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Imagine a World of Religions that Naturalism Might Indeed Be Able to Explain

JamesGeorgeFrazer.jpgCognitive scientist Steven Pinker recently told CNN, “We don’t throw virgins into volcanoes any more.”

No? Why not?

Regarding the phenomenon of religion, here are two curious things: When naturalists (materialists) study religion, they get so many basic facts wrong, one wonders why they bother, except to bolster their own view. Second, they mainly study “revealed” religion, where the world is interpreted through a divine message (or some would say, an acute insight), revealing a higher order of reality. The recognized principal purpose of religion in that case is understanding of reality, not control over it.

But it was not always so. Closing this series on the human mind, I would like to take you on a journey back to a time much closer to the Stone Age, when our ancestors’ perceptions of how the world works were very different from ours today.

Science-Fictions-square.gifOur guide will be British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), author of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890). Frazer (pictured above) collected, organized, and published a vast amount of information about premodern ways of thinking. He was tactful in expressing his own “scientific” agnosticism, a fact that enabled him to gain much information from missionaries. He certainly has his detractors, past and present. His major achievement was to open up for us a way of thinking about life that has now largely vanished, except for the occasional glimpses we get in popular superstitions.

From what we can tell by analyzing surviving customs and artifacts, ancient religions were chiefly focused on magical thinking. Magic is an exploded form of physics (Frazer calls it “a spurious system of natural law”):

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.

Thus one could cause good or harm by imitating a desired result. The voodoo doll survives in popular culture but most instances were probably intended to produce good, in the form of health or prosperity. Second, because things once joined continue to exert an influence on each other, one might put salve on the tool that caused a cut wound as well as on the wound itself, to speed healing. Some of these folk beliefs persisted into the modern period. Frazer notes:

If a horse wounds its foot by treading on a nail, a Suffolk groom will invariably preserve the nail, clean it, and grease it every day, to prevent the foot from festering.

Such principles were believed to regulate all life and all nature. Although they were not materialists, our ancestors do appear to have been naturalists. They believed in gods, but gods were merely beings with considerable powers over nature. They were usually placated. But they could be promoted or demoted, flogged or booted from the community, if they failed to bring rain, for example. The same fate could befall rulers, who were often thought to have semi-divine powers.

No necessary distinction existed between gods, ghosts, rulers, magicians, plain folks, animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Gods could die like anyone else. A sense of a transcendent God who created and sympathizes with man and nature — but is not a creature like them — came later, perhaps much later. Meanwhile, men could be gods and gods could be men, the hierarchy sometimes inverted. Either men or god could become any animate or inanimate entity as well. Though, strictly speaking, there were no inanimate entities; anything might have a soul.

Animals and plants certainly had souls, souls that must be placated if their bodies are used. A human soul, sometimes conceived of in animal form, could travel, especially during sleep or illness, and had to be prevented from escaping altogether. It could be stolen, or else stored for safekeeping in, say, a tree. Its health might depend on that of a plant or animal. A shadow, reflection, or representation of the body was thought to at least potentially be a manifestation of the soul.

It’s not clear that the soul was strictly regarded as immaterial. Souls could do things on their travels that one might expect of a whole human, such as quarrel and thus create pain for the bodies to which they returned. Perhaps the distinction we make between material and immaterial was simply not made eons ago.

These ancient magical systems or religions were not systematically interwoven with ethics. In many cultures, sacredness and uncleanness were equivalent. Both were sources of power, to be handled, like fire, with care. Thus, ritual prostitution of women considered respectable was normal, and sometimes even required.

Similarly, there was little distinction between natural and moral evil. Sickness, sin, and bad luck could all be transferred as if they were material things, possibly to a tree. Sickness could be bribed to stay away. One could hire someone to bear sin and sickness, in some cultures. Life was largely governed by ritual and taboo, the correct observance of which was thought to ward off evils of all classes.

Darwinian “explanations” of religion have focused comparatively little on these more ancient belief systems. They focus rather on modern ones that may not have “evolved” at all but are the outcome of sudden insights or revelations.

By the time records began to be made, this widespread ancient worldview, in its myriad forms, was beginning very slowly to disappear. The habit of writing things down may have speeded its decline. Keeping records greatly aids the evidence-based thinking that, with many setbacks, eventually supplanted the old way.

The old worldview survives submerged within modern superstitions. For example, breaking a mirror is bad luck for some unknown reason. Anciently, it was because one’s soul might be the image in the mirror.

We sometimes hear terms like “irrational superstition.” Strictly speaking, superstition is irrational because we do not accept or even understand the worldview it echoes. When people honestly believed that their soul might be in the mirror, then risking breaking it would be irrational. Frazer puts the matter thus:

The views of natural causation embraced by the savage magician no doubt appear to us manifestly false and absurd; yet in their day they were legitimate hypotheses, though they have not stood the test of experience. Ridicule and blame are the just meed, not of those who devised these crude theories, but of those who obstinately adhered to them after better had been propounded.

In other words, believing that breaking a mirror is bad luck against the evidence today is worthy of ridicule.

An acknowledged weakness of Frazer’s work was the use of concepts drawn from Darwinian evolution to trace a sort of natural development from magical to religious to scientific thinking. No such development exists; indeed, in many settings today, lack of religion promotes superstition even among the science-minded.

There is a delicate irony in the fact that the oldest way of trying to understand the world (magical thinking) is in certain ways similar to the beliefs of metaphysical naturalists today. And different from those of the adherents of any “revealed” religion, whether they be, say, Christians, Mormons, Buddhists, Hare Krishna, etc.

Granted, these religions are disparate. But no science-based reason has been found for thinking that none offer insight or that all can be fully accounted for by naturalist claims. Naturalist claims can more easily account for magical thinking they replaced, a world where everything, even the gods, was just nature. And as the naturalist will tell you, nature is all there is.

I started this series of Science Fictions about the human mind by asking a simple question: Is there a good reason to believe that the human mind is and must be a fully natural object? We looked at many possibilities from neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, genetics, and so forth. But in the end, consciousness is immaterial, as the great physicists have said. If it is indeed natural, then nature is far beyond what we now think it is. Perhaps informational realism can help, by exploring the problem in a way that respects the nature of the human mind and does not simply try to jam it into material categories.

For the great physicists, after all, counseled no surrender. Perhaps they were more in the frame of mind of T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

That, perhaps, is the greatest achievement we can hope for.

Editor’s note: Here is the “Science Fictions” series (the human mind) to date at your fingertips.

Image: Sir James George Frazer, contemporary photograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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