In comments a couple of days ago. Rupert Goodwins wrote
“before that first religion what did people believe? Does that question even make sense? Was Homo Habilis instinctively atheist?
“The explanation of religion that makes most sense to me is as a synthesis of our primate hierarchical behaviour – which is our heritage from way before Moonwatcher flung that bone at Kubrick’s cameraman – and the curious business of being a self-aware animal among others. Wouldn’t we start to think in religious terms just as soon as we noticed things like death and weather doing stuff to us, just like the boss and the family do stuff to us?”
I started to reply and I couldn’t stop. Perhaps I should have done. Read on and let me know.
Rupert, I think you’re lumping to many too many things together as “religion” and “belief”. When you ask whether it makes sense to ask what people believed before the first religion, you’re on the right track: one which leads you towards the distinction between different things we call religion (and different things referred to as “belief”).
Religion is not just superstition. Superstition, it seems to me, is a useful term for the kind of overdetection of agency that is at the heart of Pascal Boyer’s theories of religion. It is what gives us our intuitive beliefs in ghosts and spirits. It’s what you’re pointing at when you ask “Wouldn’t we start to think in religious terms just as soon as we noticed things like death and weather doing stuff to us, just like the boss and the family do stuff to us” In a spiritualised form it is certainly part of most religions, even notionally atheistic ones like Buddhism and some forms of AA; as a belief in a personal providence, it becomes part of classical Calvinism, and pre-charismatic Protestantism too. But any worthwhile account of religion will see that there are immense differences between the examples I have listed above, and will have ways of sorting and accounting for these differences. Merely saying that they are all “a synthesis of our primate hierarchical behaviour .. and the curious business of being a self-aware animal amongst others is a bit like writing a cookbook that points out that pancakes, quenelles, tagliatelle and fruit loaf are all syntheses of flour, water and eggs, with optional fat and stops there. Other principles are needed to account for the differences between them.
In the matter of organised religions, those which have, or think they ought to have, a constitutional core of doctrinal statements, my argument was that this doctrine only masquerades as propositional statements to which we can give intellectual assent. In fact assent to doctrine works, when it does, in at least two distinct ways.
The first, on an individual level, is as a kind of cognitive therapy or as a way of generating rules of conduct: if you believe certain propositions, or try to make yourself believe them, the world becomes more tolerable and your behaviour better adapted to it. This need not be because they are simply grand untruths. It might be because they are needed to balance other grand untruths generated by default by other bits of my mind.
For instance, when I was seventeen or eighteen, I had a terrible problem with agoraphobia, brought on by practising the Imitation of Kerouac. I had taken some acid half way up the side of a Swiss mountain, when camping on my own, and passed a night of abject terror in which every marmot rustle or wind whisper outside the tent was the footsteps of some large carnivorous beast. In the morning, I calmed myself partially by reading and rereading The Sicilian Vespers until I could face walking over the open flank of the alp down into the forests. I cured this, slowly and deliberately, by making myself sleep out further and further from human habitation (in spinneys by the side of roads, then in Kendal Castle), then by walking down long, bat-haunted roads near Oban on dark nights and by training myself to observer that while long solitary walks in desolate countryside might and did reduce me to tears of horror, they did not in fact kill me, and they always came to an end. Now, I knew on one level that my fears were ridiculous, and that there are in fact no lions on Swiss alps, no wolf-packs in the lake district and no giant carnivorous elk anywhere. But the only thing that made them go away was to behave as if I were not frightened and to summon up images of my spiritual self as a larger, more dangerous beast than anything to be found around me. Propositional truth did nothing for my fears. Propositional falsehood worked. I wasn’t going to talk about all this stuff to anyone. But if I had been in a position to talk about it, and if my fears and triumphs had been socially sanctioned, I would have talked in terms of spirits and demons because that?s what helped. Obviously, in retrospect, one can see all this as a drama expressing certain truths about adolescence: you’re on your own; you?ll have to grow up, and so on. But the point is speaking the lines of the drama was the only way I had of accessing and dealing with these facts, and of changing my attitude to them.
The second function of assent to a given doctrine is social. In part this is a result of acting on the rules of conduct: if you have a community of people all acting on certain rules, then consequences, some of them admirable, will flow from this. But at the same time, adherence to these rules also serves to define the community, and to give it boundaries. This is what I was getting at in my claim that the purpose of religious statements is not to generate truths, but heresies. The same doctrine seldom works simultaneously as a heresy-sniffer and a rule of conduct. But doctrines come in bundles. That?s one of the things that?s organised about organised religions — and disorganised about Quakers, Universal Unitarians, and so on. If you are a Calvinist in Eastern Europe, there are some rules which signify community membership, such as a belief in substitutionary atonement, or a refusal to accept evolution; and others which determine how you behave towards other members of the community: broadly, this covers all the ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ stuff, with the proviso that your neighbour is the fundie 200 miles away and not the Orthodox slob next door to you.
I am using ‘function’ in a rather Darwinian or Dennettish sense which need not imply anything about consciousness, only about consequences. Function doesn?t imply that people hold these beliefs because they want advantages from them. Quite often they are held out of a sincere passion for the truth. But these beliefs survive because expressing them or acting on them do convey advantage. As usual, the point in a selective model is that what we have to explain is not why things come into being, but why they are preserved.
Writing makes it possible for more complex sets of rules to be kept together, and for them to change character or function over the years. Consider the ways in which Abrahamic food taboos may have originally had a hygienic or ecological function, but have gradually shifted to become purely tribal markers. In the sense, God is dependent on technology, which is the insight of Régis Debray’s which sparked this whole discussion off.