434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

I wasn’t there ten-to-five-thousand years ago, but my ancestors were, and so were yours. All looking up, following the sky drama at night, much as some of us today follow the soaps on daytime TV. The serial motions and relationships between sun, moon, stars, planets, meteors, comets and other celestial lights above the local horizon fascinated the eyes of ancient peoples wherever they stood in awe looking up at the glory of the heavens, wanting to know how it would all turn out and how it might affect the affairs of those in the audience down below.

The procession and wandering of those heavenly lights made a strong impression on everyone who watched them. Patterns were there, and deviations, and thrills, shocks, surprises, and discoveries. Eclipses of sun and moon! Shooting stars! Comets from nowhere that seemed so foreboding! Pure salience without substance, notable, yet beyond human influence. Surely they were signs meant for human appreciation—why else would they be so conspicuous at night when people couldn’t work? They were telling us something, if only we could make out what it was.

What a situation to be in! To be gripped by such a show for hours on end without having any idea what it meant. It was all so glorious and compelling, so secret and mysterious. We—our ancestors—were hooked, engaged by the wheeling display of sensory impressions, yet were stymied in having our yearning to be in on the program rebuffed, our desire to understand unrequited.

Which was a setup for us to stretch our imaginations skyward in scripting a plot that would answer every point of curiosity by creating a situation we would be familiar with in meeting our desire to understand what it all meant to us in daily life.

It was like translating a text in an unknown language by writing down what we wished it would say. We just made the whole thing up, projecting our scenario onto the cosmos, having it say what we would say for ourselves, and calling it the order of the universe. Over thousands of years, we leapt from understanding nothing to “understanding” everything, and called our insights the truth. In the process, we deputized a priesthood to administer the details of such a grand undertaking, and paid them with the firstlings of our fruits and flocks.

Our word divinity (along with Zeus, god, sky, and day) stems from the ancient root dyeu, meaning shining—the primary attribute of each member of the starry procession. To be divine (godly) is to radiate light into our minds so that we abruptly understand on faith what cannot be grasped through observation or experience. Which is what religion claims to do for those with feet of clay and eyes looking skyward. Think haloed saints and starry-eyed celebrities.

Since no culture can bear to discard an idea once entertained by one of its members, we now have any number of tax-free religions and political parties coexisting with astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, all such faiths and disciplines accounting for the human predicament of truly understanding very little with a variety of incompatible methods, terms, and institutions, the entire enterprise of culture vastly confusing the awful simplicity with which our ancestors gazed at the luminous wonders of the night sky.

So does it come to pass that ideas and situations in our minds come to dominate our engagements with one another and with our fragile and susceptible planet, which is why I keep posting to this blog on consciousness in hopes that, eventually, humanity will take collective responsibility for the mess it keeps making of its everyday affairs by looking inward to make sure it is on solid ground before acting in a world it cannot see clearly nor understand very well.

Yes, this is me talking. Y’rs as always, —Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2010)

What I was getting at in my last post was the common origin of two different urges, the urge to belief and the urge to discovery. If, then, religion and science are both born of awe before the wondrous order of the universe, how is it they so completely diverge? Indeed, one treads the path of convinced opinion and absolute authority, the other the path of doubt and experimentation. Each characterizes the same impetus from a point of view diametrically opposite the other, leading to disparate approaches to experience, incommensurate methods, and incompatible conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Yet both claim to be driven by the same urge—the urge to truth.

How can this be? What is it about the conscious mind that allows two grand institutions to pursue identical goals by such different—and mutually exclusive—routes, the route of faith-based conviction and the route of experimentation?

By singling out these two I do not mean to imply there are no other routes to truth. There is also the legal route, the political, the economic, the historical, the ethical, or the aesthetic, to name a few that spring to mind. But here I will focus on the religious and scientific aspects of consciousness as examples to suggest how differences between those other aspects might arise. In each mental system or discipline, we must look to the assumptions, methods, languages, great thinkers and practitioners, persistent issues, tools, accomplishments, among other factors bearing on it as a pathway to truth. That is more than I can take on in this post, so I will limit myself to a brief look at a few select aspects of mind in the instance of religion and science.

Overall, I would say that religion works deductively in applying general principles to specific instances, whereas science works the other way round inductively, proceeding from specific instances to whatever principles may apply. That is, religion looks upon the world with answers or foregone conclusions in mind, seeking questions to exemplify what is already known. Science on the other hand looks upon the world with true curiosity about how the world works, and attempts to derive theories that answer to commonalities detected in various concrete phenomena. Religion is instructional or doctrinal in applying prior belief to here-and-now experience; science experimental in deriving theories from actual events.

Religion looks from the familiar or recorded past to the unknown future, relying extensively on conceptual memory and sacred texts to provide a basis for prophecy. Science also looks toward the future, but from the here and now, venturing predictions, paying careful attention to whether they are borne out or not. Prophecy is used to justify prior belief; prediction is used to discover whether or not belief is justified.

Thinking is listening to yourself before you say anything out loud. Religious thought broadcasts prior conclusions onto world events as they unfold; scientific thought casts questions onto the world, then attends to the world’s response. Religion’s goal is the spread of true belief and conformity; science’s goal is independent discovery of truth to expand what is known. Religion suppresses or avoids surprises; science welcomes them. That is, the religious approach is to assimilate new experience to preexisting mental structures; the scientific approach is to expand or alter mental structures in order to accommodate new information.

I offer this heavy-handed cartoon of some of the essential differences between religion and science to illustrate two wholly divergent strategies derived from the same compelling experience of the unknown as exemplified by early peoples’ awe and wonder upon observing the pageant of wheeling stars and wandering planets in times when night skies were clearer and darker than they are in modern experience. I am saying that the urges to both science and religion stem from similar experiences of the universe, but via two different routes or strategies for dealing with the awesome and unknown. The urge to religion relies heavily on explaining or categorizing the universe as the work of one or more superhuman(s) of fearsome power and authority as projected outward from the human mind; the urge to science starts with humility before the unknown, relying more on curiosity, experiment, and  discovery in describing aspects of the universe in terms humans can grasp.

Think of Isaac Newton in his garden (as the story goes) at dusk, perhaps looking upon both an apple on a bough and the full moon rising above the horizon in the distance, apple and moon appearing roughly the same size from his point of view. Abruptly, the apple falls straight to the ground below. Which raises the thought in Newton’s mind, “Why doesn’t the moon likewise fall out of the sky?” And then the realization, “Indeed, the moon is falling! But because it is orbiting the Earth, it is propelled not in a straight line into space, but along its orbital path at the same time Earth draws it to itself, with the result that it perpetually falls both toward us and around us, thus keeping the same distance from us as it does fall.” In some such way did the theory of gravitation emerge in the human mind as a result of an inquiring attitude toward personal experience. No phenomenon was safe from such an approach as would project questions instead of answers onto the universe, in hopes the universe would reveal its secrets directly through its own lawful acts.

Or some such scenario. In contrast, consider Paul of Tarsus writing an epistle to the Romans in which, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:

After arguing that the righteous live by faith, Paul develops a strange line of reasoning designed to show that God has revealed himself to all people through the creation. Then he goes on to say that those who do not discern the truth of God through creation and thus do not worship God properly are, as their punishment, given over to lust, iniquity and the misuse of their bodies among themselves (Preface, The Letters of Paul, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, 1998, my italics).

Here we are not in any such place as Newton’s garden, but are in the mind of Paul as he writes to the faithful in Rome, a city  he never had visited, concerning the gospel of Christ:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written. The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who, knowing the judgment of god, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1: 17-20, 24, 26-32, original italics).

 Thus it is written. As others have maintained that Haiti and New Orleans have been punished by God for their evil ways, or that destroying infidels by blowing themselves up in their midst will earn Jihadis a secure place in heaven. Picture children—boys—rocking back and forth over the Qur’an in a Wahhabi school in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, memorizing the text as the ultimate authority by which they are to live—and to die. Picture children in American schools, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to a piece of striped cloth, emblem of a nation exporting chaos, greed, and death to those who do not share its worldview.

Looking to the past is not all bad, nor to the future all good. Religions pay great attention to ethics and how life is to be lived; scientists develop ever more sinister weapons of mass destruction in the name of national defense. Fear is not rational. It seems easier to ring ourselves with missiles than calm the fears of our neighbors and ourselves. Anxiety, suspicion, fear, and anger lead both theologians and scientists to think terrible thoughts and do frightful things. A latent terrorist lurks in the shadows within every human mind.

And cultural influences can so alter the realities of our lives that the individual will to survive can be overwhelmed by the will to die for any common cause perceived to be just. Over 55 million people were killed during the Second World War—each and every one of them for a cause thought at one time by one side or another to be self-evidently righteous. The siege of Stalingrad, firebombing of Dresden, gassing of Jews, nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all made tactical sense to those with power and authority to carry them out.

So I do not intend to paint every one of the faithful as a reactionary incapable of creative thought, or of the curious as a selfless servant of reason. Being human, all are driven by biological values that color every situation according to their personal palette, as well as by the artistic taste of the culture which informs their every act.

But I do intend to give the impression that religion and science create different worlds for their followers, and if those worlds complement each other to a degree, they also serve to under-mine each other more than create an atmosphere of mutual respect. We need look no farther than to the partisan roilings in Washington for a blatant example of self-righteous creationists in deadlock with curious and experimental evolutionists over who is to control the destiny of America and the world. In the Islamic sphere, the same split is evident, as it is in China, and everywhere else.

How we train our children to employ their minds is crucial to human survival on planet Earth. Whether of a religious or scientific bent, as adults every one of us needs to find eternal truths to believe in, while at the same time remaining open to new insights and discoveries as the world changes before our eyes. That is, we can’t develop one faculty for revealed truths to the exclusion of open experimentation, or vice versa. We need to explore both capacities to their fullest extent in every person. As it is now, we become caricatures of ourselves by siding with one mindset or the other, not celebrating the fact that of the nearly seven billion people on Earth, each is unique, so dismissing all but the few who are more-or-less similar to ourselves. That is the height of ignorance, foolishness, pride, and arrogance. If our upbringing—both formal and otherwise—can do no better than that, then our families, schools, social institutions, and governments are failing us utterly.

The Future Is Now