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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I mentioned in the essay "Myths of Sociology" that I have a problem with thinkers who reduce every aspect of mankind to sociological parameters, as do many anthropologists and social scientists. And while I hardly want to find myself going to the opposite extreme of Rousseau, who liked to define mankind as utterly independent of society, it should be made clear that "mankind" and "society" are not coterminous concepts.

Take religion. (Please.)

I have no opposition to the notion that religion evolved out of contingent factors, but I part company with many prominent anthropologists-- notably, Claude Levi-Strauss-- in seeing religion's as having evolved out of predominantly social factors. This is where a knowledge of Campbell's "four functions" of myth may prove a useful corrective, even when applied to the beings from which humans themselves evolved. Of course, anything one speculates about the early origins of human culture or those damn dirty ancestors is necessarily a heuristic assumption, based on fragmentary evidence of archaic times and backward extrapolations from our present reality.

The aspect of present reality to which I'd call attention is an anecdote from Jane Goodall related in her book on the chimpanzees of Gombe, IN THE SHADOW OF A MAN. In SHADOW, Goodall relates that during a particularly fierce thunderstorm that struck over the heads of a tribe of chimps, some of these anthropoids were submissively terrified while others ran up and down the hills, hooting and waving sticks at the storm, as if the storm were an enemy to be repelled.

Now, let us make the heuristic assumption that something like this happened in the days before hominids evolved, when chimps were the highest form of life. We do not necessarily have to suppose that early hominids inherited this pattern of behavior from their nonhuman brethren; only that big-brained species may be more capable in general of forming at least rudimentary concepts of unseen enemies, which in humans would then be articulated as gods, spirits or what have you.

Now, the notion that religion might ultimately stem from some combination of "challenge patterns" and "abasement patterns" is not original with me. It can be asserted that other animals lower on the "brain-chain" may well sometimes reflexively fall into "fight or flight" patterns when faced with unknown phenomena, but I would be surprised if there was any evidence of their conceptualizing the unknown phenomena. Of course the skeptic will point out that it's still dicey as to what extent chimpanzees can form concepts, though we know that at very least they can conceive of tool-using ("It is easier to dig up an anthill with a stick than with my fingers.")

What I wish to make clear with this heuristic example is that IF religion had its own beginnings as a set of "challenge/abasement patterns" in reaction to unknown phenomena, then this would challenge the notion of religion's origins as a sociological phenomenon. Challenge and abasement patterns are intrinsically biological responses keyed to promote the survival of the individual. They are not keyed to help the society, as one can say that "a protective response toward children" IS a pattern to aid society. Challenge and abasement indirectly help the individual survive in society, but there is no automatic benefit to society thereby, and indeed, depending on the individual, the survival of that individual may be a burden to his society.

Ironically, of the three functions Campbell sets down, the sociological is the weakest link, so to speak. One may characterize the chimps' reaction as a purely somatic response to the excitation of the storm, which would fit broadly within the category Campbell calls "cosmological." One may characterize it as "psychological," insofar as the reaction involves individual psych0logies (i.e., some chimps challenge the storm but others don't). Or, given that the imagined author of the storm's flashing and booming may be the ancestor of Old Yahweh himself, one could also see the reaction as belonging to the matrix of the "metaphysical."

We do not know the beginnings of Beginning, but one chooses to entertain this heuristic example (the sociologically-inclined, of course, will not) as forming at least part of the foundations of that Beginning, then one must concede that religion could not have been conceived simply to bind people closer together, or for the priesthood to keep the people buffaloed, as in scenarios popular with everyone from Ayn Rand to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Religion then would proceed from individuals first-- albeit as an "intersubjective" spirit, to flagrantly borrow Husserl's term-- and then society would cope with the religious tendency in the form of rituals and other paraphernalia. Only the existence of an intersubjective tendency to believe in invisible spirits would thus be able to convince the "laity" of primitive societies to do all sorts of things contrary to their immediate interests, such as the sacrifice of time, hard work, and perhaps other creature's lives.

We're a long way now from Rand's goofy notion of primitives falling down in fear before the ravings of an epileptic priest, so-- let's stay as far away from that notion as possible.

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