Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels

by John MacBeath Watkins

As recently as the Renaissance, it was nearly impossible to function in society without at least professing faith in God, and in fact, faith in the God of your society.

If we believe the theories of Julian Jaynes, there was a time when religion defined our behavior in a way that did not even allow most of us to be conscious of ourselves as individuals. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, he argued that what we now regard as normal human consciousness -- a sort of metaphorical place in our heads where we narrate our own lives -- did not exist when The Iliad was written, but is the dominant mode of the characters in The Odyssey.

He portrays a time when the gods spoke not only to prophets, but to everyone, telling them how to live their lives and how to interact with others, in a way that compelled action, much like the voices in a schizophrenic's head.

In one particular passage, he mentions a rare instance in The Iliad in which a character is astonished that his "life" was talking to him, as if telling himself something was a new experience, quite unlike all the things the gods had told him.

 It is a strange theory, and difficult to prove, but the basic idea that faith has played a vital place in ordering human society seems obvious. Jaynes argued that as the world changed, it became more necessary to be able to think for ourselves, which made it necessary, in turn, that we develop consciousness.

But even if he is right, we did not suddenly abandon religion when we developed consciousness. The forms of religion continued to order our lives, and even as individuals, we continued to believe in the gods or at least act as if we did.

Sometimes this manifests itself in bizarre ways. Ava Litzelfelnerin, an 18th century Austrian woman, decided to kill herself, but suicide was a sin, so she wanted to kill herself in a way that would not send her immortal soul to hell. Her solution was to kill a child, confess her sin, and get the death penalty. This was apparently a not uncommon occurrence in her time and place.

This shows the difficulty of integrating the religious structure with the individual consciousness. In advanced industrial cultures, people have become decreasingly attached to churches, despite movements to attempt to make the link stronger, like the Evangelical movement.

The result, in some cases, is a materialistic atheism, but more often we seem to see a spiritual pluralism in which our lives are enriched by multiple sources of insight. We might learn empathy for those facing prejudice from reading about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, or feel transcendence from reading the poetry of Rumi or from reading Ecclesiastes.  

The secular modern society is open not only to non-belief, but also to respect for many sources of belief.

But much of the world does not live in a secular society. We are witnessing a struggle between the secular society, in which religion is not coerced and apostates, atheists, and believers in other faiths are not punished, and a society dominated by religion.

At this writing, Mohamed Morsi, the elected leader of Egypt, has recently been deposed by a military coup. When he was elected, I thought Morsi had a chance to reform Egypt, provided he didn't try to make Islam dominate public life too much. Of course, it now seems that Morsi thought he was elected to become a tyrant, and to promote the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood above all other Egyptians. But why?

From Wikipedia:
The Brotherhood's stated goal is to instill the Qur'an and Sunnah as the "sole reference point for ...ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state." 
 In short, they wish to return to a time when religion was the driving force organizing society, and have no taste for spiritual pluralism. Morsi wanted to be a sort of angel, bringing Egypt to a state of faith and making the state synonymous with faith.

Well and good, for most of history this has worked for mankind, but can it continue to work?

Just as a rapidly changing world led, according to Jaynes, to the rise of our consciousness as individuals, it may be that a rapidly changing and increasingly integrated world is hard on traditional societies organized by religion. Morsi felt that as president of Egypt, he needed unlimited power in order to reorganize society into his vision of the Islamic state. This led to some of the largest protests ever organized, with estimates running as high as 14 million protestors.

Some, to be sure, also wanted to impose an Islamic order, but along stricter lines. Many were there because Morsi was inept in running the economy (or perhaps he was sabotaged.) But his effort to act as an elected tyrant was the dominant theme, and his need to do so was caused by the fact that Egypt is not the society it was in the Middle Kingdom. Things change rapidly, the minds of Egyptians are either enriched or infected by influences outside Egypt, depending on your point of view, and not everyone thinks on the same lines.

Not having everyone thinking on the same lines makes a society more adaptive, as those who get it right can show the rest the way. But that is anathema for the sort of traditional order Morsi advocated.

In a few centuries, if we survive all our experiments with nature, we will no doubt have a global culture. Adapting to that will require our existing cultures to be flexible, capable of accepting outside influences. It is pragmatism, not ideology, that is the downfall of men like Morsi. However much some people may yearn for a lost world where God gave each his place, in a rapidly-changing world we must construct our own lives, and that is more compatible with spiritual pluralism.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self