Conceiving God, The cognitive origin and evolution of religion
This is a reaction to “Conceiving God, The cognitive origin and evolution of religion” by David Lewis-Williams, Thames and Hudson, 2010, ISBN 978-0-500-05164-1, by Henk Scholten, Amsterdam, date: 2013-10-24.
While elaborating, this text became more than a review and the book to be reviewed became in a certain sense also the backdrop for my own story while still staying close to the book.
- 1 Impression of the book and the reason to react to it
- 2 Puzzling
- 3 The moment of truth
- 4 Ordinary
- 5 Deniable bias
- 6 Newspeak
- 7 Illness and psychopathology
- 8 Monopoly
- 9 The secret
- 10 Are you experienced?
- 11 The Model and Hallucinations
- 12 Missing out
- 13 Oppression
- 14 Politics and propaganda
- 15 Guidance
- 16 19’th Century Materialism
- 17 To be dismissed
- 18 Concluding
Impression of the book and the reason to react to it
Being featured in for instance New Scientist and being esteemed high by atheists I found the detrimental aspects of this book significant enough to write this text.
Instead of telling How God was conceived and explaining the cognitive origin and evolution of religion, the book extensively preaches why God should not have been conceived and how bad it is that Gods and religion came to exist in (near) all cultures on earth.
Sharing with the author the deep concerns about hallucinatory extra-real explanations, some of which are extra-natural, I find it a pity that the readers are guided in the wrong direction. Identifying visual hallucinations as the essence and measure of the religious/mystical experience is a prime source of misunderstanding. Putting guidance in a negative context of oppression is a real bad, objectionable and detrimental aspect of this book. But given the opening-text by Darwin: “It appears to me (whether rightfully or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by gradual illumination of men’s minds…”, the author is with his fierce and blunt attack, knowingly and let us hope happily, solely preaching for his own parish and will not do much harm, so be it.
Showing so much venomous disgust necessarily limits the reach of the book to the parish of the author. Following Shannon’s definition of information, the book is not intended to convey information, since because of its coding it can only reach people for whom this will not take away any uncertainty. To the possible audience this book will not reveal much new knowledge; most atheists are well informed about religion. (Ref: PEW Research center’s forum on religion & public life, may 19 – june 6, 2010) But I do appreciate that atheists may become more happy by consuming this confirmation to feed their disgust, which is the case given the 5 star ratings on amazon and goodread.
All the anger in the world can’t change the observation that indeed God and religion are conspiracist-hallucinations, but that people at large wish to believe it. Ordinary people believe it, wise people do question it and rulers use religion. This is known for a long while and even the Chinese communist party is starting to grasp the latter. You can´t deny gravity.
This book is a hard read because of its negative tone and lack of real content. The author widely uses phrases like “as is usually the case”, but what is “usually” and how do we know this is the case? The author is speculating all the way, there are no numbers in the book, it is all opinion and mainly based on a biased selection of simple widely known facts, it is not about results of relevant new research. When statements are backed it is most often by a reference to just one single and a complete book, no page numbers to check it fast.
The author is not afraid to present bold unbacked statements: “Penetration into the depths of both caves and minds legitimated the interests of the few and distanced the rest of the community, as religion always does” (p 227), “The whole religious enterprise was implicated in social discriminations” (p 231), “In all religions, ordinary people mistakenly think that ritual specialists know more than they in fact do know “ (p 255), “As in all religions, we have here an example of select people – ‘the initiated men of that dance’ – supposedly knowing more than other people and being respected for their knowledge” (p 255) and “With good reason, spirituality has been called ‘religion’s poor cousin’ … “this is, of course, a downgraded version of the ‘eternal soul’ of religious teaching” (p 275). Obviously religion is oppressive according to the author, but what to think of this: “precision inevitably leads to intolerance“(p 162) and ”In addition, we must consider the social impact of the images that the San painted on rock shelters …” (p 255). Positioning science (precision) as a tool that inevitably leads to intolerance and proposing that art is a means of oppression are signs of a paranoid view on reality.
After pages and pages of a superfluous expression of utter disgust at religion that is void of any relevant new information (which I do realize is a pleonasm), it is clear the author still is not sure whether he has expressed well enough how low he thinks of people that even dare to consider religious thought. So the author has decided to also be angry pre-emptively, and reacts on the expected criticism in a chapter that cunningly is called ”God´s Empire strikes back”. While indeed referring to previous publications on atheism, it actually is the author that pre-emptively strikes back. Remarkably the word Marxism is not to be found in that chapter.
If you want to learn about the essence of Marxist theology, this book is a great example and study object. If you want to learn how Marxists think history should have been, this is a good example. The book is also interesting if you want to learn by example about cognitive dissonance, bias blind spot and disgust. But if you want to learn about how God was conceived and about the cognitive origin and evolution of religion, you have to look elsewhere.
If you are looking for a text to support Marxist atheism this book is yours, if you are looking for a text that will illuminate the issue of the origins of religion, this is a dangerous book. While based on some sound core ideas and facts, the book does misguide by its biased interpretations, semantic tricks and the things it plainly misrepresents. Unless you know enough to be able to understand the game the author is playing, you better stay clear.
When I started reading this book as result of reading an article in New Scientist, 5 October 2013, p 32-37, I became more and more puzzled what this actually is. By the time I reached the surprisingly ignorant account of the Eleusinian mysteries on page 47, I was about to put it away. Here we read: “At the climax of a three day initiation into the Eleusinian cult, neophytes were shown a sacred object in a blaze of torch light. As is usually the case in such religions and cults, the object was in fact quite ordinary – probably a sheaf of wheat. Like the elevated bread (wheat) and wine of the Christian Eucharist, something ordinary became something dazzling in its symbolic content”. This misrepresents what we do know as historic facts and it feels like the author is willingly miss-representing what is known. Worse even, by saying this, David Lewis-Williams claims to know more about the Eleusinian mysteries than anybody else. We must wonder how he has received this divine knowledge. How does the author know what “the object” in Eleusis was? Although the author pre-emptively exempts himself from liability by spreading some doubt about his statement, the conclusion shows no doubt. We know as a historic fact that it was about more than a single object. Central to the Great Mystery were the Kykeon, a potion, and the Hiera, the "holy things“. The Hiera consisted of three elements: dromena ("things done"), deiknumena ("things shown") and legomena ("things said"). Combined these three elements were also known as the apporheta, the "unrepeatables". I suggest the author reads Mylonas (Princeton University Press, 1974) for historic facts and Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) for facts and a sound thesis on LSA, an LSD like substance, being the active element of the Kykeon. While sneering, the author is missing out on an example and opportunity for a substantial test of his own theory. In Eleusis the mystical experience was not turned into a limiting religion, but applied in a structural way for its psychological and social benefits. How, why and with what more exact effect did they do that? Most of the great Greek thinkers are epopteia, initiates of Eleusis, and highly regarded the experience. As did the greatest and longest-lasting democratic leader Pericles, who has personally taken care the mystery was rebuild after being destroyed by the Persians, and who said: ‘…to be purified in the Mysteries … and so become the best ambassadors of Eleusis and the Athenian democracy.’
The moment of truth
Luckily on the next page (p. 48) we get a clue to as what this book actually is about: It is Marxist ideology and theology: “… we see religion become an industry in a capitalist sense. An elite group owns the resources (revealed knowledge) and the means of production (religious buildings, schools and so forth), while the public at large buys the product (salvation, peace of mind) and thus enriches the elite (witness the wealth of the Vatican and other major religious denominations).” The text implies that supposedly there exists something of spiritual value, otherwise nobody and thus no elite could own it. On page 231 the author concludes without providing any evidence about Upper Palaeolithic religious activities that “The whole religious enterprise was implicated in social discriminations”. But given the Marxist background, this had to be the result. This conclusion carries no information beyond conveying the prejudice of the author. However, by knowing this background, the book started to make sense and acquire its own value as example of Marxist ideology, theology and cognitive dissonance. The first thing that became recognizable is that the root of this book seems to be “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, which was published by Friedrich Engels in 1884.
Conceiving God is presenting Marxist theology that wants to connect:
- Spiritual experience to illness and psychopathology
- Spiritual practice to oppression
- Spiritual theory (called belief by the author) to indoctrination
In this supposedly scientific book we read (p 162): “Writing dictates precision, and precision inevitably leads to intolerance”. If this unsubstantiated statement were true, then we must believe that science is inevitably leading to intolerance, actually all information according to Shannon must lead to intolerance. Statements like this annoyed me first, but then I started to realize that this Marxist biased book is providing great insight in the real existing Marxist ideology. The text continues with: “On the other hand, small-scale, pre-literate societies do not have a mechanism for pinning down and passing on an approved formulation of beliefs, as a result, they are more humane”. First of all it is not so clear to me why “small-scale, pre-literate societies” by definition are “more humane” and the author does not explain it nor does he provide references. Surprising is that the author complains on many places that knowledge is not expressed and communicated. While it here is stated that: to “not have a mechanism for pinning down and passing on an approved formulation of beliefs” is by definition leading to a “more humane society”. This is not the only case in which the author expresses contradicting beliefs, I will point to more.
In Eleusis people had to refrain from a description of the experience by enforced law. Also the term “apporheta” (unrepeatables) conveys a nature of the Hiera which implies they even defy a fixed formulation. Unless the Homeric Hymn to Demeter also is deemed to be a means of oppression, Eleusis would have been a prime test case of the theory on the influence of the (non-)formulation of beliefs, if the author had not been blinded by disgust of the spiritual. Given the authors respect for the Hellenistic roots of the scientific tradition, missing this can be seen as a “Greek Tragedy”.
Ordinary is one of the most used words in the book, and it confuses me. The innocent ordinary people are the victims of religious oppression, but also a religious experience is ordinary because of its neurological basis and it being ubiquitous. Ordinary must depending on the context, convey a positive or a negative unsubstantiated emotion. It may convey that something is part of the well acquainted realm of the “ordinary people”. Or it must convey a negative emotion e.g. that a mystical experience is just an “ordinary neurological event”. Placing the experience in the realm of the ordinary seems to void it from its supposed value, which turns the ordinary itself into a supposedly inherently negative realm, puzzling...
This brings us to the point of the “Glorification of the Ordinary”, as is heavily present in this book. Why do Marxists / socialists glorify being ordinary, while by the Marxist / socialist definition being ordinary implies that you are an ignorant helpless victim? This glorification is central to this book as well. To me this is the Marxist enigma: Why are ordinary people always innocent helpless victims? Or are you ordinary, when you are a stupid victim? This definition would explain why the first statement is always true, why all members of the set of ordinary people always are innocent victims. Applying the right semantics, many statements can be made true. Why divide society in two classes? Why isn’t society a spectrum of deep, deeper and still deeper like the proposed model of consciousness? The concept of equality does not depend on Marxist class-divide-dialectics and pre-dates 19’th century materialism, see for instance “The spirit level, why equality is better for everyone” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The observation is, that ordinary people always pretend they “just did not know” or were “told to do so”, as exemplified by the ordinary Germans after May 9, 1945. Is the Marxist class division not just a way of trying to be exempt from liability? Everything wrong in society is not to be blamed on the innocent ordinary, but on the disgusting few; a tune that is an evergreen. In the Marxist case this are not the Jews, Indians, Black people, Homosexuals, Witches, or whatever disgusts you, but the people that have been able to become producers of material and/or spiritual value. Guides willing to help other people escape the ordinary are extra-disgusting. Indeed many creative people that had openly exempted themselves from the ordinary ended in the gulags.
On page 140 is written: “Some evidence suggests that experiences we may label religious originate in the right temporal lobe of the brain and may be neurologically akin, but not identical, to the experiences of temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia”. While on page 52 we did read: “This expression of doubt [in the observation of something “supernatural”] … seems to pre-empt any misgivings a reader or hearer may entertain.“ The pre-emptive expression of doubt the author expresses on page 140 and other places, doubtless serves the same purpose. Also, what is the value of mentioning something that is “akin, but not identical”, this is the language of politics not of science. Sadly this is not the only case of framing the information by deliberately creating deniable bias. While expressing reserve, the religious/mystical experience is actually linked to illness and psychopathology. But it is good for the author that he has been vague, since there has not been found a “God Spot” in the brain and as far as I know not many expect to find it. Beyond doubt the religious/mystical experience is rooted in a neurological phenomenon, but it most likely is a way of functioning of many parts of the brain and not the function of a specific region. See e.g. “Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin”, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1119598109.
The word autistic is cunningly used in this book. On page 143 we read a new definition of the word: “autistic – inward directed, but not pathological”. In the Wikipedia (EN, 2013-10-22) we read: “Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behaviour”. Luckily the author supplied a new more positive definition of autistic, so we must not accuse the author of denouncing word use ;). Autistic in its new meaning is not referring to a psychopathology, so we must believe. It is not pathological, it is not the common meaning. By applying this semantics the message is coded in a manner that can only be decoded correctly if we use a private code that is unlike a widely used common code. The trick is that the intended but deniable meaning of the message actually uses the common code knowing we will decode it as such, while the sender is pretending that a private code is being used. In my opinion this is not the way a scientist should use language, this is the way politicians use language. This is “newspeak” the use of language to create reality George Orwell wrote about in “1984”; War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength, Autistic is not pathological.
This is a semantic trick to create deniable bias, this is a way of deliberate framing.
Illness and psychopathology
On many places in the book a religious experience is linked to illness and/or psychopathology, with the clear intent of discrediting without reasonable argument. E.g. on page 256 Oliver Sacks’ description of migraine is cited and then we read “This is true of hallucinations triggered by other factors as well…” not substantiating why this can be generalized. Hildegard von Bingen is prominently presented, while it is only supposed to be a case of migraine (p 236, etc.). This linking to illness and psychopathology is counter-productive and only serves to show the author’s lack of argument. By calling the mystical/religious experience an autistic state, the author is expressing disgust with newspeak, this actually discredits the author. The eggs are landing on the authors own face here. If a mystical experience indeed is positively correlated to psychopathology, than this can be researched and statements should be backed by research. As far as research goes, the contrary seems to be the case, e.g. MacLean, Johnson and Griffiths, Johns Hopkins University - Journal of Psychopharmacology 25(11) 1453–1461: “Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin (and other classic hallucinogens with actions mediated at the 5-HT2A receptor site) lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. A large body of evidence, including longitudinal analyses of personality change, suggests that core personality traits are predominantly stable after age 30. To our knowledge, no study has demonstrated changes in personality in healthy adults after an experimentally manipulated discrete event. Intriguingly, double-blind controlled studies have shown that the classic hallucinogen psilocybin occasions personally and spiritually significant mystical experiences that predict long-term changes in behaviours, attitudes and values. In the present report we assessed the effect of psilocybin on changes in the five broad domains of personality – Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. Consistent with participant claims of hallucinogen-occasioned increases in aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and creativity, we found significant increases in Openness following a high-dose psilocybin session. In participants who had mystical experiences during their psilocybin session, Openness remained significantly higher than baseline more than 1 year after the session. The findings suggest a specific role for psilocybin and mystical-type experiences in adult personality change.” Also see “Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study” by Teri S. Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen. “The researchers found that lifetime use of psilocybin or mescaline and past year use of LSD were associated with lower rates of serious psychological distress. Lifetime use of LSD was also significantly associated with a lower rate of outpatient mental health treatment and psychiatric medicine prescription.” (www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-08/nuos-lao081813.php) As mentioned before, according to the author we can project this on the dawn of civilisation.
To me this book is a prime example of Cognitive Dissonance. It must indeed be very tough for a Marxist atheist theologist [obviously I realize the author does not advocate himself as theologist] that the communist religion is disappearing because of a lack of understanding of spirituality and the defunct appreciation of the creation of value in general. Being thrown over by something that aggressively is declared to not exist must hurt surely. But according to the pre-emptive self-qualification on page 259, an indeed ignorant, hubristic, overweening, offensive, insulting, disrespectful, and, yes, ‘fundamentalist’, attack will not help. I do appreciate that Capitalists and Marxists alike agree that Marxism lost out to Capitalism, but the historic facts do suggest that actually it lost out to religion. Which I’m not particularly happy about, but you can’t deny gravity.
Central to the book is the idea that universally present neurological events can be interpreted as a religious type of experience, but are not necessarily interpreted as an experience of extra-natural origin. Universally present must also be understood as that everybody is acquainted with it. The author suggests that the reported mystical experiences essentially not differ from the ordinary (e.g. p 154). It is just a matter of deep, deeper and still deeper until we are in a mysterious positive-autistic state. The only reason not all people reach this positive-autistic state is that the disgusting few have monopolized this universal present neurological event. The author explicitly claims that statements by “the few” who are acquainted with the experience that certain knowledge cannot be transmitted from person to person by verbal communication, is a way of guarding a monopoly. This implies he claims to know for sure that the relevant knowledge is transmittable by explicit symbolic communication (words) from person to person, but that aside for now. The author is presenting contradictory beliefs here, he does not explain how something that is present in everybody’s minds, can be monopolized. Which is a pity because the author knows the essence of all religions given e.g. page 255: “In all religions, ordinary people mistakenly think that ritual specialists know more than they in fact do know” and “As in all [emphasis by the author] religions, we have here an example of select people – ‘the initiated men of that dance’ – supposedly knowing more than other people and being respected for their knowledge”. This “being respected” is what seems to disgust the author profoundly.
To me this raises the questions of how ordinary people are distinguished from ritual specialists, which is answered on the same page: “We must also remember that the ways in which visionaries apprehend religious knowledge differ from the ways in which ordinary people learn about things. For visionaries, sacred information is not second-hand, learned from others. Visionaries actually see the things first-hand, face to face. And part of their ‘secret’ is the mode of acquiring their visions”. The ritual specialist is already distinguished before he became it, since being it is part of the learning process. The visionary becomes a visionary by a secret act that only is open to visionaries. The conclusion of this is that the “creation out of nothing problem” also exists for Marxists. But admittedly only Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Baron von Münchhausen (1720-1797) has published a plausible solution to this problem: we have to lift ourselves by our own hair out of the swamp.
However pressingly the author will demand to be told the secret, that according to the author is both almost in a divine way non-existent and the object of a dispisible monopoly at the same time, nobody will ever be able to pass the secret to someone who has self-declared that he is not willing to grasp it. The author knows for sure the mystical experience is ridiculous, God forbid he may experience it (which the author allows us to say, see p. 290). To cite page 256 again: “Among the San, most young men strive to become !gi:ten by dancing with an experienced !gi:xa, but many abandon their attempt because, so they say, the transition to the spiritual realm is too painful and terrifying. The ultimate ‘secret’ thus remains with the brave few”. I can see that in Marxism having earned something by effort and pain that others are too lame or cowardly for, is by definition reprehensible. The mystification of all possession of value as being stolen, being withheld by the reprehensible few from the naive ordinary many, is the basis of the Marxist model. This can be seen as at the core of the Marxist /socialist lack of understanding of how value is created. It seems to me that this is an explanation for all Marxist / socialist envy, including spiritual envy. The study of the San culture is the author’s intellectual home base, but without being an !gi:xa it is hard to explain what an !gi:xa is. For someone who is experienced it is clear that this knowledge cannot be communicated from human to human by words, while this kind of secret is free in the material and intellectual sense for every free and courageous human to acquire. As a guide you may be perfectly willing to help someone sincere to become acquainted with the experience, while rightfully not being capable to use words. And actually for good reasons the guide may not be willing to use words. My advice to the author is that whatever one’s age, one can always try to become !gi:ten by dancing with an experienced !gi:xa.
I’ve been reluctant to put this in and I’ve taken it out and put it in again, in both cases because it is very personal and because it may be appreciated as well as declined as an implicit“argumentum ab auctoritate”. What I like about the book is that it made me think of the evening the Master Musicians of Jajouka performed in Utrecht and I was invited to join them on stage. That it made me think of dancing near to the stage in close harmony to Captain Beefhaert (Don van Vliet) playing clarinet in the Amsterdam Concert building, something he would recall on his initiative vividly years later when we were invited back-stage and talked for hours with a couple of friends. And many more dances with a more or less experienced !gi:xa. Nothing written here is more true or less true as a fact because of these experiences, they are private. But what formal knowledge would be able to replace these experiences, not doubting formal knowledge adds value? How does one hope to connect?
Are you experienced?
From reading this book I think it is safe to conclude that the author is glad to be lacking a personal mystical experience. But can you know what the taste of an orange is by only reading and talking about it? Only experience ends virginity. Even pictures and movies will not help. And isn´t it strange to hear virgins talk about sex, like Catholic priests do? (Assuming they are virgins…) Obviously a virgin can study the sex others have, although I think most would agree it is helpful to be acquainted with the subject. Not so the author, he claims that only people who distance themselves from the religious experience can think productively about religion (interview). But the opinions of a virgin on having sex are definitely not very relevant. On page 37 we read:”People who have never had a great mystical experience are bemused by the accounts of such experiences that they hear others describe with such fervour”. Now replace mystical by sexual, and guess who is most bemused. In my opinion it is easy to agree on the fact that it is the experienced who also knows what the virgin knows, and not the other way around as the author wants us to believe. That is basic set theory. Or it must be that after an experience someone’s view of the world has permanently changed in a flawed way. The San are cited as saying (p 151): “Once you turn into a lion, you always have the lion inside you. Just thinking about the time that you turned into the lion brings you back its power… The transformation has to take place only once and then you have that power for life”. And indeed research suggests that the experience induces a permanent change; MacLean, Johnson and Griffiths, Johns Hopkins University - Journal of Psychopharmacology 25(11) 1453–1461. But both the San and this research also suggest it is not flawed by definition.
Let me tell about an interview on TV with a journalist pressing a leading politician for a clear simple strong opinion on a complex practical issue, and the politician sincerely trying to explain the complexity. Then the journalist is saying; “You know much more about the issue than I do, and even I have an opinion.” Exemplifying that the less people know, the more opinion they have. The politician obviously only had the option of smiling friendly in return.
The Model and Hallucinations
Remarkably the author has a clear intellectual picture of the AUB - Absolutely Unitary Being. The author proposes in my opinion rightfully that (page 152): “religion is one way of explaining a transforming ‘altered state of consciousness’ experience. Other cultures point to yet another way of understanding the same neurologically generated experience. It is the ´oceanic´ or ´one with the universe´ experience, sometimes known as Absolute Unitary Being (AUB).” On the AUB some very precise remarks are made (p. 151-154):
- In Buddhism, it is related to Nirvana, a state of bliss, happiness and Ultimate Reality.
- The process stalls the normal functioning of the brain and the discrimination it makes.
- It more or less collapses in upon itself and becomes one. People in this state feel that boundaries between themselves and others (including the world itself) break down.
- This is what William James described as ‘a reconciliation’, an experience that ‘soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself’
This sounds good, but the possible insight that might have been gained is destroyed by a private and dysfunctional model of consciousness. Presenting a metaphor based on the spectrum of light, the author proposes a complex spectrum of consciousness with a ´normal´ and an ´abnormal´ trajectory (page 140…). This mainly exemplifies that Marxists always must divide, it is the Pavlov reflex to get Marxist class-dialectics working.
The states of consciousness are being positioned on a private hypothetical and non-informative trajectory of intensification from alert to autistic, the recognized stages are: deep, deeper and `still deeper`. (p 146 – 148).
- Deep = “It often starts with geometric mental images”, people are aware of visual hallucinations of a universal form that originate “anywhere in the optic system” and thus are called Entoptic.
- Deeper = “They begin to try to make sense of the entopic forms they are seeing by construing them as objects with emotional or religious significance”
- Still deeper = “Subjects find themselves in a bizarre, ever-changing world of enveloping hallucinations that is comparable to dreaming but that is more intense, more memorable and more prolonged.”
To this is added: “Another feature of three-stage experiences like these is that the entoptic forms of stage one persist, peripherally or integrated with iconic hallucinations.” Using a three stage model and the term “three-stage experiences like these”, without explicitely refering to van Gennep’s model while pretending to be aware of it, is odd. As a sidestep of sneering at the Turners, van Gennep’s theory has been turned into a parody of it by the author in a way that makes me suspect he is not realy acquainted with it (p 202 -203): “The anthropologist Victor Turner and his wife Edith analysed pilgrimage in terms of a schema of stages and liminality that was constructed by an earlier anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep. Van Gennep divided rites of passage (such as from childhood to adulthood) into phases, First, novices separate themselves from their past. Then, in a liminal condition, they allow images and doctrines to impact on themselves in highly charged situations. Finally they return to society remade, in a new form. This, argue the Turners, is what pilgrimage is all about. People return internally changed. Today researchers are weary of such broad generalizations”. Note the interpretation of indoctrination, the passive victim is allowing that images and doctrines impact him whilke being out of society. And again art is positioned as instrument of oppression. This is a very private interpretation that in all reason cannot be associated with van Gennep’s book and model. It is obvious that this non-motivated private vague model that clearly shows a total absence of experience and knowledge is not going to replace a well motivated and functional model that is much wider accepted and has proven to be applicable to many rituals. For instance both the Hymn to Demeter (Eleusis) and “the Psychedelic Experience” by Leary, Alpert and Metzner, which is an interpretation of the Buddhist/Bön model as presented in the “Bardo Thödol” (liberation by hearing), are in accordance with van Gennep’s model. A “rite of passage” is a well known much used model. Google returns about 7.680.000 results for "rite of passage". Saying that “Today researchers are weary of such broad generalizations” without being more precise, discredits the author. Applying Occam’s razor could have saved the author from coming up with a private dysfunctional model, the world has advanced since Thales.
Visual hallucinations are given a prime position by the author. The intensity of the visual hallucinations is regarded as a measure of “deepness” of the experience. In the book hallucinations are called Entopic Forms. This term clearly expresses the limitation of hallucinations to the visual (p 144), which is an essential aspect of the book. Heinrich Klüver is the author’s guide. But since Klüver published about his mescaline research and classification of `form constants` in 1926, we have learned more about visual hallucinations and about cognitive hallucinations in general. In addition the Buddhist/Bön/Taoist traditions were present all the time for explanation, but obviously by being associated with the religious, this cannot be of any value to this author. From the book it is clear the author has no clue about what hallucinations might be, and interestingly the author poses the right questions but does not productively elaborate on the idea that God is a hallucination comparable to the money hallucination, debt and violence being some of the common elements. The author writes: “I [the author] argue that the social and psychological functions of religion are better thought of as a consequent upon the ‘imagining’ of gods. The real questions are: What does ‘imagining’ mean? What leads people everywhere to suspect the existence of an unseen realm?” Again seeing the author being so close and then finally not delivering, is very puzzling. But this tension is also what makes the book still interesting despite its flaws.
As a sidestep and to inform the reader I will try to explain in a few lines and in a nutshell what to my knowledge hallucinations and the mystical experience are: Calling a set of brain-functions the Default Mode Network, the neurological component of the mystical experience seems to be a temporary more or less complete shutdown of the DMN and the associated continuous interpretation of reality. (See e.g. “Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin”, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1119598109.) Existing neurological routes are less likely taken and new associations, meaning and value can be linked to real sensations and to hallucinations. Although visual hallucinations draw most attention in literature all senses are open to hallucinations and synesthesia. The mechanism of vision and visual hallucinations is too complex to elaborate on here, see e.g. “The Vision Revolution”, Mark Changizi, 2009 and “Visual Thinking for Design”, Colin Ware, 2008. Hallucinations in general are not well studied by Western science, but for a study see: “Hallucinations”, Oliver Sacks, 2012. Essential is that this “mystical experience” state may lead to a more or less temporary new interpretation of reality, of the day-to-day observations. Also it essential to understand that trained people will not hallucinate in this state, that actually it is the total clear perception of reality free from hallucinations that especially the Buddhist/Bön/Taoist spititual tradition is teaching and seeking. But also well prepared and well guided psychedelic sessions in a supportive set and setting can deliver such a non-hallucinatory experience. The main issue in both Buddhist and psychedelic guidance is to help people not to hallucinate, or at least just enjoy the visual and general cognitive hallucinations but not take them for anything more than a hallucination; an expression of their own fears and desires, our ego. The experiences the Moon and space travellers reported also are not part of a visual hallucinatory experience. The experience is primarily marked by the shift to an awareness of “all being one and one being all”; the AUB as the author calls it. In traditional cultures this experience is associated with clearly seeing; leading to“clearvoyance”. Being able to see reality without hallucinating indeed leads to some “clearvoyance”, creating a model that will deliver better predictions of the expected result of a test is the essence of science. And obviously it is easier to see what is going to happen when one can see beyond the direct private fears and hopes, bust most people love their hallucinations; their opinions, taste, disgust, etc... People are struggling to understand how to appreciate this state. But we can consider it to be an established fact that the mystical experience is a distinguishable observable that is not characterized by “levels of deepness” of visual hallucinations. On the contrary, the absence of cognitive hallucination is what distinguishes this state from daily consciousness. Visual hallucinations, unless interpreted hallucinatory, are not an issue in this respect, and given the right preparation and guidance they do not interfere and may not occur or disappear fast and easy. Visual hallucinations do not necessarily lead to cognitive hallucinations. One of the cardinal points the author has gotten wrong is interpreting visual hallucinations as the essence of the mystical experience.
Stopping the cognitive hallucinations is what is called freeing yourself from your ego. Transcending the ego is what the San rightfully recognize as disturbing and fearful: “the transition to the spiritual realm is too painful and terrifying”. If you doubt that, look into German and American torture research, see: “Torture and Impunity”, Alfred W. McCoy, 2012. Interestingly the violent techniques used to break the ego for evil interrogation are to some extend exactly the same techniques we use voluntarily for self-interrogation, to break our own ego. The mystical experience is also combat training. If you have broken your own ego it becomes hard for evil interrogators to compromise it again. The San say (p 151): “Once you turn into a lion, you always have the lion inside you. Just thinking about the time that you turned into the lion brings you back its power… The transformation has to take place only once and then you have that power for life”. The USA military has put a lot of research into these aspects of the human mind and have considerably extended the research by the Nazi´s that was carried out in Dachau from 1933 to 1945, having taken many of the researchers and the information to the USA. Research at mainly American and Canadian universities has added a lot to the knowledge of deprivation and reality distortion in the quest for deniable torture. We have seen the results of this reserach in e.g. Abu Ghraib and it can be seen today in Guantanamo Bay. The potential painfull and terrifying aspects of the experience as recognized by the San are confirmed by applied scientific research.
Looking deep into visual and cognitive hallucinations will not tell much about the essence of this experience. The whole essence is to stop hallucinating; the common day unrecognized hallucinations make our daily life so difficult. The success of the scientific method is a proof of the success of stopping to hallucinate in a systematic manner. Hallucinations definitely are not a measure of “deepness” of the experience.
While the spirit of Thales of Miletus and the Hellenic Milesians is clearly present in the book, William of Ockham and his razor are dearly missed. The “spectrum of consciousness” is a superfluous private model; it does not survive Occam’s razor. One should not only refrain from extra-natural explanations as per Thales, but from any superfluous assumption as per Ockham. Thales of Miletus and William of Ockham are some of our best guides when we want to stop the day-to-day hallucinations, just as Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann (entropy), Claude Elwood Shannon (information), etc.
Actually it is not about having the mystical/religious experience but about being transformed by it. The integration is important, the transformation requires more than just having an experience. This transformation is a scientific observable and definitely not something extra-natural, see for instance the cited studies. The author seems to miss that we are nowadays talking about “The Mystical Experience in the age of its Mechanical Reproduction”. The experience has become repeatable with a high degree of probability and within a realistic time frame, for instance space travel offers an experimental environment as do psychedelics. Walter Benjamin must be to the liking of the author and “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” which was published in 1936, could guide him to understand the political implications of the mystical experience. The author does not need to be afraid that we ask him to leave all common ground. Rational politics is not with Marxism thrown out of the window.
On page 141 we read “A metaphor does not imply total identity - …. So the spectrum of consciousness that I now describe is an aid to understanding, not an empirical description. A metaphor can thus be a model, a framework into which we can fit our observations.” And that is what the author does, fitting his observations into a dysfunctional model. The model is self-declared to be personal and as such defies the principle that science must be universal. This model misses the point completely and is useless, detrimental even. The fictitious drawing on page 141 is worse than the Freudian fictitious drawings of the Ich and the Es, etc.
The self-declared and evident lack of experience seems not to have been of great help here.
The pervasive wish to express the utter disgust of God, religion and people that are deemed to be religious, makes the author miss out on more. The work of Arnold van Gennep and Victor & Edith Turner is linked to pilgrimage and thus to holy wars (p 203): “Like other religious practices, they [pilgrimages] are implicated in exploitative and intellectually crippling strategies”. I guess the author wanted to put it mildly so as to reach people that are not yet ”on his side” with compelling arguments. In his attack on van Gennep’s or on Turner’s model, which of the models he is attacking does not become explicitly clear, he states: “Today researchers are weary of such broad generalizations”. But as a backing of this “argumentum ab auctoritate” (argument of authority) the author only references to the disputed book of Eade & Sallnow (2000) on pilgrimage. So most likely the author is referencing one work of the Turners: “Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Athropological perspectives”, 1978. I did not read that and thus cannot comment on it. Meanwhile the author is presenting his own broad generalization. As a side step I find it interesting to see how the work of the Turners and communitas and joy are opposing the Marxism / communism oppression theory. Again the author only needs a few lines and a sneer to declare a theory of zero value. In this case it is understandable he can not agree with the Turners, but some arguments beyond referring to authority with the objective of discrediting would have been most welcome here.
Van Gennep’s model has nothing to do with pilgrimage, and I do not remember having come across the word pilgrimage in van Gennep’s book “Les Rites de Passage” (1909, ”The Rites of Passage”, University of Chicago Press, 1960). Missing out on van Gennep’s model may explain why the author is interpreting the position of narrow passages in the French caves so narrowly. Page 226: “I argue that Upper Palaeolithic people felt that not only whole caves but also narrow passages within them were in some way parallel to, or even identical with, the neurologically engendered experience of a constricting vortex that separates mental experiences of markedly different kinds”. A misguiding focus on visual hallucinations limits the interpretation of the passages to being an expression of a hallucination of a “constricting vortex”. The author is missing the wider interpretation as a possible physical element of the second phase in a ritual according to van Gennep´s model, or symbolic expression thereof.
Why would the reprehensible few of the Upper Palaeolithic people want to go to great lengths to express the experience of a constricting vortex? Just to turn the innocent ordinary people into victims of oppression? And how then, does this turn ´ordinary people´ into these “innocent helpless victims”? By the few guarding a secret that by the author is believed to be non-existent? Are all the ordinary people really so stupid? Given the content of TV and movies plus the use of social media the author may be more right than I like to think. Some research, numbers, could shed light, we already have enough opinions.
This book is a prime example of reality being formed by what one wants to see and thus is capable of seeing, the confirmation bias. Or to cite the Talmud: ‘We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are’, which is what scientists are supposed to transcend by applying scientific methods. On page 227 is written: “Penetration into the depths of both caves and minds legitimated the interests of the few and distanced the rest of the community, as religion always does”. This statement exemplifies that Marxism is another mind-narrowing religion. This should be read as: Since the author strongly beliefs without providing further evidence that religion always does distance the few from the rest of community, he concludes without any observation providing evidence, that this was also the case in pre-history. The language suggests logic reasoning, and logic is objective and universal. Apply a logic statement to a wrong observation/statement and it renders a wrong conclusion. But by applying the same logic to the observation that his conclusion is false, we can now conclude that the author´s observation/statement was false. Just to be sure about the applied scheme of reasoning: If A is stated to always have property B, and we observe an A without property B, then the statement that every A has property B was false. So if we observe a form of spirituality that is not linked to oppression, then the statement that religion always leads to oppression is false, one of the author’s main assumptions and tools of explanation.
It is most peculiar that actually we read on page 256 a clear description that the knowledge is accessible to everyone: “Among the San, most young men strive to become !gi:ten by dancing with an experienced !gi:xa, but many abandon their attempt because, so they say, the transition to the spiritual realm is too painful and terrifying. The ultimate ‘secret’ thus remains with the brave few”. To me this does not sound like a report of a well-guarded monopoly, exclusiveness and oppression. I find that this book does express a lot of disrespect for the San by adding: “so they say”. Must we think that anything the author has written on the San is based on information that had to be re-interpreted by the author, because these people supposedly cannot communicate what actually they think or actually is the case?
Other examples to the contrary of what the author states can be found in “The Ritual Process” by Victor Turner, on page 9 we read: “I soon discovered that the Ndembu were not at all resentful of a stranger’s interest in their ritual system and were perfectly prepared to admit to its performances anyone who treated their beliefs with respect”. Turner continues with: “We copied this example [of Dr. Livingstone always involving local medicine man], and this may have been one reason why we were allowed to attend the esoteric phases of several rites and obtain what cross-checking suggested were reasonably reliable interpretations … By “reliable:, I mean, of course, that the interpretations were, on the whole, mutually consistent. …. Rather than the free associations or eccentric views of individuals”. This text may clarify why David Lewis-Williams did not have access to the secret knowledge; being disrespectful seems to be the issue. The model presented by the author is in my opinion an example of free associations and an eccentric view. On page 10 Turner writes: “Most Ndembu, both men and woman, were members of at least one cult association, and it was hard to find an elderly person who was not an ‘expert in the secret knowledge of more than one cult”’. Again this is hard to interpret as exclusiveness or a culture with an oppressing few. As a final example; in modern psychedelic sessions the non-authoritarian principle is essential, see: “The Psychedelic Experience”, Leary, Metzner, Alpert, 1966 and “The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journey”, James Fadiman, 2011, etc.
So the conclusion must be that the author’s statement is false. We have presented enough observations to conclude that it is now well enough proven that spirituality is not by definition linked to oppression.
Unless of course some spiritual activities are because of their non- oppressiveness declared to be non-religious/non-spiritual, which would render the whole exercise to a simple matter of semantics. Which is something the author tends to, the use of the word autism is an example. But the title does not suggest that it wants to appeal to people that are interested in the definition of what we are calling religion, something many religious people are curious about it seems, but that it appeals to people who are interested in the essence of what religion is; what its cognitive origins are, how it did evolve.
David Lewis-Williams did not do what Turner did. In Turner’s the “The Ritual Proces” we read on page 7: ”Eventually, I was forced that if I wanted to know what even a segment of Ndembu culture was really about, I would have to overcome my prejudice against ritual and start to investigate it. … But it is one thing to observe people performing stylized gestures and singing the cryptic songs of ritual performances and quite another to reach an adequate understanding of what the words and movements and words mean to them.” David Lewis-Williams has indeed only tried to understand what rituals may mean to him, or actually how they can be interpreted so as to confirm the Marxist paradigm.
Politics and propaganda
The issues that arise when spiritual value is treated as a commodity of limited supply are at the core of the erroneous Marxist paranoid model of society. Obviously spiritual value cannot be owned in the sense that acquiring it, is limiting the possibilities of somebody else being able to acquire it. Actually it is the other way around. Somebody who has acquired spiritual value can start to act as a guide and help other people to acquire it too. And often people just like to do that. Altruism is genuine and not a means of oppression. The internet is filled with data people just like to share, be it informative or not. And indeed also desinformation is published to make you do or accept something against your interest. The internet functions also as an open sewer, but that is the contrary of exclusiveness. There is not some limited supply of spiritual wealth and there are no means of production that can be monopolized. All of these hallucinations arise from Marxist envy and paranoia that can be translated to the material realm. The fact that we know for sure that spiritual value can not be monopolized helps to see that the Marxist view of the world is also erroneous when applied to the material world. The victimisation of the ordinary people is not valid in the spiritual realm and not in the material realm. For brevity I do not elaborate on this here, and anybody can take this thought further. Actually communism, or “real existierender Sozialismus“, is a great example of the fact that the root of oppression is beyond religion. Oppression and killing citizens is one of the main properties of communist regimes. For oppression people do do not need a spiritual religion, any religion will do as exemplified by the Marxist / socialist religion. Just believe to know something for sure, feel a need to save the world, create some disgust about a minority, and war rages. Now you only have to find a way to get profit out of that, which is what we call politics and not religion.
This is not to say that religion cannot be part of the problem. The current oil wars in Iraq/Afghanistan are definitely in the interest of a fundamentalist Christian group and nation. And it is not only the oil, but also the clear wish to destroy other cultures that is the reason for this war: ”Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone. They cannot feel secure so long as we are there, for our very existence — our existence, not our politics — threatens their legitimacy. They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission.” (“The War Against the Terror Master”, 2003, Michael Ledeen, a leading neocon theoretician). But that is not exclusive to PNAC and American Capitalist exceptionalism. Communists, Christians, Muslims, etc. also want to wipe out cultures and did so. The point her is that these fundamentalist Christians are using the political realm to get the profits of the war they started and not the spiritual realm. The religious realm is clearly used to support the propaganda of exceptionalism but that is not the essence. The money that is made by the people who started this war is the essence. And there is nothing spiritual to the profit that the people who took the decisions have arranged for themselves. Patriotism is just as good as God or other Great Ideals if you want to blind the people at large, you just have to present a “Big Lie”. To quote an expert in propaganda and deception: “All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”, Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X, 1925. This text of the evil “Werberedner” is not as stupid as we may hope. Given that he refered to the Jews as producing the Big Lie while presenting it himself ,it was a genial trick. Whatever the source of the Big Lie theory, it is proven in practice by the Nazi's, as was done before and is being done again and again. A cocktail of poison may reach the parts other propaganda does not reach, as Nazism has proven. Adding religion makes the mix more potent. But the conclusion is that religion is not the essence of the problem but that a generic exceptionalism may be at the core of the ideology of any “Mordor”, any Black Land.
Propaganda and deception may work so well because the people at large want to hallucinate, we hope to be bigger then we are. Most of us have decided we are above average and we need continuous confirmation to keep this aberration up. (See e.g. Scientific American Mind, sept/oct 2013, “The pitfalls of self-esteem”) American exceptionalism is not exceptional and the fact that it can be stated so bluntly is not exceptional too. Exceptionalism is sadly enough not exceptional at all. Most of us believe we are an Übermensch. We look for confirmation of our greatness all the time on TV, in games and in books… The essence of social media is the exchange of hallucinations of the self, an oppressor is not needed. Many people spent voluntarily a lot of energy and time on maintaining these hallucinations, sometimes multiple. People lead a different life that is shaped by the hallucination they wish to present. People do things so that the record of it is a potential part of a hallucination on social media. And people enjoy sharing these hallucinations. May be because they are constructed to express our fears and hopes and as such inform about this. May be this is because our self is nothing but a shared story. See e.g. “The Self Illusion - How the Social Brain Creates Identity”, Bruce Hood, 2012.
It is obvious that the spiritual realm is wide open to cognitive hallucinations. But there clearly is something more central, more essential, within humans leading to surrender to authority. Why do we hallucinate authoritarian Gods, why do we hallucinate obedience to authority? Why do more Americans doubt man landed on the moon than doubt the existence af an extra-natural God, an entity that personally cares for your obese ego, the particular one ego of the 7 billion or over 300 million there are whathever the horizon is? (see e.g.: www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx) Polls taken in various locations have shown that between 6% and 20% of Americans surveyed believe that the manned moon landings were faked. For more numbers see Wikipedia “Moon landing conspiracy theories” and http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=moon-landing-faked-why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories) Why don’t we believe what is true and do we believe what is extra-natural? Why do we seek to deny free will? Is it just to not be liable? The big question is: Why are people so docile and why are especially the ordinary people so disgusting docile?
May be this is a part of the explanation: “Research suggests that in some cases belief in conspiracy theories can actually be psychologically adaptive and beneficial, as the very premise of conspiracies implies a powerful, hidden force at work with some overarching grand design. [Comment: Sounds like God, doesn’t it] Conspiracy theorists see a hidden hand behind the world's major events, including social and political changes. Even though conspiracy theorists claim to want to expose the conspiracy and thwart its goals (such as establishing a New World Order), some take comfort that the world is not merely random — that things happen for a reason. Though conspiracy believers don't feel in control of the events, they feel that at least someone is (or a small cabal of powerful "someones" are)”. Source: http://www.livescience.com/28428-conspiracy-beliefs-by-political-party.html
Our model of reality obviously serves more purposes than only providing the best possible forecast, we also have to integrate our behaviour and experiences, our life, into what we feel is the best possible story we can imagine. The convergence of many of these private stories may be explained by assuming that people, just like TV and movie studio’s, think that copying a successful story line is an easy way to create their own movie or so-called career that also will be successful. Where successful is to be understood as popular, a vague concept, for instance I do not get the impression there exists a positive correlation between information content of TV programs and popularity. Without this actual uniformity Big Data would not work. Most of us seem to have decided that the story of our life should not be suprising but shocking, just as the movies and TV. In the Shannon sense it should be free of information but it should have the “chockwirkung” Walter Benjamin wrote about, look at Facebook. Rather we are not confronted with the reality that we are not an Übermensch, actually we are the new boss waiting to get our chance. I think that this is what propaganda is appealing to. Successful politicians use a language that is like the language of astrology, many people can “feel” this is about them in special, because actually it is very diffuse. Using very specific information-free semantics and grammar that appeals to the ego, for instance both Ayatollah Khomeiny and the family Bush members have proven what can be accomplished by selling a very diffuse ideology that actually is a Rorschach test on which many people can base their own movie and feel they are one of the better few. The essence of propaganda is to confirm as many people as possible that they are the special ones whose particular interests are as much as possible represented, more than the interests of “the others”. It is clear that to be succesfull you have to appeal pseudo-privately to as many people as possible. The (groups of) persons who have found the images and mastered the language that are needed to span this paradox, rule. The Big Lie is the best known instrument.
Conspiracy theories are a strategy to cope with complexity and uncertainty. People who lack control, who feel powerless and uncertain [added comment: which is not unreasonable to expect to pertain in a higher degree to people who feel they belong to the “ordinary people” that is oppressed by “the few”], are more likely to perceive illusory patterns. Conspiracy theories suggest a structure and purpose where actually there is none, observing patterns where there are none fills in a need for structure and organization. Conspiracy theories are Hallucinations. (www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=moon-landing-faked-why-people-believe-conspiracy-theories)
In absence of a clear view of the world, an authoritarian God conspiracy may be the best people can make of reality as a coping strategy. God and religion are in this view regarded pragmatic issues. They are one of the many coping strategies, which are valued on the basis of their effect and not on how “real” it is. Good instruments for propaganda will be used for that purpose, which again reinforces their usefulness for that purpose, religion is not excluded.
It is objectionable that in this book guidance is being put in a negative context of oppression. In this book guidance is connected to the powerful and appalling elite wanting to keep the poor, defenceless, only good willing, innocent “ordinary people” in chains. The guidance by initiates in Eleusis is a prime example of the contrary.
Putting guidance in a negative context of oppression is a real bad, objectionable and detrimental aspect of this book and a reason to actively debunk the myths it spreads.
To quote Harvard Professor Timothy Leary’s psychedelic prayers:
In the greatest sessions one does not know that there is a guide
In the next best sessions one praises the guide
It is worse when one fears the guide
The worst is that one pays him
If the guide lacks trust in the people
Then the trust of the people will be lacking
The wise guide guards his words
The wise guide sits serenely
When the greatest session is over
The people will say "It all happened naturally“
Or "It was so simple, we did it all ourselves."
The author recognizes the relevance of the psychedelic experience (p 154) and the fact that the human mind did not change significantly in the past 50.000 years or so. Also according to the way of thinking of the author, any observation and theory on the psychedelic experience and practice now, also tells something about what happened during the dawn of civilisation. I invite the author to take note of information beyond what is confirming the Marxist myths of oppression and victimisation.
19’th Century Materialism
The book is rooted in 19’th century materialism; quantum theory and the accompanying mysticism have not appeared on the radar yet. On page 275 we read: “With good reason, spirituality has been called ‘religion’s poor cousin’ … “this is, of course, a downgraded version of the ‘eternal soul’ of religious teaching”. The negative uninformative suggestive tone again actually only is a sign of lack of argument. The author's “as always” does not explain with what “good reason”, but “of course” the author only references one complete book. May I suggest reading “Quantum Questions” by Ken Wilber to get a picture of the non-extra-natural mysticism of some eminent quantum physicists.
It is intriguing that the following basic assumptions of the book align with my vision, while I’m convinced finally the author is missing the point completely:
- The neurological basis of a “Real Existing Absolute Unitary Being (AUB) / mystical experience” is accepted as a central fact
- No Gods or extra-natural realm is needed to integrate the mystical experience
- Hallucinating Gods is a dangerous idea that leads to dangerous practice
- Morality should be free from extra-natural origin
- Thales of Miletus and William James are respected sources
The author is not all negative; the people who are acquainted with AUB’s but stay away from the extra-natural, are seen as sound not-ordinary people. And in that he is right, but the author does not pay much attention to this, being absorbed by fighting the righteous battle.
To be dismissed
Page 254 and 255 contain great information, but to understand it, the explanation of the author should be dismissed. It is easy to understand that not everybody will agree that the explanation of this widely acknowledged San scholar should be dismissed. This is why the book is dangerous just as the bible and Koran are dangerous, it’s authority allows it to misinform the innocent ordinary reader by presenting an extra-realistic explanation, in this case Marxist, without the poor victim being aware of it. Do I suggest some parallels here? Yes, when atheism becomes religion it has the same problems.
However, at least the author recognizes that his own and thus most close observations pose a problem for the theory. After in chapter 9 trying to discredit Hildegard von Bingen as good as possible, the author continues with: “The San present a more complex situation. Unlike hierarchical medieval Europe, San communities are widely recognized as essentially egalitarian. They have no chiefs and decisions … are taken collectively. On the surface, it appears that San !gi:ten do not enjoy the sort of status that priests in Christian churches have, or that Hildegard enjoyed. They perform all the usual daily tasks … They do not wear distinguishing clothes; nor do they live in separate places. In a camp, visitors can discern no special deference accorded to !gi:ten.” Complex is here to be interpreted as ‘compromising the theory’. Note that we are informed this egalitarianism is only present “on the surface”. By divine power the author can look through the surface and see an extra-reality in the Platonian realm of ideas. It can not be the case that the people report accurately what they experience, it needs interpretation.To continue: “Yet they [!ix:ten] are respected. Indeed some become famous and may be summoned from afar to treat a sick person. The status of !gi:ten in general is best seen after a dance when people sit and listen attentively to their reports of activities and beings in the spirit realm”. Why “yet” and why should the ordinary people want to listen attentively and voluntarily to non-sense uttered by the oppressing few who actually are equals and seem to have no means of oppression other than their non-sense reports of activities and beings in the spirit realm? These people must have been able to learn from experience and assess the result of listening to !ig:ten. Or does the author seriously postulate that ordinary people are totally stupid and helpless and cannot reflect?
But then we learn that it is the images on the walls of the caves that turn the people into innocent zombie slaves: “In addition, we must consider the social impact of the images that the San painted on rock shelters. … They constantly reminded people not only of the closeness of the spirit world behind the ‘veil’, but also that !gi:ten had access to that realm”. It is a narrow escape, but the Marxist oppression theory is capable to also mould these observations into the desired model; art is an instrument of oppression. In my opinion this shows how strong a bias can be. The author describes bias precise on page 256: ”But what exactly could it mean? People in both communities [medieval Europe and San] construed their neurologically generated hallucinations in accordance with the beliefs of their communities…”. Which is exactly what the author does, constructing cognitive hallucinations to fit into an ideology. The text continues with “The secrecy that so often accompanies divine revelations of this kind requires further comment in both the medieval and the San context. Secrecy and power go hand in hand”. It is good the bias is stated clearly, we can now without doubt interpret what we read (p 256): “Here is an important point: it did not really matter what was written in the secret language [as used by von Bingen]. It was the very existence of the language that advertised her unique relationship with God.” And then through some 180 degree curves we arrive at “Knowledge, as is widely accepted, is power – but not if you give it all away.” ”Among the San the problem of secrecy played itself out in a different way.” I can speculate on what “played itself out” exactly must suggest, but I leave that to the reader.
We are next told about Joseph Millerd Orpen who in 1873 talked with a San named Qing (p. 255): “Qing explained much to Orpen, but when Orpen asked him where Coti, a mythological figure, came from, he replied that ‘only the initiated men of that dance know these things’. He implied that he was not one of “the initiated men.” … How do we square Qing’s disclaimer with what we know about the openness with which Kalahri !gi:ten today speak about their visionary experience? … I think that Orpen was asking about something that nobody, not even !gi:ten knew about or, for that matter, had even wondered about. As in all [emphasis by the author] religions, we have here an example of select people – ‘the initiated men of that dance’ – supposedly knowing more than other people and being respected for their knowledge. In all religions, ordinary people mistakenly think that ritual specialist know more than they in fact do know”.
It is unclear to me how this assumption explains the supposed sudden change in openness from 1873 to the present. Actually I think that this is what is called arrogance, the author knows not only better than the bad reprehensible religious few, but also better than all the stupid ordinary people that can so easily be misled. Above all, the author knows as an undisputable fact, that ritual specialists do know nothing special. Actually this is a religious statement, no proof is supplied and the author implicitly is referencing to his authority, he does not allow questioning it anymore. The feeling of being the only one who has access to the truth combined with the pressing need to save the world by weeding out the disgustable, is in my opinion central to conspiracist belief.
The author summerizes his book as: "Religion is one possible explanation, not for natural phenomena, but for highly complex experiences that the human brain generates. It does so in such a way that a whole range of further explanations (for natural events, death and so forth) becomes available. Moreover, religion makes possible powerful social and political hierarchies not based on sex or brute strength. The persistence of the neurology of the brain through time ensures that the "origin" of religion is always with us."
This does not sound as negative as my impression of the text is.
I experienced the book as presenting the old Marxist conspiracy theory in a religious setting: “God and the Bad Church Elite” against the “Poor Innocent People”. Citing page 48 again: “We see religion become an industry in a capitalist sense. An elite group owns the means of production, while the public at large buys the product and thus enriches the elite”. In the book we encounter a lot of “us” against “them” with “their strategies” (e.g. p 266). In my opinion too, God and religion are prime examples of conspiracy theories (cognitive hallucinations). It is intriguing that this attack on religion, while pretending to be fully rational, actually is just another conspiracy theory. To me, the book is a prime example of Cognitive Dissonance and Bias Blind Spot.
To me this book is exemplifying the fact that some knowledge cannot be transmitted with words. Learning without words but by guided experience is for instance the way my father learned me to handle a saw, just to mention something tangible and non-extra-natural. The discrediting intended text actually describes the state of affairs precise, the transformation process is quite accurately described in this book, it is a pity that disgust is keeping the author from reaching a useful conclusion based on this observation. If the book was non-sense all the way, no reaction was needed. But since it also is containing usefull information, a reaction is appropriate.
As history has shown by now, the Marxist model of cultural divide, conspiracy and victimisation does not help to become producers of value, nor does it foster a productive insight in reality. The question why the public at large is so stupid as to waste their resources on religion and be ruled by a religious few does not have to be posed because by revelation of Karl Marx they are believed to be victims of a ruling class. And victims supposedly cannot be part of the problem.
The author makes clear that he full heartedly wished he could ban religion from this earth, while noting it is of all times and all places. But being angry at religion is as productive as being angry at gravity, in both cases it hurts if you do not handle it well. Astronauts complain that being back in gravity is hard to get used to again, but agree that gravity can’t be denied. The actual result of the anger is that credibility is lost, the Bias Blind Spot kicks in heavily. It is as if the author puts a lot of effort into arguing that gravity should not exist, instead of trying to understand it and eventually master it and e.g. visit the moon. Which by the way with high probability did induce mystical experiences in religious and non-religious people alike, posing a great relevant study object. See “The Home Planet” by Kevin W. Kelley and “Moon Dust” by Andrew Smith.
Cold fundamentalist atheism is wagging its own tail, just as disgust and anger do. Research suggests disgust is a basic psychological trait like for instance openness and trust. See the work of Delphine de Smet of the Moral Brain Institute of the University of Gent, Joshua Tyber of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Roger Giner-Sorolla of the University of Kent, etc. Research also suggests that disgust is insatiable, it is an emotion that feeds on itself meanwhile producing a more and more erratic view of reality. Disgust is culturally and personally determined and driving the perception. The emotion of disgust is provoked in a complex manner and not the automatic direct result of properties of the disgusting object. The author’s level of urge to express disgust of religion is decoded by this reader as a signal of a mind numbing hate.
This book makes me think of the question Erich Fromm poses in “The Fear of Freedom” (In the USA “Escape from Freedom”): the author wants us to be “free from” God and religion, so much is clear, but what does he want us to be “free to” ?
While the title expresses the intention to inform about “the cognitive origin and evolution of religion”, this book is totally focussing on the conspiracist-hallucinatory God-like interpretations of the mystical experience. Some years ago a TV program on becoming a formula one driver was aired, in which one woman took part. From the onset she expressed a great fear to crash into a small stone building at the centre of the circuit. You could all the guys see think “what is wrong with her, how would you ever hit it”. Also no safety measures were present around the small structure. Clearly no one did expect a driver to come even near to it. By the end of the first sessions she had ended crashing into it. Such is the power of hallucinatory focus. And it is my feeling that the author crashed on the building at the centre of his circuit, leaving me baffled. The book ends with (p 290): “we can even exclaim, Thank God I am an atheist. The baby can indeed be rescued from its bathwater”. What does this mean, will the author not be angry when someone uses the word God, or has God suddenly become an informative word? I cannot believe that in the end ordinary people are allowed to believe God is an observable. I propose we stick to “Jesus died for somebodies sins, but not mine”. I’m left totally perplexed and puzzled. Certainly I never had the urge to exclaim “Thank God I am an atheist” since I don’t have a clue what this may mean. Who is the baby and what is the bathwater?