Robert Anton Wilson’s Journey to Expanded Consciousness

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Robert Anton Wilson is a philosopher of sorts whose acquaintance I first made some forty years ago with the Illuminatus trilogy. Recently rereading it for the first time in decades, I found it wasn’t as compelling as back then, so I went on to his memoir, Cosmic Trigger, which was.

In that book he tells how he grew up in an Irish Roman Catholic home, jettisoning his Catholicism when it conflicted with his sex drive, and reached adulthood interested in lots of things. For one thing, he tried joining a lot of different groups (Ayn Rand and Trotskyite groups, for instance) which made him realize that there were a lot of different ways to see the world, and that different groups have different things they accept and reject. This means that virtually no one sees the world as it actually is: there’s always something being rejected or ignored which provides a different perspective on things. Wilson called these tunnel realities.

And humans tend to dislike different perspectives. Christianity in particular has dictated what people must and must not believe. A lot of people and organizations have imitated them. We’ve become very aware that people give us propaganda instead of truth, and resent it, even if we’re not good at telling the difference.

Wilson got caught up in the psychedelic experience of the early sixties before it became well-publicized. He took peyote first, then LSD when it became available. On one of his peyote trips he observed a green-skinned humanoid figure dancing. This was before Carlos Casteneda began publishing his books, when the green-skinned figure would become known as Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote. As the sixties progressed he met Timothy Leary to interview him, and they realized they had a lot of interests in common. Leary suggested he investigate Aleister Crowley, and Wilson did so, with increasing interest.

Crowley practiced magick (the spelling to distinguish it from Harry Houdini sleight of hand), and found it a rich source of unusual perspectives. Wilson had heard Crowley was a junkie, but also that he had climbed higher on Chogo Ri (a mountain in the Himalayas) than anyone else, which seemed unusual for a junkie. He began reading Crowley’s books, many of which suggest exercises to expand consciousness. Wilson began practicing a number of these, sometimes in conjunction with LSD or other psychedelics, sometimes without.

One such was to go a week without using the word “I” and punishing himself (Wilson bit his finger) whenever he slipped and said it. He found his state of mind changed pretty dramatically, and began to see his ego as an inconvenience.

Another practice was to invoke various gods or goddesses of the pagan past. He would decorate with colors and symbols associated with each, pray to them, and recite various invocations that Crowley had written. He found that these practices began changing his worldview too. Once he began getting results, he would start invoking a different god or goddess.

Wilson had also met William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch most famously), who told him about strangeness associated with the number 23. Burroughs had discovered it when talking to an ferry boat sailor named Captain Clark, who told him he had sailed the ferry 23 years without an accident. That day Burroughs heard that Clark’s ferry had sunk, killing all aboard. Then he heard about an airplane crash, piloted by another Captain Clark. It was flight number 23. Wilson began looking for 23s, and began finding them synchronistically. Synchronicity is a pattern which doesn’t seem to have a cause, but appears too meaningful to be merely coincidence. The more Wilson looked for 23s, the more he found, and the more meaningful they were. He records numerous examples, one being that sperm and egg each contribute 23 chromosomes to what becomes a human fetus. There are many more.

He was also interested in UFOs, and their significance. Such incidents are often witnessed by lots of people, though not all agree on what they see. The incidents seem to contradict the laws of nature, and it’s uncertain what their cause is. They’re similar to reported incidents prior to the twentieth century which people used to attribute to encounters with angels, or with fairies. They can be pretty bizarre. My favorite was reported by a man living in Wisconsin, who said a UFO landed in his yard, an alien got out and handed him some pancakes. That seems a nice thing to do, but what was the significance? The pancakes, incidentally, turned out to be ordinary pancakes when analyzed. Wilson thinks such an incident (and many others) indicate that when we’re confronted with something completely unfamiliar, like a technology well in advance of our own, our consciousness tries to change it into familiar terms, however senseless (or hilarious) those terms turn out to be.

Besides the magickal practices and psychedelic drugs,  Wilson had been reading as many of Crowley’s books as he could obtain, and found that Crowley had been practicing Tantra, or sexual magick, which consisted of various ways to postpone orgasm which would make it extremely powerful and psychedelic. In the early 1970s in the midst of these practices Wilson began to believe he was receiving messages from the area of the star Sirius.

Sirius is the brightest star in our sky, and has a very interesting history. When he began to research it, Wilson found that the Dogon tribe in Africa had told people (Including Robert Temple, who wrote a book about it) a lot of information about Sirius no one would have expected them to know, including that it was a double star, and that the second star (invisible until the twentieth century to astronomers until they had telescopes powerful enough to see) was much smaller than the primary, which is the one easily visible. Sirius, known as the Dog Star, contributes heat to the “dog days” of summer, and would contribute much more if the universe weren’t expanding, and Sirius receding from us. When asked how they had found out these things, the Dogon said aliens from Sirius had told them.

When Robert Temple researched further he began to believe there had been contact with aliens in the Middle East about 4500 years ago, and that knowledge of this had traveled across Africa to the Dogon. If such a thing happened, and if his timeline was correct is difficult to say. Egypt already had a great deal of interest in Sirius well before 2500 BC. They identified it with the goddess Isis, and in building the Great Pyramid, constructed a shaft to the south through which they could observe the star. When Wilson looked into this further he found that a LOT of people claimed to have received messages from Sirius, including Crowley.

George Gurdjieff seems to have known about this too. When writing his most important book he realized that he had made some passages more plain than he intended, and said he needed to bury the dog deeper. When asked if he didn’t mean the bone, he said, No, the dog, and that the dog was Sirius. Sirius is also said to be the star portrayed on the card by that name in the Tarot deck. Some say the Tarot was put together by Sufis, and Sufis provided at least some of Gurdjieff’s education in the occult.

By the time all this was happening, Wilson had quit his job at Playboy, and was trying to earn his living by writing. He was having some difficulty. He and Robert Shea, who had also worked at Playboy, had written the Illuminatus trilogy, satirizing many conspiracy theories they came across while working at Playboy. The Illuminati were composed of people from the Freemasons who had achieved higher consciousness, but their organization located in Bavaria was outlawed in the 18th century. Some saw them as heroes, many saw them as villains, and the more the two authors researched the group the more probable it seemed that they had a long ancestry which may have extended back to ancient Egypt or even further. Learning about them fit well with Wilson’s desire to expand his own consciousness.

He and Shea had finished writing the novel, but were having trouble getting it published, so Wilson was poor. He and his family were living in San Francisco with poor people, since they couldn’t afford a great place to live. He was doing a Sufi exercise to open his heart, and was often horrified at things he saw poor people have to go through.

Such things touched his own family too. His youngest daughter, who was aware of his occult interests, and shared them, got beaten up by a gang of black kids, but understood that if she held a grudge against them, it would only continue the negative energy–so she forgave them, and never showed any fear or dislike of anyone black. Wilson was amazed that a girl in her early teens could be so wise.

By this time Timothy Leary had been busted for possession of pot and imprisoned. He managed to escape and spent some time overseas before being kidnapped in Afghanistan and brought back to the USA. Just why the authorities were so hysterical about the threat his advocacy of LSD posed may be clearer when one realizes that his interest in the drug was because of its ability to change what he called “imprints”, impressions that cause the mind to see things in certain ways. Governments prefer that people see things in ways they prescribe. Anything that allows them to see independently is threatening. Leary had incautiously advertised his intentions, trying (as Wilson sees it) to reserve the use of LSD to competent professionals who could use it as a tool to safely help people. That he publicized it so effectively helped to spread its use, and many used it less than safely. Of course the main effect of government prohibition was to drive LSD into the black market and prevent scientists from studying it. But before LSD became illegal Leary had used it in a project with prisoners that was very successful in preventing recidivism. With less public hysteria, and with good training, mental health could have been greatly improved.

When Leary was released from prison he no longer wanted to talk about drugs, but about immortality and space travel. He had theorized a model of various higher “circuits” that LSD, other drugs, and various practices can induce to begin operating in human beings. Four of these he said were the ones we use in our ordinary life on earth. There are, he said, four others which are rarely experienced, and which are for use in outer space. He wanted to become immortal and journey in a starship which need not go faster than light if its passengers were immortal. He expected science to discover a method (or methods) to attain immortality quickly (this was in the mid-1970s). This was where I began to part company with the ideas in the book.

For one thing, immortality would cause immense problems if people in general stopped dying. Nature, as experienced on this planet, is organized around death: each generation has to make way for the next. All living organisms reproduce, therefore all must die. Their deaths help provide, through decomposition, the food that will nourish all the organisms that support life on the whole planet, which is already overpopulated with humans. An order of magnitude more would even more rapidly deplete the natural resources which could provide for them. And not enough space ships could be built–at least until we can easily mine the asteroids or moon– to take more than a small percentage to other star systems. There’s also a possibility that the bulk of the human race has responsibilities here.

Leary and Wilson seem to have been confident that human science would rather quickly find a way to stop death and keep humans healthy and happy for hundreds, thousands, even billions of years. That was forty years ago. Why haven’t we heard anything about it since?

One reason is that immortality is something the powerful wouldn’t want ordinary people to have. If a method of immortality was discovered, powerful people would want to keep it for themselves. If such a thing has been discovered, I suggest that is exactly what has happened. Immortality would be a powerful tool to obtain even more power.

That section of the book seems almost insanely optimistic, reminding me of something Wilson says he learned about Crowley from someone who knew him well. Crowley, his acquaintance said, often believed that the illumination he had attained was shared by many of the people he met, causing him to trust wrong people. Israel Regardie, a biographer of Crowley, who has worked as his secretary in the 1920s stated that Crowley had unresolved issues which caused him to have blind spots. He was, in some respects, wiser than many, but he wasn’t perfectly wise. Regardie’s autobiography stops before 1914, by which time he had had and assimilated most of the visions which had so deepened his perceptions. He had written most of the works for which he is known, and had also lost all his money. He lived more than thirty more years, but Regardie didn’t find his later life inspiring.

Another example of the optimism Wilson shows is his view of the acceleration of knowledge. Human knowledge took a long time to increase in the past, especially knowledge shared with the largest part of humanity. With the beginning of science about 500 years ago, knowledge has been piling up at an ever increasing rate. Some were predicting forty years ago that by this time the human race would be entirely transformed, with many obstacles passed very quickly. This has obviously not happened. The human race remains stuck in sorrow and suffering.

But much of the book remains exciting, though I can’t agree with all of it. It’s a sort of detective novel in which the author tries to understand more and more of how the world operates, and goes further and deeper than usual understandings. That can be pretty thrilling.

Wilson ends the book by telling how his daughter was beaten to death by an unhappy man who couldn’t have understood what he was doing, and how he resisted allowing that to crush him. As terribly as he suffered from that, he found that many people loved him and his family, and wanted to help in any way they could. One psychologist made a point of visiting a couple of times a week to talk if anyone needed him. Wilson later called such kindness bewildering, and was grateful and amazed it should exist. I don’t know if one should see such a crushing death as some kind of punishment for Wilson or anyone else in his family, but if he had done wrong, he was certainly punished.

He ends the book by asking Timothy Leary what he did when he was overwhelmed by negativity. Leary replied, “Come back with all the positive energy you can.” This, said Wilson, was how he learned the final secret of the Illuminati.

 

When Jesus Became God

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Bart D. Ehrman, in When Jesus Became God, writes about what we can historically know about Jesus, which isn’t much. That’s because no contemporary records of Jesus have come down to us, and because the books of the New Testament are inconsistent with history that has come down, and with each other.
King Herod didn’t try to kill all the boys two years old and younger in Judea, for instance. There’s a tradition that Jesus and his family visited Egypt that may actually be valid (it goes back pretty far), but if so, that’s not why.
Shepherds or wise men may have visited him after he was born, but not both. According to two Gospels, not either. There does seem to be a tradition in Iran that two (not three) wise men (Magians) visited.
He may have been descended from King David through Joseph (which shouldn’t count if God literally made Mary pregnant), but the two geneologies given in two separate Gospels don’t agree.
He may have been literate, and have studied the Torah, but maybe he just listened to it frequently, and had great insight. The disciples almost certainly were not literate, since they were mostly manual laborers from Galilee, a rural area from which no one important had ever come. All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, which the disciples may not even have known, and written (beginning with Paul’s epistles) at least two decades after Jesus’s death. The Gospels were written between 35 and 65 years after. This means that the writers had almost certainly never met (or seen) Jesus, and had probably not even met anyone who had. Several oral traditions provided the framework for what was eventually written down, and the above inconsistencies weren’t the only ones. We can pretty much guarantee that things were added. The question is, what in the Gospels actually happened?
Most likely Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist did happen. John forgave him his sins, and is the superior figure in that story, which is not how later Christians would have preferred to portray him.
Evidently, he was crucified in Jerusalem after getting in trouble with the authorities. That’s also something Christians wouldn’t have boasted about. The rest of the story about his trial and crucifixion don’t add up, though.
In one Gospel he says exactly two words to Pontius Pilate, in another they have an extended dialogue. The former is more likely than the latter, especially since the latter has Pilate saying Jesus was an innocent man. Unlike Jesus, records of Pilate have survived, and he was not a sympathetic character. Ehrman thinks that Judas betrayed Jesus by telling the Romans he called himself King of the Jews. That would be enough to get him crucified for being a potential revolutionary.
The stories of the crucifixion are inconsistent too. In one, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” In another, he tells the thief crucified beside him that they’ll meet in paradise.
The rest of the story in the Gospels is mostly unlikely too. People usually took longer than a few hours to die, and they were rarely removed from the cross after death. Romans had no concern over Jewish sensibilities about the Passover or the Sabbath, and even if he had been removed from the cross, the story of the tomb is most unlikely too. Jesus isn’t portrayed as being rich, and his family was about 120 miles away. His disciples (also not rich) had run away fearing the Romans would get them too (except for Judas).
So why did the Christian religion begin?
Ehrman thinks it’s because of the resurrection. Not because Jesus died and came back, which wasn’t unheard of. He had brought Lazarus back to life, after all, and various magicians claimed to be able to do the same. But Peter and Mary Magdalene at least (and later, Paul) had had visions of him that convinced them he was somehow still alive. The other stories about him allowing Thomas to put his finger in his wounds and eating a piece of fish seem to be later additions: there was controversy about whether resurrection would be physical or spiritual.
On the other hand, other scholars say that few seem to have believed in the resurrection immediately afterwards. Possibly that too was added to the legend.
This was important because Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, who seems to have really believed that the world as he and the disciples knew it would soon be coming to an end, when it would be replaced by the Kingdom of God, over which he would reign, and his disciples over the Twelve Tribes. By the time the Gospels were written, it must have been apparent this hadn’t happened, and probably wouldn’t. Rome had crushed the rebellion of 66-70 CE. That had changed the world, but hadn’t inaugurated God’s Kingdom as far as anyone could see. Unless the picture people had of the Kingdom of God was entirely erroneous. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say, “…the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”
Just why Jesus’s resurrection made not only his disciples, but lots of other people believe he was not only the Messiah, but the Son of God, and eventually equal to God, is unclear. The visions at least some people had of him after his death must have been vivid. Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul must have been utterly convinced that what they perceived was real, and there may have been more people than just they. Once they were convinced, the question was, where was Jesus? He was alive after death, but not among them. The next idea was that he had been taken up into heaven.
This wasn’t unprecedented either, since it had happened to Enoch and Elijah. The next question was, what was his role in heaven? Had he been a mortal who had been “adopted” by God? Was he a preexisting angel? The idea that he was the Son of God had some precedent too. Both kings and angels could be Sons of God.
An obsessive process had begun. Christians, even those outside Judaism, as converted by Paul, accepted there was only one God. But if Jesus was God’s Son in the sense of being another version of God, how could there be only one? Did Jesus, while on earth, pray to himself? If he was literally God, how could he fit into a single human body? It would have been simpler to just declare Christianity a polytheism, but instead, Christianity obsessively searched for the correct definition of what Jesus and God were, respectively, and declared each other heretics for any definition that was incorrect. This was bad enough when Christianity was illegal. It became worse when Christianity first became legal under Constantine, then the state religion under Theodosius some eighty years later.
That happened in the fourth century CE, a tumultuous time for Christians. Still trying to get that definition right, the dispute was now whether God and Jesus were of the same or similar substances, a question which seems utterly trivial today, but didn’t then. Eventually Jesus was declared to be of the same substance, to such effect that, as a Jewish writer noted, hardly anyone talks about God the Father anymore, only about Jesus. The disaster of power politics took Christianity over and changed it from its beginning as a religion of love to a religion of power that persecuted its perceived enemies, different only theologically from the Romans who had actually crucified Jesus. Pagan religion was actually usually tolerant, as most forms of religion around the Mediterranean and Middle East had similarities, so that it was easy to see one god as a version of another under a different name. The Jews were disliked because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor as a god, but consented to praying for him. Christians also refused Emperor worship and went so far as to call the gods of the Empire demons. This didn’t make them popular.
The pagans were persecuted more systematically by Christians than Christians had been persecuted by pagans. Jews began to be persecuted by Christians too, only in small ways to begin with, but with pogroms to follow later, and the Holocaust less than a hundred years ago. Anti-Semitism is seen quite early in the New Testament gospels. Jews are blamed first for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, although he hadn’t done any of the things (like driving the Romans out of Judea and becoming a great king) the Messiah was expected to do. They were also blamed for killing Jesus (though it was actually the Romans) and thus rejecting their own God. They were also blamed for misunderstanding their own religion, which Christians claimed to correctly understand. People will go to absurd lengths to find scapegoats, and Jews became the foremost scapegoats of the next 2,000 years. Heretics and witches weren’t treated much better.
Not all Christians wanted to play the power game. Saint Francis is an example of someone who followed the actual teachings of Jesus, but he was not part of official Christianity.
As interesting as the evolutionary process of Christianity was, there’s another question worth pondering: is there any validity to it? People unwilling to grant any credence to the supernatural will say there is not. This seems almost as narrow-minded as the Church insisting on its own definitions of what is right and wrong, and severely punishing anyone who disagrees. Religious fanaticism seems to have entered history with Christianity, but not all Christians have been fanatics. There have always been believers who were extremely good people from our accounts of them.
In this age in which science has in some ways replaced religion, one of the problems with the supernatural is that it’s difficult to experiment with, and also difficult to replicate any experiments. Historians like Ehrman can’t tell us whether what the religion teaches is valid. They can only tell us what we can know about the time and background of the New Testament. They also can’t tell us why Jesus’s disciples and the followers they converted decided he had been the Son of God. As Ehrman points out, that concept wasn’t entirely unknown to Judaism, and it was a lot more familiar to the pagans whom Paul and others began converting. Ehrman may be right in thinking it was the resurrection, but some of the phenomena described in Acts, as when a large crowd was able to hear what the disciples said in their own languages, or the experience of the love feasts that early Christians celebrated, must have been unusual and powerful. Perhaps people then were more open to describing their experiences as divine or supernatural before the correct theology had been worked out. But if there had been no experience, how did people become converted? Early Christians must have become different enough to make an impression on the people they converted. Part of it may have been that Christians performed good works that pagans usually did not, but it seems unlikely that would be enough. If the supernatural had nothing to do with it, how is Christianity’s popularity (and at a time when Christians could look forward to the possibility of persecution) to be explained?
In recent times science has been identified by many with materialism, often defined as study only of what can be perceived. Science is also identified with use of technology. Neither is of any help in trying to study the supernatural. One thing that might be is the study of the alteration of consciousness, and the significance of the states arrived at. In fact, George Gurdjieff, said of the Sufis that they had taken practices from many different places and accepted those they could verify while rejecting those they could not. That sounds a lot like science to me.
Western science may not accept the supernatural, but there’s little reason to believe that Western science has successfully analyzed all of reality. Ancient religions have described phenomena that sound very much like phenomena Western science has discovered. If that’s true, how did they perceive them?
I find Ehrman’s book fascinating not because it sheds light on any supernatural truths, but because it tells us what we can know historically about a phenomenon we really don’t understand. It’s easy to simply deny any validity to religion, but more challenging to ask how it could be true if it were. That’s a question that doesn’t require one to believe or disbelieve in Jesus, but which may prove enlightening for anyone willing to ask and seek an answer.

Growing up Quaker

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The Quaker meeting house I attended on Sundays in Salem, Ohio, is a large building built in 1871. It’s built of brick with a wide front and large porch, set back from the street with a big lawn. There’s no belfry because no bells. This is a different format from most Protestant denominations.
The inside is different too. Sometimes there’s a lectern, but no one organizes the worship service or preaches regularly. The usual pattern is silent worship, akin to the meditative practices of Hinduism and Buddhism, though I doubt that either religion originally inspired the practice of Quakerism, because I doubt either was known in the England of the mid-17th century. According to Wikipedia, nobody recorded how the form of Quaker worship was arrived at. Was it influenced by another tradition? Or did George Fox and/or some other make some kind of intuitive leap? I would suggest that Fox and other early Quakers were trying to get rid of anything inessential in their lives and worship, and saw Catholicism in particular as abounding in what Fox called “vanity”.
A series of rows of benches faces the back wall of the building, while a few rows face towards most of the congregation. Elders sit on these facing benches, and conclude worship by shaking hands after about an hour. That hour may be entirely silent, but if people feel moved to speak (ideally by what they consider to be the spirit of God), they do so. Of course some enjoy the sound of their own voices, but perhaps fewer than you might think. I have rarely experienced really contentious speech in meetings for worship, but I haven’t attended many since I was a teenager either.
We spent every Sunday (or First Day, according to Quakers, who objected to days being named after pagan gods) at that meeting house, sometimes for fairly long periods. There was Sunday school before meeting, there was a business meeting every month, after which there was a potluck dinner (I loved gorging on delicious food at those), and another business meeting every quarter, at which meetings besides our own were also represented. I didn’t find the business meetings too fascinating, but enjoyed playing or hanging out with other people my age.
The group of meetings ours belonged to was called Ohio Yearly Meeting, though it didn’t take in all of Ohio, by any means. The Yearly Meeting part was named after the annual business meeting including anyone who could attend from any of its member meetings. It included mainly eastern Ohio, and there was another Quaker group in our town and elsewhere that was modeled more on mainline Protestantism: it had a minister and music was included in its services.
It was also more socially conservative than the Quakerism I grew up with. We were called Conservative, or Wilburite Quakers, but had relatively liberal social views concerning war, racism, and other weighty matters. There was a contingent of Quakers in our Yearly Meeting who still dressed very plainly, much like Amish or Mennonites did, but most of the Yearly Meeting no longer did. Plainness of this sort had been part of Quakerism since its beginnings in the 17th century. Not only did Quakers dress plainly, but they also refused to recognize social classes. They came from a time when English, like other languages still, had different forms for speaking to different people. People who had superior social positions were to be addressed as “you”, while people with whom one was familiar, or from inferior social classes were to be called “thee” or “thou”. English changed, and the use of thee and thou became archaic, but the equivalent survives in other languages.
Quakers also became known for refusing to swear in formal situations like courts of law, as they considered the Bible prohibited this. They also became known for their positions against war and slavery, and their interest in prison reform. Reportedly, Quakers on the American frontier would often leave their doors unlocked, and Native Americans wouldn’t bother them, since Quakers treated them as equals.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries Quakers weren’t different from many other European settlers in this country: some of them owned slaves. There were earlier voices calling for the end of slavery, but it was John Woolman, in the first half to about the middle of the 18th century, who took this position seriously and worked at convincing all Quakers to free their slaves and work for the abolition of slavery. It seems quite amazing that slavery, which had been an ordinary part of life for as long as we have records, should only have started to be protested against in the 17th century, mass movements against it begun in the 18th century, and our Civil War fought about it in the 19th century–after most countries (at least in the western world) had already freed their slaves.
Elizabeth Fry was another Quaker, famous for her interest in prison reform in the early 19th century. Lucretia Mott was another, famous as an abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights. Other Quakers protested wars at various times, and were probably among the first to demand conscientious objector status because they were unwilling to take part in war(they considered this also contrary to the spirit of the Bible), but were willing to contribute to their country in other ways. My father helped build things in Indiana and North Dakota during World War II. One of his brothers was a doctor, and served overseas in that way. The other brother drove an ambulance in the war.
Not all Quakers were anti-war. General Smedley Butler enlisted in the Spanish-American war because he’d fallen in love with the idea of being a Marine. He was evidently a very good one: promotions came quickly, and he served in many places for over thirty years: the Philippines, China, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua at least, but after some thirty years he had second thoughts about what he’d been doing, and denounced the Military-Industrial Complex. I remember reading about how President Eisenhower warned against this Complex on leaving the presidency, but I hadn’t realized it went back all the way to the 1890s. Butler also foiled a coup d’etat when he reported someone who offered to make him the face of a military takeover.
There have been other famous Quakers too, including two US presidents, Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. Neither were altogether successful as presidents.
Quakerism has been as present in cities as in the country, but my experience of it has been mostly rural or small-town. The town where I grew up was small, and the town where I attended a Quaker high school was smaller. The school itself was on the outskirts of town, and had its own farm to provide milk and food. One of the barns was on campus when I was a freshman there, which ensured there were lots of flies. Behind the boys dorm was a steep grassy valley where the cows grazed.
The barn is gone now, along with most of the flies. The boys dorm where I stayed was renovated not long after I graduated, and a new girls dorm was built. The main building is probably one of the older structures in the area, I think even older than the meeting house near the entrance to the campus. My father worked on an addition to the main building almost sixty years ago, and there have been various renovations since. It’s a place I like to visit when I can because the site and its buildings give me good feelings, and I also get to meet old friends there. We regularly gather when spring has gotten well underway, and summer is just around the corner. This has been the source of a lot of long-term friendships. Several of mine go back 50 years.
One reason for this was that the school was small (and is even smaller now). At most, the student body may have reached 100 occasionally. This meant that everyone knew everyone else, at least by name, just about everyone lived in the dormitories, and room assignments got switched around with each new term, so everyone got a chance to know some other people quite well.
I think some of the good feelings for me, and maybe for some others, may have come from the meeting house sitting at the entrance to the campus. Meditation seems to be a positive sort of practice, and when I went to school there some 90 years of meditation had taken place in that building. When I first visited there, almost 60 years ago, I was tremendously excited, though I couldn’t have told you why. There simply was something about that place and building.
When I was a teenager the Quakers I knew had begun to lose what made them distinct from others, and to become part of homogenous (white) America. Many of my friends (but not all) and I left the meeting as we became young adults. It’s kind of a shame we did, because our older classmates were a pretty special group, taking responsibility and looking out for we younger boys and girls better than we probably did for the young people who followed us. Ohio Yearly Meeting isn’t dead yet. I wonder if it would be unfair to say that it’s on life-support, though. Many of the meetings have gotten very small.
The Yearly Meeting used to run the Quaker high school I attended. It doesn’t anymore. For one thing, it’s too small to have the resources. For another, the meeting has changed. I gather that to some extent it has become polarized like much of the rest of society. About 20 years ago many alumni found they didn’t agree with a particular position taken a group in the Yearly Meeting, and after some prolonged wrangling, the Yearly Meeting relinquished responsibility.
I have little experience of Quakerism in other places or different forms. I’ve heard something about it, of course, but will only attempt to give the limited picture that I experienced myself. I’m not entirely sure why I turned away from it, as in some ways it was idyllic. But it was a rebellious time in history, I was in a rebellious period, so I turned away from it. I might have been happier if I’d stayed in that subculture, but I didn’t.
Quakerism started out as a largely positive movement, in my opinion, but movements tend to lose their way if they don’t follow the spirit that originally inspired them, and periodically reinvent themselves. Apparently the group I grew up among lost much of what made them special. Perhaps they’ll find it again, or perhaps it will be necessary to look in other places.
Quakerism did a lot to shape my worldview, though I no longer attend meetings for worship. I think the Quaker view is largely a positive one, and I might recommend it to anyone who thinks they’d get something from it. I chose not to myself, though I don’t know entirely why.

The Legend of Theseus

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I became fascinated with ancient history (and history in general) primarily because of two novels: The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault. Both were published right around 1960, just in time for me to come across a serious retelling of one of the important cycles of Greek mythology.
I had already been interested in the Greek myths, so the story of Theseus wasn’t altogether unfamiliar, especially the early part, in which he goes to Crete, kills the Minotaur, and returns triumphantly to Athens. I was, perhaps, just old enough to recognize the seriousness with which Renault treated Greek religion, seeing Theseus as a religious man, and not just an adventurer out to steal a throne. The novel made me realize that pagans took their religion seriously in Theseus’s Mycenaean age, if not later. And its reconstruction of that age made me believe that the story of Theseus could have happened in very much the way Renault portrayed it. Her novels may well have been a source of my intuition that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion.
That last assertion isn’t a popular view. Prior to the century or two before the birth of Jesus religious conflict based on theology was rare. Before then, religious conflict was usually the same as national conflict: if one nation could steal or destroy another nation’s gods (idols), they could conquer that nation. It was more frequent in Israel and Judah, where various prophets gave various kings hard times because of their propensity for worshiping Baal and other “foreign” gods instead of Yahweh.
When the Greeks invaded what is now Greece, some 4,000 years ago, there was conflict between the Mother goddess (who had many names and attributes, but was generally always the same) and the various male gods, who eventually (if not immediately) insisted that women become second-class citizens. The theme of The King Must Die in particular is the conflict between the two religious systems, particularly around the belief in sacrifice.
In the matriarchal societies in Greece and around the Mediterranean in general, a Sacred King was chosen each year (or each six months, or some other period), during which he married the Goddess (represented by a priestess). Their sexual relationship was intended to be magic: their fertility and sexual vitality would enable the community to produce enough living children to ensure survival, and also produce enough crops to feed everyone. The King was arguably the finest male specimen the community could produce–sacrificing damaged goods would be disrespecting the gods (though this happened at various times and places). The point of this sacrifice, though, was that the King had no choice. When his time came, he had to die.
By contrast, Renault’s portrayal of the patriarchal Greeks includes the need for sacrifice, but insists that the king must sacrifice himself voluntarily if the people who are his responsibility face a threat he can’t solve in any other way. In our culture, Jesus is the archetype of self-sacrifice for the benefit of all, but the idea goes back much further, and in an afterword Renault traces its practice back at least to the time of Theseus, in about the 13th century BC. She shows Theseus as ready, perhaps even eager for the sacrifice, but it does not take place. For anyone interested in reading the novel, I won’t explain why.
These two novels are my favorites of Renault’s, though her work (the best of which is almost exclusively set in ancient Greece) is of very high quality. Since there is little dependable history from Theseus’s Mycenaen era, she had to study the myth cycle closely to deduce Theseus’s character, while also studying Sir James Frazer and other interpreters of Greek religion. Pictures from the Minoan culture indicated what Theseus and the other young captives from Athens faced in Crete, and made it clear just who and what the Minotaur was. Many things seem to have fallen into place for her in constructing the novel.
Theseus is all accomplishment in his early years. After returning to Athens from Crete he becomes king, and undertakes various political initiatives to bind the people of Attica more closely together and give them a safe status among the other kingdoms. He is guided by his feeling that humans can be more than we usually are. That belief is underlined by his experience in Crete, in which he takes the Athenian prisoners and makes them into a team that manages to survive when most of the bull dancers die quickly. The cover of The King Must Die shows ancient Cretan portrayals of young men and women leaping to the bull’s horns and landing behind the bull. Renault portrays this dance as a sort of religious sacrifice that has become secularized and trivialized, but Theseus finds it a tremendously attractive challenge. He finds similar challenges in other areas too.
But later, after saving Athens and Attica from a large invasion from the east, he loses his impetus. His duties have become routine, and he doesn’t feel he has anything left to accomplish. When he has discharged his duties each year he goes sailing as a pirate.
Eventually he decides he has to get married and provide an heir to the kingdom, so he marries a royal lady who is heiress of the Crete he had helped to conquer, and whom he had met during his first visit to Crete. She bears him a son, who turns out to be a nice boy, but Theseus doesn’t see him as being king. He has another son, whom he finds very kingly indeed, but this son has taken a vow of chastity, and is devoted to the Mother Goddess. He can’t become king if he can’t provide an heir to the kingdom.
I won’t go into the drama that ensues, in which Theseus misunderstands the situation, uses his powers to curse his son (as a son of Poseidon he is able to predict earthquakes), then understands what has really happened too late. He returns to piracy, and pays less attention than ever to the kingdom.
Much later we find that he has had what we now recognize as a stroke. He finds an old lover who takes care of him until he has regained much of his function, and evaluates news of Athens. In his absence someone has taken over who causes conflict (only from the best motives), and doesn’t try to build consensus. A younger stronger Theseus might have tried to fix the situation. This one is too old and tired.
He accepts the hospitality of a king of one of the islands of the Aegean, and wakes one night after a dream of the future in which he returns to help save Athens from invasion from the East again. When he wakes it’s the middle of a beautiful night. His bedroom overlooks the sea, and he feels the power of his ability to sacrifice his life return a long time after he had misused his powers. His mortal father, Aegeus, and his father too had sacrificed themselves by leaping from a cliff into the sea. Theseus now does the same, uncertain whom his sacrifice will benefit, but certain it’s the right thing to do.
Self-sacrifice is never particularly popular, but Renault shows its power, and notes a couple of later examples in Greek history. Self-sacrifice seems particularly unpopular now, when politicians force anyone but themselves and their clients to sacrifice for their benefit. In Theseus’s milieu kings had privileges others didn’t, but were expected to give them up for the benefit of their kingdoms. They didn’t always, but the idea was current, and understandable to all. Now nobody wants to compromise, let alone sacrifice.
Theseus isn’t portrayed as being perfect, but he has the necessity of sacrifice in his DNA, and returns to it at the end of his life. Now even those of us who might be willing to do so, don’t know what difference we can make, and hesitate. Perhaps this is where faith should come in, or perhaps we need to learn more about how to make our lives matter.

Hallucinogens in Religion and Science

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Visionaries aren’t always well-received in science. They’re tolerated if they solve some outstanding problem without upsetting one of the basic attitudes of many scientists–unless they have such stature that no one is quick to criticize them.
Francis Crick was the man who visualized the double-helix structure of DNA and deciphered its code, so his accomplishments were unassailable. Maybe they would have been assailed anyway if scientists had known he was using LSD at the time he was thinking about DNA. Whether that’s so or not, he said some things later on that many scientists may not have received gladly.
He was thinking about evolution and the age of the earth, and said that, statistically, enough time had not yet passed on earth for a protein molecule to have been randomly constructed–let alone a VERY complex protein molecule like DNA.
Protein molecules are very large, very complex, and constructed in a very precise way to give very specific results. This is especially true of DNA, which Graham Hancock, in Supernatural, characterizes as the most efficient data-storage system imaginable. In each cell nucleus (much smaller than the cell itself) is stored two interwound strands of DNA 10 atoms wide and two meters long. This means that in each human being (as perhaps the most complex organism on earth) there are BILLIONS of miles of DNA.
Evolution is unimaginable without DNA. Every organism on earth contains it, so we humans are related to absolutely every living thing on this planet. But if the random evolution of a protein molecule is impossible, how could DNA have come into existence?
This question worried Crick, and led him (since he was a committed atheist) to the hypothesis of “panspermia”, meaning that DNA was designed by an extremely advanced alien race a very long time ago, and sent to this planet, and maybe to many other planets as well.
Perhaps this is a plausible solution to the problem. It may also indicate a solution that many scientists (to say nothing of atheists) would reject out of hand.
Curiously, the Yagua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon, who use the hallucinogen Ayahuasca, told ‘French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Chaumeil: “At the very beginning, before the birth of the earth, this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another earth…”‘
Where would they get this idea?
When asked about such questions, like (on a more pedestrian level) how did they know what plants to mix together, and how to treat them to produce the drug Curare, the answer is that Ayahuasca told them (Ayahuasca is a potent psychedelic used by many groups in South America). Graham Hancock remarks that since there are some 80,000 plant species in the Amazon area, this answer (weird as it may seem) looks a lot more probable than any trial-and-error method. Not only does Curare kill monkeys, for example, without leaving toxins in their bodies, but it makes their “hands” relax instead of clench, which is much more convenient for hunters who shoot monkeys in trees.
There are a lot of dots to connect here. One is the experiments of Clive Backster in the 1960s, who hooked electric pickups to plants, and got responses to various stimuli, which he thought meant plants were intelligent in much the same way as we. But there was a problem with his findings: legitimate scientists weren’t able to replicate them, which made many of them reject the whole idea. In The Intelligent Plant, an article in the New Yorker, Michael Pollan cites recent research that suggests the rejection of plant intelligence was premature, and that plants do indeed have intelligence, though of a sort much different from ours.
It seems that plants are able to alter the taste of their leaves, for instance, to discourage predators, and to send out a chemical signal that signals an insect predator that a plant-eating insect is eating them. The predators show up, and defend the plants. There are more examples of this, but the problem with plant intelligence is that it doesn’t work on the same basis as ours, is much slower, and almost undetectable to human perception. Suppose, though that plants ARE intelligent. We could speculate that some are more intelligent than others, and possibly much more sophisticated in the way they affect humans. Like plants that carry psychoactive chemicals.
That leads to a question: why SHOULD plants have psychoactive effects on humans (as well as some animals)? And why should such plants be distributed over most of the world? Coincidence? There are other coincidences to be considered as well.
Another dot concerns cave paintings, which appeared between 30-40,000 years ago. This is curious, because the oldest remains of a modern human being (according to Hancock) has been dated to about 196,000 years ago. He states that there is little indication of religion or art between that time and the advent of the cave paintings (paintings were also rendered on rocks in the open in various places). From that time, he says, we find religion to be universal all over the world, and throughout the millenia since. Atheism is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Why should religion have been so popular? If there is no validity to it, it should have died out well before the beginning of recorded history. Since it did not, it must have evolutionary value. Colin Wilson, in Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals, tells of a the famous anthropologist Leo Frobenius traveling with a small group of pygmies in southern Africa. When he asked them about killing an antelope to eat, he was told that it was too late in the day to make necessary preparations, but they would do so in the morning. He watched them draw a picture of an antelope on the ground next morning, and “wound” it with an arrow. When the pygmies came back with an antelope, its death wound was precisely in the same place as in the picture on the ground. Wilson reflects that such methods of hunting go back some 40,000 years, and if they hadn’t worked, would have been given up long ago.
Such methods are “magic”, which means “supernatural”, which many scientists and science lovers reject entirely. Wilson has a different take: “Magic” became science,which transformed the world. Shamanism, the earliest form of religion we know, contains many of the themes of the religions that followed them. Human figures in cave paintings are often pierced by what seem to be spears. This reflects the experience of shamans testified today in shamanistic societies, that shamans suffer horrifically to gain their powers of healing, attracting game, and foreseeing the future. They sacrifice their bodies (as it seems to them) to dismemberment, to piercing, to having organs removed, and being “rebuilt”. They also use hallucinogenic drugs.
David Lewis-Williams about 1980 theorized that shamanism, religion, and more than rudimentary art began between 30 and 40,000 years ago, and that the cause was the use of hallucinogenic plants, which appear in most parts of the world. Remarkably, the experiences expressed in cave art correspond with what contemporary shamans tell Westerners curious enough to ask–and in all parts of the world. Westerners who use the various psychedelic substances, if they use them often enough, experience very similar things to what shamans claim to experience. Why should this be, if the psychedelic experience is random, and in the words of Lewis-Williams, “silly illusions”?
Hallucinogenic substances can have effects in the material “real world”. Augustus Owsley Stanley, most famous for making a great deal of high-quality LSD (in an interview he says he made a great deal less than most people thought), later became a sound man for the Grateful Dead, and noticed an interesting phenomenon: when DMT (a powerful psychedelic, and one of the ingredients of Ayahusca) was smoked in the vicinity of the band when playing, the music became harsher and more strident. Not only that, but electronic parts of the sound system became red-hot and failed. Stanley said a girlfriend when he first got interested in LSD told him that what he experienced with it was real. In the above example, this was measurable: he tried turning one musician’s equipment all the way up, getting the musician to play as loudly as possible, and measuring the result in decibels. Doing the same with DMT being smoked in close proximity, the decibels went up, components got red-hot and failed. Somehow the practice facilitated the flow of more electricity through the circuits than the equipment could tolerate.
Westerners who take psychedelic drugs have much the same sort of experience as those reported by shamans of indigenous people. If people from very different parts of the world and very different cultures have similar experiences, does it follow that these experiences are silly nonsense?
One of these experiences is the impression of being taught. Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, took his share of psychedelic drugs in the sixties, and mentioned this impression in an interview. When the interviewer asked if the teaching was coming from the people he was tripping with, he said no, that he was with them, but they weren’t the ones doing the teaching.
More specifically, a biologist participating in experiments with a hallucinogen was shown a sort of bird’s-eye view of a section of DNA, in which we may presume she was particularly interested. That doesn’t sound like silly nonsense either.
Hancock’s view is that consciousness is not something we generate in our own heads, but something we tune into. There are different stations (or levels of reality) “broadcasting”, but our ordinary consciousness doesn’t pick them up. He says there is a minority, estimated at about 2% of the human race which naturally falls into trance states that other people have to reach through meditation, other “spiritual” techniques, or hallucinogens. Some of this two percent seem to be people who report having been abducted by aliens, often more than once. Some will dismiss the whole “alien abduction” phenomenon, but it is one that has been well-documented, and includes a large number of people. One scientist investigating this didn’t directly ask people if they had been abducted, but asked if they had experienced peripheral things that “abductees” commonly report. He also tested them extensively and found that they were psychologically normal, not predisposed to the kind of unreal hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics, for example.
So if there really are teachings coming through greatly altered states of consciousness, what is their source?
One of the peculiarities of DNA is that only an estimated 3%-10% is concerned with genes. What’s the rest of it for? This question is underlined by what is called Zipf’s law. The law is named for a man who studied language, and discovered that in a long enough piece of work (perhaps the size of a long article or a novel) there is a ratio to the words used. If the most common word appears 10,000 times, the tenth most common word will appear about 1,000 times, etc. This is common to all human languages.
This does not apply to coded DNA, but DOES apply to UNCODED DNA. Does DNA include a language just like human language which potentially could be translated? If it does, surely a case could be made that DNA is itself independently intelligent, or else “programmed” in a very sophisticated way. It would then follow that at least some of the “stations” it is possible for the human mind to tune into when consciousness is altered come directly from our own DNA.
And if plants in general are conscious (Michael Pollan says that plants seem to make decisions on directions in which to grow, as well as finding ways to defend themselves), some plants may be more powerfully intelligent than others. And why should there even BE plants that have psychoactive effects on human beings?
Some religious people would probably say that such plants were created by the devil. Some scientists would simply dismiss the whole phenomenon. Each group would be united in fear, despite their different viewpoints. Humans like to hang on to the paradigm they’re used to, regardless of how well or poorly it works. Robert Pirsig, in his novel, Lila comments that when we perceive something that contradicts the “map” we’re familiar with, most of us reject the perception, not the map. All of us exclude aspects of reality from our consciousness. Extremists exclude a LOT.
But surely the cause of evolution is served by learning. Dr. Rick Strassman, in an interview with Graham Hancock notes that various other organisms are affected by hallucinogens: spiders, for instance, weave strange-looking webs when having ingested hallucinogens. Of course we don’t know what they experience, but the difference is that once the effect of the drug wears off, animals return to their instinctive behavior. Humans sometimes do not. That may mean that hallucinogens can sometimes be an evolutionary tool. Not the only one, of course, but outright banning them and research on them doesn’t seem to have been a particularly brilliant move.
It would be foolish to regard religion as merely the product of the use of hallucinogens. There are other ways to induce visions or “hallucinations” without the use of drugs. We may speculate that these visions can come from similar places and have some validity. If they didn’t, why would religion be almost universal? Foolish beliefs don’t usually promote survival. Evolution is about survival, so religion, depending on definition, must have survival value.
I would differentiate between religion based on dogma and religion based on experience. For a long time the Catholic church conducted its services in Latin, and didn’t produce Bibles in the vernacular. Why wouldn’t they want their members to understand the words on which their faith was founded? Probably because they were more concerned with the retention of the power of their institution than the truth of their belief. Institutions are not often friends of the truth.
Many people who believe in evolution have as an article of faith that evolution is random. Francis Crick’s observations about protein molecules on which all life that we know is based can NOT be random, because enough time hasn’t passed to randomly produce such large and precise structures–at least not on THIS planet.
Extending this above microscopic structures, why should there be psychoactive plants, or plants that heal humans, for that matter? And with psychoactive plants, why should they appear in most parts of the world, and why should humans from different cultures from different parts of the world have similar experiences to indigenous peoples who largely base their social structures on what they say the plants tell them? There seem to be a lot of coincidences in this field, which suggests meaningful patterns that may NOT be coincidental.
In his interview with Graham Hancock, Dr. Strassman spoke of his experiments providing subjects with DMT, the powerful psychedelic which is one of the ingredients of the Ayahuasca used by many cultures in the Amazon area. He said he tried to explain his subjects experiences to them in terms of the Freudian subconscious and the Jungian collective unconscious, but that his subjects rejected those explanations. They believed that what they experienced was real, and Dr. Strassman found it more productive to change his hypothesis.
If what people using hallucinogens see is real, what does this mean? It at least suggests that there is more to our world than we commonly perceive, and that psychedelics may project humans into worlds coexistent with our own. Some of Dr. Strassman’s experimental subjects experienced “alien abductions” though their bodies were lying in hospital beds. That suggests that the “aliens” may not travel in literal space ships that we can see, but exist on a different level of reality (a different “radio station”, if you like) that we’re capable of “tuning into”, but usually don’t.
We return, then, to the question of what all this means. Hancock is convinced that religion, which began as the kind of magic shamans practiced, eventually became science and technology, which transformed humans from mediums-sized mammals little different from other animals to a force that transformed the world. Religion, like other sources of power, has been corrupted and made to serve ignoble purposes, fomenting conflicts of all sizes, including war and genocide. But if Hancock is correct, religion is also a source of knowledge that is valuable for survival, as suggested by its long history and prehistory. Science could learn more about just how this works, if they were willing, and the experiments by Dr. Strassman and others suggest one approach. There are certainly others.
It’s unfortunate that adherents of both religion and science seem to have complementary blind spots, so that many deny the validity of each other. Neither system is perfect, especially in isolation. Put them together in a rigorous way, and who knows what might be discovered?

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.

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.