The Origin of Religion – Part 1

The BBC published its second of two posts on the origin of religion, and it’s a doozy. The first article explored the deep roots of religion in the behavior of various non-human species: How and why did religion evolve? (BBC)

This second part takes on why religious thought exists in humans specifically, drawing on a variety of theories and disciplines, from evolutionary psychology, to anthropology, to sociology, to neuroscience. The thinkers the author reference in the article include Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, Justin Barrett, Robin Dunbar, and Robert Bellah.

I’m going to pair this with an older article from The Atlantic, Is God and Accident?, which posits that religion was, in essence, an “accident” due to the unique way our brains have evolved to process information, and covers some of the same ground. I’ll supplement these with other sources.

Two Theories

Two common theories of why religion developed are: 1.) religion evolved to calm our existential fear of death, and 2.) religion evolved to create intragroup cohesion via shared concepts and rituals (i.e. to bind people together). Or, religious beliefs are shibboleths: they evolved to divide the social world into “us” and “them.”

But there are a few problems with these narratives. When you take a look at most primitive religions, there is no “big picture” philosophical explanation for the mystery of human existence. There is no “country club” afterlife that people are looking forward to as in Western (particularly American Protestant) Christianity. There is no “better place” after death—just a different one. In many ancestor-veneration cultures (which I have proposed as the original form of religion), the ancestors simply dwell “under the earth”. It’s hardly a pleasant afterlife.

This chthonic idea—that spirits dwell somewhere below the earth—is so universal that I think there must be something fundamental to it. It was present in all the Near Eastern religions, and is implicit in the Hebrew term for the grave, sheol (Heaven and Hell are conspicuously absent from the Old Testament). It was present in Greek culture too. Even the remote Pirahã of the Amazon believe the spirits of their departed ancestors dwell somewhere beneath the earth.

My guess is that this comes from our tradition of disposing with dead bodies by ritually burying them, which goes all the way back to the dawn of cognitively modern humans. Burials—especially with grave goods—are used by archaeologists as a proxy for when something like religion first emerged.

Here’s a good description of death rituals and beliefs in the Ancient Near East (ANE):

In death a person gave up his or her breath and became a ghost (etemmu). The bodies of the deceased were sometimes buried under a special section of their own house rather than in a separate tomb. As in other ANE cultures, the oldest son was responsible for maintaining such duties as providing the dead with food and drink and other supplies; he was also expected to regularly pronounce their names to ensure that the dead were not forgotten by the living.

Particularly important in this regard was the kipsu banquet, to which dead ancestors would be invited and from whom blessing on the living would be sought. As in other ANE thought, the living could contact the dead (through a medium or necromancer) and the ghosts of the dead could affect the circumstances of the living. Restless ghosts were considered particularly malevolent and were thus especially feared. Accordingly, imitative magic and numerous spells were designed to ward off such malevolent ghosts or demons, such as those thought to attack people sexually at night, or those who were considered responsible for what we refer to as cot death or sudden infant death syndrome. p. 12

The underworld itself was commonly referred to as ‘the Great City’, ‘the Great Below’, or ‘the Land of No Return.’ It was believed to have three tiers: the lowest level was the court of the gods of the underworld; the middle level was the watery realm of the deity Apsu; and the upper level immediately under the earth’s surface was the ‘residence of the spirits of men’. The entrance was supposedly in the west, where Shamash (the sun god) was believed to go down at night and travel under the earth before resurfacing in the east the following morning. To access the underworld, the dead had to cross a river with the aid of a boatman called Remove-hastily. Presumably the sooner he carried out his task the better! [1]

Meanwhile, in ancient Greek tribal culture:

At death the psyche or soul, which entered the body at birth, leaves again like a puff of wind and – so long as the deceased has been properly buried – goes to the underworld. Here the dead exist as insubstantial ‘shades’ or ‘shadows’ of their former selves, without strength or pleasure. While normally confined to the realm of the dead, the deceased may occasionally reappear as ghosts who can haunt or communicate with the living. As in the ANE, proper care of the dead was therefore paramount; indeed, improper care could bring their ghosts back to haunt the negligent, because in Greek mythology the unburied dead were not allowed to enter Hades.

[Hades] is portrayed as a remote place, far below the earth, dark and dismal, and utterly devoid of hope. For the most part, all the dead, regardless of social rank or status, share the same experience; this was clearly not a happy one – even for the heroic dead. Achilles, for example, famously remarks that he would rather be the hired servant of a poor farmer on earth than lord of all the withered dead in the underworld’ (Od. 11.489-491). Yet this was not perceived as a place of punishment or retributive justice; rather, it was simply the grim and gloomy destiny that all men would inevitably share. There was no hope of any physical return from death; the only hope of immortality lay in making a name for oneself, one that would be perpetually remembered by those on earth. So all in all, Homer’s view of death and the afterlife is almost entirely negative. ibid.

And China, with its long (and enduring) tradition of ancestor worship, was quite similar:

According to ancient beliefs, each person had a spirit which required the offering of sacrifices, not just royal figures. It was thought that an individual had two souls. After death, one of these souls, the po, rose to heaven while the other one, the hun, remained in the body of the deceased. It was this second soul that required regular offerings of nourishment. Eventually, the hun soul would migrate to the fabled Yellow Springs of the afterlife, but until that time, if the family did not want the spirit of their dead relation to trouble them as a wandering hungry ghost, they had to take certain precautions. The first was to bury the dead with all the essential daily objects (or models of them) they would need in the next life from food to tools. Next, to ensure the corpse remained at peace, it was necessary to offer appropriate and regular offerings.

Ancestor Worship in Ancient China (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

In The Ancient City, Fustel de Coulanges, who also argued for ancestor worship as primordial form of religion and the key to understanding ancient cultural institutions, notes the similarities between Greek, Roman and Hindu ancestor worship:

The Hindu, like the Greek, regarded the dead as divine beings, who enjoyed a happy existence; but their happiness depended on the condition that the offerings made by the living should be carried to them regularly. If the Śrāddha for a dead person was not offered regularly, his soul left its peaceful dwelling, and became a wandering spirit, who tormented the living; so that, if the dead were really gods, this was only whilst the living honored them with their worship.

The Greeks and Romans had exactly the same belief. If the funeral repast ceased to be offered to the dead, they immediately left their tombs, and became wandering shades, that were heard in the silence of the night. They reproached the living with their negligence; or they sought to punish them by afflicting them with diseases, or cursing their soil with sterility. In a word, they left the living no rest till the funeral feasts were re-established. The sacrifice, the offering of nourishment, and the libation restored them to the tomb, and gave them back their rest and their divine attributes. Man was then at peace with them…

These human souls deified by death were what the Greeks called demons, or heroes. The Latins gave them the name of Lares, Manes, Genii. “Our ancestors believed,” says Apuleius “that the Manes, when they were malignant, were to be called larvae; they called them Lares when they were benevolent and propitious.” Elsewhere we read, “Genius and Lar is the same being; so our ancestors believed.” And in Cicero, “Those that the Greeks called demons we call Lares.” The  Ancient City, p. 17

So, it turns out that most ancient religions weren’t all that reassuring when it came to life after death after all! Nor was any kind of supernatural reward or punishment involved. Mostly, it seems, the dead were just ephemeral ghosts who had to be buried with the proper rituals and appeased through regular feasts and commemorations so that they wouldn’t come back to haunt the living. As Bruce Carpenter remarked of Balinese ancestor worship, “It’s like having a representative in Congress,” describing the ongoing reciprocal relationship between families and their departed ancestors.

This seems to be almost universal in the large cultures we are familiar with. We see it all over the world. The concepts of Heaven or Paradise (along with Hell) came much, much later in history, and mostly in Western monotheistic cultures (the word Paradise comes from Persia and signifies a walled garden). You will find little of this cushy afterlife in say, for example, traditional Chinese or Japanese religions, much less in other more remote cultures.

[As an aside, I had this thought: Is it possible that cultures that buried their dead saw them as dwelling underneath the earth, whereas cultures who cremated their dead saw them as ascending up to heaven, which is what smoke does when bodies are cremated in the open air? The symbolism of smoke representing a release of the soul floating upwards has been used in some belief systems. This is worthy of exploration.]

Similarly, while it’s true that religious beliefs do often serve as a kind of cultural glue which binds societies together, it does not explain the proliferation of supernatural entities, from ancestral spirits to hungry ghosts to malevolent demons to guardian angels to tutelary deities, to capricious gods. Nor does it explain these diverse approaches to the afterlife, or why there should even be an afterlife at all! In fact, many religious beliefs and practices actually seem counterproductive. Often relatives go deeply into debt to perform funeral rites that look silly to outsiders, just so their dead relatives are sated and don’t curse them with bad luck. As the anthropologist Lionel Tiger remarked, “As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.”

Also recall that primitive religions pretty much never feature either Moralizing High Gods (MHG), not Broad Supernatural Punishment (BSP); two key features of doctrinal monotheistic religions. As we saw above, most invisible entities are potentially mischievous, petty, and cruel, and require constant appeasement. There is no greater existential “reason for existence” articulated by any of these religions. You live, and then you die, and that’s pretty much it; and the afterlife isn’t much better than this one—maybe even worse!

(Of course, some have proposed that the very wastefulness of religion is a form of honest signaling—”skin in the game,” as it were. If we have to contribute something costly to participate, and have something significant to lose, the thinking goes, we are less like to be a cheater or a free rider. Of course, this doesn’t explain the reasons for supernatural entities or an afterlife.)

Thus, neither the “religion as anodyne/opiate” nor the “religion as social glue/fraternity/shibboleth” ideas satisfy all the questions surrounding the origin of religious belief, especially the ones we are most interested in. Something else must be at work. But what?

[T]he religion-as-opiate theory fits best with the monotheistic religions most familiar to us. But what about those people (many of the religious people in the world) who do not believe in an all-wise and just God? Every society believes in spiritual beings, but they are often stupid or malevolent.

Many religions simply don’t deal with metaphysical or teleological questions; gods and ancestor spirits are called upon only to help cope with such mundane problems as how to prepare food and what to do with a corpse—not to elucidate the Meaning of It All.

As for the reassurance of heaven, justice, or salvation, again, it exists in some religions but by no means all. (In fact, even those religions we are most familiar with are not always reassuring. I know some older Christians who were made miserable as children by worries about eternal damnation; the prospect of oblivion would have been far preferable.)

So the opiate theory is ultimately an unsatisfying explanation for the existence of religion.

The major alternative theory is social: religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. Sometimes this argument is presented in cultural terms, and sometimes it is seen from an evolutionary perspective: survival of the fittest working at the level not of the gene or the individual but of the social group. In either case the claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not.

In this conception religion is a fraternity, and the analogy runs deep. Just as fraternities used to paddle freshmen on the rear end to instill loyalty and commitment, religions have painful initiation rites—for example, snipping off part of the penis.

Also, certain puzzling features of many religions, such as dietary restrictions and distinctive dress, make perfect sense once they are viewed as tools to ensure group solidarity. The fraternity theory also explains why religions are so harsh toward those who do not share the faith, reserving particular ire for apostates…

This theory explains almost everything about religion—except the religious part. It is clear that rituals and sacrifices can bring people together, and it may well be that a group that does such things has an advantage over one that does not. But it is not clear why a religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, divine creation of the universe, and so on brought in? The theory doesn’t explain what we are most interested in, which is belief in the supernatural.

Is God an Accident? (The Atlantic)

Hence the “accidental” (or side effect) theory of religion. As the Atlantic article states, “Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view—that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident…” : In the terminology of evolutionary biology, “religion is either a spandrel or an exaption.”

.. the term “spandrels” [is] a structure that merely follows from the existence of some other (evolved) structures, without itself being an adaptation. “Exaptation” refers to new roles played by evolutionarily old features that are adaptations in the strict sense of the term. Adaptations in this sense are features that are selected to perform their current function. [2]…Standard examples are the reptilian bones of the jaw that get adopted for the middle ear by mammals. Our ability to do mathematics is an exaption of various syntax-modules and modules that do trivial combinatories (“Are any of my babies missing?”). The ability to get embroiled in fictional worlds is an exaption of our ability to conduct thought-experiments as a part of forward planning. [3]

These “spandrels” and “exaptions” became co-opted by our brains to create religion. And, once that happened, religion, in turn, encouraged reciprocal altruism to evolve. In other words, we used religion—a by-product of our own cognitive evolutionary legacy—to bootstrap our way into becoming the unusually cooperative species we are today.

When one thinks of the many pages that have been written about religion uniting people into a moral community, it is not particularly surprising to learn that some anthropologists, biologists, and philosophers now claim that it is precisely religion that has helped reciprocal altruism to evolve. Ferren MacIntyre, for example, argues that religious affiliations have acted as a kind of “kinship surrogate” that helped our ancestors to develop cooperation among large groups of nonkin.

In the “standard model” of the cognitive science of religion, however, religion is instead a by-product based on “runaway” evolutionary processes extended beyond their initial domain. Evolution has built certain structures and mechanisms of mind that are adaptations to certain Pleistocene conditions; religion is made possible by these structures and mechanisms, although they did not originally develop for this purpose. [2]

Basically, according to this theory, the core characteristics of all religions boil down to two primary things:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain the ubiquitousness of belief in disembodied souls, or “spirits”, in whatever cultural form they happen to take. Even nineteenth-century rationalists made serious attempts to contact the dead (e.g. William James and Arthur Conan Doyle)

Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can…

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in [the] brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human…

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don’t feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

This duality is immediately apparent in our imaginative life. Because we see people as separate from their bodies, we easily understand situations in which people’s bodies are radically changed while their personhood stays intact. Kafka envisioned a man transformed into a gigantic insect; Homer described the plight of men transformed into pigs; in Shrek 2 an ogre is transformed into a human being, and a donkey into a steed; in Star Trek a scheming villain forcibly occupies Captain Kirk’s body so as to take command of the Enterprise; in The Tale of the Body Thief, Anne Rice tells of a vampire and a human being who agree to trade bodies for a day; and in 13 Going on 30 a teenager wakes up as thirty-year-old Jennifer Garner. We don’t think of these events as real, of course, but they are fully understandable; it makes intuitive sense to us that people can be separated from their bodies, and similar transformations show up in religions around the world. [4]

Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us intuitive animists and creationists.

In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures—circles, squares, triangles—moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell. Further research has found that bounded figures aren’t even necessary—one can get much the same effect in movies where the “characters” are not single objects but moving groups, such as swarms of tiny squares.

Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor. [4]

As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can’t help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven’t even a smidgeon of a neural system. In particular, when inanimate objects do unexpected things, we sometimes reason about them just as we do for oddly behaving—or misbehaving—people. More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers. Most of us stop short of actually believing these objects possess mental states—indeed, we would likely be hauled away to an asylum if we genuinely believed that they held malicious intent—but our emotions and behaviors toward such objects seem to betray our primitive, unconscious thinking: we act as though they’re morally culpable for their actions.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?…[5]

As we became smarter and our brains larger, we dragged along this “cognitive baggage” of our evolutionary past. It remains with us to this day, and forms the basis of many of the idiosyncratic beliefs we associate with religious belief, and superstition more broadly.

But there’s still a bit more to it than that. With the help of that BBC article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the “cognitive modules” that helped religious belief evolve. My understanding is that while each of these modules is important in the construction of religious thought, none of them by themselves is sufficient to account for religion. Rather, it is the intersection of all of them that gives rise to the uniquely human phenomenon we call “religion” (although ancient societies would have not made any such distinction between religion and other aspects of their social and cultural lives).

[1] “Death and the Afterlife – Biblical perspectives on ultimate questions,” by Paul R Williamson, p. 13

[2] Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas, by Iikka Pyysiainen, p. 31

[3] Thomas Forster Tries to Understand Julian Jaynes, p. 5 (PDF)

[4] Is God an Accident? The Atlantic, December 2005

[5] Are You There God? It’s Me, Brain. Slate Magazine, February 2011

House Conundrum

Another personal update.

I thought I’d start out with this little fun fact, since I write so much about ancient and medieval history here. I spoke with my dad’s cousin this week. Her husband went on Ancestry.com doing some genealogical research, and she suggested he look up her last name (which we share).

According to her, he found a family tree ending with my great-grandfather and extending back to—and I don’t know if I’ll believe this until I actually see it—805 AD!!!

So, apparently my family, the H***e family can trace its ancestry back to around the time when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope Leo (800 AD), and 40 years before the Vikings sacked Paris (845 AD). We apparently come from a line of counts—minor mobility. That in itself is interesting, since the European title count comes from the Roman title comes, meaning companion or delegate of the Roman emperor. Maybe I can convince some Alt-right types to make me their rightful ruler.

I also found some papers from my great-grandfather, Otto, on my mother’s side (mother’s father’s father). Not as exotic as finding out your distant relatives were counts during the Dark Ages, but I did find out he was born in 1878 in Altendorf, Prussia (seven years after Germany became a country). My German isn’t good enough to make out much more than that.

Pretty sure this is my grandfather (1908-1968). Not the count side of the family, but he does look the part in this photo!

Kinda makes the fact that I’m the very last H***e alive a bit more poignant, I guess. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

###

My current situation consists mainly of trying to unload my mother’s house. This is the house my grandparents built in 1941.

Brand new – 1941

The house has serious foundation problems. VERY serious, as in there are significant cracks (up to half an inch wide) on all four walls of the basement, plus significant bowing of up to an inch. My guess is that the original builders were just not very good, and simply backfilled with earth, without taking any sort of water-protection measures. The grading slope away form the house is nonexistent, meaning that drainage is poor, plus there are no eaves or rakes to give some distance between runoff and the foundation, as you can see. There are gutters, but lots can go wrong with gutters.


(As as side note, eaves and rakes exist for a reason!)

The frost line in Wisconsin is 4′-0″ below grade, so based on the cracks, I’m guessing the freeze/thaw cycle in the first four feet of earth simply pushed against the foundation for seventy-odd years, and this is the inevitable result.

Water damage in the basement.

I don’t know whether this was typical for building at the time. My neighbors mentioned that they have no problems with their house, which I can tell from old photographs must have been built at the same time. Was their house built better, or had some previous owner done the work?

There is also water in the basement. Without some sort of destructive examination method, I cannot verify the source, but I believe it is coming in from above, and not through the wall itself. It looks as if where the stoop meets the house, there is a gap allowing water in from above. Again, fixable but expensive.

It’s deferred maintenance. My mother was far too poor to do the type of maintenance needed on a house like this, as was my grandmother.

So, basically, it’s kind of a wreck. Not a tear-down, fortunately, but hardly a sound investment.

(As a side note, owning a house in a Siberian climate like Wisconsin is just a losing proposition. I know what moisture and freeze/thaw cycles do. It’s a never-ending cycle of repair costs that will never pencil out).

(As another aside, a crumbling foundation is a good metaphor for the county more generally these days.)

So, just another bad break in a life chock full of them, I guess 🙁

Sometime in the 1960’s

Which means I have a couple options. I can either sell it ‘as is,’ or invest the money to repair the foundations myself and hope-against-hope that I can find a buyer, however long that takes.

Last week, I had some gentlemen come out to look at the house. It was three young (very young, I’m guessing in their 20’s) Hispanic gentlemen who buy houses, renovate them, and sell them. I think they’re pretty local—one of them said he even grew up in the neighborhood.

I liked these guys. They were not some national firm; they were local. They were entrepreneurial in the good sense—making money by improving neighborhoods and making them a better place. This neighborhood is quite the hot neighborhood right now with Midwestern Hipster/Lumbersexual breeder-types for raising families.

They made an offer of $65,000. They obviously emphasized the fact that they would have to excavate and repair the foundation walls, which isn’t cheap. They said it was a fair offer, and I believe them. I don’t think anyone else in their line of work would offer more. In fact, I had another home buyer walk through a few weeks earlier and he never called me back (the fact that there was a dead mouse in the basement toilet probably didn’t help).

Mom and grandpa. 1950 or therabouts

I got a spit-ball estimate of basement repair. It would cost $35,000 just to repair the basement, which I would have to pay upfront, of course. And that’s just for starters. I would also have to remove a fir tree from alongside the house–another $1,000. Then there are minor issues, like damaged walls and cabinets from my mom’s chronic smoking habit; the lack of GFI outlets near the sinks; the old, ugly carpeting; outdated appliances, and so on and so on…

If all those repairs/upgrades were made, one realtor estimated I could get from $120,000-140,000 for it. I’m a little skeptical of those numbers, but I estimate perhaps $100,000-110,000 is more realistic. According to Zillow, the median home in Town of Lake is $143,500, with similar houses (albeit in better condition) selling for $150-180,000. The city evaluated the house as $149,000, which is far above what it’s worth.


If I chose to repair the house, I’m stuck paying a huge amount of costs upfront, with the hope that I will be able to sell it later, and who knows how long that will take? Who knows what the Market will be like? Selling a house is a long, painful, arduous process for anyone. I’d have to engage a realtor, and even the realtor I spoke to charges 3.99 percent (lower than the usual 6 percent, but still…).

Pro tip: don’t plant trees near the house or the underground sewer lines.

To add yet another minor wrinkle, the next-door neighbor asked if I would consider renting the place out. It turns out that they are putting their house up for sale next month (August). Apparently they are building a house (!!) and would need a place to stay in the meantime.

I suppose if I rented it out, I’d make some money on it. But the basement would still be crumbling. All the other problems would still be there, festering. I’d still have to pay all the costs, like insurance and utilities, and do maintenance. Of course, I would receive rent money to help cover that, but it’s still a lot of hassle. And I’d be stuck here in the meantime.

This whole thing has been going on almost two years now. I never thought it would still not be resolved this far after the fact. Personally, I’m ready just to be done with the whole business and move on with my life.

But what life?

###

I’m leaning towards accepting the offer of the home buyers. I’ve asked them to submit an offer in writing to my attorney for review.

There is still a $10,000 mortgage on the house, because as I explained in my last “personal” post, my uncle insisted on getting his share. He probably made more on the house back in 1993 than I will here in 2019, despite doing absolutely nothing. So it goes, I guess.

Back when children played outdoors.

So I have to pay that off. The major claim against the estate is my mother’s home equity loan (HELOC), which I’ve been paying out-of-pocket for the last year. That’s about $11,0000. Then there are the attorney fees, of course, and I have no idea how much that will be.

The other issue is that the probate proceedings were supposed to be wrapped up in August. I’m told by the attorney that we can file an extension to deal with that issue. But does it really benefit me for this to drag out even further?

###

Reader bleg: any advice here? What would you do if you were in my position?

###

As for my employment situation, I kind of fell into a job a few months ago. I thought I was finished, but the agency that had placed me with the architecture firm got me a few interviews. I explained to them what happened at the previous firm, and even the hiring fellow said, “Oh yeah, they can be kind of cliquey.” Um, yeah, now you tell me!

(As an aside, in my initial interview at unnamed architectural firm, my interviewer said that “We’re like a family here,” or words to that effect. My instinct told me–and I’m dead serious– to refuse the job on the spot right then and there and walk out of the interview. In hindsight, I should have listened to my instinct.)

Anyway, I got an interview at an MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) firm in Oak Creek. I thought, I might as well go, because I didn’t think I would actually get the job. I mean, I’m an architect, not a mechanical engineer. As I said in the interview, we architects only thing about two things when it comes to mechanical: make it fit within my ceiling plenum, and make sure there are dampers at all fire penetrations. But they insisted that they actually wanted someone with an architectural background to work for them.

Well, I got the job. I think it really is true—the less you care, the better you do in interviews.

This video embedded below should give you some idea of the gist of my work. The gory details aren’t important.

I’ve been working there since then. The experience could not be more different. I constantly hear about what a good job I’m doing, how everyone says I’ve helped them out tremendously, how they hope I don’t leave, etc.

(Which brings up yet another aside: how much one’s fortunes are based on sheer luck. I mean, I’m the same person I was before. I didn’t just gain 20 IQ points overnight. I didn’t gain any new capabilities. It’s simply the environment, and not anything you do. It’s just luck, regardless of what anyone wrapped up in their bullshit self-attribution fantasies suggests.)

So, anyway, despite my best efforts, I do have a job again. Of course, since I never do anything (besides write this blog), go anywhere, or buy anything, I sock away every penny because, as I have learned, those may be the last pennies I may ever earn under American-style Neoliberal capitalism. And after that you’re on your own.

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I’ve been wondering whether or not I have PTSD. I mean, I’ve never been in combat. I’ve never seen people killed in front of me. I’ve never had to pull the trigger on anyone. I don’t want to make light of those things. There are many people who have been asked to do those things, and their suffering should not be trivialized. And certainly, many people have had much worse breaks than me (I?).

But I still have nightmares. I have panic attacks. Yes, I occasionally still have suicidal thoughts. I think a lot about the fact that I am all alone—utterly, totally alone. It’s hard to go through the quotidian traumas and vicissitudes of life that way. It’s hard to have no safety net in country that thinks Socialism is a dirty word. But it’s not like I’m the only one in that situation, after all.

I don’t trust anyone. I don’t believe anyone, anymore. I’m constantly waiting for the hammer to fall, or the other shoe to drop, or whatever metaphor you want to use. I wish I could say I feel secure, but I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will.

Is it possible for an economic system to give one PTSD?

###

Anyway, at least I can pay the bills right now, and I guess that’s enough. But where do you go when you could go anywhere?

I admit to being delinquent with replying to all those who wrote to me last time. Since I’ve started working again, I’ve tended to devote my free time to writing new posts, and I have a bunch I’m currently working on. But, I assure you, I still have them all, and hope to get around to replying some day. Thanks!

Who would want to leave all this???

BONUS: Former homeless people, what did you need the most? What was the best thing someone did for you? (AskReddit)

Independence Day 2019

It’s a surreal experience to wake up on Independence Day to a country that is:

  1. Having a Soviet-style military parade, complete with tank procession, in the capital.
  2. Has concentration camps, complete with the aggressive and violent dehumanization of those interred, on the border.

That’s just before you get to all the other Soviet/Fascist-style facets of the modern-day Republic:

  1. Mass surveillance and incarceration of the citizenry (if prisons and jails were a state, they’d be larger than 15 different U.S. states).
  2. Multiple media organs that are outright, bald-faced agitprop (albeit co-existing alongside a nominally “free” press).
  3. Political brawling in the streets.
  4. Paramilitary groups threatening to kill police over a political conflict.
  5. “Cultural Marxism” as a mainstream political concept (taken seriously even by people who don’t typically consider themselves extremists).
  6. Nuremberg-style political rallies, complete with demonization of opponents and the non-allied press.
  7. The valorization of guard labor of all stripes (military, police, mercenaries, whatever) as unqualified “heroes” showered by unequivocal adulation.

I mean, I’m old enough to remember when those things didn’t exist in America. And I’m not that old!

The wholesale disintegration of the fabric of American society continues unabated. And every year I wonder the same thing: just how bad does it have to get? I saw a Twitter post that read “When you’re discussing what precisely constitutes a ‘concentration camp’, you’re already fucked.” Yep, well said.
It feels like creeping normality is inexorably sweeping us along to our ultimate destination: the inevitable sequel to World War Two that we have all been waiting for (something about humans tends to like sets of three). I’m afraid that this time, though, we (Americans) may actually turn out to be the baddies.

And no one can talk about it. If you do, “Godwin’s Law” is immediately invoked, along with a hefty dose of the customary “It Can’t Happen Here” mentality.

But the problem with the knee-jerk invocation Godwin’s so-called “Law”, though, is that it says that absolutely no comparisons can be made until the NASDAP literally reappears in our midst, complete with black-clad, jackbooted secret police, Totenkopf badges, extermination camps, and stiff-armed loyalty pledges.

Even in Germany that stuff didn’t happen overnight. Do things really have to get that bad??? The childish invocation of Godwin’s Law is as bad as the childish behavior the “law” is supposed to ridicule.

I mean, do we literally need to have extermination camps in our backyards before any valid historical comparisons can be made? From some people’s attitudes, it sure seems like it.

I’m afraid we may well see the end of Democracy in the United States in our lifetimes—in practice, though perhaps not in law. For example, in Wisconsin (I’m going for memory, so don’t quote me on this), but something like 54% percent of us vote for Democrats, yet Republicans maintain their majority in the state legislature. And thanks to gerrymandering, unless some almost impossible supermajority of the state votes for the opposition (something like 3/4 of the electorate), the Republicans will have essentially a permanent, iron-clad grip on Wisconsin’s state legislature, forever.

And the Supreme Court—which has been packed for years—just declared that such election-fixing is perfectly legal (or at least nothing can be done about it).

…when the Senate confirmed Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it was a watershed moment in American history. For the first time, a president who lost the popular vote had a supreme court nominee confirmed by senators who received fewer votes – nearly 22 million fewer – than the senators that voted against him. And by now, it will not surprise you to discover that the senators who voted for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh represent 38 million fewer people than the ones who voted no.

With the supreme court in hand, all those other tactics – partisan gerrymandering, voter ID and the rest – are protected from the only institution that could really threaten them. But it doesn’t stop there. The supreme court can be used to do more than approve the minority rule laws that come before it. It can further the project on its own.

Rigging the vote: how the American right is on the way to permanent minority rule (The Guardian)

Then there’s the issue of disenfranchisement due to the majority of Americans living in urban areas, something America’s outdated and antiquated electoral system is not designed to accommodate (each Wyoming voter has 66 times the electoral power of a California voter in the Senate). As Brad DeLong pointed out:

  • 180.8 million people are represented by the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats.
  • 141.7 million people are represented by the 52 51 senators who caucus with the Republicans.
  • 65.9 million people voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tim Kaine to be their president and vice president
  • 63.0 million people voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence to be their president and vice president.

https://www.bradford-delong.com/2018/10/remind-yourself-representation.html

Of course, roughly half of Americans (sometimes over half) don’t vote at all, forming the largest voting bloc in America (the resigned apathy party).

And that’s before all the other things: the “policing” of voting places by right-wing paramilitary thugs, the understaffing of urban polling places, etc. The voter ID law passed here in Wisconsin which was expressly designed (according to its proponents) to suppress voter turnout among minorities and college-educated young people (who move around a lot). North Dakota has a similar law (which disproportionately disenfranchises Native Americans).

And then there’s the electoral college. This article does a good job of explaining why it has no real reason to exist. Two of the last three presidents have lost the popular vote.

And there are proposals are on the table to restrict voting access even further. It’s a formula permanent minority rule. And that’s scary. When the people can’t express their popular will through the ballot box, what do you do?

And this is allegedly a “democracy?”

And we all feel so impotent and helpless because nothing ever changes. When was the last time a problem got solved in America???

Anyway, no sweeping conclusion; these are just rambling thoughts this Fourth of July holiday. I wish I had solutions, but the only hope I have for humanity right now comes from looking at what people are doing in places outside the borders of this benighted country.

Aztec Society, Historical Myths, and Understanding Collapse

Still working on that religion post and some others, but in the meantime, I’ve wanted to post this interview that I ran across on the BBC’s Civilizations podcast for years now. This particular episode concentrates on civilizational collapse, which is obviously of interest to me and, I suspect, to readers of the blog (if they exist LoL).

The first half of the podcast, however, is an interview with an expert on Mesoamerican civilization, Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, who dispels a lot of the common myths about that culture. Some of this information will be relevant soon, when we talk about the economics of New World empires (hopefully coming soon?). But for now, read and learn (lightly edited for clarity):

On the Aztec practice of human sacrifice:

“Human sacrifice is what everybody knows about the Aztecs. And they certainly do practice human sacrifice on an extraordinarily large scale. What we do know is that this is actually a very sophisticated, very compassionate, very cultured civilization where death is not held cheap…

Sacrifice for them is a religious act, and they believe that if they don’t sacrifice people, then the world will come to an end. It’s part of a reciprocal relationship with the gods, where the gods nourish and nurture them, and they have to feed the gods with blood to keep the world turning, essentially. And they believe that if you die as a sacrifice, then you will go to a sort of privileged afterlife; it’s almost like a martyrdom. And so it’s a way of attaining privilege in the afterlife in a culture that doesn’t believe you get a very nice here-and-now, as it were.”

“And so they construct this very complex belief system in which sacrifice becomes something that is supposed to be a privilege. Something which to me is very vital in understanding Aztec culture is the fact that they have a universal education system. Both men and women are educated institutionally; where both learn at home from their families about day-to-day jobs like fishing and weaving and so on. And young men go into schools to learn to be priests and warriors. There is a third school which doesn’t get talked about—the cuicacalli—the ‘House of Song’. As teenagers, young men and young women go separately to this place to learn the history, mythology, and religion of their culture.”

“Now, you might call that indoctrination. But it’s really, really important for understanding why Aztec culture can commit human sacrifice without being dehumanized by it to know that every person witnessing it, or participating in it, understood why it was happening. This isn’t like Catholic Europe at the time where all the ceremonies are happening in Latin, and some people understand what’s going on, and other people have quite a vague grasp of the essentials. It is absolutely educated, informed knowledge of what the rituals are meant to represent. And it’s really vital to know that that is happening, because if everybody knows that all these people [who] are being sacrificed are supposedly going to a better place, and it’s essential [so] that the world [doesn’t come] to an end, it becomes possible to see how they might go along with it for reasons other than just kind of cheering at brutality.”

“They train priests in a way that suggests that they don’t think killing people will be very easy, so they go to lengths to separate them from their families; to train them in a very vigorous way much like you would if you were going into the army, maybe, to desensitize the people who were actually going to do the sacrifices. And they don’t have an awful lot of interpersonal violence in their culture. This isn’t a very savage culture as people suggest. Sacrificial violence is certainly normalized, but not day-to-day violence. That’s the thing. Just because people commit human sacrifice, that doesn’t mean they think it’s acceptable to stab their neighbors.”

On the Aztecs being a very ancient culture:

“People think they’re a very ancient culture sitting alongside people like the Egyptians or the Romans in people’s minds. But actually they’re contemporary with things like Henry VIII. They only are conquered in 1521–very, very recently. And actually, they have an extremely developed legal code. Lots and lots of strong rules. Perhaps even stronger, for some things, than in Europe at this time. They do have capital punishment. They have very developed systems of retributive justice, as well as restorative justice. So that means you punish people, but also you have compensation for things. So it’s actually a very complicated culture, and also a very, very recent one, and I think that’s something people forget.”

On whether the Aztec Empire was a brutal dictatorship:

“The Aztecs do have quite strong hierarchies, but they also have a reasonable amount of social mobility.”

“It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the ruler an ‘emperor’ because there’s some debate about whether it’s even an empire at all. The real name of the ruler is the Tlatoani—a speaker, ‘he who speaks’, which tells you something about the culture. It’s important that he’s the representative for the society and for the gods. And he is at the head of  a society which has quite a lot of checks and balances. They think it’s really, really important that you be competent in your job. And they have this balance of birth and competence as a way of organizing everything.”

“So, for example, to become the Tlatoani, it’s not the first-born son that gets to do the job. You are elected. We don’t know exactly how—probably nominated from amongst the high nobles. But they pick the person they think will do the best job. So, often it’s a  brother or a younger son of the previous Tlatoani; it’s not always the eldest son—in fact it isn’t usually. You have to be related to the previous Tlatoani, but being the eldest son doesn’t help you at all.”

“And you see these sorts of patterns go all the way down through the society. So they have two levels of nobility: Teuctli, who we usually call ‘lords’; that’s the high nobility. And then the Pilli, who we usually call the ‘nobles’—that’s kind of the low nobility. And you can’t be born a Teuctli – a high lord. You can only be born Pilli. To become Teuctli, you have to attain that through your own achievements. It’s jobs like being the head of the priesthood, or the head of the warriors, or having  senior warrior role. Things like this make you a Teuctli, but you can’t be born that.”

“And people who are born commoners—mācēhualtin—they can become Pilli—nobles–through their achievements, often through being particularly clever, particularly successful in the schools and  in the administration, often through warfare—that’s the most common way—to be a really good warrior. And then occasionally you have stories, for example, of a Tlatoani, a ruler, making someone into a noble just because they’re impressed with them. There’s a famous case of a ruler making a gardener into a noble because he’s so impressed with his honesty. Things like that.”

On social advancement compared to contemporaneous Europe

“One of the things I find most interesting about Aztec culture is that we make assumptions about how savage and ancient it is. And actually in some ways it’s far, far more modern than contemporaneous European civilizations. They have greater social mobility. They have a sort of social care system. They have collective grain storehouses. When you get married, if you’re rich you give capes—that’s the equivalent of currency—you give capes into the collective storehouses, and if you’re poor, you take capes out—you’re given some. So there’s a collective redistribution of wealth to make sure that nobody is too poor to set up their own household.”

“I’m not saying that this is a kind of idealized civilization, but it’s actually a lot better in some ways, I think—for women in particular, maybe—than some contemporaneous European civilizations. You’re allowed to enjoy sex if you’re a woman in this culture. Sex outside of marriage isn’t taboo. You can’t beat your wife. Men and women inherit property equally. Things like this.”

On the role and status of women in such a warlike society

“The fact that warfare is the principal focus of this civilization in many contexts certainly means that there are areas of life from which women are excluded. So they can’t attain high political office, because the high political offices are synonymous with high warrior offices and high priest offices, and they can’t do either of those things. On the other hand, we know that women were also scribes; they were  painters; they were the people who kept the records, which is a hugely skilled job. They must have been very, very important.”

“Childbirth is so interesting because it’s seen as the equivalent of warfare for women. They talk about having children as ‘capturing’ a baby; that the woman had borne the ‘small shield’; that she has returned ‘victorious from battle’–all these kinds of words. And they are honored as parents of warriors.”

“Warfare and childbirth are seen as equivalent fates for men and women. You can see that if you look at what happens in the afterlife. After you die, as a sacrificial victim or in battle, the man would spend four years accompanying the sun; carrying the sun god to its zenith at midday. What they then do, is hand the sun at midday, it’s believed, over [into] the hands of the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth, and they carry the sun to its setting. So you can see this parallel being drawn very clearly between the souls of men who’ve died in sacrifice and in battle, and the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth. It brings equal honor in the afterlife.”

On comparisons to European (Christian) Monotheism

“One of the real problems we have as historians of the Aztec world is that all our sources, except the archaeology, are from after the conquest…so everything we’re reading is reliant on the viewpoint of colonial Spanish men, usually friars. And they don’t want to see a similarity between Aztec religion and Christianity.”

“But, of course, both of them are based around this idea of blood sacrifice. There is, at the heart of Christianity, a sacrifice of blood…if you were a thousand years in the future, and Christianity had died out, and people were just looking at the texts of Christianity, wouldn’t you think maybe they were actual cannibals? Because you talk all the time about eating the body and blood of Christ. How would you read them if you simply took them cold with no contextual information? And so there’s actually a fascinating parallel–this focus on blood as a mythical, a religious, a spiritual totem, is something which is at the heart of Christianity as well as at the heart of Aztec culture.”

“Of course, the Europeans use concepts of their own to try and make this culture comprehensible to them. And it’s not that they see no cultural similarities, or things to admire. They very much admire how devout [the Aztecs] are. A lot of missionaries early on say, ‘obviously they’ve been very misguided in their religion, but they’re such devout people. If only we could bring them to the knowledge of the true God, they would be the most Christian Christians in the world.’ They hate the human sacrifice, but they actually don’t have any trouble understanding that this is from a religious point of view. Don’t forget, this is a society in which violence for religion is very, very familiar. This is a society where—if you think of early modern Spain—where it is very normal that people are being burned alive for being heretics, or crushed between stones, or stoned to death. It’s not unusual…”

And then the interviewer talks to Dr. Guy Middleton, an archaeological “collapsologist” about the realities of civilizational collapse as opposed to the sensationalized Hollywood movies and documentaries:

Guy Middleton (guest): “You wouldn’t find in the archaeological literature that kind of very sudden, very dramatic picture being drawn. You’d find a lot more cautious, a lot more nuanced positions being put forward.”

Viv Jones (host): “There’s a common story about how the Maya civilization collapsed, which you may have come across in articles and documentaries. The story goes, that a period of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands. The Maya were powerless to prevent their own demise as food and water run out. Eventually the jungle reclaimed their palaces and pyramids. But…”

GM: “The megadrought story is very much a modern myth. Even if we accept that there were droughts—and undoubtedly there were; we know there were droughts there in historical times—the Maya area itself was very big and made up of very many—tens or hundreds of independent little states and big states. I think the idea that one massive megadrought killed off all the Maya and caused the collapse of their societies is wrong.”

VJ: “We do know that in the ninth century, many cities in the region were abandoned. What’s unclear is what happened to the people who were living there.”

GM: That’s the million-dollar question. Talking about one Maya collapse is a bit misleading. What we call the collapse of the classic Maya is really a process that takes 200-300 years to play out. And it plays out differently in different regions. So, sites in the north collapse around 1000 or 1050 AD; sites in the south are collapsing in the late 700’s AD. So you’ve got different trajectories, in different cities, in different areas. I think you get a decline in birthrate that happens over this 200-300 year period. So there’s not a certain depopulation. Some sites are abandoned–that’s absolutely right. But you get new cities coming up. It’s different across the whole Maya region.

VJ: So the Maya civilization didn’t suffer one collapse. It’s likely that different kingdoms met very different ends. Along with droughts, there was also a lot of warfare between different Maya kingdoms, and that caused populations to fall, and some cities to be abandoned. This period of sharp decline ended 900 years ago. Very few Maya settlements remained, but some were still thriving when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

GM: “What really did for it, for traditional Maya society, was the Spanish. It’s something like a barbarian invasion. What I find particularly interesting is that you’ve got the very last independent Maya kingdom,–which was a kingdom called Nojpetén–that was only destroyed by the Spanish in 1697. And that’s really close to us in time. And it’s about 900 years after people place the Maya collapse. So they don’t disappear en masse, and they still have a complex culture which the Spanish encountered.”

“But when the Spanish come in, they behave particularly appallingly. For example, they take the children of the nobility to build schools for them and to basically brainwash them into a Catholic culture, and to reject their own culture. So there was a very deliberate process of cultural destruction performed by the Spanish on the Maya.”

VJ: So how did we end up with this popular idea in books, documentaries, and articles of a massive, apocalyptic Maya collapse brought on by drought?

GM: I think we’ve kind of got an inbuilt draw to these dramatic, sweeping stories. And I think you can go back to Biblical images, which are still very much a part of our society. We’ve got these images of disasters–God destroying cities. And then we’ve got the rise of Hollywood, and disaster films, and it’s quite exciting and dramatic and appealing, in that sense, to what we like from a story…

And Dr. Guy Middleton’s conclusion:

Like people say, you get the history you deserve at a particular point in time. You also get the collapse stories that you deserve at a particular point in time. People have looked at the modern situation and the environmental problems that we face now. We know that we have done terrible things to the environment. We can look at plastic pollution now, but also agricultural industry, and monocultural agriculture, and climate change. And we can look back and say we’ve got bits of evidence that suggest the same things might have been happening. And it’s dubious, in a sense, because the situations of ancient societies are so much different, and we’ve been much, much more destructive than any ancient society.

So I think, in a way, to blame collapse on things like climate change—the evidence doesn’t usually support climate change as a single cause of any collapse. If we do it, we’re kind of stealing people’s histories, and some environmental writers and other people try to use examples of ancient collapse—especially the Maya, and especially the Easter Islanders—as kind of moral tales on how we ought to treat our environment. And the fate of those societies is a fate that we can predict for ourselves if we continue in our immoral, environmentally destructive behavior. But I think that’s not doing history, that’s stealing people’s history–stealing people’s stories for our modern-day Western consumption.

And that’s one of the reasons collapse is so interesting. Because you go back and look at what a society was, and look closely at how it changed and who it changed for in different ways. Our upcoming global collapse will be different in scale, and perhaps number of deaths…

Episode 6: How Civilisations Collapse and Understanding the Aztecs (The Civlizations Podcast, BBC Radio)