I have been considering writing about this subject more extensively for a little while, but ended up writing about some other subjects and making a brief observation referring to the topic; but as Mike at the A-Unicornist took it upon himself to write a lengthy post about my little blurb I felt inclined to finish the more expansive post; more on his response in a bit.
What inspired the previous post were a couple of articles written recently about the pervasiveness of religious inclinations in human experience. The first bit was an article in National Geographic about Göbekli Tepe, one of the oldest known religious temples dated at 11,600 years old. It is fundamentally altering assumptions about what motivated the organization of the first human societies:
Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.
Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.
I have also discussed elsewhere how religious impulses were fundamental to the origin of art – a fact only realized when science divested itself of traditional notions of ‘primitive’ man. And I have recently detailed the essential role the Church played in the development of science. Most of these findings are relatively uncontroversial – they don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, but they do give lie to the notion that religious belief is inherently dangerous or antagonistic to intellectual development. Not only is not antagonistic, it now appears fundamental to human flourishing and the development of civilization.
In many ways such a findings aren’t surprising if one understands humanity as fundamentally spiritual organism. Science has speculated for centuries about what distinguishes humans from animals. They have proffered reason, our tool making ability, our communication skills or our societal organization. Eventually of these aspects are found elsewhere in nature and our uniqueness in these respects turns out only to be a matter of degree. In the end our primary distinction is our devotion to the sacred, our comprehension of the transcendent.
Indeed, recent research indicates our religious inclinations are a universally natural and instinctive part of who we are as creatures. It takes considerable effort and training to deny this fundamental aspect of human nature – and numerous efforts to eradicate it have failed miserably. Religious belief thrives today as it never has. Rather than being a virus of the human mind, our minds appear to be unwaveringly spiritual, and we crave spiritual knowledge and fulfillment.
Mike responds to this by listing a hodgepodge of assertions some which are odd, some which are clearly wrong. I am only going to mention two, because I think that is sufficient to demonstrate he really didn’t think it through too much. One of the points he makes regarding art music and poetry is this:
I’m going to leave poetry out, for the simple reason that poetry requires language, and we’re the only animal that has it (it’s worth noting, though, that the oldest known poem was a love story that had little to do with religious beliefs)
The article Mike links to here is about the Epic of Gilgamesh which is indeed one of the oldest poems. In fact it’s among our oldest literature. But to say it “little to do with religious beliefs” is to put it politely, extremely ignorant. The main character of Epic of Gilgamesh is two-thirds God, and one third man. His companion Enkidu is created by the gods to keep him from oppressing the citizens he rules over. Throughout the tale Giglamesh wrestles with various gods and goddesses seeking eternal truth in the netherworld and bringing back secret knowledge to the world. Saying it has little to do with religious beliefs is like saying the Catholic catechism has little to do with religious beliefs. It is essentially and completely a religious document, as are almost all early forms of literature and poetry.
As an aside I have to say this is something that has annoyed me with my interaction with New Atheists – they frequently have little knowledge of history or culture outside a narrow band of learning they cling to that they think re-enforces their belief systems. It’s as if history began at the Enlightenment. Also, the ‘science-is-the-only-reliable-form-of-knowledge’ thinking forces one to rely on immediate findings rather than the accumulated and proven knowledge of history. So that Mike would not see the obvious religious nature of this literature is no surprise.
And again when he touches on the origin of marriage, he doesn’t seem to know how to approach it:
Let’s first define what marriage is. Because if we’re talking about monogamous marriages, that’s a relatively narrow tradition. From Sex: A Man’s Guide, published by Men’s Health:
Zoologist Desmond Morris argued in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that the whole point of human sexuality was “to strengthen the pair-bond and maintain the family unit.” But more recently, reports from the scientific front haven’t been quite so encouraging. It turns out that lots of birds fool around (at least 40 percent of indigo buntings get a little on the side, researchers report). And anthropologists have found that nearly 1,000 of the 1,154 past and present human societies ever studied have allowed men to have more than one wife.
It’s well known that polygamy was sanctioned and practiced extensively in the Old Testament, and it’s still practiced today by a few religious sects. So the tradition of monogamous marriage, in which we have a romantic ideal of one man and one wife, is more rare and more recent addition – the result of which is an impressively high incidence of infidelity .
It seems that while we do, as Desmond Morris argued in The Naked Ape, have a tendency to favor strong pair-bonding which may manifest in monogamous relationships, we’re not very good at actually being with one partner for our entire lives. One of the important implications of sociobiology is that sociocultural norms don’t stick if we’re not hard-wired for them. So it seems that we’re hard-wired enough for pair-bonding to make monogamous marriages work some of the time, but we’re also driven by our genes so strongly that we find it difficult to consistently adhere to such a stringent sociocultural norm and if the pair-bond in a monogamous marriage is weakened, it’s a safe bet we’ll find another pair-bond outside of it.
It’s important to note here that Mike never actually ‘defines’ marriage. In fact, if we accept his view of it, marriage plays almost no part legitimate part in human society; we are apparently too inclined as a species to be promiscuous. But such a view isn’t surprising if one is getting one’s information from Men’s Health quoting Desmond Morris. It always fascinates me that atheists, who are constantly claiming to be purveyors of rigorous scientific thinking, will accept almost any source of information providing it supports their beliefs. To wit, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris was a pop anthropology book consisting of a series of vignettes that imagines how various sexual characteristics developed in primitive humans. It was originally serialized in the tabloid the Daily Mirror and later turned into a docu-drama style movie. I am old enough to remember it well – and how popular it was with the free love crowd. What it is not is a serious scientific treatment on the subject of human sexuality if one believes serious science consists of rigorous research, peer review and repeatable experimentation.
The fact is marriage is as old as human society. And while historically marriage is always essentially a relationship between a man and women for the purpose of forming a family, its forms are invariably tied up with the belief systems of the society – and as we have seen at the beginning of this post, human societies appear to have begun with religious beliefs. Animals don’t ‘get married’ because there are no sets of externally defined rules governing their relationships. Only humans understand their relationships to be ordained by a transcendent order – and this is what distinguishes marriage from the mere ‘pair-bonding’ Mike wants to reduce it to.
So Mike’s response to my brief observation yesterday doesn’t seem to be very well thought out, and there is not much there to contradict the history and research I have noted above.