“I sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry that I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded – as it were, ‘oceanic’.”
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
Everything starts with the need to understand existence. Existence is directly related to survival, without being able to survive, you cannot exist. In simple mathematical terms, existence = survival, you cannot have one without the other. Human beings are animals, we have an inbuilt technique (created by the mechanism of evolution) of survival. We strive to survive – and in doing so we exist.
Early man survived, they hunted, reproduced etc all through an instinct to do this. Why did we bother? We had no choice, it’s built into our make up and into the make up of all plants, animals and living creatures. It’s not consciousness in our environment that makes us do this because animals are reactive to the world they live in, not proactive. We’re the same, we’ve learnt to react to the environment we live in; we certainly didn’t make it!
Step by step, we’ve learnt to master survival. We’ve learnt the methods required to ensure our existence, but we cannot master every aspect of our environment. To understand survival we need to ask how something works, the question man has asked since we became conscious. If you know how something works then you can work out how to counteract it if it threatens your existence.
So why change the entire course of mankind by asking “Who?” instead of “Why?”.
Early man faced the same environmental dangers we do today. Through the use of tools they could defeat other animals. Shelter defeated the harsh temperatures of the environment. What happens though when they faced something they couldn’t defeat; for example, natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes and floods?
These things threatened our existence because we could not survive them. Rudimentary logic says that when a natural disaster happens, people will die (some pagans tried to be proactive about this and sacrifice humans to appease the natural order; this doesn’t work obviously since they couldn’t proactively effect the outcome of a natural disaster).
How do you fight back against something that threatens your ability to exist? Do you attack it? Do you run away from it? What are you supposed to do?
If you want to survive something you cannot beat, you run away, if you’re intent on survival that is. The problem with natural disasters is that they could not predict when they were going to happen and hence they couldn’t run away. If there is an absence of threat from natural disasters, early man had no idea that this is because a volcano is rigged, that tectonic plates don’t shift violently in some areas, that flooding only affects some parts of the globe not all. They simply didn’t know that the absence of danger was based on the local geography and other associated factors that we know now. Those people that survived because they lived in a good area of the globe created the concept of faith. It worked for us, so if you believe what we say, it can work for you too. Which leads directly onto:
So what leap could have been made at this point; time for some specious reasoning. In the absence of logic and/or knowledge, the linking of two absolutely unlinked things is possible. Couple this with the knowledge that clever/genius men and women have existed since the start and an impossible link is made. Human beings look for links and patterns, it’s part of asking why something works – the combustion engine wouldn’t exist if Nicklaus Otto hadn’t combined 6-7 separate theories into one overriding concept, it’s genius when it works and dangerous when we get it hopelessly wrong. The combustion engine works because it takes a number of faceless ideas (scientific knowledge, the whys not the whos); religion doesn’t because it takes natural occurrence and gives them personality, “God made man in his image” – of course it did, how else can we give it personality? We had to compare things we didn’t understand to what we knew – another major piece of specious reasoning.
It didn’t rain today because I said “Yes” 100 times.
Superstition was born. It was based on actual experience but a specious link was made. If I kill 100 people, then hopefully that volcano will not kill us all; since the volcano has to kill some people, we may as well pick and choose who it kills before it happens to help the rest of us survive. Yes, we’re back to survival again.
Polytheism gave personality to those superstitions based on the actual effect they have. By appeasing the superstition you hopefully gave you and your people a chance at surviving. Religion itself is a game of Chinese whispers from this original premise – a premise built on ignorance of the mechanics of the environment and our nature. God, as I said is a speciously reasoned argument – two instances linked despite the fact they have no link.
Across history and including the Bible, our stories are filled with examples of humans beating the superhuman (Hercules, the Odyssey, Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the lions den; etc). We allegorise disasters (volcanoes are dragons). They are stories to inspire us, acts that we could not ever hope to achieve – or at least we couldn’t then.
As time moved on we ascribed more and more to these superstitions, we gave them life, we placed them higher than life. We gave God existence. It exists because we gave it existence. It doesn’t exist because we gave it existence.
We’re so far removed now from the original concept that we have no idea why we even believe in God anymore, just that we do. God is nothing more than a linguistic trick (a sophist argument), a word game based on illogical logic.
We will not let go of religion because it’s tied so closely into the reason we as a species have survived so long; however we are no longer ignorant to why we survived.
I’m curious how you would define religion. I find that people tend to use ambiguous language when talking about the subject and I suspect that their language reflects a lack of consideration. I don’t mean to point the finger at you. In fact, it seems like you have given it quite a bit of thought. That is precisely why I wonder about the definition you would provide. To me, there is no important distinction to be made between what are typically called religions (christianity, islam, buddhism, shinto) and what are typically called philosophies or world-views. I think many people would like to believe that their views are distinctly more sophisticated than what are called religions. I see this most in folks who proudly wear their atheism on their sleeves. Again, I don’t mean to suggest anything about you. I only just started reading your work. I am more familiar with the beliefs of proud atheists like Richard Dawkins and The Amazing Atheist. What are your thoughts?
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I think the difference between religion and other beliefs, such as humanism or even having a belief in conspiracy theories; is the deeply held unquestioning nature that it actually exists within and along side you. Philosophically, it’s on a different level or state. I’m very much a humanist these days, it differs from the same feelings when I had belief by the lack of something not quite so tangible. As described by the letter to Freud at the top, this feeling of an ‘oceanic’ belief, something larger than life and existence.
World-views and philosophies do tend to lend themselves to a religious like experience. A feeling of enlightenment and a baldness in the unquestioning nature of, for example, science or logic. Despite this, philosophies are more a prism in which to view information; whereas a religion is a strict adherence to a particular structure. Learning about basic forces in physics only gives rise to an understanding of the physical world, the link and shared belief is felt by everyone; but remains at a distance. Science and the like are nothing more than the here and now.
Philosophies and views can be challenged; on a superficial level mainly. However, even the Catholic church has realised they can’t challenge all new knowledge and are happy to incorporate the Big Bang into scripture. Evolution and creationism has become almost a tribalist belief. Whereas, there is physical evidence of evolution; creationism remains in the realms of this personal but widely held larger than life sensation. Eventually, I’m sure if will be co-opted into religious views via intelligent design; there’s been plenty of attempts already.
The tradition and even interpretation of religion is changeable, like philosophy; but the overall structure always remains the same; something innate which the universe orbits around rather than vice-versa. I could argue logic and I can provide tangible evidence; but the need to satisfy the evidence rather than rely on faith is there.
You say that “religion is a strict adherence to a particular structure.” Does that mean that you would consider Russian Orthodox more religious than Protestantism which rejects papal supremacy? If a group does not require it’s members to dress in a particular way, recite scriptures, or observe holidays; is it therefore less religious than one that does? You say that philosophy is a prism through which a person views the world. Am I right in thinking that organizations like the Catholic Church could offer both religion and philosophy according to your definitions?
Tradition can change; within religion there’s a movement towards purity, a reduction. It would seem like a natural distrustful response to human involvement to something that is beyond our touch. Society’s influence on tradition is huge; a lot of what society dictates will allow what tradition decrees. I think that’s where a certain fluidity comes into interpretation. The overall sensation, felt beneath the surface but occasionally rising (it has the same physical sensation as a mixture between pride, belonging and some less easy to define qualities) to the top in a physical nature remains pretty much the same.
To your point on the Catholic Church, absolutely. Recently, I read the Tao Te Ching; the philosophy it espouses is pretty much common sense, with a decent dash of moderation in actions. Christianity as well as the other two Monotheistic religions offer the same. Quite a straightforward world view; but for a lot of biblical scripture, it’s a case of cutting through a huge amount of text and spending time discovering what it means.
There’s a separation somewhere, between the continuous subconscious, occasionally surfacing ‘physical’ sensations and whatever the tradition tells you to do. Sounds a tad like a benevolent schizophrenia.
Just to add; you’ve got some bloody awful lecturers. They need to understand what elicits a religious style response. It is very different per person; although some commonalities remain; e.g. a lot of people get that experience when purchasing something. The build up over picking an item, to the full blown sensation on purchase; the feeling then lessens and requires a top up. Hence, even consumerism as a religion is also quite valid.
I’d argue the view of the object (the purchase) is a philosophy that in which the item brings happiness/contentment/belonging/whatever they crave. It doesn’t simply have to be an simple object; it extends to further less tangible things like a world-view.
This book is a fun read: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7623692-the-age-of-absurdity
Thanks for taking a look at my blog. I’ll have to think about the idea that consumerism is a religion. I suspect you are right, however much I wish you were wrong. I’ll also pick up a copy of that book, it looks good. Are you familiar with Zizek? In a documentary called “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, he gives an interesting take on consumerism and argues that marketing actually adds value to products. I feel like it is tangential to our conversation in some way.
Very good. I never thought that a rational argument could start with a quotation from Freud, but you’ve proved me wrong.
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