The narrative of lineage had allowed us to live in societies larger than bands. But as human society got larger and more complex, we needed a bigger narrative.
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There are now 15 comments... what are your thoughts?
  1. SeanR says

    The new homepage doesn’t link to this page yet. I only know about it because I got an email notification.

  2. sewblon says

    I thought that you said that we all ready had religion by this point in the form of ancestor worship. So shouldn’t it be the road from religion in that case? Not the road to religion?

    • It depends on how you define things.. formally, a religion is the unified combination of a non-normative philosophy (strictly concerned with describing how things are, sometimes called ‘ontology’) and a normative philosophy (strictly concerned with how things should be, sometimes called ‘morality’).

      By those terms, anything that can prefer one option over another has some amount of ‘religion’. You need the non-normative system to know that options exist, and the normative system to have a concept of one option being ‘better’ than the other.

      That applies to societies as well as to individuals. A group also needs general agreement about ‘how things are’ and ‘how things should be’ to function, which leads to ‘religion’ as a social institution.

      So far we’ve seen societies whose members could stay in sync through daily interaction, or could simply avoid each other. Both of those options are about to fail, and people will have to find new ways to handle consensus about ‘how things are’ and ‘how things should be’.

      • That definition of religion is too broad. Explicitly atheist societies like the PRC also have a combination of non-normative and normative ideology that allows them to select one option over the other option. Every society has that. We need to define religion in a way that allows some societies and individuals to be religious, and others to be irreligious.

        • If you try to narrow the definition, you run into trouble with things like Taoism and animism. The Tao is especially fun.. there isn’t a definition made that a good Taoist can’t think their way around.

          Atheism isn’t all that far out of the pack, really.. the modern form contains a large population that nicely fit the definition of a primitive, priestly religion: they accept something they call ‘science’ as a source of absolute truth (a proposition no working scientist takes seriously), the documents they accept as truth are called ‘studies’, which are prepared (and only understood) by ‘scientists’ (the priest caste).

          That’s largely a distraction though. It’s impossible to establish the axioms of a normative philosophy using only non-normative tools. For all the respect science deserves with regard to its strongly verified empirical knowledge, it’s only half of the picture. It can describe the consequences of various actions in minute detail, but can’t rank one as ‘better’ than the other, let alone classify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

          The near-cult of ‘science’ ignores that problem and tries to extend justifiable respect for strongly verified empirical knowledge to a normative system that’s defined poorly (if at all) and has no rigorous connection to the empirical stuff.

          Much of serious atheism does address the problem: trying to establish a normative philosophy without referring to an absolute standard of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ embodied in a deity, or more generally as something external to humanity. The hallmark of a good atheist is how hard it is to make them shut up about ethics and standards of value.

          One strong challenge in that pursuit is that our contemporary model of human knowledge: an evolving consensus curated by ‘the experts’ includes things like Rights Malthus, Germany in WWII, the Stalin purges, Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution, etc.. pretty strong empirical evidence that humans, taken collectively, suck at distinguishing good from evil.

          In many of the cases listed, it’s easy to check off the boxes and show that the leaders of ‘atheist states’ merely refashioned themselves as god-kings in the same way as, though at a somewhat more primitive level than, the Egyptian Pharaohs.

          • What exactly do you mean by “Think their way around” a definition? There are athiests who act like that. But you don’t need to believe in modern science to be an atheist. The Soviet Union, an atheist state, rejected Genetics for being incompatible with Marxism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK1PnV_xEI8 I agree that science is not enough to fashion a normative philosophy. But that is besides the point. The point is, there are many people who are not atheists, but who are also not a part of any religion. Technically, its possible to reject both religion and science and believe in something else, like Hume’s conception of the world as nothing but sense data. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3QZ2Ko-FOg

            So what we think about the limits of science and atheism, is largely irrelevant to how we define religion. We still need to define it in a way that avoids making everyone religious, whether they want to be or not, because defining religion so that everyone is religious whether they want to be or not is not playing fair. I like Durkheim’s definition: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

            • I think that when Mike said “Think their way around” he meant that an important part of the Tao is teasing out hidden assumptions and taking things to the absurd, in order to show that nothing can be truly understood via logic, or maybe at all.

            • Oh, and the Soviet Union didn’t reject genetics, but rather Mendelian Genetics, in favor of Lysenkoist genetics.

              While for a long time that seemed crazy in hindsight, there’s a lot of work being done right now on Epigenetics, which seems to be a lot closer to Lysenkoism than Mendelianism. So maybe they got more right than we thought?

    • I think he’s talking about religious *institutions* – the idea that you can have “The Priest” as an official Guy Who Handles Supernatural Business rather than just “the rituals your tribe does together” Similarly, the other twin is talking about “The King” as an institution, separate from “The guy in your clan who’s good at leading.” The guy in charge can die, but you remain loyal to The King, whoever’s wearing the hat.

      Presumably that same idea leads to the idea that the Constitution can define “The US Government” as an institution separate from “This group of leaders in 1776.”

  3. What exactly do you mean by “Think their way around” a definition? There are athiests who act like that. But you don’t need to believe in modern science to be an atheist. The Soviet Union, an atheist state, rejected Genetics for being incompatible with Marxism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK1PnV_xEI8 I agree that science is not enough to fashion a normative philosophy. But that is besides the point. The point is, there are many people who are not atheists, but who are also not a part of any religion. Technically, its possible to reject both religion and science and believe in something else, like Hume’s conception of the world as nothing but sense data. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3QZ2Ko-FOg

    So what we think about the limits of science and atheism, is largely irrelevant to how we define religion. We still need to define it in a way that avoids making everyone religious, whether they want to be or not, because defining religion so that everyone is religious whether they want to be or not is not playing fair. I like Durkheim’s definition: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

  4. sewblon says

    Religion (In the sense of animism combined with belief in an after-life, shamanism, and ritual) has been around since the upper-paleolithic. Its been around since before ancestor worship. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0#Sec11 Our story is now in the Neolithic, in societies where ancestor worship is all ready the norm. So your order of events doesn’t scan.

  5. It was religion that killed Christ. I have heard it said that Karl Mark said that religion is the opiate to people. But he did not mean that to be derogatory. He meant that religion “soothe” people as indeed it does. But the communists chose to twist the words of Marx to make it sound that religion was something that communists had to give up and not believe in. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the easing of tensions with China we find that the people in the Soviet Union never really gave up their religious faith. It just went underground. The Soviet Union and today China never really became a communist state. If the S.U. had not collapsed its doubtful if they would ever have become a communist state. In China there are more Christians today than at any other time despite Xi Jingping’s efforts to persecute Chinese citizens who are Christians. Committed Christians make good citizens in whatever country they live in. They are not enemies of the state. Nor do they seek to overthrow the Governing powers.
    There are some people who are or say they are atheist. But when some terrible event occurs they may quickly turn around in their beliefs. There are people who require those who belong to their sect of religion to observe rules, beliefs, eschew many things most of us take for granted like seeing a movie or dancing. If you violate their rules you can be “shunned” or driven out of that sect.
    As far as government goes no one has yet been able to create a stable, enduring form of government that has been able to last beyond 200 years + or – 15-20 years. In the US the Vietnam war 1960-73 as well as the Middle Eastern wars that never end and the recent assault on the American seat of Government are all signs of a declining world power. JFK knew that a war in Vietnam could not be won by the US and never committed troops beyond “advisors”. Cheney-Bush succeeded in the de-stabilization of the Middle East. Who will be the next world power is anyone’s guess. The US spends six times as much as Russia does on its military and the US still outspends China on its military.

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