I am sitting at Black Mother Gully (BMG). It’s very quiet, but I hear magpies – and more as I listen more intently. Voices of children in the distance. Another overcast morning.
Why gods? They are universal in the consciousness of humanity – under many names. The term itself is a problem for a Western European because we think it has a meaning that is useful. In fact, it’s a vague gesture in a complex direction – and no more.
Hence whether one “believes in” God – or not – is just as meaningless. In this case belief inis vague but disbelief is specific. It is, after all, hard to disbelieve in a vague way. This is, of course, unless one is a materialist who utterly denies the metaphysical. But again, no materialist really does that. They just say they do.
So, what are the gods of our ancestors? Imagine all the forces of nature described by science in terms of them being mechanical forces – and now imagine them as forces of consciousness. That’s pretty much it.
That wasn’t a matter of belief in – only a matter of not conceiving of nature as an objective reality. Imagine a parent or a child. You know that, on some level, their presence is ultimately an assemblage of atoms, but to be conscious of that you’d have to put your head into a peculiar space. Ordinarily you imagine an entity with presence and behaviours, and with whom you have a relationship. Scale that imagination to embrace all that you know. The modern mechanist vision was neither available to, nor useful to, our ancestors.
If we want to understand gods we must, therefore, be aware of how we constrain the concept and make it dance to our tune.
Changing How We Think and Believe
The widespread materialism and loss of belief is a cultural phenomenon that is part of our evolution in how we comprehend our reality. That loss of faith is down to two important developments. The first is the evolution of Christianity into a multifaceted discourse about the divine and human relations with it. The second is the development of the lens.
In certain respects, all human culture is a discourse between the human and the other-than-human. In terms of our culture, Christianity marked a transition between what we call paganism and what became known as The Enlightenment – and what happened afterwards.
The lens made available to us the very small and the very large. Both were previously realms available only to imagination and speculation. There was a naive expectation that the lens would reveal the handiwork of God. When such evidence was not forthcoming, the impatient lost faith and decided no such agency existed. We live, in a sense, in the Glass Age – or the Silicon Age.
There’s a popular misconception that science has grown because of freedom from religion. But a review of the history of science will confirm that this is no more than a ploy by materialists to mislead. The great Newton was no atheist or materialist, and the developers of quantum science were likewise not members of the cliche that now claims sole rights over the shared history of scientific advance. Indeed, it is fair to argue that the religious and the metaphysically inclined have contributed the lion’s share to scientific inquiry. Galileo, the materialists’ poster boy was still a believer. He merely ran afoul of Church dogma and his own intemperate mouth.
We must distinguish between belief as it once was, and as it has now become. Attitudes toward religion have shifted markedly in the past century. Active participation in religious activity has been declining since the end of World War 1, and in recent years a new category has arisen – Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR). Atheism is growing as well, but this is less about a positive move in that direction than a lack of exposure to religious ideas. No point in believing in something you know nothing about – though, to be fair, that’s hardly an impediment in the current climate.
The Pew Research Centre’s surveys demonstrate that in the USA, at least, non-materialistic belief is alive and well. In the USA, 72% of ‘Nones’ (no religion) believe in god or a higher power. According to Pew:
The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind.
In Western Europe, the majority of people identify as Christian. In the general population 74% believe in God as described in the Bible (27%) or in another higher power (38%). Belief in no God or higher power is significantly higher than in the USA, at 24%.
It is interesting to note that belief in a ‘higher power’ is significantly higher than belief in a Biblical God, or nothing – which are almost on a par.
Nietzsche’s observation that the old conception of God is dead (not that God per se is) sums up the situation. Even the relatively high numbers who assert an affiliation with a faith belie the level of disengagement from the dogmas, rituals and events that once made up an active community of faith. There’s a lot of reserve now. It’s as if there’s a waiting for something to change.
Our conception of God has simply transformed into many things – and no one conception holds sway – despite efforts to say otherwise by a tenacious few. Here it is worthwhile noting that it is ever an extreme minority who assert exclusive claims to knowledge about what is true and right – theistic or atheistic. The rest of us dwell somewhere on a spectrum of engagement with belief – from the scarcely motivated to the highly motivated – without bothering to contest differing views – beyond being sensitive to their ability to ruin social occasions.
If the trend in quantum physics persists… (I suddenly stop writing and leave. As I do 3 vehicles arrive. The peace is gone. BMG fades away and Maple Grove Park is open for business)
As I was saying… we will be discussing exactly what the underpinning constituent consciousness of knowable reality is – and how it is organized. What will be different is that we will bring vastly different tools and ways of knowing. One hurdle will be the habit of distinguishing between objective and subjective knowledge – a holdover from The Enlightenment. We have invested a lot in this distrust of self in the process of perception. In the past it has helped distinguish between superstition and the new knowledge of science. But as we explore the nature of perception and experience that distinction no longer appears valid. In terms of knowledge, we are moving from a sense of the absolute to contingency being the norm. In terms of values, the reverse seems as if it may be true.
The Value of the Past
We see persistent memories of the ancient way of engaging with profound ideas as if they are expressions of a deep consciousness, rather than abstract ideas. The image of justice being a blindfolded woman holding scales and carrying a sword speaks more coherently as a symbolic image than a rational definition of the idea of justice.
The Oxford dictionary struggles to offer a definition of justice as “just behaviour or treatment” and “the quality of being fair and reasonable”. Justice can’t be usefully reduced to a rational description of an abstract idea. But it can be conveyed as a ‘spirit’ and encapsulated in an image.
This idea goes back to Ancient Egypt and the Goddess Maat. This is from Britannica.com:
Maat, also spelled Mayet, in ancient Egyptian religion, the personification of truth, justice, and the cosmic order. The daughter of the sun god Re, she was associated with Thoth, god of wisdom.
The ceremony of judgment of the dead (called the “Judgment of Osiris,” named for Osiris, the god of the dead) was believed to focus upon the weighing of the heart of the deceased in a scale balanced by Maat (or her hieroglyph, the ostrich feather), as a test of conformity to proper values.
In its abstract sense, maat was the divine order established at creation and reaffirmed at the accession of each new king of Egypt. In setting maat ‘order’ in place of isfet ‘disorder,’ the king played the role of the sun god, the god with the closest links to Maat. Maat stood at the head of the sun god’s bark as it traveled through the sky and the underworld. Although aspects of kingship and of maat were at times subjected to criticism and reformulation, the principles underlying these two institutions were fundamental to ancient Egyptian life and thought and endured to the end of ancient Egyptian history.
What we see here in this brief example is an instance of a sophisticated moral theory being woven into a foundational narrative context. Humans have used stories as the primary means of conveying crucial values for the most part of our history. So, we can see the fusion of two essential truths – the sense of reality being ‘spirit’ and not dead mechanism, and the use of story as the primary means of conveying critical moral precepts.
In terms of our cultural history, we go back to Sumer for the origins of writing and mathematics as cities evolved as the major form of human community and the heavens a primary consideration for disciplined inquiry. Here we start to see the emergence of ‘rational’ intelligence as a powerful instrument. But still, the gods remained as a critical part of the cultural narrative for millennia. That narrative gave humans access to an integrated and holistic discourse that we began to lose as ‘Reason’ sought to dominate from The Enlightenment to now.
Our story-telling has a limited number of themes. There are claims and arguments about how many movie plots there are. These themes are moral or archetypal and play out no matter what the setting is. It does not matter whether a story is set 5,000 years in the past or the future. These fundamental themes are perennial and endure. The stories change in specifics, not in character, to keep the ‘spirit’ of the tale alive and relatable. Here stories of gods and spirits and heroes do some rational discourse alone cannot achieve.
The past offers us guidance to understand what is missing from our now. In the sense of L. P. Hartley’s immortal words “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Our ancestors did things differently, not worse, not more primitively. Modern efforts to recover the past through occult organisaitons are useful to help us understand what of value in that different way of doing things can be discovered. But they are not practices that herald the future.
Our cultural discourse is so thoroughly a mush of materialism, residues of faith, superstitions, and hubris that it is a form of confusion, if not a madness of some sort. It is not fit for purpose – between the old ways and what is emerging in the sharp end of scientific inquiry – as an articulation of our shared sense of relationship with reality.
There’s plenty of inquiry and reflection we can do.