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Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith 
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 Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith



Sun Aug 15, 2010 11:15 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
A couple of things jumped out at me while reading this first chapter. As a preamble, let me just state that I believe that people are generally inclined towards moral behavior and, moreover, we evolved that way. Morality doesn't come from religion, although the social structure of religion serves to reinforce moral behaviors. The problem I see where there is a pretense that morality is derived from this holy book or that holy book is inherently dishonest. Such a notion serves to support the institution of religion. And I have a big problem with that as I have said here innumerable times.

On the other hand, religious beliefs serve to comfort us with the idea of an afterlife. One could argue that this is dishonest too, but we don't know either way, and there are countless numbers of people who need that bedrock of belief.

In this chapter, Wright talks about the largely animistic worldview of hunter-gatherers. These quasi-religious beliefs were so interwoven into everyday thoughts and actions that the primitives had no concept of what we call "religion" and they had no word for it. Only later when the scientific process was established did we come to separate those things that are deemed "religious" and those that are based on real world observations. Today we make a clear distinction between the supernatural and the naturalistic or, at least, some of us do. I'd like to pose a couple of questions about this delineation. Isn't it inevitable and isn't it correct to note the difference between the natural world and the supernatural? Don't we want to keep those things separate?

Another interesting observation made of the primitives' quasi-religions is the curious absence of a moral component. The primitive gods did not approve or disapprove of stealing, murder, adultery, etc., but were more concerned with protocol of rituals and sacrifice. The gods didn't get angry if you killed another member of your tribe, but would get angry if you didn't make your ritual fire a certain way. As Edward Tylor noted in 1874, the religions of "savage" societies were "almost devoid of that ethical element which to the educated modern mind is the very mainstream of practical religion."

It's important to add here that though the primitives didn't incorporate ethical behavior into their religious beliefs, they still lived by a moral code. In fact, Tyler stressed that that the moral standards of the "savages" are "generally well-defined and praiseworthy." He goes on to say that "these ethical laws are grounded in tradition and public opinion" rather than on a religious foundation.

And this brings me back to my question, if we are to strive to keep the naturalistic world separate from the supernatural, doesn't it make sense to remove that moral component from the supernatural realm and stick it back into the empirical natural realm where it (arguably) belongs?


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Fri Aug 20, 2010 10:16 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
I'll jump in the discussion this weekend. Sorry I'm late.


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Fri Aug 20, 2010 1:56 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
I just got my book and am starting to read it this morning.



Sat Aug 21, 2010 5:27 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
It's just as well that everyone hasn't started reading yet. I'd like to clarify my question which is more or less rhetorical anyway. I don't really suppose we can take morality out of the supernatural and stick it in the natural world because clearly our morality is derived from the natural world. If anything religion tends to obfuscate this reality.


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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
That was a fine lead-off post, Geo. I was impressed as well by the observation that "in the beginning" relgion doesn't seem to be much about moral behavior but instead about appeasing gods. As society becomes more complex, apparently there grows a need to take morality outward from its ground of origin and place it above everyone, as a command from a god.

To me, it's the need to believe that morality isn't just a naturalistic occurrence in human society that pulls people most strongly to religion. The afterlife would seem be less powerful, but I can't prove that. It will be extremely difficult for many people to separate the supernatural from the natural, just because they need to continue to believe that morality is of supernatural origin.


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Last edited by DWill on Sat Aug 21, 2010 12:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
I don't have my copy of the book yet, but it must be in this chapter, or maybe in a preface that we don't have listed, that Wright makes a distinction that struck me as important. He says that both religious zealots and opponents of religion make the mistake of thinking that a religion is what its leaders and scriptures say it is. Wright says that it doesn't work this way, sociologically. A religion isn't controlled in this way but is always evolving; it can only be defined by its characteristics at any given time, and these might actually contradict the word of authorities and scriptures, or at least ignore them.

That's why it might not be so important what the Bible really says. We all know about the distasteful stuff in it. Just because it is there places no demand on a Christian to believe it or take responsibility for it. A Christian can probably "believe in" just a minor part of the Bible and still feel okay about calling himself a Christian. This would apply to Muslims and Jews, too.

We might have an opinion about the intellectual honesty of the attitude I've described. But we have to take into account the cultural significance of religion to many people. It's more about the shared customs and sense of community than it is about the beliefs, in my view.

I do support requiring that people know what they're talking about, though. If they're going to claim the Bible as a moral authority, they should be knowledgeable about it, or at least they should admit that they don't know it in detail.


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Sun Aug 22, 2010 9:15 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
DWill wrote:
That was a fine lead-off post, Geo. I was impressed as well by the observation that "in the beginning" relgion doesn't seem to be much about moral behavior but instead about appeasing gods. As society becomes more complex, apparently there grows a need to take morality outward from its ground of origin and place it above everyone, as a command from a god.

To me, it's the need to believe that morality isn't just a naturalistic occurrence in human society that pulls people most strongly to religion. The afterlife would seem be less powerful, but I can't prove that. It will be extremely difficult for many people to separate the supernatural from the natural, just because they need to continue to believe that morality is of supernatural origin.


I read in a review of this book that hunter-gatherer societies were so small and self-regulating that they didn't need to pretend that moral behavior came from an external source. Everyone knew one another, and they relied on one another for survival. If you steal a digging stick from someone in your tribe, what exactly are you going to do with it? You can't use it or trade it because everyone would know right off it was you who stole it!

But as you say, society grew more complex and we humans must have devised a new context for morality, placing it in an external realm. This was certainly good for the new class of shamans, the subject of the next chapter.

I think you're right. Some people need to believe that morality is of supernatural origin. But this is also problematic in our increasingly secular society. Most of us don't believe in gods, demons, and devils any more and so there is this growing divide between believers and non-believers. Part of this is probably over who gets squatters' rights to morality. It always seems intellectually dishonest to pretend that morality is external. And if we accept Wright's argument that religion evolves, and often in response to scientific advances, I could argue that for religion to remain relevant in an increasingly secular world, it needs to do something different.

Until then, it's probably good that we have laws and prisons to keep people in line when threat of eternal punishment is not quite enough.

Oh, that rather in-depth review of The Evolution of God is here:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archive ... -religion/


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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
I took a course in Prehistoric Ritual and Religion a while back (sometime in pre-history, way, way back), but recall clan identification as one of the concepts of evolving religion. It was used to hold the clan together, to give them a sense of identification and to keep them apart from other clans. In this respect, I don't think religion has evolved much at all, has it?
But Wright et al are correct in stating that ethics did not play a part in the beginnings of religion; indeed, as atheists well know, ethics need not be a component of religion at all. But this is not to say that our pre-historic ancestors did not have any code of ethics.
I haven't hit on it in the book we're reading yet, but feel that I'll come upon the theory somewhere in it that ethics became part of religion in order to give religion more clout when the clan-system began to break apart.


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Mon Aug 23, 2010 2:23 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
DWill wrote:
That was a fine lead-off post, Geo. I was impressed as well by the observation that "in the beginning" relgion doesn't seem to be much about moral behavior but instead about appeasing gods. As society becomes more complex, apparently there grows a need to take morality outward from its ground of origin and place it above everyone, as a command from a god.

To me, it's the need to believe that morality isn't just a naturalistic occurrence in human society that pulls people most strongly to religion. The afterlife would seem be less powerful, but I can't prove that. It will be extremely difficult for many people to separate the supernatural from the natural, just because they need to continue to believe that morality is of supernatural origin.


Wright's discussion of the difference between primitive and modern views focuses on the fact that primitive people know everyone they meet, so morality is just for the community and does not apply to outsiders, who are seen as enemies. The lack of modern anonymity means that primitive people find it harder to get away with crimes against others without detection. As a result, there is no need for the moral sanction of heaven and hell applied in so-called modern religion. On Wright's theory, primitive religion is about explaining events in nature, rather than providing a universal moral code.



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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
I recommend the review that geo pointed us to (see above). It's very comprehensive and excellent criticism. It appears from the later chapters of the book that Robert Wright might be a materialist searching or longing for something more.


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Mon Aug 23, 2010 10:11 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
DWill wrote:
I recommend the review that geo pointed us to (see above). It's very comprehensive and excellent criticism. It appears from the later chapters of the book that Robert Wright might be a materialist searching or longing for something more.

I think your guess about Wright is correct. If you listen to or watch the interview I post that he did with Christa Tippet that is what he seems to be saying about himself. BTW the interview is quite good.


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Mon Aug 23, 2010 10:16 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
I hope this post fits here. As I've begun to read The Evolution of God two other people’s ideas came to mind. The first is Riane Eisler, she is described as a cultural historian and an evolutionary theorist. Her main work is the book The Chalice and The Blade in which she puts forth her idea that societies can be categorized in one of two ways Dominator or Partnership culture. Eisler says that these categorizations explain/describe better how all of the parts (institutions, beliefs, morays, etc.) of a culture work and fit together. How this connects, at least in my mind, to Wright is that he is saying that the development of the concept of God (I am referring specifically to the fluctuating degree of tolerance or "mood" of God at any particular time in history -- angry and punitive or loving and forgiving) has been influenced over time by how the folks on the ground viewed other groups with whom they have contact. If they see advantage to getting along (forgive my simplification) then the other group's religion (god) is tolerated. However, if seen as a threat or of no value then the other group's religion is denounced as invalid. This seems a bit like Eisler's idea of partnership and domination.

The second person is Jane McGonigal. She directs game R&D at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit forecasting firm. I watched her online do a TEDtalk. She is using the non zero-sum idea in her talk. After reading the first chapter of The Evolution of God, I wondered if she was familiar with Wright -- I think she must be.
Here is a link to her talk:
http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal ... world.html

While looking for Jane McGonigal I found Wright's TEDtalk -- The Evolution of Compassion:
http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_wright_ ... ssion.html

edit in:
I almost forgot -- the point. All three, Wright, McGonigal and Eisler have in common is similar vision of what would solve or maybe it is better to say, what is needed to solve the problems in the world today and all three say it is already part of our repertoire of basic human behaviors.


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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
An assumption in Wright's book is the common one that culture, which includes religion, should be seen as evolving in a manner similar to that of the animal and plant kingdoms. Having this basic frame for culture gets us out of the mindset that most adherents to faiths would have, that their religion emerged de novo and doesn't owe anything to ancestry. There are different views on just how far to go with the analogy between physical and cultural evolution. Is it more than an analogy in fact? I've argued before that it's really not more. Wright makes a claim that needs to be understood as analogy but not equivalence. He writes, "These interpretive divergences [i.e., variations in primitive theology] form the raw material of cultural evolution, just as biological mutations create the diverse traits that feed genetic evolution" (p. 18). Biological mutations are understood to be totally random in occurrence, while changes worked on cultural materials result from at least some degree of intent and direction by people. I would agree, though, that each process is similar in that it's completely unpredictable where it will lead.


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Last edited by DWill on Wed Aug 25, 2010 7:30 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 1 - The Primordial Faith
Mutation is random but natural selection is directional, towards increased complexity. There is a 'window of evolution', a set of possible mutations that can survive in competition with the existing genome. Worse mutations generally die, so the only incremental changes are those that cause the species to continually evolve through cumulative adaptation. This model of natural selection applies equally to genes and memes. Evolutionary progress based on precedent is a universal process of incremental change, with the long incremental stable periods punctuated by the occasional catastrophe. Evolution is not 'totally unpredictable'; if you put fish in a dark cave for many generations their eyesight will get worse.



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