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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