To fully understand human thought today we need to return to the earliest records of human ideas produced by the shaman of some 30,000 years ago. These men created systems of ideas which formed templates that have continued to shape human thinking right up till today.
Now human thought no doubted existed and developed in the time before the earliest cave drawings and artifacts but we can assume it was similar to the recorded material that we have and would have been even more primitive than the themes obvious in this material.
Critical to understanding why those people thought as they did is to recognize that human thought arises from an interplay with emotions and emotions originate from inherited drives which are located in our brains in such places as the amygdala. This is considered to be an essential element of the core ancient brain or inherited animal brain. The more modern human brain (cortex) formed around or on top of the more primitive structures at core.
The primitive brain emotes such primal and primary emotions as fear and aggression. These produce more instinctual or automatic responses such as fight or flight. The modern cortex operates to inhibit these more violent impulses. It enables us to pause, to reflect and to reason. It enables us to refuse violence and to choose a more humane response.
Human life and thought have always been powerfully influenced by the interplay of the primitive and modern parts of the brain. The cortex and its associated consciousness has produced in humanity a powerful urge to find meaning. This is at the very core of the human endeavor to create ideas or ways of explaining reality and life. This impulse for meaning is more powerful than the drive for power or sex.
The endeavor to create meaning has been powerfully influenced by consciousness with its more humane impulses to reason, learn and love. But the human search for meaning has also been powerfully influenced by the residual animal brain with its orientation to fear, domination, aggression and hate (see Rush Dozier’s Why We Hate and Paul Maclean’s The Triune Brain in Evolution). The interplay between these two sources is vital to understanding the history of human thought with its contradictory themes of humanity and brutality. It helps to explain the presence of the more hateful and destructive themes at the core of human systems of meaning (separation, exclusion, domination and destruction) which are prominent in the earliest mythology.
The earliest creators of human systems of ideas were the shaman and it is safe to assume that their minds were oriented more to the brutality of animal existence than to the humane themes of later human systems of thought. This brutality is notable in the cave drawings which are almost exclusively about hunting and the hunted.
This orientation to bloodshed and violence of the hunt has been explained as an awareness of the spirit behind animal life and the appeal for continued game to support human existence.
But the dark orientation of early systems of meaning can also be explained as due to the fact that the early creators of thought/ideas projected their inherited fears and instincts outward in their myths and explanations of reality. Joseph Campbell has noted this in his Masks of God series. Freud also said that religious beliefs were the projections of unconscious fears and desires. So we find little evidence at that time of mercy, love or forgiveness or other humane themes in early mythological material.
Campbell also suggests that the shaman displayed elements of schizophrenia and irrationality. He says they probably descended into times of madness where they experienced separation from reality and then eventual return. This may help to explain the irrationality of much mythical thought. It may also help us to understand the prominence of such religious themes as separation from gods and later salvation (return to reality or sanity). The highest themes of religion may express little more than the lowest darkness of the divided minds of the shaman.
Another important thing to note about ancient thought is that it was mythical or religious in nature. It was not yet fully rational as we understand rationality in terms of the objectivity of science. The ancients believed that life was controlled by powerful spiritual forces. The forces of nature were evidence of the vengeful nature of the unseen gods. For instance, thunder was believed to be a warning from a god caused by broken taboos. This viewpoint turned life into a treadmill of endless fear and endeavor to placate the angry deities.
The ancients did not yet have the separation that we have created today between scientific and religious understanding. To them all reality and life was understood mythically. So up until some four centuries ago reality and life has been viewed very much in mythical or religious terms. And despite the progress we have made since the Enlightenment and the onset of the scientific age just four centuries ago, human consciousness today is still powerfully influenced by the structures of thought that the ancients created. We need only look for instance at the modern environmental movement to find the basic structure of ancient mythology with its orientation to Fall/apocalyptic (There was a more pristine past, a time of perfection. Humanity is evil- a cancer on the globe- and responsible for degrading the world in the search for prosperity. In the future, Mother Nature will enact payback in some purging or collapse of life).
So to understand human thought today we need to recognize the influence of ancient mythology. The themes we have inherited from that time continue to structure our ways of perceiving and understanding even today. And even more, to understand the darker side of religion and humanity we need to recognize the influence of the primitive animal brain at the core of our more human brains.
The history of human thought reveals clearly the great struggle of humanity to overcome its animal inheritance (the residual animal brain). This is evident in the brutality of the original mythologies and the later effort to humanize such myth with the more humane themes of forgiveness, mercy, inclusion and love. It is a struggle to find more humane ideas to replace the older more barbaric themes of separation, opposition between insiders and outsiders, hate and punishment/revenge.
Too often over history the endeavor to create more humane systems of meaning has been distorted by the repeated endeavor to synthesize the old and the new. People have long tried to explain the more humane concepts in terms of the core ancient themes of dualism, opposition and revenge. It does not work. For instance, modern religious ideas of love are defined in terms of the hate and vengeance of Fall/apocalyptic theology. Love is explained in Christianity in terms of an angry deity punishing his son with bloody death in order to appease divine justice and save people. This conditions and distorts love entirely. It is a value restricted to subservient insiders but which turns to hate toward free spirited outsiders.
The earliest themes of mythology focused on predation (the hunt), blood and death. These themes eventually formed the core of Fall/apocalyptic theology which would become the basis of most modern religion in both the East and the West.
Fall/apocalyptic is an expression of the primitive instincts to fear and violence. The primary emotion of fear, with its related drive of aggression, is inextricably related to the despair which is the main characteristic of Fall/apocalyptic thinking.
Now the human cortex is an organ shaped by hope (see John Pfeifer’s The Emergence of Humankind). Its very wiring orients people toward optimism and a fearless embrace of the new. This makes the human adventure a struggle of hope to overcome despair. It is a quest of love to overcome hate. These new humane impulses find their expression in the new universe story which is about life emerging along a trajectory of endless advance, progress, development and growth.
The Themes Of Ancient Mythology
I won’t cover the entire spectrum of ideas over human history but rather I will focus on those core ideas that have been most prominent in orienting human systems of thought to a dark animal past. I will focus on those ideas that have been most damaging to human consciousness and have prevented our advance toward a more humane future. The human struggle to find meaning has been a struggle to overcome this animal past and find a better future.
The ideas of the earliest mythologies are believed to have originated in the period from about 100,000 BC to about 8,000 BC.
The earliest records we have are comprised of tools, pigments (mostly red ocher and hematite), engravings, bone and stone statutes, and cave paintings (see Mircea Eliade’s The History Of Religious Ideas). These suggest an early orientation of thought toward hunting and sacrifice. From the cave drawings it appears that primitive hunters believed that animals were expressions of supernatural powers or spirits. This may be the earliest conception of the supernatural as something outside of humanity or human consciousness.
Also, early grave sites contained items for existence in another life and this suggests that early peoples believed that life would survive death. It appears the ancients believed that people would continue their activities in another realm. The issue of death was one of the first things that early people resolved as their developing consciousness made them aware of such things.
Mircea Eliade suggests that the evidence of sacrifice becomes more clear during the Upper Paleolithic period some 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. The sacrifices were probably not offered to some Supreme Being but rather to a Guardian spirit of animals (Joseph Campbell suggests same). The spirits were not viewed as having individuality or personality but were viewed as forces of life or powers.
The caves with drawings (estimated to have been produced over the period ranging from 30,000 to 9,000 years ago) appear to have functioned as sanctuaries where rites or ceremonies were performed. The nature of the art (anamorphic- giving the appearance of movement with the changing of lamp position) suggests the use of magical effect to evoke fear and to manipulate people into submission to the shamanistic agenda (John Pfeifer- Explosion: An Inquiry into the origins of art and religion).
The shaman were responsible for developing several important functions that would validate important ideas in ancient minds. Pfeifer says that growing populations created the need for leadership to guide resource sharing among differing bands. Leaders emerged to fill this need for someone to coordinate the hunts for mass game animals such as elk. This is the earliest known division of people into the social categories of leaders/followers. It is also suspected that these leaders employed religious belief, art and ceremony to enhance their claim to power over others.
For instance, the shaman may have claimed special knowledge of the new belief in a subsequent life in another spiritual realm. They may have claimed to know the sacrifices that needed to be offered to the spiritual forces or powers in order to ensure continuance of game. In so doing, they were claiming to be specialists in the sacred which was the first division of social function in human society. Their claim to esoteric knowledge and their use of secret cave rituals was employed to manipulate others. Here we find the origins of religion as the purveyor of divine secrets and religious ritual as something apart from the normal activities of daily life. We also find the first conception of the use of special sacred places (caves) where the divine could be contacted through ritual and ceremony (think church here).
The shaman also developed the practice of shamanistic ecstasy where they would leave their bodies to meet the divine and obtain special blessings. This is the origin of the concept of religious experience as something that lifts one out of daily life to experience things aside from normal human experience and activity. This appears to be the beginning of the human denial of the transcendence of ordinary life in order to find transcendence in some otherworldly thing.
In the early conceptualizing of another realm and spiritual forces aside from humanity we also find the earliest expression of the idea of spirits as more powerful than people. This would eventually develop into the idea that people were created to serve the gods.
Further, the early leaders claimed to possess magical powers and this led to their being viewed as god-like. Some of these early social leaders would eventually claim to be gods and hence we find the later historical tradition where such leaders as the Pharoahs and Caesars claimed to be incarnated gods.
Julian Jaynes in his Origin of Consciousness says that social leaders were eventually viewed as gods and when they died their houses became temples where they continued to be venerated. Eventually, the location of these gods shifted to the skies and from this we find the origins of our contemporary belief in gods inhabiting the heavens.
Also, this tradition of viewing leaders as gods appears to be the origin of the belief that God is a dominating leader of King and people are his servants.
The earliest conceptions of divinity appear to have been formed around the emergence of elite status or special people. What began with shaman claiming special insights into a new spiritual realm and claiming an ability mediate with this realm was later formalized with kings who claimed to be appointed by God to be gods themselves.
The early endeavor to identify divinity with elite status or the special was perhaps the most profound distortion of transcendence that has ever occurred. It was the beginning of a long historical tradition of associated divinity with the domination of a special few over the majority.
Also, the early shamanistic endeavor to exert control by means of ceremony and cave art appears to have set the template for the social movement or institution that we have come to know as religion. Religious belief, ceremony and gods all appear to have evolved out of that early effort at elite control. Those religious customs and beliefs were employed to suppress individual innovation and to enforce rigid conformity of behavior.
The core themes, offices and social customs developed by the first shaman- that special people possessed a special knowledge of the invisible world and they controlled lesser band members with fear of the unknown and the threat of punishment for dissent- these have continued to define most subsequent versions of religion.
Early on people had viewed the forces of nature as expressions of spiritual forces or spirits. This led people to view the gods as fickle because the forces of nature were often unpredictable. And because the forces of nature were often destructive people concluded that the spirits or gods were angry and needed to be placated with sacrifice. This was another line of developing thought that would continue down into the world religions.
The idea of divine vengeance or punishment would also develop out of this perception of spiritual powers controlling the forces of nature. Justice then came to be viewed as punishment with injury or death. If people broke a taboo then the angered gods would pay them back through disease, accident or natural disaster. The way to escape such punishment was to offer blood sacrifice.
It is not possible to pinpoint the exact origin of these ideas as we don’t have written records. But we do have later versions in written form (e.g. the Old Testament). These later records confirm the existence of similar earlier versions from which they were developed and refined.
Eliade suggests that a variety of myths originated in the Paleolithic era. He says that myths of origins (creation) first emerged at this time as well as myths of ascents to the skies. This led to ideas of “the sacrality of the sky and of celestial and atmospheric phenomena” (A History of Religious Ideas, Vol.1, p.27). This eventually led to the perception of celestial space as the dwelling of superhuman beings (gods, spirits).
Around 10,000 BC we find the belief in mythical ancestors and the cult of ancestors in European mythology. Associated with this was the idea that the ancestors lived in a hunter’s paradise where game was abundant and good and evil were not present. This would later be refined into the belief in a time of original perfection. However, it was believed that people had been created out of a divine and a demonic substance. The demonic would lead them to break divine taboos (commit an original sin) which would then provoke the gods to abandon them leaving destruction and decay in their wake. This is the origin of Fall mythology.
The Era of Domestication or Plant Cultivation
Over the period from 10,000 to 7,000 BC former hunter/gatherers began to cultivate crops and to domesticate animals. People began to shift toward a more settled existence. The former hunting of animals was replicated in the sacrifice of domesticated animals. Here we find the more formal development of the concept of sacrifice. Related to this, people developed the idea that edible plants were the product of a dismembered and buried deity. We find a more recent example of this belief in the myth of the violent murder of a god which is viewed as a creative death that gives life to others through food crops. This focus on divine death would form a core theme of later religions like Christianity.
Subsequent violent sacrifice or death would become the ritual means of remembering the first violent death of gods. It would become the manner through which the gods imparted their substance to people. It would also justify human sacrifice. These religious ideas held in reverence as divine truth have long provided a powerful validation for cruelty toward others.
During the time that agriculture was being introduced women were given prominence in society as bearers of new life and producers of food. Hence, we find numerous figurines of goddesses (9,000 to 7,000 BC). But the goddesses were not a more benign expression of deity. Marija Gimbutas in The Civilization Of The Goddess notes that the goddesses were just a violent and domineering as later male gods. Figurine evidence from around 7,000 BC shows that the principal divinity is the goddess and male divinities appear as consorts to the goddesses (children or lovers).
Throughout this time of domestication the emphasis shifted from the human relation to animals toward the human relation to plants. The death of a seed becomes the source of new life and new birth. The seed must die in order to provide new life. Here we find the origin of the belief that gods die and return to life or are resurrected. Also, the annual cycle of agricultural society developed the idea that the world is periodically renewed. This would lead to the later belief in a future renewal or restoration of paradise.
Agricultural religions refined the ancient dualisms of male/female and other polarizations. They developed the practice of “Two ritually antagonistic groups” (Eliade, The History of Religious Ideas, Vol.1, p.43) and they even staged ritual combats between opposing groups. This would later develop into the religious dualism of insiders (the saved) versus outsiders (the lost or damned).
Metallurgy also becomes part of human religious belief and practice at this time. This involved the purification of metals and an emphasis on the importance of purity in human systems of meaning.
From around 5,000 BC to about 3,000 BC nomadic herdsmen from Central Asia began to raid and conquer surrounding herders. They began to extend their domination over others and this is one version of the beginning of modern state formation.
Others (Jacquetta Hawkes in The First Great Civilizations) suggest that the desire to build grand religious monuments was the driving motivation behind state formation. This occurred notably in Sumer (Mesopotamia). Priests needed wealth to build their monuments and they possessed the organizing skills to dominate more people and administer the taxation that supported temple building and maintenance.
Temples then became the organizing center and engines of early state economies. In this process of state formation we find that priesthoods began to more formally classify and systematize religious beliefs and rituals. The priests also provided early state leadership. As Hawkes notes, in early states there was no separation between religious and political power. Leaders were a combination of priest and king. In Egypt leaders were a combination of priest/king/god.
Here we have the ongoing development of the idea that gods dominate and people serve them. This continued into the modern era in the idea that leaders were appointed by God. They were a more special and blessed people. This pagan idea has long worked against human freedom and equality.
It is also at the time of early state formation that the goddesses are replaced by male gods. These gods became more warlike and served to validate the brutal conquests necessary to dominate others. Campbell also notes that men at this time created myths of women committing the original sin and coming under the curse of God. This was part f the male endeavor to subjugate women and take control of society.
The idea of a dominant, controlling male is very much a carry over from the alpha males of animal bands. While this idea is sacralized in religious myth it is still very much a base feature of animal existence. Sacralizing it in myth makes it a great impediment to the development of human understanding and freedom.
The idea of God and the ruling priesthoods became an entirely male domain.
In early Sumeria we find there is a refining of many ideas that would later shape the three monotheisms and Western thought in general. For instance, the Sumerian priests produced the concept of the triad of great gods consisting of An, Enlil and Enki. This would set the pattern for the later Christian belief in the Trinity. Sumerian texts also describe the “perfection and bliss of the beginnings…when everything was created perfect” (Eliade, p.58).
The Sumerian priests also introduced the idea that the gods controlled the cosmic order and determined the destiny of all life forms and every enterprise they engaged in. The cosmic order was undermined by the great serpent who reduced the world to chaos. People were also responsible for creating chaos by their crimes and errors.
Other ideas introduced by Sumerian priests include the idea that kingship is from heaven; it is a divine institution. Mesopotamian royalty was believed to have descended from the sky; it was divine in origin. Related to this was the idea that the gods came down to earth and people could obtain the blessings of the gods. The king was believed to be a son of god and an intermediary between the gods and people. He was the envoy of the gods and the shepherd of the people.
Further, the priests introduced the idea of a great Flood as punishment for human sin. Overall, the cosmos was viewed as gradually deteriorating and decaying. In addition, the Sumerians believed in the end of the world and the end of sinful humanity in order to make a new creation possible.
Around 2000 BC several national deities were given the status of universal divinities. They were exalted to supreme ranking. About this time people began to view the gods no longer as impersonal forces or powers but as individuals with personal wills. People began to pray to them.
Eliade notes “The numinous character of the gods increase; they inspire holy fear, especially by their terrifying brightness. Light is considered to be the particular attribute of divinity” (p.69).
The Sumerians also refined the idea of sinfulness in humanity. They claimed that the cosmos had a dual nature, part demonic and part divine. As an extension of the cosmic substance, people were also considered to be part demonic and part divine substance. Related to this was the idea that one of the gods became an arch-demon and in this we see the origin of the belief in Satan.
In Egypt around 2700 BC we find ideas of God creating by his word and the belief that a new birth followed death. The Egyptians also believed in the resurrection of the gods and their ascent to heaven as transfigured spirits. The Egyptian god Amon-Re also became a universal god or creator.
Around 1550 BC the god Osiris was viewed as the judge of the dead and in this we see the notion of the judgment of the dead and celestial justice occurring after death.
There are numerous other ideas and myths from this era that are obviously the origin of later ideas now common to the world religions.
The Formalization of Fall/apocalyptic
Around 600 BC ancient mythological ideas and themes were refined and formalized in a theology that would profoundly shape subsequent millennia of Western thought, including today. The themes of primitive mythologies were synthesized into the Fall/apocalyptic of Western religion. This basic worldview is also at the root of Eastern religion.
Some (Joseph Campbell) have claimed that the Iranian/Persian teacher Zoroaster was responsible for creating the first formal theology of a Fall and a coming apocalyptic purging of creation. His ideas were then spread throughout the ancient world and adopted by many other religious traditions. Most certainly they became embodied in the Hebrew belief system and through this tradition they were passed along into Western thought. This may have occurred during the exile of the Hebrews in Mesopotamia or when Semite tribes migrated from Mesopotamia to the hills of Palestine. Trade routes were also a common way of passing along new ideas as well as goods.
Whatever the route of transmission, the early Hebrews borrowed the basic Fall/apocalyptic structure of thought to shape their own belief system. As Campbell notes in the Masks Of God, this worldview was passed on to Judaism and then to Christianity and eventually to Islam. All three major Western religions are basically refined derivatives of the Zoroastrian worldview. While there are other strains of pagan mythology borrowed by these religions, none gives such a complete foundational structure as Zoroastrianism.
Zoroaster refined the idea of a great divide between good and evil or between God and Satan. He explained the emerging concept of a separation between matter and spirit (emerging around 2000 BC) in terms of his dualism of a good God and an evil Satan and the opposition between them. Previous to this the great gods were viewed as embodying both good and evil. Zoroaster made a more distinct demarcation in declaring God as good and people as evil and therefore responsible for disaster in life. His theology advocated a vision of life as an intense dualism consisting of opposing realities or groups of people and it promoted an intolerant opposition toward outsiders who were not in the true religion.
I have noted this before in my book Taking The Animal Out Of God but it deserves reproducing here. Zoroaster’s theology of dualism, separation and opposition also initiated something new in the developing Western spirit- an intolerance based on differing belief systems. Intolerance, as the expression of a band orientation and opposition toward outsiders, had been around since the emergence of the earliest human groups. But intolerance based on a carefully structured theology of divine separation and opposition was something new in human history.
This new stance of intolerant opposition built into the core of the belief system would result in the three Western religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) becoming breeding grounds for endless outbursts of fanatical extremism (see James Carrol’s Constantine’s Sword for historical examples in Christianity). The ever present tendency toward fundamentalist extremism in these religions is rooted in the profound dualism and opposition that were inaugurated in the religion of Zoroaster.
Zoroaster’s theology incorporated the mythical themes of a perfect creation, a cosmic fall into decay and a future restoration to the original perfection. He refined the concept of a good God who created a perfect world which was then corrupted by the entrance of an opposing evil power. With his entrance the world became a place of conflict between opposing forces. Good and evil, light and dark, or truth and lie were all struggling against each other for victory. The subsequent belief in angels and demons derives from this mythology of good and evil divinities in conflict.
Now this is not to deny the reality of good and bad. But it is not helpful to define good and evil in terms of religious beliefs or gods. We now understand that we possess an inherited animal core brain that is the source of fear, aggression and other base responses. We need to define any concept of good or evil in terms of the struggle of our more human cortex to overcome residual animal impulses.
So when I note the roots of Western religious thought in Zoroastrian dualism I am not discounting the fact that there is opposing right or wrong in life. I am suggesting that it is more helpful to understand such opposition in terms of the distinction between emerging human consciousness and residual animal drives. Our conflict or struggle in life is not against differing segments of humanity (insiders versus outsiders). Our battle is a united one of all humanity against an animal inheritance that we all struggle with.
Now according to Zoroaster the evil power was engaged in a relentless conflict with the purposes of the true God and the evil power tempted people to disobey God. People were deceived by the evil power (serpent) and consequently became defiled or sinful. They then became part good and part evil. This belief derives from the earlier mythology which stated that people were created from divine and demonic substance. Further, their disobedience became the source of all disaster and suffering in life.
This belief in some internal separation between good and evil led to later views of the body as evil and at war with the more pure soul which represented the divine life. Normal bodily desires such as the sex drive were then viewed as evil or worldly desires that distracted the soul from higher and purer aims. Hence, we find the subsequent development of religious traditions which emphasized the denial of physical desires or pleasure and focused on disciplines of devotion that would enable the soul to attain its higher spiritual aims. Opposition to what came to be viewed as base or worldly activities or the desires of normal life continues to be a central theme of the Western religions (and all religion or spirituality for that matter).
Another dominant theme in Zoroaster’s mythology was the belief that the fallen world could be restored to its original perfection if true believers would engage in a religious battle for truth and the right religious lifestyle. Their pursuit of the one true religion would earn them reward and promote the movement of life toward the goal of paradise restored.
But before there could be a return to eternal peace and perfection the evil power would have to be destroyed. His destruction would be preceded by a season of war and then there would be a day of victory where a Savior would conquer the demons and resurrect the dead to an eternity of bliss. Time would then end and the original perfect creation would be restored.
Another ideal in Zoroaster’s theology concerned the conversion or destruction of outsiders and unbelievers. This was central to the endeavor to take the truth to all mankind. It is no wonder that these ideals have subsequently inspired true believers to the most violent aggression toward others that differ. The histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all been characterized by endless religious conquest and coercive subjugation of ‘pagan’ unbelievers. And how could these religions respond in any other manner? The belief system of Zoroaster encouraged opposition toward all who disagreed with the ‘truth’. It was a belief system that validated and inspired aggression, domination and destruction of outsiders (the enemies who would not convert). In fact, destroying the enemy was the one sure way to please God, to fulfill God’s will and to hasten the final perfection of the world.
Further, Zoroaster taught that the dead would be brought before God in a great final judgment. The true believers would be separated from the unbelievers. The believers would go to heaven while the unbelievers would be punished in hell. Note the book of Revelation for the Christian version of this brutal mythology.
The fundamental themes of Zoroaster’s religion- dualism, separation, opposition, intolerance and extermination of the differing outsider- have be recycled and refined in the three main Western religions. The Zoroastrian system introduced and intensified something that had not yet been as thoroughly developed in pagan mythologies- violent intolerance and the divine mission to subjugate or destroy those who differed. This spirit of intolerance was later adopted and refined further in Hebrew monotheism and then passed on to Christianity and Islam.
Zoroaster drew on the varied themes of primitive mythologies: that there was an original time of paradise, that humans were created from divine and demonic substances, that human error was responsible for corrupting the world, that angry divinities would punish people, and in the future the world would be purged and renewed.
One particular core theme of Zoroaster that the Jewish people adopted was the Sumerian notion of a universal God or Savior. They claimed their local tribal God, Yahweh, was the one true God of all humanity. His laws, no matter how locally oriented, must become the sole measure of moral right in the universe. They then employed this idea of spiritual superiority in their drive for domination in the ancient world. Consequently, while other pagan religions began to emphasize inclusion and syncretism, the Hebrews moved toward more exclusivity, separation and intolerance. This is clear in their detailed laws regarding cleanliness. This spirit of extremism was passed on to Christianity and Islam.
The Hebrew religion also furthered the notion of a great gulf between the spiritual and humanity by projecting the concept of infinite holiness and purity onto God. This emphasis on isolating holiness or separateness can be seen throughout the Old Testament in detailed teaching on clean/unclean, sacred/profane, insider/outsider, right/wrong, evil/good, pure/impure and holiness/sin. This emphasis is accompanied by the demand for strict separation between these opposing realities.
Jewish law delineated a lifestyle that set the Jewish people apart as the chosen people and special favorites of God. It defined them as altogether different from and superior to the profane people of surrounding tribes. Christianity and Islam have replicated this isolating exclusivity.
The Hebrews claimed that their beliefs in holiness and separation were given to them by direct revelation from God. But it is clear that they have simply rehashed ideas borrowed from Zoroaster and other places. And Zoroastrianism is nothing more than a refined expression of the archaic drives to separate that had long ago emerged in animal reality. This means that the core themes of the three monotheisms that adopted Zoroastrianism makes them essentially sacralized versions of the same old exclusion, opposition and revenge that have long characterized animal reality. These primal animal drives were projected onto God or the spiritual and made sacred in Western myths of holy separation.
What we in the West have viewed as sacred too often reflects nothing more than the basest forms of inhumanity with origins in a brutal past. Our understanding of the spiritual realm has too long been shaped by these darker features of animal reality. We need to recognize these nastier features of our spiritual traditions and honestly admit to their ultimate origins in the dark past. This is the only way we can remove this debasing and dehumanizing inheritance from our understanding of spirituality. Trying to syncretize these brutal themes of separation, opposition and revenge with more humane themes such as love simply does not work.
So Western spirituality in general has been built on the Zoroastrian themes of dualism between good and bad, separation between opposing insiders and outsiders, and destruction of the enemy who is trying to undermine the good or the truth. These notions have generated ongoing hate throughout Western religious history and have encouraged the ongoing crusade to fight and destroy enemies (the evil or Satanic ones) that are opposed to the good religion or true way. Consequently, the history of Western religion has been one of unrelenting struggle to conquer, convert or exterminate the other that differs.
Its also worth noting that in the Hebrew and Christian derivatives of Zoroaster we find a more focused emphasis on violent blood sacrifice (divine murder) as the necessary means of effecting the restoration of a fallen world. This emphasis on divinely sanctioned bloodshed accentuates the element of violence in these religions.
The Western religious viewpoint in general is the product of serious errors in the perception of pagan minds. The ancients believed that some cosmic separation of the spiritual from humanity had occurred. They based this on their beliefs that the forces of nature expressed the anger of the gods, that people were inherently sinful, that there was anger and revenge at the heart of divinity, that divinity must be placated, and that humans were to be subservient to the divine. We now know that the core ideas of these salvation religions are a profound distortion of spirituality and God.
Nonetheless, these ideas of human sinfulness, God’s anger, divine rejection, separation, retribution, blood to appease anger, and salvation through divine violence have long formed the core beliefs of Christianity.
It is now clear that the entire complex of Christian atonement belief is meaningless myth because the foundational event of the Fall never happened in the first place. Look at the sedimentary record anywhere on earth and note that death occurred in the past long before any humans were around to commit original sin. There never was a pre-Fall paradise free of suffering and death. Ever since life emerged some three to four billion years ago there has been suffering and death. There was no time when death entered as punishment for early human sin as the Christian myth of origins states. And there is certainly no evidence of life having regressed after some Fall. To the contrary all evidence points to the endless progression of life from a more primitive and undeveloped past.
The Fall is a myth and so is the entire belief system built on the Fall myth- the sinfulness of people, anger in God, rejection and abandonment by God, the need for blood sacrifice, and future punishment or hell. It is all myth and bad myth at that. Once we recognize the facts that undermine the Fall myth then the whole belief structure built around the Fall collapses. And if there was no Fall, no sin, no guilt, no separation from God, no punishment to fear and no coming apocalyptic destruction then people are free to understand the spiritual in entirely new ways, more humane ways. God has nothing to do with blood payback, punishment or threat. He has nothing to do with holiness/sin/atonement mythology.
The distortions of the salvation religions are profoundly damaging. They promote unnecessary guilt over the human condition and supposed sinfulness. This guilt renders people more easily manipulated by religious authorities. Also, if people are viewed as fallen then others are more likely to seek to control them in order to restrain their natural tendency toward evil.
Most important, the view of humanity as fallen or sinful distorts the actual psychology of human beings. While we still have a residual core animal brain (evolutionary leftover) our more powerful cortex enables us to pause (it checks the automatic responses of aggression), to reflect and reason and to choose more human responses. So we are not essentially sinful or evil but good.
Our consciousness is good and oriented to love and hope not fear or aggression. It works through the cortex to inhibit the core animal brain. So we now have the ability to rise above our animal inheritance and act like human beings. Our consciousness of something better is what most essentially defines us and distinguishes us from animals. It makes us essentially good.
When we give way to the base drives of the amygdala we retreat to fear, dualism and aggression toward others. We then seek the security of domination by leaders/gods. We tend to generalize and dehumanize. Dozier.
When we respond to consciousness we seek freedom, respect for unique others as individual persons with feelings and we seek unity and peace. What we respond to- the cortex or the old brain- we seek validation for in systems of meaning we create or adopt.
Think of it this way- we feel certain feelings- anger, rage, aggression or empathy, love and compassion. We can refuse the baser feelings for more humane ones. We have the ability to choose how we want to respond and train our feelings to support such response. What we want to respond like we then tend to find validation for in systems of ideas or meaning to support such response. Someone wanting to be more loving will adopt such an ideal as inspiration and guidance for there general behavior.
This is why how we think or the ideas we hold are so important to shaping how we will respond and behave in life. Its not just that bad ideas are harmful but that coupled with our inherited brain that is oriented to fear and aggression bad ideas can validate and reinforce such behavior. This brain seeks out more brutal ideas to validate its expression and then such ideas reinforce and stir it further to bad action.
On the other hand good humane ideas enhance cortex responses in the same feedback loop fashion. A desire for a good life will lead to choosing good humane ideas to validate and reinforce such response and behavior. Creates self reinforcing loops.
And this is why I have focused on the damaging influence of Fall/apocalyptic mythology. It orients human minds toward fear, despair and guilt. It is about the threat to survival and threats to survival always set people on edge in an aggressive self-defense stance. Such ideas evoke fear/aggression and move people to protect themselves from outsiders (xenophobia). Threat fosters fear and brings out the worst in people.
We need to recognize these two powerful influences in our brains (consciousness via the cortex and the core animal brain) and how ideas impact these two regions if we are to overcome the animal. This struggle to overcome our animal inheritance is the meaning of human existence. It defines the journey through life.
Most ancient religious ideas are simply projections of the animal brain. Jospeph Campbell argues this in saying that the ancient shaman projected their inherited instincts and fears outward in their myths. We must recognize this animal influence if we want to properly understand the origins and nature of gods and religion. This is the only way to fully understand the themes of separation, opposition and revenge that form the core of Fall/apocalyptic mythology. These themes all originate with the earliest predation and the fear and aggression that are associated with animal predation.
Another distortion created by Fall/apocalyptic religions has to do with the synthesis of later more humane ideas with the themes of the original primitive mythologies. Salvation religions have tried to portray and define such ideals as love in terms of Fall/apocalyptic or salvation themes. This distorts entirely the later humane ideals like love.
Love becomes defined in terms of a mythical separation, return and purging or punishment. With this salvation love those free spirits who refuse to be converted to the ‘true’ religious system are damned to hell. This is holy love in operation and it is a blatant denial of any common sense understanding of love as unconditional. When the common human ideal of love is defined in terms of the conditions of Fall/apocalyptic it becomes grotesquely distorted. It is then conditioned by exclusion (those who don’t convert and join are damned to hell). Love is only genuinely love when it forgives, includes without condition and embraces the entire human family.
A similar distortion occurs with justice. Beginning in early Sumeria a new more humane understanding of justice as liberation of the oppressed and mercy was introduced. This was later buried in the primitive notion of justice as payback or punishment.
Christians later argued that divine justice first demanded the full payment or punishment before it could offer forgiveness. This led to a horrible distortion of the meaning of forgiveness. As Bob Brinsmead has noted: A God who will not forgive until the debt is fully paid is a God who knows nothing about forgiveness. If the debt is already paid in full, then there is no need to forgive.
These ideals of love, justice and forgiveness are common human values. They are not religious values. Religion does not give them any extra meaning beyond their common human useage. And it is a further distortion to claim that their highest expression is in spiritual or religious activities. No- the highest expression of love is in common ordinary human activity at work, school or play.
Salvation religion also denies life and human desire as demonic or evil. It seeks to renounce or transcend normal human life and its messiness as sinful.
But the most serious distortion of all is the separation of humanity from God. Salvation religion sees God as something that is outside of or above humanity and the human spirit. Human loyalty or devotion is then directed to some invisible reality in heaven, usually an authority King above humanity who demands dehumanizing subservience akin to slavery.
This religious devotion or loyalty to something other than people has always led people to neglect or abuse other real people. Note for instance, the Old Testament command to stone people caught in adultery. Several zealots trying to obey this command of God brought a woman before Jesus. They were good religious people simply being faithful to their religious law and their God. Just as Abraham was willing to kill his son in order to obey his God.
This devotion to something other than people has always led people to act inhumanely toward others. Jesus’ response was that only one thing mattered- love your neighbor. This means never ending forgiveness and inclusion without barriers or requirements to fulfil. It means mercy before faithfulness to some law, ideology, principle or lifestyle.
This view of the transcendent or spiritual as something other than the human spirit has been the worst error of the ancient mind. It began with the earliest shaman who began to understand there was another realm after death and there were spirits behind the forces of nature. Early on they began to separate the spiritual or God from the human spirit and human consciousness. All subsequent religion has continued this error with an emphasis on God as above and the need for people to be devoted to this God above instead of to people alone.
Jesus corrected this error by conflating the two great commands (love God and love neighbor) into one new command- love one another.
Related to the focus on God outside of or above is the denigration of human life and ordinary human activity. Religious activity is viewed as God’s real or primary work; it is more special and more important. People are then encouraged to neglect or escape normal life in order to engage in spiritual disciplines or exercises such as prayer, meditation, fasting or other disciplines that deny life in favor of preparation for another realm.
It needs to be said that there is nothing higher, purer or more spiritual than ordinary, mundane human activity whether work, play, comedy, art, recreation or business. Any activity that tries to improve humanity and life in this world is the ultimate of transcendence or spirituality. The transcendent or spiritual has always been located primarily in the human spirit and human consciousness. It is a spirit of love and decency that has arisen out of an animal background to develop, progress and advance toward something better or more humane. This humane spirit or consciousness is at the heart of all reality and this is why Schillebeekx was right to say that God was a supremely humane reality. This reality has never been separated from the human spirit. So we don’t need to find salvation or restore any supposedly ruptured relationship or invite any savior into our hearts. We don’t have to fear the universe or life. There is no future threat or divine retribution coming. We embody in our own human consciousness and spirit the very best of life in the universe.
And we don’t need to fear death for we die into this greater reality which is love. Death is a mere transition to the infinitely better existence that we all long for.
So God is at the core of consciousness and has always been vitally involved in its emergence and its struggle to create a more humane existence here on earth. This is the transcendent arena of life. And this is how we know the transcendent or God. In people struggling to better themselves and life in general.
So the way to find the transcendent is to engage ordinary life and struggle to make a better life for all.