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.

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