The Origin of Religion – Part 3

[Blogger note: I have apparently lost my USB drive, which contained all of my subsequent blog posts, thus, I’ll have to cut this short. I’ll try and finish this up using my recollection and some snippets lift on my hard drive]

In addition to what we spoke of before, there are several other “alternative” psychological ideas behind the origin and development of religion that the BBC article does not mention. Nonetheless, I feel these ideas are too important to be left out of the discussion. What follows is my summary below.

Terror Management Theory

Terror Management Theory (TMT) stems from a book written by psychotherapist Ernest Becker in 1973 called The Denial of Death. In it, he asserted that we invest in what are, in essence, “immortality projects” in order to stave off the subconscious fear of our own inevitable demise.This tendency is not exclusive to religions, but is also applicable to all sorts of other secular philosophies and behaviors.

The introduction to Becker’s book online provides a good summary:

Becker’s philosophy as it emerges in Denial of Death and Escape from Evil is a braid woven from four strands.

The first strand. The world is terrifying…Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates. We live, he says, in a creation in which the routine activity for organisms is “tearing others apart with teeth of all types — biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue.”

The second strand. The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. Human beings are naturally anxious because we are ultimately helpless and abandoned in a world where we are fated to die. “This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression — and with all this yet to die.”

The third strand. Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. “The vital lie of character” is the first line of defense that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness. Every child borrows power from adults and creates a personality by introjecting the qualities of the godlike being. If I am like my all-powerful father I will not die. So long as we stay obediently within the defense mechanisms of our personality…we feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high. We repress our bodies to purchase a soul that time cannot destroy; we sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality; we encapsulate ourselves to avoid death. And life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.

Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.

Here’s Becker himself:

…of course, religion solves the problem of death, which no living individuals can solve, no matter how they would support us. Religion, then, gives the possibility of heroic victory in freedom and solves the problem of human dignity at its highest level. The two ontological motives of the human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one’s whole existence to some higher meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality.

Finally, religion alone gives hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable, the fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach, the possibility of a multidimensionality of spheres of existence, of heavens and possible embodiments that make a mockery of earthly logic — and in doing so, it relieves the absurdity of earthly life, all the impossible limitations and frustrations of living matter. In religious terms, to “see God” is to die, because the creature is too small and finite to be able to bear the higher meanings of creation. Religion takes one’s very creatureliness, one’s insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope. Full transcendence of the human condition means limitless possibility unimaginable to us. [1]

Becker’s ideas are thoroughly grounded in the Freudian school, and Freud’s essential insight was that human actions, beliefs, desires and intentions are often motivated by hidden, subconscious forces which we are not fully aware of. In this case, the subconscious fear of death motivates us to embrace belief systems that allow us to symbolically transcend our own mortality.

One common trope I often hear about religion is that we simply came up with a bunch of fairy tales to cope with our existential fear of death, and that this explains religion.

But, as we’ve already seen, this is far from adequate in explaining the persistence and diversity of religious beliefs. As we saw, most ancient religions did not believe in a comfortable, cushy afterlife, and the tales of wandering spirits of the dead requiring constant appeasement do not provide much reassurance about what comes after death. If we just wanted to reassure ourselves in the face of our mortality, why didn’t we invent the “happy ending,” country-club afterlife straightaway? Why did such beliefs have to wait until after the Axial Age to emerge? And what about religions that believed in metempsychosis (transference of consciousness to a new body, i.e. reincarnation), rather than a comfortable afterlife?

Plus, this does not explain our beliefs in ghosts, spirits, and other invisible beings. Nor does it explain the extreme wastefulness and costliness of religion. The book itself says little about the origin and development of actual religion, and where it does, it deals exclusively with Western Judeo-Christian religions (the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard is especially cited).

Nevertheless, Terror Management Theory’s ideas have been empirically shown to have an effect on our belief systems and behavior. When knowledge of one’s own death has been subconsciously induced in test subjects (a technique called “priming”), people have been shown to be more clannish, more hostile to outsiders, more harsh to deviants, more likely to accept and dole out harsh punishments, and so forth (in short, more conservative). And, certainly the motivations for many strange behaviors—from the lust for power, to obsessive work and entrepreneurship, to desperate attempts to achieve lasting fame and stardom, to trying to create a “godlike” artificial intelligence, to beliefs about “uploading” one’s personal consciousness into computers, to scientific attempts to genetically “cure” aging and disease—can be seen as immortality projects motivated by a subconscious fear of death.

I would argue that a case can be made that the reason almost every culture known to man has believed that some sort of “life essence” survives the body after death stems from an existential fear of death similar to what Becker described. But the reason it took the forms that it did has more to do with some of the things we looked at last time–Theory of Mind, Hyperactive Agency Detection, the Intentional Stance, and so forth.

The noted anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski wrote an essay on the purpose of religion which in many ways echoes the ideas of Becker:

…in not a single one of its manifestations can religion be found without its firm roots in human emotion, which…grows out of desires and vicissitudes connected with life. Two affirmations, therefore, preside over every ritual act, every rule of conduct, and every belief. There is the affirmation of the existence of powers sympathetic to man, ready to help him on condition that he conforms to the traditional lore which teaches how to serve them, conjure them, and propitiate them. This is the belief in Providence, and this belief assists man in so far as it enhances his capacity to act and his readiness to organize for action, under conditions where he must face and with not only the ordinary forces of nature, but also chance, ill luck, and the mysterious, even inculculable designs of destiny.

The second belief is that beyond the brief span of natural life there is compensation in another existence. Through this belief man can act and calculate far beyond his own forces and limitations, looking forward to his work being continued by his successors in the conviction that, from the next world, he will still be able to watch and assist them. The sufferings and efforts, the injustices and inequalities of this life are thus made up for. Here again we find that the spiritual force of this belief not only integrated man’s own personality, but is indispensable for the cohesion of the social fabric. Especially in the form which this belief assumes in ancestor-worship and the communion with the dead do we perceive its moral and social influence.

In their deepest foundations, as well as in their final consequences, the two beliefs in Providence and Immortality are not independent of one another. In the higher religions man lives in order to be united to God. In simpler forms, the ancestors worshiped are often mystically identified with environmental forces, as in Totemism. At times, they are both ancestors and carriers of fertility, as the Kachina of the Pueblos. Or again the ancestor is worshiped as the divinity, or at last as a culture hero.

The unity of religion in substance, form and function is to be found everywhere. Religious development consists probably in the growing predominance of the ethical principle and in the increasing fusion of the two main factors of all belief, the sense of Providence and the faith in Immortality.

As we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we look for different things from our religions. Due to the “vicissitudes of life” ancient peoples often sought after more basic things related to material security: adequate rainfall, bountiful harvests, growing herds, protection form diseases, protection from raids, and so forth. They consulted spirits for decisions—whom to marry, when to go to war, how to bring back the rains, and so on. Today, with most of us living in societies where our basic material needs are met, we look for things like fulfillment, purpose, belonging and meaning using the same religious framework.

Religion as a Memeplex

The idea of memetics was first proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins made an explicit analogy between biological information (genes) which differentially reproduce and propagate themselves through time by using living organisms, and cultural information (memes), which live in human minds and reproduce via cultural imitation. A collection of related and reinforcing memes is called a memeplex (from the term, “coadapted meme complex”).

The underlying mechanisms behind genes (instructions for making proteins, stored in the cells of the body and passed on in reproduction), and memes (instructions for carrying out behavior, stored in brains, and passed on via imitation) were both very similar, Dawkins thought, and the ideas underlying Darwinism could apply to both. This is sometimes referred to as “Universal Darwinism”:

The creator of the concept and its denomination as a “meme” was Richard Dawkins. Other authors such as Edward O. Wilson and J. D. Lumsden previously proposed the concept of culturgen in order to designate something similar. At the present time the term of Dawkins has been imposed, although the theory of memes now includes contributions from many other authors. Therefore, talking of memes today is not simply the theories of memes of Dawkins.

Daniel Dennett, Memes and Religion: Reasons for the Historical Persistence of Religion. Guillermo Armengol (PDF)

The behavior of both memes and genes are based around three principle factors: variation, competition (or selection), and retention (or persistence):

For something to count as a replicator it must sustain the evolutionary algorithm based on variation, selection and retention (or heredity).

Memes certainly come with variation–stories are rarely told exactly the same way twice, no two buildings are absolutely identical, and every conversation is unique—and when memes are passed on, the copying is not always perfect….There is memetic selection – some memes grab the attention, are faithfully remembered and passed on to other people, while others fail to get copied at all. Then, when memes are passed on there is retention of some of the ideas of behaviours in that meme – something of the original meme must be retained for us to call it imitation or copying or learning by example. The meme therefore fits perfectly into Dawkins’ idea of a replicator and Dennett’s universal algorithm…

Where do new memes come from? They come about through variation and combination of old ones – either inside one person’s mind, or when memes are passed from person to person…The human mind is a rich source of variation. In our thinking we mix up ideas and turn them over to produce new combinations…Human creativity is a process of variation and recombination. [2]

Memetics is more of a theory about the evolution of religions that about their origins. Why do some ideas catch on while others die out? How and why do religions change over time? Memetics can provide an explanation.

One of my favorite definitions of “culture” is given by David Deutsch in his book The Beginnings of Infinity:

A culture is a set of ideas that cause their holders to behave alike in some ways. By ‘ideas’ I mean any information that can be stored in people’s brains and can affect their behavior. Thus the shared values of a nation, the ability to communicate in a particular language, the shared knowledge of an academic discipline and the appreciation of a given musical style are all, in this sense, ‘sets of ideas’ that define cultures…

The world’s major cultures – including nations, languages, philosophical and artistic movements, social traditions and religions – have been created incrementally over hundreds or even thousands of years. Most of the ideas that define them, including the inexplicit ones, have a long history of being passed from one person to another. That makes these ideas memes – ideas that are replicators. [3]

We see by this definition that it is difficult to distinguish religion from any other form of culture—they all cause their adopters to behave alike in certain ways, and adopt similar ideas. This has caused some scholars to question whether we can even define such a thing as “religion” apart from every other type of social behavior, or whether it’s simply an academic invention:

[Jonathan Zittell] Smith wanted to dislodge the assumption that the phenomenon of religion needs no definition. He showed that things appearing to us as religious says less about the ideas and practices themselves than it does about the framing concepts that we bring to their interpretation. Far from a universal phenomenon with a distinctive essence, the category of ‘religion’ emerges only through second-order acts of classification and comparison…

A vast number of traditions have existed over time that one could conceivably categorise as religions. But in order to decide one way or the other, an observer first has to formulate a definition according to which some traditions can be included and others excluded. As Smith wrote in the introduction to Imagining Religion: ‘while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterised in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious – there is no data for religion’. There might be evidence for various expressions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so forth. But these become ‘religions’ only through second-order, scholarly reflection. A scholar’s definition could even lead her to categorise some things as religions that are not conventionally thought of as such (Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance), while excluding others that are (certain strains of Buddhism).

Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention? (Aeon)

It used to be thought that ideas were passed down through the generations simply because they were beneficial to us as a species. But memetic theory challenges that. One important concept from memetics is that the memes that replicate most faithfully and most often are not necessarily beneficial—they are simply the ones most able to replicate themselves. For this reason, religion has often been called a “virus of the mind” by people attempting to apply the ideas of memetics to religion.

If a gene is in a genome at all, then, when suitable circumstances arise, it will definitely be expressed as an enzyme…and it will cause its characteristic effects. Nor can it be left behind if the rest of the genome is successfully replicated. But merely being present in the mind does not automatically get a meme expressed as behaviour: the meme has to compete for that privilege with other ideas – memes and non-memes, about all sorts of subjects – in the same mind. And merely being expressed as behavior does not automatically get the meme copied into a recipeient along with other memes: it has to compete for the reipients’ attention and acceptance with all sorts of behaviours by other people, and with the recipients’ own ideas. All that is in addition to the analogue of the type of selection that genes face, each meme competing with rival versions of itself across the population, perhaps by containing the knowledge for some useful function.

Memes are subject to all sorts of random and intentional variation in addition to all that selection, and so they evolve. So to this extent the same the same logic holds as for genes: memes are ‘selfish’. They do not necessarily evolve to benefit their holder, or their society – or, again, even themselves, except in the sense of replicating better than other memes. (Though now most other memes are their rivals, not just variants of themselves.) The successful meme variant is the one that changes the behaviour of its holders in such a way as to make itself best at displacing other memes from the population. This variant may well benefit its holders, or their culture, or the species as a whole. But if it harms them, it will spread anyway. Memes that harm society are a familiar phenomenon. You need only consider the harm done by adherents of political views, or religions, that you especially abhor. Societies have been destroyed because some of the memes that were best at spreading through the population were bad for a society. [4]

In this formulation, religions are seen as actually harmful, simply “using” us to replicate themselves for their own benefit, and to our own detriment, just like a virus. This is the stance taken by, for example, Dawkins and Dennett—both strident atheists. For them, it would be best if we could “disinfect” our minds and free ourselves from these pesky thought viruses.

Dawkins coined the term ‘viruses of the mind’ to apply to such memeplexes as religions and cults – which spread themselves through vast populations of people by using all kinds of clever copying tricks, and can have disastrous consequences for those infected…This theme has been taken up in popular books on memetics, such as Richard Brodie’s Viruses of the Mind and Aaron Lynch’s Thought Contagion, both of which provide many examples of how memes spread through society and both of which emphasize the more dangerous and pernicious kinds of memes. We can now see that the idea of a virus is applicable in all three worlds – of biology, of computer programs and of human minds. The reason is that all three systems involve replicators and we call particularly useless and self-serving replicators ‘viruses.’ [5]

Nevertheless, such “idea viruses” cannot inflict too much damage on their recipients, otherwise they will undermine their own viability:

The overarching selection pressure on memes is towards being faithfully replicated, But, within that, there is also pressure to do as little damage to the holder’s mind as possible, because that mind is what the human uses to be long-lived enough to be able to enact the meme’s behaviors as much as possible. This pushes memes in the direction of causing a finely tuned compulsion in the holder’s mind: ideally, this would be just the inability to refrain from enacting that particular meme (or memeplex). Thus, for example, long-lived religions typically cause fear of specific supernatural entities, but they do not cause general fearfulness or gullibility, because that would both harm the holders in general and make them more susceptible to rival memes. So the evolutionary pressure is for the psychological damage to be confined to a relatively narrow area of the recipients’ thinking, but to be deeply entrenched, so that the recipients find themselves facing a large emotional cost if they subsequently consider deviating from the meme’s prescribed behaviors. [6]

Blackmore herself, however, has retreated from this notion, citing all the apparently beneficial effects from adherence to various religions: more children, longer lifespans, a more positive outlook, and so on:

Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal “yes” until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong.

The idea is that religions, like viruses, are costly to those infected with them. They demand large amounts of money and time, impose health risks and make people believe things that are demonstrably false or contradictory. Like viruses, they contain instructions to “copy me”, and they succeed by using threats, promises and nasty meme tricks that not only make people accept them but also want to pass them on.

This was all in my mind when Michael Blume got up to speak on “The reproductive advantage of religion”. With graph after convincing graph he showed that all over the world and in many different ages, religious people have had far more children than nonreligious people…

All this suggests that religious memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human genes, but could they still be viral from our individual or societal point of view? Apparently not, given data suggesting that religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists. And at the conference, Ryan McKay presented experimental data showing that religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a “supernatural watcher” increase the effects.

So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as “viruses of the mind” may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase “bacterium of the mind” or “symbiont of the mind” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind (The Guardian)

I think memetics is a good way to describe cultural transmission, and I wish that it was used much more freely by sociologists, historians, anthropologists, economists, and other students of human behavior. Memes are a good way to describe how religions are transmitted, and why some religious ideas predominate over others. They provide a good description of how religious ideas evolve over time. But it does not provide much information about how and why religions got started in the first place.

Bicameral Mind Theory

Bicameral Mind Theory (BMT) was proposed by psychologist Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (coincidentally, the same year as Dawkins and only three years after Becker).

Jaynes argued that what ancient peoples referred to as the “gods” were, in reality, aural hallucinations produced by their own mind. Such hallucinations stemmed from the partitioning of the human brain into two separate hemispheres (bicameral). Spoken language was produced primarily by the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere was mostly silent. Jaynes noted from research on split-brain patients that if portions of the right hemisphere were electrically stimulated, subjects would tend to hallucinate voices.

This caused him to hypothesize that the thought patterns of ancient man were radically different than our own. In times of stress caused by decision-making, he argued, internal speech was perceived as something “alien” that was guiding and directing one’s actions from somewhere outside oneself.

One of his major pieces of evidence was a thorough study of ancient literature. Jaynes noted that ancient literature lacked a conception of the “self” or anything like a “soul” in living beings. Self-reflective and contemplative behavior simply did not exist. In addition, the gods are described as controlling people’s actions, and people frequently communicate directly with the gods. Most scholars simply took this communication as some sort of elaborate metaphor, but Jaynes was willing to take these descriptions seriously. Such depictions are very common in the Old Testament, for example. And he notes that in the Iliad—the oldest work of Western literature compiled from earlier oral traditions—the characters seem to have no volition whatsoever; they are merely “puppets” of the gods:

The gods are what we now call hallucinations. Usually they are only seen and heard by particular heroes they are speaking to. Sometimes they come in mists or out of the gray sea or a river, or from the sky, suggesting visual auras preceding them. But at other times, they simply occur. Usually they come as themselves, commonly as mere voices, but sometimes as other people closely related to the hero. [7]

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like…In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness. The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods. To another, a man seems to be the cause of his own behavior. But not to the man himself… [8]

In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind. Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then ‘told’ to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure of ‘god’, or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not ‘see’ what to do by himself…[9]

The preposterous hypothesis we have come to…is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious…[10]

The gods would reveal themselves to people in times of stress. We saw earlier that stress—even in modern people—often causes an eerie sense of a “felt presence” nearby:

If we are correct in assuming that schizophrenic hallucinations are similar to the guidances of gods in antiquity, then there should be some common physiological instigation in both instances. This, I suggest, is simply stress.

In normal people, as we have mentioned, the stress threshold for release is extremely high; most of us need to be over our heads in trouble before we would hear voices. But in psychosis-prone persons, the threshold is somewhat lower…This is caused, I think, by the buildup in the blood of breakdown products of stress-produced adrenalin which the individual is, for genetic reasons, unable to pass through the kidneys as fast as a normal person.

During the eras of the bicameral mind, we may suppose that the stress threshold for hallucinations was much, much lower than in either normal people or schizophrenics today. The only stress necessary was that which occurs when a change in behavior is necessary because of some novelty in a situation. Anything that could not be dealt with on the basis of habit, any conflict between work and fatigue, between attack and flight, any choice between whom to obey or what to do, anything that required any decision at all was sufficient to cause an auditory hallucination. [11]

Jaynes’ other line of evidence was physiological, and came from the structure of the human brain itself:

The evidence to support this hypothesis may be brought together as five observations: (1) that both hemispheres are able to understand language, while normally only the left can speak; (2) that there is some vestigial functioning of the right Wernicke’s area in a way similar to the voices of the gods; (3) that the two hemispheres under certain conditions are able to act almost as independent persons, their relationship corresponding to that of the man-god relationship of bicameral times; (4) that contemporary differences between the hemispheres in cognitive functions at least echo such differences of function between man and god as seen in the literature of bicameral man; and (5) that the brain is more capable of being organized by the environment than we have hitherto supposed, and therefore could have undergone such a change as from bicameral to conscious man mostly on the basis of learning and culture. [12]

It’s important to note that when Jaynes uses the term “consciousness”, he is using it in a very specific and deliberate way. He is not talking about the state of simply being awake, or being aware of one’s surroundings. Nor is he talking about reacting to stimulus, or having emotional reactions to events. Obviously, this applies to nearly all animals. Rather, he’s talking about something like “meta-consciousness”, or the ability to self-reflect when making decisions:

The background of Jaynes’ evolutionary account of the transition from bicamerality to the conscious mind is the claim that human consciousness arises from the power of language to make metaphors and analogies. Metaphors of “me” and analogous models of “I” allow consciousness to function through introspection and self-visualization. According to this view, consciousness is a conceptual, metaphor-generated inner world that parallels the actual world and is intimately bound with volition and decision. Homo sapiens, therefore, could not experience consciousness until he developed a language sophisticated enough to produce metaphors and analogical models.

Jaynes recognizes that consciousness itself is only a small part of mental activity and is not necessary for sensation or perception, for concept formation, for learning, thinking, or even reasoning. Thus, if major human actions and skills can function automatically and unconsciously, then it is conceivable that there were, at one time, human beings who did most of the things we do – speak, understand, perceive, solve problems – but who were without consciousness. [13]

Jaynes saw echoes of this bicameral mentality in psychological phenomena such as schizophrenia and hypnosis. Hypnosis, he argued, was a regression to a conscious state prior to that of the modern type which constantly narratizes our lived experience:

If one has a very definite biological notion of consciousness and that its origin is back in the evolution of mammalian nervous systems, I cannot see how the phenomenon of hypnosis can be understood at all, not one speck of it. But if we fully realize that consciousness is a culturally learned event, balanced over the suppressed vestiges of an earlier mentality, then we can see that consciousness, in part, can be culturally unlearned or arrested. Learned features, such as analog ‘I’, can under the proper cultural imperative be taken over by a different initiative works in conjunction with the other factors of the diminishing consciousness of the induction and trance is that in some way it engages a paradigm of an older mentality than subjective consciousness. [14]

…[W]hy is it that in our daily lives we cannot get above ourselves to authorize ourselves into being what we really wish to be? If under hypnosis we can be changed in identity and action, why not in and by ourselves so that behavior flows from decision with as absolute a connection, so that whatever in us it is that we refer to as will stands master and captain over action with as sovereign a hand as the operator over a subject?

The answer here is partly in the limitations of our learned consciousness in this present millennium. We need some vestige of the bicameral mind, our former method of control, to help us. With consciousness we have given up those simpler more absolute methods of control of behavior which characterized the bicameral mind. We live in a buzzing cloud of whys and wherefores, the purposes and reasonings of our narratizations, the many-routed adventures of our analog ‘I’s. And this constant spinning out of possibilities is precisely what is necessary to save us from behavior of too impulsive a sort. The analog ‘I’ and the metaphor ‘me’ are always resting at the confluence of many collective cognitive imperatives. We know too much to command ourselves very far. [15]

And schizophrenia, he argued, was a vestige of how the bicameral mind routinely worked, but was now only present in those with the genetic disposition for it, perhaps because of some quirk of neurotransmitter functioning or something similar:

Most of us spontaneously slip back into something approaching the actual bicameral mind at some part of our lives. For some of us, it is only a few episodes of thought deprivation or hearing voices. But for others of us, with overactive dopamine systems, or lacking an enzyme to easily break down the biochemical products of continued stress into excretable form, it is a much more harrowing experience – if it can be called an experience at all. We hear voices of impelling importance that criticize us and tell us what to do. At the same time, we seem to lose the boundaries of ourselves. Time crumbles. We behave without knowing it. Our mental space begins to vanish. We panic, and yet the panic is not happening to us. There is no us. It is not that we have nowhere to turn; we have nowhere. And in that nowhere, we are somehow automatons, unknowing what we do, being manipulated by others or by our voices in strange and frightening ways in a place we come to recognize as a hospital with a diagnosis we are told is schizophrenia. In reality, we have relapsed into the bicameral mind. [16]

It is the very central and unique place of these auditory hallucinations on the syndrome of many schizophrenics which it is important to consider. Why are they present? And why is “hearing voices” universal throughout all cultures, unless there is some usually suppressed structure of the brain which is activated in the stress of this illness? And why do these hallucinations of schizophrenics so often have a dramatic authority, particularly religious? I find that the only notion which provides even a working hypothesis about this matter is that of the bicameral mind, that the neurological structure responsible for these hallucinations is neurologically bound to substrates for religious feelings, and this is because the source of religion and of gods themselves is in the bicameral mind. [17]

Interestingly, modern research has revealed that anywhere from 5-15 of the population hears voices on occasion, and sometimes quite regularly. Most of these people are non-clinical—only about 1 percent of the population is considered to be schizophrenic. These percentages happen to approximate those in tribal societies who are considered to be able to perform as religious priests or shamans. In many tribal cultures, the ability to hear voices is considered to be a sign of being able to communicate with gods and spirits and move “between worlds” and thus highly desirable, rather than stigmatized. Indeed, many scholars of religion have seen clear links between symptoms of schizophrenia and so-called shamanic abilities.

Wither hallucinations?

Whether of not one fully accepts Jaynes’ hypothesis, I would argue that there’s one clear point he makes that has influenced beliefs in unseen spirits and survival of ancestors after death: the presence of hallucinations.

It turns out that hallucinating dead relatives is extremely common, even in rationalist Christian Western countries. If that’s the case, how much more common was this phenomenon in ancient times?

Up to six in ten grieving people have “seen” or “heard” their dead loved one, but many never mention it out of fear people will think they’re mentally ill. Among widowed people, 30 to 60 per cent have experienced things like seeing their dead spouse sitting in their old chair or hearing them call out their name, according to scientists.

The University of Milan researchers said there is a “very high prevalence” of these “post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences” (PBHEs) in those with no history of mental disorders. They came to their conclusions after looking at all previous peer-reviewed research carried out on the issue in the English language.

Jacqueline Hayes, an academic at the University of Roehampton, has studied the phenomenon, interviewing people from across the UK who have lost spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends. She told the Daily Mail: “People report visions, voices, tactile sensations, smells, and something that we call a sense of presence that is not necessarily related to any of the five senses.”

She added: “I found that these experiences could at times be healing and transformative, for example hearing your loved one apologise to you for something that happened – and at other times foreground the loss and grief in a painful way.”

Six in ten grieving people ‘see or hear dead loved ones’ (Telegraph)

Now, you might think that those are just hallucinations, and no one could seriously take this as a sign that their dead relatives were still alive. But, it’s important to remember that ancient peoples did not make the distinction between “real” and “not real” the way we do. To them, all phenomena which were experienced—whether in visions, trances, dreams, or “normal” waking consciousness—were treated as equally “real”. The stance we would take in modern times—that our subjective consciousness is not real, while at the same time there is an objective reality which is exclusively real—is not one which would have been operative in past pre-scientific cultures, especially pre-literate ones.

And, indeed, we can see that there are valid reasons for believing this to be so:

Let’s count the many ways that hallucinated voices are real:

– They are real neurological patterns that exist in real human brains.

– They are subjectively real. The listener actually hears them.

– They satisfy the criterion for reality put forward by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality: they kick back.

– They have metaphorical reality. We can reason about the voices the same way we talk about a movie with our friends (discussing the characters’ motivations, their moral worth, etc.).

– They have real intelligence — because (this is crucial) they’re the products of a bona fide intelligent process. They’re emanating from the same gray matter that we use to perceive the world, make plans, string words together into sentences, etc. The voices talk, say intelligent things, make observations that the hearer might not have noticed, and have personalities (stubborn, encouraging, nasty, etc.).

They are, above all, the kinds of things toward which we can take the intentional stance — treating them like agents with motivations, beliefs, and goals. They are things to be reasoned with, placated, ignored, or subverted, but not things whose existence is to be denied.

Accepting Deviant Minds (Melting Asphalt)

By this criteria, whether or not people really experienced gods as aural hallucinations at one point in time, it is quite likely that they did experience hallucinations which they would have regarded as legitimate and real. Thus, beliefs in disembodied souls would have been a product of actual, lived experience for the majority of people, rather than just an “irrational” belief.

[1] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pp. 203-204

[2] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, pp. 14-15

[3] David Deutsch, The Beginnings of Infinity, p. 369

[4] David Deutsch, The Beginnings of Infinity, pp. 378-379

[5] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, p. 22

[6] David Deutsch, The Beginnings of Infinity, p. 384

[7] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 74

[8] ibid., p. 72

[9] ibid., p. 75

[10] ibid., p. 84

[11] ibid., p. 84, p. 93

[12] ibid., p. 84, p. 106

[13] The “bicameral mind” 30 years on: a critical reappraisal of Julian Jaynes’ hypothesis, A.E. Cavanna, et. al. Functional Neurology, January 2007

[14] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 84, p. 398

[15] ibid., p. 402

[16] ibid., p. 404

[17] ibid., p. 413

2 thoughts on “The Origin of Religion – Part 3

    • Yeah, I’ve got a bunch of stuff up there, but no writing. The USB drive still hasn’t turned up. Might be just as well, I really wasn’t happy with part 4. Maybe I’ll get around to writing it one of these days.

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