Making Gods, Making Individuals

I’ve been reading about bicameralism and the Axial Age. It is all very fascinating.

It’s strange to look back at that era of transformation. The modern sense of self-conscious, introspective, autonomous individuality (as moral agent and rational actor) was just emerging after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. What came before that is almost incomprehensible to us.

One interesting factor is that civilization didn’t create organized religion, but the other way around. Or so it seems, according to the archaeological evidence. When humans were still wandering hunter-gatherers, they began building structures for worship. It was only later that people started settled down around these worship centers. So, humans built permanent houses for the gods before they built permanent houses for themselves.

These God Houses often originated as tombs and burial mounds of revered leaders. The first deities seem to have been god-kings. The leader was considered a god while alive or spoke for god. In either case, death made concrete the deification of the former leader. In doing so, the corpse or some part of it such as the skull would become the worshipped idol. Later on it became more common to carve a statue that allowed for a more long-lasting god who was less prone to decay.

God(s) didn’t make humans. Rather, humans in a very literal sense made god(s). They made the form of the god or used the already available form of a corpse or skull. It was sort of like trapping the dead king’s soul and forcing it to play the role of god.

These bicameral people didn’t make the distinctions we make. There was no clear separation between the divine and the human, between the individual and the group. It was all a singular pre-individuated experience. These ancient humans heard voices, but they had no internal space for their own voice. The voices were heard in the world all around them. The king was or spoke for the high god, and that voice continued speaking even after the king died. We moderns would call that a hallucination, but to them it was just their daily reality.

With the breakdown of the bicameral mind, there was a crisis of community and identity. The entire social order broke down, because of large-scale environmental catastrophes that killed or made into refugees most of the human population back then. In a short period of time, nearly all the great civilizations collapsed in close succession, the collapse of each civilization sending refugees outward in waves of chaos and destruction. Nothing like it was seen before or since in recorded history.

People were desperate to make sense of what happened. But the voices of the gods had grown distant or were silenced. The temples were destroyed, the idols gone, traditions lost, and communities splintered. The bicameral societies had been extremely stable and were utterly dependent on that stability. They couldn’t deal with change at that level. The bicameral mind itself could no longer function. These societies never recovered from this mass tragedy.

An innovation that became useful in this era was improved forms of writing. Using alphabets and scrolls, the ancient oral traditions were written down and altered in the process. Also, new literary traditions increasingly took hold. Epics and canons were formed to bring new order. What formed from this was a sense of the past as different from the present. There was some basic understanding that humanity had changed and that the world used to be different.

A corrolary innovation was that, instead of idol worship, people began to worship these new texts, first as scrolls and then later as books. They found a more portable way of trapping a god. But the loss of the more concrete forms of worship led to the gods becoming more distant. People less often heard the voices of the gods for themselves and instead turned to the texts where it was written the cultural memory of the last people who heard the divine speaking (e.g., Moses) or even the last person who spoke as the divine (e.g., Jesus Christ).

The divine was increasingly brought down to the human level and yet at the same time increasingly made more separate from daily experience. It wasn’t just that the voices of the gods went silent. Rather, the voices that used to be heard externally were being internalized. What once was recognized as divine and as other became the groundwork upon which the individuated self was built. God became a still, small voice and slowly loss its divine quality altogether. People stopped hearing voices of non-human entities. Instead, they developed a thinking mind. The gods became trapped in the human skull and you could say that they forgot they were gods.

The process of making gods eventually transitioned into the process of making individuals. We revere individuality as strongly as people once revered the divine. That is an odd thing.

Dogmatism’s Not Dead

I watched God’s Not Dead with my parents. It was the quite the experience. I had almost no expectations. I just went because my parents wanted to go. I’ll watch almost anything, when in the right mood.

God’s Not Dead is a Christian movie and my parents are Christians. I was raised Christian, but not the Christianity found in the movie. God’s Not Dead is full-on fundamentalism. My mom grew up in that kind of religion and my dad in a more mild variety. I, however, was raised mostly in the Unity Chruch, which is uber-hippy, pansy-liberal New Thought Christianity.

No preacher ever threatened or even implied I might go to hell. No Unity minister would likely even mention hell, except to dismiss it. God loves you! Period. Full stop.

I have nothing but happy memories of my childhood religion. I’m a heathen these days, but I still don’t think of myself as an atheist. I largely don’t care one whit about arguments for and against God. On the other hand, while tripping on mushrooms once I saw the entire world breathe in unison, as if it were all a single being. Dude! The world is a crazy complex place, beyond the meager capacity of my human comprehension. Who am I to say much of anything about the mysteries of the universe? If someone wants to call this sense of mystery ‘God’, they are free to do so and I won’t complain.

Anyway, if God or gods or Star Trek Qs exist, I doubt they care about my belief in them or lack thereof. Do I care if tiny organisms believes in me? Not really. I choose not to step on ants and worms, but I don’t ask if they believe in me first. I won’t claim to be their savior if they accept me into their hearts and I won’t promise them heaven nor threaten them with damnation. I’m certainly not going to attempt to inspire ant and worm prophets to write holy scriptures about my greatness. I’m just a big galoot traipsing through their tiny world. That is all.

That may sound dismissive. I actually have little desire to be dismissive. Faith is a personal thing. The personal part is what matters. I can’t speak about someone else’s personal experience. I’m fine with other people’s religion, as long as they don’t seek to impose it on me or proselytize it to me.

Even a fundamentalist movie like God’s Not Dead doesn’t overly bother me. It seemed disconnected from reality, but that is to be expected. It’s not like anyone forced me to watch the movie. That said, fundamentalists are more than happy to force their beliefs onto others. If hardcore fundamentalists thought they could legally get away with it, they’d likely make watching this movie obligatory for every child in school.

Many of them are no more interested in genuine dialogue than is the radical left-wing activist I dealt with the other day (see my post: There Are No Allies Without Alliances). But most isn’t all. I wouldn’t want to broadbrush all rightward-leaning Christians. Most fundamentalists are like most people. They just want to be left alone to live their lives how they see fit. But the average fundamentalist isn’t the one I’m worried about. What worries me are the fundamentalist activists, lobbyists, and politicians.

The one thing that stood out to me about that radical left-wing activist had to do with his worldview. There were specified roles one could play, but one wasn’t free to be an individual. There is no place for someone like me in that worldview. Likewise, in watching God’s Not Dead, I realized there is no place for me there either.

The movie is full of caricatures and stereotypes. Everyone was an extreme. Either you are hard right-wing believer or else you are some secular bogeyman, the three main options being a clueless professor, a sociopathic businessman, and a Godless communist. In this worldview, there exists no such thing as a liberal Christian, a moderate Muslim, a moral pagan, an ethical humanist, a mild-mannered atheist, or a curious-minded agnostic; certainly, there is no such thing as an intelligent, fair-minded professor. It turns out the professor secretly believes in God, but just hates him, what every fundamentalist suspects about atheists.

A freethinking individual is not welcome in either of these worldviews from the left and right.