gnostic and Hermetic competitors went underground, but never were defeated. He tries to explain ancient Egyptian religion, but for me, doesn’t succeed very well. But all this is more interesting than much conventional history, which tells, but doesn’t explain. The unexamined history is hardly worth telling.
I appreciate the effort he and others make to clarify ancient mysteries, even if they can’t be entirely explained. The complementary beliefs that God did everything and God did nothing are too simplistic for Hancock and others, and too simplistic for me too. Western science has explained a lot, but it has left a good deal less examined than it might be too. Fortunately, there are some scientists who are willing to investigate unusual subjects, which the mainstream prefers to leave alone. Hancock makes friends with a number of these.
Robert Schoch is one. At the request of another scientist he closely studied the Great Sphinx of Egypt some 25 years ago, and concluded that it was much older than commonly believed, because the patterns of erosion on it were clearly more from rain than wind. That means it must have been built at a time when rain (and lots of it) was quite common in Egypt. Just when that was is controversial, but it’s commonly believed that Egypt’s dry climate had already begun by the third millenium BC. If that is true, the Sphinx must have been sculpted before then, maybe a very LONG time before. Schoch doesn’t agree with all of Hancock’s ideas, but, he has said, let the evidence take him to a conclusion.
Another is Dr. Rick Strassman, who conducted studies on the effects of DMT on people, and eventually had to agree with the subjects of his experiments that the hallucinogen didn’t just produce illusions, but a reality we don’t ordinarily see.
There are others: archaeologists perhaps predominantly, who don’t buy the common view of human history, seeing it as much older and more mysterious than is usually thought.
This isn’t subject matter that interests everyone, but if it interests you, Graham Hancock’s books are a good place to start.

Science, Religion, and Fanaticism

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According to Graham Hancock’s Supernatural (published 2007), A scientist recently discovered the earliest remains of modern man so far in Ethiopia, dated to 196,000 years ago. He also states that there is no evidence that our distant ancestors practiced religion until between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, when they began cave paintings and paintings on rocks in the open. That’s about 150,000 years of modern man, anatomically just like us (maybe a few minor differences), without evidence of religious practice.
The above doesn’t seem to be entirely true. Colin Wilson cites a Neanderthal grave approximately 100,000 years ago in which the corpse was covered with a blanket woven of flowers. This suggests the Neanderthals, older than our variety of human, and with larger brains than we have, had more culture than often thought, and the concept of life after death. Would not Cro Magnon man, who coexisted with Neanderthals for some time have picked up some of the Neanderthal’s practices?
In any case, cave paintings begin between 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. One curious thing about them is that there was no light in the caves (or very little). Why paint there? There are other curiosities too.
If indeed our kind of humans had no religious practice for 150,000 years or so when they were virtually identical to us physically, and presumably neurologically as well, why did such practices begin? Hancock investigates one scientist’s theory: that humans began using hallucinogenic plants about 40,000 years ago.
This may not have been the only factor, but since that time religion has been virtually universal in the world, practiced by every group imaginable. This seems to be one factor that separates us from animals. If animals worship, it’s not in a way readily detectable. And if virtually all groups of humans practice (or used to practice) religion, what was the attraction? Evolution would seem to be the answer to any such innovation, but what was the evolutionary benefit?
Colin Wilson, in Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals, tells of a westerner who observed pygmies doing a ritual before hunting an antelope. They drew a picture of the antelope on the ground and stabbed it with an arrow. When they returned with the dead antelope, the death wound was in exactly the same place as in the picture. Wilson comments that if shamanism began 40,000 years ago and still persists in various parts of the world today, this form of “magic” must work, or humans would have abandoned it long ago. That seems to me a deductive observation along scientific lines. Would mainstream science agree? Not those members with a bias against the “supernatural” and unfamiliar, I would guess.
Wilson adds that, in his opinion, “magic” became science, which has transformed the world.
An example closer to home I found in an interview with someone close to the Grateful Dead in the 1960s: Augustus Owsley Stanley, famous for producing large quantities of LSD. He experimented with it for some time, and said he had a girl friend at the time who insisted that what he experienced was real, not imaginary, and led him to approach it that way. One thing he noticed was that when people smoked DMT (a powerful hallucinogen) in the area where the Grateful Dead played the music became louder and more strident. Also, certain electronic parts of the sound system tended to burn out. The latter was measurable, and Stanley found that when the equipment was turned all the way up and the musician was trying to make it as loud as possible the sound went to a certain limit of decibels. But in the presence of DMT the decibels went up further, often burning out one or more electronic parts. The hallucinogen actually had a physical effect on the electronic equipment. Because hallucinogens have been illegal in this country for the past 50 years, one has to visit other countries to be able to do any research on such phenomena.
This may be the sort of thing many scientists aren’t interested in investigating too closely anyway. Hancock tells of the scientist who theorized that the beginning of cave paintings and religion was due to the ingestion of psychedelic plants beginning about 40,000 years ago. A very interesting theory, but Hancock found, when he met the man, that he wasn’t at all interested in taking psychedelic drugs himself, saying that we already knew that their effects are just “silly illusions”.
I took a few things that were called psychedelics in the 1960s myself, didn’t enjoy them too much, and am not impatient to take them again, but am inclined to think there’s a great deal worth learning about them.
But the scientist’s attitude may explain why psychedelics remain illegal in this country, though not in others. People fear them, and their actions. Fundamentalists of all sorts (religious or secular) in particular fear anything that challenges their perception of reality, which hallucinogens manifestly do. Our attachment to our respective concepts of reality account for much of the current political strife in this country, and perhaps around the world.
The scientist’s theory, which Hancock writes about, is that the cave paintings are expressions of what shamans experienced with psychedelic plants. The images are very similar the world over, as are the experiences detailed by surviving shamans and shamanistic cultures. One of these images is that of a man (or possibly woman) pierced by what look like spears. Another is images of composite beings: part human, part animal or insect. These are reminiscent of the gods of ancient Egypt, which were generally composite beings. The latter Hancock says he saw himself in his own experiments with psychedelic substances. He adds that whether or not such experiences are “real” he didn’t enter them with great enthusiasm. He thought there was much to learn from them, but that they were dangerous. The former images underline this.
The theory is that the pierced figures express what shamans experience during their journeys outside of normal experience: entities tear them apart, count their bones, remove their eyes, brains or other organs, put objects (sometimes crystals) into their bodies. The common experience of shamanism is that the person must suffer dreadfully to become a shaman.
All this is strange enough, but these experience are paralleled in an apparently much different context: UFO abductions.
Hancock cites studies of these, and finds that they are by no means rare. Some people remember them, others don’t, but all studied have one thing in common: they are psychologically pretty normal, without the sort of mental diseases that predispose people to unreal hallucinations. The researchers didn’t ask their subjects directly if they’d experienced abduction, but asked them if they’d experienced things that abductees commonly report. Those who didn’t remember their experiences consciously were able to report them in some detail when hypnotized.
Some subjects of this study asked for help to integrate their experiences with their more ordinary lives. Others were suffering PTSD, as one might expect from a very unusual experience.
A valid question to ask is, were these experiences objectively as their subjects remembered, or were they an attempt by their minds to understand a powerful and unusual experience that they were unable to really comprehend? There seem to have been enough of these experiences, by all kinds of people, to strongly suggest that what they experienced was real on some level, even if they couldn’t understand what was happening.
One common assumption is that the beings “experimenting” on these subjects were extraterrestrials on spaceships. If there’s anything to these experiences, that may be the correct explanation, or one of them. On the other hand, these entities may possibly be from a different level of reality. One is reminded of the current theory in physics of the “multiverse”.
To make matters even stranger, Hancock finds a correlation between shamanistic experiences, experiences of UFO abductees, and reports of human interactions with “fairies”, which were common into the 19th century. While some scientists dismiss the thought of anything “supernatural” out of hand, others have been doing research on these things for some time, with the assumption that what the people they study tell them is the truth, as far as they’re able to comprehend it.
Besides being physically tormented, a common experience is people having sex with the “aliens” or “fairies”. The common story of “changelings” has to do with this. Human babies apparently exchanged for “alien” or “fairy” babies, and the babies being left with humans usually functioning poorly. Some of these babies seem to be the offspring of human and “other” beings. One common story of human “abductees” is of women being told, “This is your child. He needs you. Nurse him.” They were able to nurse the babies even when not lactating at the time.
There’s a good deal more that can be said on this subject, and I may return to it in the near future. But one of my concerns is fanaticism. Fanatics simplify (oversimplify) the world, and seem to feel very threatened at anything that challenges their viewpoint. I see this as true of religious fanatics, science fanatics, and secular (in general) fanatics. I can only speculate on their reasons.
With religious fanatics, I suspect that they fear science will undermine their faith. Evolution proposes that life arose through natural processes. If this is true, some religious people may fear that God is unnecessary, and that the world is much different from their view of it. They may also feel that having evolved from lower animals means they weren’t specially created by God, and perhaps that they therefore don’t have any souls. Personally, I see no reason why evolution could not be God’s tool, set in motion a very long time ago for reasons we don’t necessarily understand.
Science fanatics tend towards the idea that anything we can’t see, touch, or measure, does not exist. With them, my suspicion is that the existence of a “God” or “gods” must mean the universe is malevolent, just because of the corruption of religious leaders. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Everyone can potentially become corrupt. With religious leaders it may be more egregious, since more is (ideally) expected of them. “Supernatural” issues are more difficult to investigate than material ones, but there are scientists willing to do so. Science may or may not have caused as much suffering as religious power-seeking and corruption, but consider the horrible weapons science has produced. Consider also the institutionalization of science (like religion) in which the participants are more concerned about their careers than pursuing the truth. Thus, science has areas (like the supernatural) that no one is supposed to talk about.
Capitalism and Communism also produce fanatics, as does racism. All of the above depend on excluding parts of reality, and most exclude too many. I feel sorry for the people so afraid of realizing that the universe has many more possibilities than most of us realize that they have to declare war on anyone who believes differently. Humans have immense potential that few reach, but because of our fears we are at least as likely to destroy ourselves as to reach the heights of freedom we have the possibility of aspiring to.