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Burning Man


In the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, the archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery have gained a remarkable insight into the origin of religion.

Universal Religion has been found in societies at every stage of development. Catholic Bishops as they filed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2008, and at a temple in South Korea, Buddhist monks paid homage to the Buddha.

During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. – The Evolution of the God Gene, Nicholas Wade, New York Times, Nov.18,2009

Of the several biases I’m happily locked into, this one is second to no other: as the one steps back through time and its human events and facts, eventually, each and every event and fact falls away. In effect, it “all” disappears.

The brightest ideas go poof! Religion? Poof!

I came to this bias when I—one day— realized that the sophist’s stock response to the foundationalist of any kind, was true. To whit:

What came before your first principle?

The downside to comprehending the slow stripping away of the accretion of all things human is having to expend effort to suppress my urge to remind any and every holder of a-historic and universalist and foundationalist and natural law fundamentalism that if you walk back far enough not even a single prototype for any of it exists.

(How far back? Probably 75,000 years is more than enough.)

“The replacement model of Christopher Stringer and Peter Andrews proposes that modern humans evolved from archaic humans 200,000-150,000 years ago only in Africa and then some of them migrated into the rest of the Old World replacing all of the Neandertals and other late archaic humans beginning around 60,000-40,000 years ago. If this interpretation of the fossil record is correct, all people today share a relatively modern African ancestry. All other lines of humans that had descended from Homo erectus presumably became extinct. From this view, the regional anatomical differences that we see among humans today are recent developments–evolving mostly in the last 40,000 years.” Evolution of Modern Humans – See also C.D.Kreger, Homo Sapiens

Questions about what early humans believed, are encumbered at such point when the mental functions having to do with the human organization of human experience can’t certainly be spoken of as including—what we understand to be—belief itself.

The general problem is knotty. Although it could be a concern of regular philosophy to consider what is the historical prototype for a specific attribution of mental function that is itself the prerequisite for an actual philosophical concept, in fact this lies almost entirely in the portfolio of philosophical anthropology, or, meta-anthropology. In other words, what was ‘belief’ before it was ‘belief’ is a practical question, is a question about human practice.

For very roughly 245,000 years, NO philosophers. However, it’s rather difficult to extract, using cultural forensics, cogent knowledge about both what was the epistemic repertoire of early humans, and, what were the milestones in the available (so-to-speak,) terms via which those same humans came to conceptualize this repertoire.

Still, it cannot be the case that one day, somebody said, in effect, “Oh, what we’re doing is religion!”

John Hart’s B.C. (and Wizard of Id,) are essential.

This is an ontological problem too. What exists as a description of human function, and when did it come into existence? When did religion-as-a-function fade to black?

Nicholas Wade, who authored the short news piece excerpted above, also wrote The Faith Instinct.

The Faith Instinct presents a novel approach to religion. It explores the evolutionary origins of religious behavior in early humans, and traces the cultural development of religion from its origins up until to the present day.

The book does not challenge the central belief of either atheists or people of faith, since it offers no opinion as to whether or not God exists. It’s about religious behavior and its value to the first human societies and their successors.

Based on evidence from anthropologists’ studies of religion, and new findings from genetics and archaeology, The Faith Instinct concludes that religious behavior was favored by natural selection because of the survival advantage it conferred on early human groups.

The religion of early peoples, who lived as hunters and gatherers, underwent a profound cultural transformation as the hunter gatherers formed the first settled societies. The form of religious observance shifted from all-night communal dances, to the spring and harvest festivals of early agricultural societies, to the forms of religion more familiar today. The Faith Instinct retraces the historical context in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose, and analyzes how religion has retained many of its ancient roles even in modern secular societies.

I haven’t read Wade’s book. I will; it’s on the short list. But, this description showcases the basic problem of employing modern conceptions retrospectively. We will not ever know what conceptions would have been contemporaneous with proto-religious behavior. It was case that the most primitive social organization elicited as a consequence of human ‘being’ came about prior to language, thus came about prior to the ability to name and articulate what was ‘coming about.’ In light of this, it is, I feel, an error to speak of gestural, danced, rhythmic expression as “religious observance.” Better: ecstatic communion?

It may turn out to be the case that evolutionary advantage accrues only to communal music, movement, and other communal behaviors, and, that religion may be an inessential overlay–kind of the evolutionary ‘psychological’ equivalent to epiphenomena.

But, all this is something more than proto-structures, something more, and enough upon which, to hang later behavioral (and adaptive,) artifactual acquisitions.

* Originally God Moved, collage S.Calhoun 11-2009

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