Religion and Ritual

Ritual as we understand it today employs symbolism, in which representations of objects stand in for real objects, and ritual enactments of events stand in for real events. However, like language and art, symbolic ritual evolved gradually from a time before separation, when symbol and object were one. Very likely, the rituals of deep antiquity were an outgrowth of animal rituals of mating, dominance, and so forth, and were not symbolic at all, or at least no more symbolic than the songs of birds.

Rituals only became symbolic when spirit became abstracted from physicality. That only happened when divinity became separated from nature, and that only happened when technology and culture created a separate human realm, especially when agriculture placed nature in an adversarial role. Wearing dualistic blinders, it is hard for us to imagine any ritual that were not symbolic, a ritual that is a real thing and not the representation of a story, principle, or event. So accustomed are we to asking what it means, what it symbolizes, that we can hardly conceive that the appropriate inquiry might be to ask what it is. We can hardly conceive of understanding something apart from interposing another level of interpretation between us and it.

Symbolic religious ritual is itself a mediation between two separately-conceived realms, the human and the divine. In the original religion, animism, there was no such distinction. Often misunderstood as the belief that everything has spirit, animism actually holds that everything is spirit, that everything is sentient, sacred, special. Therefore, the abstraction of the particular embodied in language and number is, from the animistic point of view, a sacrilege, turning a continuum of unique places and moments into just so many things. Probably, even the purest animistic religions studied by anthropologists are already degraded versions of true animism, existing as they do in cultures that have already adopted representational language.

We look upon the Neanderthal custom of burying their dead (with artifacts) as a sign of their cognitive or spiritual development, as it implies a belief in an afterlife and therefore a concept of soul separate from body. I do not know if the Neanderthal already had a dualistic religion, but the above interpretation lays bare a deep cultural prejudice: that matters of spirit are in a realm separate from life in this world, separate from the here and now. What, may we ask, is the religion of animals? Religion, which literally means “that which ties back” or “that which reconnects us” is only necessary when there is separation. A being constantly in touch with the fullness, sumptuousness, and indeed the infinity of sheer existence would have no need for religion. We may therefore see religion as a symptom of separation.

But that does not mean religion is a mistake! More than a symptom of separation, religion is also a response to it, a manifestation of the primal urge to reunite with all that we have separated from. Perhaps religion originated as a calling back to an earlier time of wholeness.

Let us revisit this “earlier time of wholeness” to see how religion might have developed. An assumption rarely questioned in paleontology is that earlier species of humans were in important respects inferior to modern Homo sapiens. The evidence would seem incontrovertible: not only did all other Homo species become extinct, but their tools were much simpler, and they left little or no evidence of art, religion, and all the other creations of modern intelligence.

We must be careful, however, not to project modern-day prejudices onto the physical evidence of paleontology and archeology. We tend to interpret burial of the dead as evidence of belief in an afterlife and therefore a non-material soul, cave paintings as evidence of magico-religious rituals aimed at controlling events, and technological advances as motivated by the struggle to survive. All of these interpretations may be projections of our own dualism and anxiety. Moreover, the tendency to equate the developments of language, technology, and so forth with “progress” or “advancement” in culture and cognition depends on the self-assumed superiority of our own culture. However, in light of the negative effects of language, number, tools, agriculture, and time measurement discussed above, it would behoove us to reexamine the supposed inferiority of those who refused them.

Recent evidence, rigorously laid out in Stephen Oppenheimer’s 2003 book, Out of Eden, has shattered the myth that modern human cognition developed in a gene-fueled European cultural explosion some 30,000 or 40,000 years ago. The most significant development in stone tool technology occurred some 300,000 years ago with the development of flake tools chipped off a specially-prepared stone core, “a multi-stage process requiring that the final product be fixed in the maker’s mind throughout.”[81] Neanderthals and their Cro-magnon cousins had almost identical technology up until 50,000 years ago.

The disappearance of European Neanderthals is something of a paleontologic enigma, especially given recent mitochondrial evidence that no interbreeding occurred between the Neanderthal and Cro-magnon humans that simultaneously inhabited Europe some 28,000-40,000 years ago. The usual survival-of-the-fittest, scarcity-based thinking assumes that the latter either exterminated the former directly, thanks perhaps to superior weaponry, intelligence, and social organization, or simply outcompeted them for habitat. In any event, a dramatic cultural diversion separated the two species at an accelerating rate starting around 40,000 years ago, and apparently resulted in the Neanderthal’s extinction by 28,000 years BCE.

Although some exceptions have been claimed, it is generally thought that Neanderthals lacked art, trade, tools of bone, shell, and antler, and burial of the dead. Neanderthal primitivism is usually taken either (1) to imply that Neanderthals were insufficiently intelligent to develop the technology of modern humans, or (2) as evidence of culture’s cumulative nature; that is to say, Neanderthals were as intelligent as we are, but the technology simply had not time to develop. The first position is increasingly untenable given the parallel development of Stone Age technology up until 50,000 years ago, not to mention Neanderthals’ slightly larger brain size. Either way, they apparently suffered the same fate as most of the world’s indigenous peoples did upon encountering a technologically more advanced culture. A third possibility is rarely discussed: that Neanderthals consciously rejected the innovations that led to our widening separation from nature.

It would not be the only time such a rejection occurred. The more recent history of technology is not without examples of technology rejected or even abandoned. Perhaps the Neanderthals had the anatomical and cognitive capacity to proceed on the accelerating arc of the ascent of humanity, but simply refused to do so. Perhaps they refused the distancing, alienating technologies of semiotic language, number, art, time, and standardized stone tools,[82] intuiting as have shamans and religious mystics ever since that they separate us from nature, spirit, and joy. Perhaps they recognized the idolatry implicit in representational images, the reduction implicit in symbolic language, the suffering implicit in separation of self from environment. Perhaps they thought that separation had gone far enough, and knew that its continued ascent could lead to one place only.

Consider the megafauna extinctions of the northern hemisphere. These happened remarkably recently, after the Neanderthals were gone and modern humans fully established, and are usually attributed to our superior technology and, by implication, superior intelligence. Pause for a moment to think about this—major ecosystem disruption is taken as a sign of superior intelligence! We assume that it is human nature to take as much as possible. Let us discard that assumption for a moment and suppose that the Neanderthals and other pre-modern humans had the intelligence but not the desire. Perhaps they had the wisdom to avoid practices that would disrupt the balance of nature. Later cultures, more distant from nature, nonetheless still understood the importance of maintaining that dwindling connection. They used religious ritual and magic to reaffirm and renew it, relying on an ancient lineage of shamans and stories going back to their original teachers, from a time when harmony with nature did not need these artificial means of reconnection. This idea finds support in certain indigenous myths and legends. Here is a particularly striking one, courtesy of Joseph Epes Brown:

The Yurok of Northern California believe that, in the beginning, the world was inhabited by the wo’gey, or Immortals, who knew how to live in harmony with the earth. The wo’gey departed when the humans arrived. Yet, because they knew that humans did not always follow the laws of the world, they taught them how to perform ceremonies that could restore the earth’s balance.[83]

The correspondence here with the actual historical departure of Neanderthals and other human species with the coming of Homo sapiens is quite remarkable. The wo’gey departed when the humans arrived. In Europe from 40,000-28,000 BCE, the overlap between Neanderthal and modern human was very brief; the former’s retreat before the latter was almost instantaneous. Nowhere did the two coexist for very long. The story may have been the same with other human species across Asia.

Perhaps the Neanderthals and the other human groups that our ancestors replaced were not lesser humans, lower on the evolutionary ladder, but actually more evolved in thought and spirit than we are. I like to speculate that they were even our teachers, exemplars of a mode of being that already, 40,000 years ago, we had begun to forget, but which has been carried forward to the present time encoded in myth and ritual, preserved in fragments by lineages of shamans, Sufis, storytellers, Taoists, yogis, and mystics, and revived from time to time by artists, poets, and lovers, so that, like a spore or a seed, it might blossom forth again when the Age of Separation has run its course.

As separation accelerated through the rise of agriculture, the gap over which religion was required to “tie us back” widened. Humans departed further from “the laws of the world”, and the old ceremonies became impotent to restore balance. Slowly, nature lost its inherent divinity in human eyes and became, progressively, just a thing. To be sure, nature-as-thing was never anything more than an ideology, and an ideology that direct experience invariably contradicts when we open ourselves to it. Nevertheless, that ideology was (and still is) powerful enough to direct and justify a millennia-long course of domination and destruction, the subordination and conquest of nature. As described in a previous section, agriculture gradually took the gods from identity with natural forces to lordship over them, in parallel to the human abstraction of ourselves from nature. Whereas the ancient kings and pharaohs were divine, starting in Mesopotamia at around 2000 B.C.E. kings became mere emissaries or representatives of divinity, which was elevated to a celestial realm.

The association of the divine with the celestial—which removes God from within nature to an estate above nature—is itself another consequence of agricultural and machine thinking. Ancient astronomers, concerned with the measurement of time and the making of calendars, observed regularities in the motions of the planets, impersonal cycles removed from the chaotic irregularity of nature. Which would the engineer—the fashioner and operator of a machine—prefer? A higher, more perfect law, it was thought, governed the heavens. This split between the order and perfection of the skies and the messy chaos of the living earth was only resolved in the seventeenth century with Isaac Newton’s unification of all motion under a single law, which had the effect of abstracting God still further.

With divinity accorded a non-earthly status, human beings (who are after all of this earth) lost their innate divinity to become mere servants of God. Around 2000 BCE, “Mesopotamian myths began to appear of men created by gods to be their slaves. Men had become the mere servants, the gods, absolute masters. Man was no longer in any sense an incarnation of divine life, but of another nature entirely, an earthly, mortal nature. And the earth itself was now clay. Matter and spirit had begun to separate.”[84] Accordingly, we have in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions that originated in this region a concept of sinning against God that is entirely separate from violation of nature’s order or harmony. And not only separate, but often directly opposed. Spirituality came to mean conquering the flesh, whose desires were opposed to the elevation of the spirit. The parallel with technology and the “ascent” of humanity is clear. Civilization’s technological quest to overcome nature with the order and regularity of the machine projects into religion as a program to overcome our unruly inner nature, or “human nature.”

Religious institutions thereby came to represent the precise opposite of what the original rites, myths, and teachings intended. The original purpose of religion implied in the Yurok legend is to bring us back to a state of harmony with the natural order, and in particular with our natural selves, our true being. Despite the relentless attempts of social institutions to coopt religion to its purposes of control, the original intent and message of religion lives on, often buried beneath layers of dogma and interpretation. Every once in a while reformers see through the dogma and remind us of the principles of the Original Religion, animism. A few examples: George Fox: “Look to that of God in everyone.” Hallaj: “I and the Beloved are one.” Jesus: “I and the Father are one.” The latter two were both crucified, the first merely beaten, pilloried, and imprisoned; all denied the reigning doctrine that human and divine are separate realms. In Jesus’s case, the teaching was almost immediately turned into its exact opposite: “I am God and so are you” was turned into “Jesus is God and you are not,” recreating the same division and duality that Jesus taught against.

In Oriental religions the dualism between human and divine is less developed, and many teachings to the contrary remain preserved in scripture. Taoism in particular emphasizes the identity of the spiritual way and the way of nature. Buddhism is rife with admonitions to the effect that Buddhas are no different from ordinary people (yet completely different), and that everything has Buddha-nature. There are even Zen koans directed at deconstructing the implicit dualism in the statement “Everything has Buddha-nature,” as if it were a separate thing to be “had”. Similarly for Hinduism: the Bhagavad Gita states, “The Supreme Self, which dwells in all bodies, can never be slain. . . Eternal, universal, unchanging, immovable, the Self is the same forever.” The more extreme separateness from the sacred embodied in Occidental religion fits into the same mindset of objectification and control that also characterizes technology. Perhaps it is no accident that modern technology, too, arose in the West.

The perversion of religion (tying back) into its opposite has taken different forms across the globe. In the East, concepts of karma were perverted into duty, and cosmic order into a blind servitude to the temporal order of feudal society. The result in India was the caste system, which minutely prescribed the role of each individual. Similarly, the doctrine of the illusoriness of the finite self was coopted to encourage the submergence of individual will into the social mass. In the Far East, the Tao degenerated from a principle of organic divinity immanent in nature and the universe, into a justification for a rigid social hierarchy.

Meanwhile in the West, the differentiation of nature and the divine went a step further. Beginning as names for aspects of nature, graduating into separate representatives of those aspects, the gods of ancient Greece and the God of the Levant eventually came to a position of capricious overlordship. They became rulers, and not aspects, of nature. “Whereas in the older view. . . the god is simply a sort of cosmic bureaucrat, and the great natural laws of the universe govern all that he is and does and must do, we have now a god who himself determines what laws are to operate; who says, ‘Let such-and-such come to pass!’ and it comes to pass.”[85] The parallel with the mentality of technology is obvious. God was no longer at the mercy of nature; by understanding the principles of God’s creation, then, neither need be man.

A corollary of the capricious celestial overlord in the human realm is free will. Modeled after our concept of God, we saw ourselves as separate manipulators of the rest of the world, and subject to a very different set of laws than God has ordained for “the beasts”. We could choose to obey, or not to obey, and we could manipulate the world as we saw fit, rather than merely playing a role in a preexisting harmony. The Hebrew, Christian, and Moslem God (though not of these religions’ esoteric traditions) provides the model for the ultimate separation of ourselves from the universe, the alienation of the discrete self in a world of objects. Eventually, of course, we dispensed with God altogether when science began explaining the workings of the world without appeal to an extra-natural mover. Another way to look at it, though, is that we displaced God. Through science and technology we ourselves presumed to the functions previously ascribed to God: the director of nature, the Free Will that has the power to say, “Let such-and-such come to pass!” If we don’t like what is, we can change it, we can make something else come to pass. The Babelian logic of the Technological Program is that our power to do this is unlimited.

The ascent of science described in the next chapter can be seen as the final phase in the progression of religion away from its holistic, animistic roots. It is also a necessary phase, the culmination of an age-old process. Before I lay out The Way of the World according to science, I would like to offer another interpretation of the incredible descent-that-masquerades-as-an-ascent whose story I have told.

[81] Oppenheimer, p. 101


[82] The lack of standardization, referred to by Diamond (p. 38) is highly significant, because standardization implies a division of labor and the possible commodification of products.


[83] Brown, p. 17


[84] Campbell, Joseph, Myths to Live By, The Viking Press, 1972. p. 74


[85] Id., p. 76