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Notes on the Evolution of Religion October 13, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.

If you accept the appealing arguments advanced in books like Why God Won’t Go Away, human beings believe in God because our brains have been hard-wired that way. Mystics of virtually every belief system have recorded encounters with a divine, superhuman Entity, and it would be impossible for all of them to be crazy, deluded, hallucinating, or high.

But the existence of a spiritual dimension that occasionally intersects with “reality” has been debated for thousands of years, and is not likely ever to be settled. Today I want to talk about one corollary of this theory of the way the human brain is hard-wired: Religion.

A religion is a collection of cultural and belief systems that establishes a relationship between humanity and the divine. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions, and mythologies — oh, sorry, fundamentalists, sacred histories — that are intended to explain where everything came from or to give meaning to life. Religions often derive moral, ethical, and religious laws and a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

All religions, like all political systems and all schools of philosophy, are created by human beings to help us live in community. It can be argued that all belief systems exist to manage power relationships in competing groups of humans. Democracy, socialism, communism, or fascism? Stoicism, cynicism, hedonism, or epicureanism? Polytheism, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, monism, agnosticism, atheism? All these systems of belief and many more have evolved, most of them over thousands of years.

It’s easy enough to compare civilizations that evolved in isolation from one another, for example, the Egyptians and the Mayans, and to infer common elements of civilization’s evolution. As a species, we were first hunter-gatherers, then hunter-collectors (a new level of discrimination and expertise). Then we invented agriculture, and control of the water supply became more important. Cities were invented, and power structures quickly evolved: who controlled the water and food became the first the wealthy and then the elite. Elites breed resentments; resentments breed wars.

Until relatively recently in human evolution religion and politics were inextricable. Kings ruled because they were gods or the offspring of gods (Cleopatra, the last “king” of Egypt, was the reincarnation of Isis); priests and prophets uttered or interpreted the words and divine will of the gods (for example, Samuel of Israel). The priest-king (e.g., the High Kings of Ireland and Rome’s emperors) might not himself be divine, but because he interceded with the gods on his people’s behalf, his power was absolute. Some rulers, like the Emperors of China, were considered chosen by Heaven, but could be temporarily deposed if natural disasters, famines, or droughts revealed Heaven’s rejection of them; the kings of Israel recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures also fell into this category. Most of today’s royalty are the remnants of the theory of “divine right”; while Queen Elizabeth might not make a big deal of this, her ancestors, such as Henry VIII and even Victoria, had not the slightest doubt.

Around 90 CE or so, the evangelist today known as Matthew created a myth — sorry, fundamentalists, sacred history — that informed early followers of the Jesus Movement that Jesus was chosen by God to be king (gold), priest (frankincense), and prophet (myrrh): a triple threat to the status quo. No wonder the status quo conspired to get rid of him!, Matthew appears to imply.

People reared in today’s world may consider it natural to ponder some feature of the world and come up with a mechanistic explanation based on what they know of science. The rainstorm came because of a low moving in from the north, for example, rather than because of the wrath of the rain-god. The volcano erupted because of rising magma, rather than to express the anger of the volcano-goddess.

Evolutionary psychology, however, suggests that we have been “designed” by natural selection to explain anything by attributing it to a humanlike supernatural agency, and this tendency still continues today. Here’s one frivolous example: In 1999, my husband and I moved into a house that was built in 1920. For the first few months we lived here, Jerry and I would occasionally hear someone walking around upstairs when we knew jolly well that no one was there. Rather than get exercised about it, we declared that we had a ghost, and named it “George.” Even today, more than 12 years later, we still hear George walking around once in a while. Is George “really” a squirrel on the roof, someone in the garage apartment next door, the house settling, our vivid imaginations? Who cares? A less frivolous example: immediately after 9/11, two conservative “Christian” leaders declared that the attack had been made because God wanted to punish non-fundamentalist Christians (“pagans”), feminists, abortionists, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and homosexuals.

When our distant ancestors first asked “Why?”, hundreds of thousands of years ago, they weren’t primarily asking about why the wind blows or why fire burns; they were asking about human behavior. Your brain’s ability to think about why things happen and to come up with theories about what might happen in the future was “designed” by natural selection to come up with explanations for why? If that scary rustling in the trees isn’t a leopard, maybe it’s a bogeygod! Many of the myths in the Hebrew Scriptures are etiological, designed to answer questions like “Why do women suffer labor pains? Why are men practically the only males that don’t have bones in their penises?” (The answers: Gen. 3:16 and 2:21, respectively.)

This primitive thinking is on full display in the Bible; over and over we read, “Israel [never ever Judea; see below] did what was evil in the sight of YHWH,” after which comes some punishment from YHWH. One of the most dramatic instances of this primitive thinking can be found in Numbers 16. The Hebrew tribes were wandering in the wilderness on their way from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land when a significant percentage of the travelers became restless with the perceived arrogance of their three leaders, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. At least 300 Hebrews called a meeting and told Moses and his siblings, “You make too much of yourselves! The whole community is holy, every one of us, and YHWH is in our midst. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s assembly?” (16:3)

Not an unreasonable complaint, you or I might think. But YHWH was enraged at the disrespect to his chosen stand-ins, and it took all of Moses’s begging to keep YHWH from destroying every Hebrew but Moses and Aaron (16:20-22). First, God sent an earthquake; the ground opened up and swallowed not only the three “wicked” ringleaders, but also their innocent wives, children, domesticated animals, and servants. “They and all that was theirs went down alive into Sheol” — the grave, a deep pit below the earth (16:30). At least 50 innocent people were killed, and very likely more.

Frightened, everyone nearest the ringleaders fled; “and fire came out from YHWH and consumed the 250 dissenters” who until moments earlier had been “respected leaders and members of the council.”

But this wasn’t enough to appease the wrath of YHWH. When the Hebrews began to murmur about the injustice of killing 300 to 500 people for the crime of dissing Moses, the still-enraged YHWH first put in a personal appearance to emphasize his displeasure (16:42), and then sent a plague that killed 14,700 innocent people.

In summary: YHWH killed a rock-bottom minimum of 15,000 innocent people because of the “wicked” “rebellion” of questioning the arrogance of leaders anointed by God. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were arrogant by divine right; if you don’t like it, prepare to die.

If the Hebrew Scriptures were literal history, as fundamentalists insist, we are left with the uncomfortable knowledge that God overreacts to humanity’s desire for justice; that God is childish, petty, arbitrary, unjust, easily enraged, and not noticeably intelligent. From the vantage point of 3,000-plus years of advancement in human knowledge, it seems far more likely to me that the earthquake and plague came first, and the unpleasant story in Numbers 16 evolved to explain to the faithful what had “really” happened: Never question the divine right of God’s anointed stand-ins, or God will getcha. And every innocent bystander, too.

Many theories have been put forth to try to explain the evolution of religion. Neanderthal graves show that around 80,000 years ago, hominids already believed in an afterlife. Literally thousands of more recent small statues (60000-500 BCE) suggest that humanity started out worshiping the Great Goddess; many caves, representing Her mighty vagina, seem to have been used for religious ceremonies. Mountains represented the Goddess; for example, the name “Shaddai” meant breast, mountain, similar to how “Grand Tetons” is another spelling of “Big Titties.” (Male translaters of the Bible usually insist that “El Shaddai” actually meant “God the Omnipotent.”) The caldera of a volcano was the Goddess’s divine uterus. Mt. Everest’s original name was Chomolungma, “Goddess Mother of the Earth.” Trees were another, important symbol of the Goddess, as were serpents, which “died” and were “rein­car­nated” with every shedding of skin. Many scholars believe that the second creation myth in the Bible, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, “took over” a much older myth in which the Goddess blessed humanity with moral awareness; it is instructive that in the Bible’s version of this myth, YHWH cursed only the serpent that symbolized the Goddess.

Over the millennia, many goddesses and gods arose, until we see pantheons like those of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The Goddess’s son became her consort and then her ruler. Elaborate myths evolved in many cultures depicting the sacrificial death of the Goddess’s son/husband, followed six months later by his annual resurrection. Eventually, and particularly after the invention of writing, the son/husband became the chief god of the pantheon, and the Goddess was first relegated to consort and “sister” (e.g. Rhea, Isis, Hera, Juno) and then muscled aside altogether.

In Israel, the two main deities were El and his consort Eloah. Other members of their pantheon included Rakh-El, a sheep-goddess; Mikha-El, the god of war; Rahab, Leviathan, Shaddai, and “Sarah, the laughing goddess of the sea,” who was eventually demoted to human and called the wife of Abraham. A week’s journey to the south, Judea worshiped Yah/Yahweh and his consort Asherah as the chief deities of the pantheon. One of the goddesses and gods of Judea was Lee-Yah, a cattle goddess. Many inscriptions dating from between 2000 and 500 BCE refer to “YHWH and his consort Asherah.”

Not long before 1000 BCE, Judea, led by King David, conquered Israel, and the “golden” age of the United Monarchy began. History is written by the winners of any given conflict, so we are not to know the details how El and Eloah (together, the plural Elohim) were superseded by Yahweh and Asherah. A few clues come from the conflation of the two nations’ favorite stories. For example, the national hero of the southern kingdom, Yah-kob, married BOTH Israel’s Rakh-El (the goddess of sheep) AND Judea’s Lee-Yah (the goddess of cattle), and eventually changed his name to that of the national hero of the northern kingdom, Isra-El. It kept the subject peoples “in line” to believe that the gods and goddesses of the southern kingdom were “really” the gods and goddesses of the northern kingdom by other names. When you are reading Genesis, be aware that first the priests and scribes of Yahweh and later the translators of the Bible into other languages strove mightily to conceal the stitching that conflated the two nations’ oldest myths. As a general rule, “God” and “the LORD” translate “YHWH”; “the Lord” translates “El”; and “the Lord God” translates “YHWH elohim,” or literally “YHWH of the gods.”

Like history, holy scriptures are written by the winners of any given conflict. Notice how the Bible depicts both the Hebrews’ “conquest” of Canaan and Judea’s conquest of Israel as God-blessed. Notice how the Bible depicts monotheism as the “default” setting for Judaism, and only rarely and grudgingly admits that it was the default setting only for the priests and scribes of YHWH who lived in or near Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, frequently expresses his rage that no matter how much he shouts and curses at Jerusalemites, both women and some men insist on worshiping the Queen of Heaven as if Asherah were just as much a goddess as Yahweh is a god. (E.g., 7:18-19, 44:16-17)

Notice, too, that although the Bible is rife with verses saying, in essence, “Israel displeased YHWH,” the Bible never, ever says either “Judea displeased YHWH” or “Judea displeased El/Eloah/Elohim/etc.” Similarly, during the first few hundred years of its existence, the Jesus Movement saw running battles — with literal bloodshed — between the “Jesus was LIKE God” camp and the “Jesus was God in a man-suit” camp. Reading the Christian Testament, can you guess which group eventually won the battle? Can you guess who the Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible, even though it’s just as valid a gospel as the four that made the cut?

Monotheism appears to have been invented around 500 BCE, after the return from the Babylonian Exile. Although the Hebrew Scriptures insist that YHWH was and is the only God in the Universe, few scholars believe that this belief was shared by the majority of Israelites or Judeans. As more than one scholar has commented, if the peoples of Israel and Judea had not worshipped a Goddess, whether Eloah (Israel) or Asherah (Judea), they would have been unique in the ancient world, and peoples from surrounding nations would have commented on their obvious insanity. No such mockery can be found in any ancient writings.

Two words refer to the worship of one god. Monotheism declares that there is only one God in the Universe. Henotheism declares that there are lots of gods and goddesses, but only one is to be worshiped: “Thou shalt have no other god more important to you than Me” (Ex. 20:3, Deut. 5:7). Israel and Judea were both polytheistic for millennia. Around 1000 BCE, they were henotheistic; Genesis 31:19, 30-35 tells the story of Rachel stealing her father’s household gods, and by implication their favor. The Bible tells us that around 980 BCE, David and Michal had the same sort of household gods as Laban’s, and the passage contains no hint of disapproval. (1 Samuel 19:16) Around 595 BCE, when Jeremiah was ranting against the Queen of Heaven, most Jews were at least ditheistic.

The scholar Claudia Camp has shown that during the intertestamental period (ca. 500 BCE – 325 CE), Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8) was so popular that Judaism almost became ditheistic officially. It is not implausible to speculate that Asherah evolved into Hokhmah (Wisdom), who in Christianity became conflated with the Greeks’ Sophia (Wisdom), who in turn became conflated with Christianity’s Holy Spirit (Logos, rationality). (In Judaism she is usually known as the Sh’kinah, God’s glory.)

It was not until 325 CE that men stamped out all evidence of femininity in the divine by declaring the Holy Spirit to be “the Lord, the giver of life” — and so Christians seeking the feminine face of the divine have been forced to exalt Mary of Nazareth to demigoddess.

The main problem with monotheism as practiced by today’s “Big Three” religions is that in their theological insistence that God is exclusively male, half of the species is excluded from full humanity. I was reared Presbyterian and joined the Episcopal Church when I married Jerry, and I have a lifetime of firsthand experience being both too subhuman to be allowed to serve at the altar, and the gender exclusively responsible for all sin, evil, and death through Eve. Ladies and gentlemen: it bites.

Most Christians are outright polytheists, like the Mormons, or de facto polytheists who add Jesusolatry to their worship of God the “Father” and the occasionally remembered Holy Spirit. But then again, most Christians have plenty of gods before either Yahweh or the Father, including Mammon (the “prosperity gospel”) and supply-side economics (high priest, Grover Norquist).

It doesn’t matter. If God exists, logic dictates that God must be infinite in both space and time. That means that almost anything anyone says about the nature and especially the thinking and intentions of God must be infinitely wrong.



1. Robert Doyle - October 13, 2011

I tolerate the many who need their diety to be some holy mystery while I believe we are the end result of some interdimensional or interplanetary plan. Archeology and Science have proven to be more exact than the various religion manuels telling stories.

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