Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself?
Delivered October 18, 2000, as a Fleming Lecture in Religion, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas
Contrary to popular opinion, Charles Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution. By the middle of the 19th century, the mere fact of evolution had been around for a long time, and most thinkers of the time were perfectly content to leave it at that. The absence of a theory to explain evolutionary change didn’t trouble them, wasn’t experienced as a pressure, as it was by Darwin. He knew there had to be some intelligible mechanism or dynamic that would account for it, and this is what he went looking for–with well-known results. In his Origin of Species, he wasn’t announcing the fact of evolution, he was trying to make sense of the fact.
In my mid-twenties I began to feel a similar sort of pressure. The modern Age of Anxiety was just being born under the shadows of rampant population growth, global environmental destruction, and the ever-present possibility of nuclear holocaust. I was surprised that most people seemed perfectly reconciled to these things, as if to say, Well, what else would you expect?
Ted Kaczynski , the Unabomber, seemed to think he was saying something terribly original in his 1995 diatribe blaming it all on the Industrial Revolution, but this was just the conventional wisdom of 1962. To my mind, blaming all our problems on the Industrial Revolution is like blaming Hamlet’s downfall on his fencing match with Laertes. To understand why Hamlet ended up badly, you can’t just look at the last ten minutes of his story, you have to go right back to the beginning of it, and I felt a pressure to do the same with us.
The beginning of our story isn’t difficult to find. Every schoolchild learns that our story began about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution. This isn’t the beginning of the human story, but it’s certainly the beginning of our story, for it was from this beginning that all the wonders and horrors of our civilisation grew.
Everyone is vaguely aware that there have been two ways of looking at the Agricultural Revolution within our culture, two contradictory stories about its significance. According to the standard version–the version taught in our schools–humans had been around for a long time, three or four million years , living a miserable and shiftless sort of life for most of that time, accomplishing nothing and getting nowhere. But then about 10,000 years ago it finally dawned on folks living in the Fertile Crescent that they didn’t have to live like beavers and buzzards, making do with whatever food happened to come along; they could cultivate their own food and thus control their own destiny and well being. Agriculture made it possible for them to give up the nomadic life for the life of farming villagers. Village life encouraged occupational specialization and the advancement of technology on all fronts. Before long, villages became towns, and towns became cities, kingdoms, and empires. Trade connections, elaborate social and economic systems, and literacy soon followed, and there we went. All these advances were based on–and impossible without–agriculture, manifestly humanity’s greatest blessing.
The other story, a much older one, is tucked away in a different corner of our cultural heritage. It too is set in the Fertile Crescent and tells a tale of the birth of agriculture, but in this telling agriculture isn’t represented as a blessing but rather as a terrible punishment for a crime whose exact nature has always profoundly puzzled us. I’m referring, of course, to the story told in the third chapter of Genesis, the Fall of Adam.
Both these stories are known to virtually everyone who grows up in our culture, including every historian, philosopher, theologian, and anthropologist. But like most thinkers of the mid-19th century, who were content with the mere fact of evolution and felt no pressure to explain it, our historians, philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists seem perfectly content to live with these two contradictory stories. The conflict is manifest but, for them, demands no explanation.
For me, it did. As evolution demanded of Darwin a theory that would make sense of it, the story in Genesis demanded of me a theory that would make sense of it.
There have traditionally been two approaches to Adam’s crime and punishment . The text tells us Adam was invited to partake of every tree in the garden of Eden except one, mysteriously called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As we know, Adam succumbed to the temptation to sample this fruit. In one approach, the crime is viewed as simple disobedience, in which case the interdiction of the knowledge of good and evil seems entirely arbitrary. God might just as well have interdicted the knowledge of war and peace or the knowledge of pride and prejudice. The point was simply to forbid Adam something in order to test his loyalty. Under this approach, Adam’s punishment–banishment from Eden to live by the sweat of his brow as a farmer–was just a spanking; it doesn’t “fit the crime” in any particular way. He would have received this punishment no matter what test he had failed.
The second approach tries to make some connection between Adam’s crime and his punishment. Under this approach, Eden is viewed as a metaphor for the state of innocence, which is lost when Adam gains the knowledge of good and evil. This makes sense, but only if the knowledge of good and evil is understood as a metaphor for knowledge that destroys innocence. So, with roughly equivalent metaphors at either end, the story is reduced to a banal tautology: Adam lost his innocence by gaining knowledge that destroyed his innocence.
The story of the Fall is coupled with a second that is equally famous and equally baffling, that of Cain and Abel. As conventionally understood, these two brothers were literal individuals, the elder, Cain, a tiller of the soil, and the younger, Abel, a herder. The improbability that two members of the same family would embrace antithetical lifestyles should tip us off to the fact that these were not individuals but emblematic figures, just as Adam was (Adam merely being the Hebrew word for Man).
If we understand these as emblematic figures, then the story begins to make sense. The firstborn of agriculture was indeed the tiller of the soil, as Cain was said to be the firstborn of Adam. This is an undoubted historical fact. The domestication of plants is a process that begins the day you plant your first seed, but the domestication of animals takes generations. So the herder Abel was indeed the second-born–by centuries, if not millennia (another reason to be sceptical of the notion that Cain and Abel were literally second-generation brothers).
A further reason for scepticism on this point is the fact that the ancient farmers and herders of the Near East occupied adjacent but distinctly different regions. Farming was the occupation of the Caucasian inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent. Herding was the occupation of the Semitic inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula to the south.
Another piece of background that needs to be understood is that in very ancient times farmers and herders had radically different lifestyles. Farmers were by the very nature of their work settled villagers; but herders (by the very nature of their work) were nomads, just as many present-day herding peoples are. The herding lifestyle was, in fact, closer to the hunting-gathering lifestyle than it was to the farming lifestyle.
As the farming peoples of the north expanded, it was inevitable that they would confront their Semitic herding neighbours to the south, perhaps below what is now Iraq–with the predictable result. As they have done from the beginning to the present moment, the tillers of the soil needed more land to put to the plough, and as they’ve done from the beginning to the present moment, they took it.
As the Semites saw it (and it is, of course, their version of the story that we have), the tiller of the soil Cain was watering his fields with the blood of Abel the herder.
The fact that the version we have is the Semitic version explains the central mystery of the story, which is why God rejected Cain’s gift but accepted Abel’s. Naturally, this is the way the Semites would see it. In essence, the story says, “God is on our side. God loves us and the way we live but hates the tillers of the soil and the way they live.”
With these provisional understandings in place, I was ready to offer a theory about the first part of the story, the Fall of Adam. What the Semitic authors knew was only the present fact that their brothers from the north were encroaching on them in a murderous way. They hadn’t been physically present in the Fertile Crescent to witness the actual birth of agriculture, and in fact this was an event that had occurred hundreds of years earlier. In their story of the Fall, they were reconstructing an ancient event, not reporting a recent one. All that was clear to them was that some strange development had saddled their brothers to the north with a laborious lifestyle and had turned them into murderers, and this had to be a moral or spiritual catastrophe of some kind.
What they observed about their brothers to the north was this peculiarity. They seemed to have the strange idea that they knew how to run the world as well as God. This is what marks them as our cultural ancestors. As we go about our business of running the world, we have no doubt that we’re doing as good a job as God, if not better. Obviously God put a lot of creatures in the world that are quite superfluous and even pernicious, and we’re quite at liberty to get rid of them. We know where the rivers should run, where the swamps should be drained, where the forests should be razed, where the mountains should be leveled, where the plains should be scoured, where the rain should fall. To us, it’s perfectly obvious that we have this knowledge.
In fact, to the authors of the stories in Genesis, it looked as if their brothers to the north had the bizarre idea that they had eaten at God’s own tree of wisdom and had gained the very knowledge God uses to rule the world. And what knowledge is this? It’s a knowledge that only God is competent to use, the knowledge that every single action God might take–no matter what it is, no matter how large or small–is good for one but evil for another. If a fox is stalking a pheasant, it’s in the hands of God whether she will catch the pheasant or the pheasant will escape. If God gives the fox the pheasant, then this is good for the fox but evil for the pheasant. If God allows the pheasant to escape, then this is good for the pheasant but evil for the fox. There’s no outcome that can be good for both. The same is true in every area of the world’s governance. If God allows the valley to be flooded, then this is good for some but evil for others. If God holds back the flood then this too will be good for some but evil for others.
Decisions of this kind are clearly at the very root of what it means to rule the world, and the wisdom to make them cannot possibly belong to any mere creature, for any creature making such decisions would inevitably say, “I will make every choice so that it’s good for me but evil for all others.” And of course, this is precisely how the agriculturalist operates, saying, “If I scour this plain to plant food for myself, then this will be evil for all the creatures that inhabit the plain, but it’ll be good for me. If I raze this forest to plant food for myself, then this will be evil for all the creatures that inhabit the forest, but it’ll be good for me.”
What the authors of the stories in Genesis perceived was that their brothers to the north had taken into their own hands the rule of the world; they had usurped the role of God. Those who let God run the world and take the food that he’s planted for them have an easy life. But those who want to run the world themselves must necessarily plant their own food, must necessarily make their living by the sweat of the brow. As this makes plain, agriculture was not the crime itself but rather the result of the crime, the punishment that must inevitably follow such a crime. It was wielding the knowledge of good and evil that had turned their brothers in the north into farmers–and into murderers.
But these were not the only consequences to be expected from Adam’s act. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is harmless to God but poison to Man. It seemed to these authors that usurping God’s role in the world would be the very death of Man.
And so it seemed to me when I finally worked all this out in the late 1970s. This investigation of the stories in Genesis was not, for me, an exercise in biblical exegesis. I’d gone looking for a way to understand how in the world we’d brought ourselves face to face with death in such a relatively short period of time–10,000 years, a mere eyeblink in the lifespan of our species–and had found it in an ancient story that we long ago adopted as our own and that remained stubbornly mysterious to us as long as we insisted on reading it as if it were our own. When examined from a point of view not our own, however, it ceased to be mysterious and delivered up a meaning that not only would have made sense to a beleaguered herding people 8,000 years ago but that would also make sense to the beleaguered people of the late twentieth century.
As far as I was concerned, the authors of this story had gotten it right. In spite of the terrible mess we’ve made of it, we do think we can run the world, and if we continue to think this, it is going to be the death of us.
In case it isn’t evident, I should add that, of course, my reading of Genesis is only a theory. This is what creationists say of evolution, that it’s “only a theory, it hasn’t been proved,” as though this in itself is grounds for dismissal. This misrepresents the point of formulating a theory, which is to make sense of the evidence. So far, Darwin’s theory remains the very best way we’ve found to make sense of the evidence, and my own theory has to be evaluated in the same way. Does it make sense of the evidence–the stories themselves–and does it make more sense than any other theory?
But solving this particular riddle only began to alleviate the pressure I felt for answers that were not being looked for at any level of our culture. The philosophical and theological foundations of our culture had been laid down by people who confidently believed that Man had been born an agriculturalist and civilisation builder. These things were as instinctive to him as predation is to lions or hiving is to bees. This meant that to find and date Man’s birth, they had only to look for the beginnings of agriculture and civilisation, which were obviously not that far back in time.
When in 1650 Irish theologian James Ussher announced the date of creation as October 23, 4004 B.C., no one laughed, or if they did, it was because of the absurd exactitude of the date, not because the date was absurdly recent. In fact, 4004 B.C. is quite a serviceable date for the beginning of what we would recognise as civilisation. This being the case, it’s hardly surprising that, for people who took it for granted that Man began building civilisation as soon as he was created, 4004 B.C. would seem like a perfectly reasonable date for his creation.
But all this soon changed. By the middle of the 19th century the accumulated evidence of many new sciences had pushed almost all dates back by many orders of magnitude. The universe and the earth were not thousands of years old but billions. The human past extended millions of years back beyond the appearance of agriculture and civilization.Only those who clung to a very literal reading of the biblical creation story rejected the evidence; they saw it as a hoax perpetrated on us either by the devil (to confound us) or by God (to test our faith)–take your pick. The notion that Man had been born an agriculturalist and civilization builder had been rendered totally untenable. He had very definitely not been born either one.
This meant that the philosophical and theological foundations of our culture had been laid by people with a profoundly erroneous understanding of our origins and history. It was therefore urgently important to reexamine these foundations and if necessary to rebuild them from the ground up.
Except, of course, that no one at all thought this was urgently important–or even slightly important. So human life began millions of years before the birth of agriculture. Who cares? Nothing of any importance happened during those millions of years. They were merely a fact, something to be accepted, just as the fact of evolution had been accepted by naturalists long before Darwin.
In the last century, we’d gained an understanding of the human story that made nonsense of everything we’d been telling ourselves for 3,000 years, but our settled understandings remained completely unshaken. So what, that Man had not in fact been born an agriculturalist and a civilisation builder? He was certainly born to become an agriculturalist and a civilisation builder. It was beyond question that this was our foreordained destiny. The way we live is the way humans were meant to live from the beginning of time. And indeed we must go on living this way–even if it kills us.
Facts that were indisputable to all but biblical literalists had radically repositioned us not only in the physical universe but in the history of our own species. The fact that we had been repositioned was all but universally acknowledged, but no one felt any pressure to develop a theory that would make sense of the fact, the way Darwin had made sense of the fact of evolution.
Except me, and I have to tell you that it gave me no joy. I had to have answers, and I went looking for them not because I wanted to write a book someday but because I personally couldn’t live without them.
In Ishmael, I made the point that the conflict between the emblematic figures Cain and Abel didn’t end six or eight thousand years ago in the Near East. Cain the tiller of the soil has carried his knife with him to every corner of the world, watering his fields with the blood of tribal peoples wherever he found them. He arrived here in 1492 and over the next three centuries watered his fields with the blood of millions of Native Americans. Today, he’s down there in Brazil, knife poised over the few remaining aboriginals in the heart of that country.
The tribe among aboriginal peoples is as universal as the flock of geese, and no anthropologist seriously doubts that it was humanity’s original social organisation. We didn’t evolve in troops or hordes or pods. Rather, we evolved in a social organisation was peculiarly human, that was uniquely successful forculture-bearers. The tribe was successful for humans, which is why it was still universally in place throughout the world three million years later. The tribal organisation was natural selection’s gift to humanity in the same way that the flock was natural selection’s gift to geese.
The elemental glue that holds any tribe together is tribal law. This is easy to say but less easy to understand because the operation of tribal law is entirely different from the operation of our law. Prohibition is the essence of our law, but the essence of tribal law is the remedy. Misbehaviour isn’t outlawed in any tribe. Rather, tribal law prescribes what must happen in order to minimise the effect of misbehaviour and to produce a situation in which everyone feels that they’ve been made as whole again as it’s possible to be.
In The Story of B I described how adultery is handled among the Alawa of Australia. If you have the misfortune to fall in love with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband, the law doesn’t say, “This is prohibited and may not go forward.” It says, “If you want your love to go forward, here’s what you must do to make things right with all parties and to see to it that marriage isn’t cheapened in the eyes of our children.” It’s a remarkably successful process. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that it wasn’t worked out in any legislature or by any committee. It’s another gift of natural selection. Over countless generations of testing, no better way of handling adultery has been found or even conceivably could be found, because–behold!–it works! It does just what the Alawa want it to do, and absolutely no one tries to evade it. Even adulterers don’t try to evade it–that’s how well it works.
But this is just the law of the Alawa, and it would never occur to them to say, “Everyone in the world should do it this way.” They know perfectly well that their tribal neighbours’ laws work just as well for them–and for the same reason, that they’ve been tested from the beginning of time.
One of the virtues of tribal law is that it presupposes that people are just the way we know they are: generally wise, kind, generous, and well-intentioned but perfectly capable of being foolish, unruly, moody, cantankerous, selfish, greedy, violent, stupid, bad-tempered, sneaky, lustful, treacherous, careless, vindictive, neglectful, petty, and all sorts of other unpleasant things. Tribal law doesn’t punish people for their shortcomings, as our law does. Rather, it makes the management of their shortcomings an easy and ordinary part of life.
But during the developmental period of our culture, all this changed very dramatically. Tribal peoples began to come together in larger and larger associations, and one of the casualties of this process was tribal law. If you take the Alawa of Australia and put them together with Gebusi of New Guinea, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the Yanomami of Brazil, they are very literally not going to know how to live. Not any of these tribes are going to embrace the laws of the others, which may not only be unknown to them but incomprehensible to them. How then are they going to handle mischief that occurs among them? The Gebusi way or the Yanomami way? The Alawa way or the Bushman way? Multiply this by a hundred, and you’ll have a fair approximation of where people stood in the early millennia of our own cultural development in the Near East.
When you gather up a hundred tribes and expect them to work and live together, tribal law becomes inapplicable and useless. But of course the people in this amalgam are the same as they always were: capable of being foolish, moody, cantankerous, selfish, greedy, violent, stupid, bad-tempered, and all the rest. In the tribal situation, this was no problem, because tribal law was designed for people like this. But all the tribal ways of handling these ordinary human tendencies had been expunged in our burgeoning civilization. A new way of handling them had to be invented–and I stress the word invented. There was no received, tested way of handling the mischief people were capable of. Our cultural ancestors had to make something up, and what they made up were lists of prohibited behavior.
Very understandably, they began with the big ones. They weren’t going to prohibit moodiness or selfishness. They prohibited things like murder, assault, and theft. Of course, we don’t know what the lists were like until the dawn of literacy, but you can be sure they were in place because it’s hardly plausible that we murdered, robbed, and thieved with impunity for five or six thousand years until Hammurabi finally noticed that these were rather disruptive activities.
When the Israelites escaped from Egypt in the 13th century B.C., they were literally a lawless horde, because they’d left the Egyptian list of prohibitions behind. They needed their own list of prohibitions, which God provided–the famous ten. But of course, ten didn’t do it. Hundreds more followed, but they didn’t do it either.
No number has ever done it for us. Not a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand. Even millions don’t do it, and so every single year we pay our legislators to come up with more. But no matter how many prohibitions we come up with, they never do the trick, because no prohibited behaviour has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it. Every time someone is sent to prison or executed, this is said to be “sending a message” to miscreants, but for some strange reason the message never arrives, year after year, generation after generation, century after century.
Naturally, we consider this to be a very advanced system.
No tribal people has ever been found that claimed not to know how to live. On the contrary, they’re all completely confident that they know how to live. But with the disappearance of tribal law among us, people began to be acutely aware of not knowing how to live. A new class of specialists came to be in demand, their speciality being the annunciation of how people are supposed to live. These specialists we call prophets.
Naturally, it takes special qualifications to be a prophet. You must by definition know something the rest of us don’t know, something the rest of us are clearly unable to know. This means you must have a source of information that is beyond normal reach–or else what good would it be? A transcendent vision will do, as in the case of Siddhartha Gautama. A dream will do, provided it comes from God. But best of all, of course, is direct, personal, unmediated communication with God. The most persuasive and most highly valued prophets, the ones that are worth dying for and killing for, have the word directly from God.
The appearance of religions based on prophetic revelations is unique to our culture. We alone in the history of all humanity needed such religions. We still need them (and new ones are being created every day), because we still profoundly feel that we don’t know how to live. Our religions are the peculiar creation of a bereft people. Yet we don’t doubt for a moment that they are the religions of humanity itself.
This belief was not an unreasonable one when it first took root among us. Having long since forgotten that humanity was here long before we came along, we assumed that we were humanity itself and that our history was human history itself. We imagined that humanity had been in existence for just a few thousand years–and that God had been talking to us from the beginning. So why wouldn’t our religions be the religions of humanity itself?
When it became known that humanity was millions of years older than we, no one thought it odd that God had remained aloof from the thousands of generations that had come before us. Why would God bother to talk to Homo habilis or Homo erectus? Why would he bother to talk even to Homo sapiens–until we came along? God wanted to talk to civilised folks, not savages, so it’s no wonder he remained disdainfully silent.
The philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries weren’t troubled by God’s long silence. The fact alone was enough for them, and they felt no pressure to develop a theory to make sense of it. For Christians, it had long been accepted that Christianity was humanity’s religion (which is why all of humanity had to be converted to it, of course). It was an effortless step for thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox to promote Christ from humanity’s Christ to the Cosmic Christ.
Very strangely, it remained to me to recognise that there once was a religion that could plausibly be called the religion of humanity. It was humanity’s first religion and its only universal religion, found wherever humans were found, in place for tens of thousands of years. Christian missionaries encountered it wherever they went and piously set about destroying it. By now it has been all but stamped out either by missionary efforts or more simply by exterminating its adherents. I certainly take no pride in its discovery, since it’s been in plain sight to us for hundreds of years.
Of course, it isn’t accounted a “real” religion since it isn’t one of ours. It’s just a sort of half-baked “pre-religion.” How could it be anything else, since it emerged long before God decided humans were worth talking to? It wasn’t revealed by any accredited prophet, has no dogma, no evident theology or doctrine, no liturgy, and produces no interesting heresies or schisms. Worst of all, as far as I know, no one has ever killed for it or died for it–and what sort of religion is that? Considering all this, it’s actually quite remarkable that we even have a name for it.
The religion I’m talking about is, of course, animism. This name was cut to fit the general missionary impression that these childlike savages believe that things like rocks, trees, and rivers have spirits in them, and it hasn’t lost this coloration since the middle of the nineteenth century.
Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared to settle for this trivialization of a religion that flourished for tens of thousands of years among people exactly as smart as we are. After decades of trying to understand what these people were telling us about their lives and their vision of humanity’s place in the world, I concluded that a very simple (but far from trivial) worldview was at the foundation of what they were saying: The world is a sacred place, and humanity belongs in such a world.
It’s simple but also deceptively simple. This can best be seen if we contrast it with the worldview at the foundation of our own religions. In the worldview of our religions, the world is anything but a sacred place. For Christians, it’s merely a place of testing and has no intrinsic value. For Buddhists, it’s a place where suffering is inevitable. If I oversimplify, my object is not to misrepresent but only to clarify the general difference between these two worldviews in the few minutes that are left to me.
For Christians, the world is not where humans belong; it’s not our true home, it’s just a sort of waiting room where we pass the time before moving on to our true home, which is heaven. For Buddhists, the world is another kind of waiting room, which we visit again and again in a repeating cycle of death and rebirth until we finally attain liberation in nirvana.
For Christians, if the world were a sacred place, we wouldn’t belong in it, because we’re all sinners; God didn’t send his only-begotten son to make us worthy of living in a sacred world but to make us worthy of living with God in heaven. For Buddhists, if the world were a sacred place, then why would we hope to escape it? If the world were a sacred place, then would we not rather welcome the repeating cycle of death and rebirth?
From the animist point of view, humans belong in a sacred place because they themselves are sacred. Not sacred in a special way, not more sacred than anything else, but merely as sacred as anything else–as sacred as bison or salmon or crows or crickets or bears or sunflowers.
This is by no means all there is to say about animism. It’s explored more fully in The Story of B, but this too is just a beginning. I’m not an authority on animism. I doubt there could ever be such a thing as an authority on animism.
Simple ideas are not always easy to understand. The very simplest idea I’ve articulated in my work is probably the least understood: There is no one right way for people to live–never has been and never will be. This idea was at the foundation of tribal life everywhere. The Navajo never imagined that they had the right way to live (and that all others were wrong). All they had was a way that suited them. With tribal peoples on all sides of them–all living in different ways–it would have been ridiculous for them to imagine that theirs was the one right way for people to live. It would be like us imagining that there is one right way to orchestrate a Cole Porter song or one right way to make a bicycle.
In the tribal world, because there was complete agreement that no one had the right way to live, there was a staggering glory of cultural diversity, which the people of our culture have been tirelessly eradicating for 10,000 years. For us, it will be paradise when everyone on earth lives exactly the same way.
Almost no one blinks at the statement that there is no one right way for people to live. In one of his denunciations of scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, “You gag on the gnat but swallow down the camel.” People find many gnats in my books to gag on, but this great hairy camel goes down as easily as a teaspoon of honey.
May the forests be with you and with your children.