Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Organized Religion and Written Language

Humans (hominids) have probably had supernatural beliefs for a few million years. It was a way to explain the natural phenomena that was an everyday part of their lives. Early on, the beliefs were probably very personal. Each individual had his/her own beliefs that were not passed down from generation to generation. The evolution of verbal communication seems to have been a slow process. As communication got better, the more information and the more specific information was passed down to the next generation.

Oral traditions were the norm from the paleolithic until the advent of written language. Many societies had professional story-tellers, shamans, or witch-doctors whose jobs it was to pass their beliefs from the current generation to the next. Elaborate rituals, songs, and dances were developed to make the passing of information more accurate. However, with each generation, flourishes, drama, new characters were added to the stories to make them more interesting and exciting. Also, the stories may have been "retconed" to account for new knowledge and actual science. Each society's myths and legends diverged and evolved. Neighboring villages would often have very different stories about the same characters (gods). These differences were often the cause of strife between neighboring societies.

Sometime between seven and six thousand years ago, a different way of communicating appeared. It probably started out as codes for tallying, counting, and inventory. Such systems are seen in neolithic cave paintings. So, it takes no stretch of the imagination to assume that these systems would evolve into something more complicated. Instead of a picture of an antelope, a simpler symbol could be used to represent an antelope. Soon systems of writting evolved as pictographs. Each word had its own symbol. Such systems worked, but was tedious. A writer had to remember hundreds of symbols. It was someones life work to record stories with pictographs.

Someone long ago had the idea that instead of the symbol for an antelope (for example) actually representing an antelope. the symbol could represent the first sound in their word for antelope. Now by asigning syllables or phonetic sounds to symbols, the symbols could be strung together to form just about any word that could be spoken. The good thing about this was that you didn't have to remember hundreds of symbols. Now, just a few dozen of so was all you needed.

Now, the stories, myths and legends could be recorded very accurately. The next generation no longer needed to rely on a story-teller's memory. Rituals could be accurately described, so later generations would do them right. This is probably where the idea that the written word was infallable came from. The older the religious text, the more mystic it seemed. It was the right way, because a very old scroll said so.

However, not everybody learned to read. Books, scrolls, and tablets were not indestructable and they were not very often portable. So, a few learned individuals in a society, could now assume the job of keeping these texts safe, copying them, and reading them to the public. Today we call such people priests and scribes. They reside preside over the congregations, supervising the rituals. A little old style divine revelation every now and then added a little drama.

Every major religion (that I can think of), today, has holy books. Most of the religions place so much importance on those holy books that the scriptures become inerrant. There's no room for new knowledge or revision. If new knowledge contradicts the holy text, often the new knowledge is rejected on the sole merit of an ancient scroll's claims. Science is often rejected because there was a man thousands of years ago who said something different. Whether or not that primitive man had accurate knowledge of the universe is almost never considered by the religious. The word becomes God and the word does not change (see John 1:1-2).

Without written language, there would be no organized religion. Since, science also depends upon the written word, we can thank religion for keeping written language alive. However, the trend that I see of religion becoming more fundmentalist disturbs me. Many religious claims, today, are being proven false by scientific knowledge. The more devout have reacted by placing even more importance on ancient writtings. Because there's more than one holy book, the different fundamentalists are starting to come into conflict. The outlook does not look good.

This planet is the only place in the universe (that we know of) that humans and other earth life can survive. If everyone does not work toward peace and tolerence, this planet could be in trouble. I don't believe that all religion is harmful. It's when the words themselves become more important than whether it reflects reality or not that religion becomes harmful.


uzza said...

Great post. Couldn't agree more about writing. The way I see it, originally people recognized shamans as authorities, due to their special relationship with nature (maybe along with a little craziness). They typically held an intimate knowledge of plants and herbs, talked to/became their totem animals, etc.

Once writing entered the picture like you describe, authority shifted to the priest's ability to read, so that people follow what the priests say the texts say. It's in religion's interest to restrict literacy. Where everybody can read, they don't look so authoritative anymore.

You're spot on how science is challenging that authority. Now it's in religion's interest to restrict science education. They're putting up a hell of a fight, too.

ethinethin said...

The first religion was almost certainly ancestor worship, even today a very common practice in non-consumer cultures. There is evidence of early hominins* burying there dead and then digging them up and carrying their skulls with them, very likely on the shaft of staves.

*(hominids include the other great apes -- the media favors this term for some reason but hominin is more scientifically appropriate when talking about humans and human ancestors)

Robert Madewell said...

Ethinethin, I'm going to keep the hominid in there, because it's very possible that the extant great apes also have personal supernatural beliefs. They just don't communicate them. That's the point of this essay. Religion is dependent upon communication.

Thanks for the clarification, though. Back when I was in high school, hominidae did not include the great apes. That has all been revised now.

RD86 said...

I thought your Daddy was a preacher. John 1:1-3 is speaking of the living Word, Jesus Christ. That's why it says "all things were made by him" in reference to "the Word." I'm no bible scholar, but that's pretty basic stuff. Look at John 1:14 for further clarification.

Also, reside means you live somewhere. You mean preside.

Robert Madewell said...

John 1:1-3 is speaking of the living Word, Jesus Christ.

I am aware of that. It is very suspicious that the author of John calls Jesus the word and that the written word is deified in modern religions. I see a conection between written language and organized religion. That fact that the author of John chose the word "word", IMO, illustrates that concept wonderfully.

Doh! Spell checkers don't catch mistakes that are real words! Maybe God won't burn me too long for making a simple typo. Thanks for catching it.

Robert Madewell said...

RD86, I hope catching a typo makes you feel very very superior. I can't help but to feel a tone of contempt in every one of your comments. The fact that I made a mistake, does not diminish the validity of my claim.

ethinethin said...

That has all been revised now.

I think cladistics is a better system than traditional taxonomy.

RD86 said...

I have contempt for your twisting of scripture to fit your point. The typo was just a helpful hint.

ethinethin said...

Because as we all know, Jesus said "Have contempt for thy enemies".

Robert Madewell said...

Contempt is one of the fruits of the spirit, right? No? I must have missed it.

Yeah, twisting scripture to mean what you want it to should only be done by christians.

RD86 said...

Malachi 2:9
Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law.

Christians should hate wickedness. They should love the person, and desire for them to come to repentance, but loving your enemies does not mean you should be at ease with what they do, and hide the fact that it's wicked.

Robert Madewell said...

Ok RD86, you've convinced me with your harsh legalism. I'm on my knees right now asking Jesus to materialize into my heart. I hope he can forgive me of the wickedness of being honest with myself about my beliefs. I promise that next time I have doubts about God's existance, I'll just pretend not to have them so that no one will notice that I'm an evil atheist again. If every christian was as annoying as you, maybe there be no more atheists.

Thank you! I had no idea that being an asshat would be so effective at winning souls for Jesus.

RD86 said...

LOL! I am far from a legalist. I simply don't believe in twisting scripture, whether it comes from a Christian or an atheist.