Once a long time ago, about 200,000 years in the past, there was a small group of early humans. Consisting of a dozen or two dozen individuals, they were hunter-gatherers. They had the use of fire, stone weapons, early forms of burials and rudimentary jewelry.
This community was hierarchical: there was an alpha-male who was the CPU (central processing unit) of the group, and he was seen as a God who was able to engage with the Gods of nature. Others in the group listened to him not just out of fear, but because they related to him as their own best self. They listened to him the way we listen now to our inspiration.
The community was also sectarian: there was a sharp sense of who belonged to the group and who didn’t. There was a strong sense of us versus them. You belonged to the group if you were a part of the energy of the internal hierarchy. If you were outside the group and seemed innocuous, you were tolerated. Otherwise, you were torn down and killed.
The community was also symbolic: the hierarchy and sectarianness were sustained through tattoos, masks, rudimentary art and song, initiation and burial rituals. The symbols guided the people’s activity, the way a hose guides water or a ladder guides movement. Without the need for explicit thought or blame, but as just the things to be done. If you resisted or failed to catch on (which were the same), you were killed. The group didn’t have enough resources to handle dissent.
Slowly, over time, changes happened. Not intentionally, not with the aim of revolution against tyranny. Just as the nature course of events. The cause was ironic: the group’s own success at survival. The group doubled: from 20 people, it blossomed to 40. Some new members were due to greater survival of children. Some due to stray members integrated into the community. There was a population growth.
This triggered a transformation context and put pressure on the group’s hierarchy, sectarianness and symbolic structures. With more people, there had to be a change in how the CPU functioned. Normally, one alpha-male was replaced by another through fighting: the new kills the old. An old CPU which was used to guiding only 20 people couldn’t handle the extra load; internal dissent was forming. A younger CPU born within the new population was better situated to guide the 40; and so he defeated the old, and took on the lead role.
But now a group of 40 easily dominates other groups of 20. So what in the past would have been 2 groups of 20 ignoring or killing each other is now the group of 40 assimilating the group of 20 into itself, and so becoming 60. This leads yet again to a change in the CPU.
Since the symbolic structures are the way that the community maintains its functioning, as the population grows in size and complexity, the symbolic structures change. There is a symbolic transformation: the roles of the people are slightly changed, and so are how those roles are depicted in the tattoos, art, ceramics, dances and songs of the group.
So a pattern starts to develop: population change -> structural change -> symbolic change -> population change, and so on. It is an expanding circle.
The hunter-gather stage changes to the agricultural stage, which changes to the city stage, which changes to the empire stage. The 20 people become 1,000, then 10,000, then 1 million. All the while, the symbolic structures keep transforming, enabling social cohesion with the changing times.
When there were only 20 people, one person could be the leader: king, doctor, engineer, priest all rolled into one. But as the population grows, the hierarchy becomes more diffuse. The king seeks the counsel of the priest, who goes to the doctor, who all concede to the engineer on how to build pyramids. As the population grows still further, these roles become transformed into occupations. There is not just a king anymore, but the political class. Not just the shaman, but the priestly class. As the society becomes bigger still, the occupations are no longer defined by birth, but open to those with the requisite education: not a political class by birth, but politicians. Not doctors by birth, but just doctors.
Similarly, as the population grows, the sense of the other is transformed. When the group was only 20 people, you could see the other – the sense of the other was a physical reality. A similar feeling existed as long as the society did not see itself as a global empire; that is, as long as there was a sense that there are physical parts of the world that we can see which do not belong to us but belong to them.
Once a society becomes large enough to see itself as a global empire, it feels it can integrate into itself people from any land – and so feels that it as a society can lay claim to any land as really its own land. At this point, the sense of the other transforms from a geographical other to an intellectual other. The sense of the other becomes more abstract. The other is no longer just the people who live over there, for the people who live over there might agree with us; there might be a shared worldview. The other now are those with a different worldview, no matter where they are, near or far from us.
This is a very late stage of human history. And it is the dawn of religions in the modern sense of the term, dating back 3-4 thousand years ago. How much happened in the 200,000 years before then! How much of our history and our conceptual foundations lie hidden in the transformations of those 200,000 years!
What we think of as modern religions are defined by a most curious fact: each lays claim to a universal truth regarding all humans on the planet. And one can be a part of such religion irrespective of where one was born or what one’s language is. With the modern religions the sense of the other transcended the physical domain, and was defined through a more abstract, intellectual domain. The religious wars were on physical land, and involved going from here to there. But what they were fighting for was not just to have control of some part of the globe. It was to defeat alternate worldviews which were assumed to apply to the whole world.
In this, we have the root similarity between what we nowadays call religion and atheism. Atheism, be it Western or Eastern, is another conceptual framework for what a global society can look like. Hence the particular fights we have in our contemporary world: religion against religion, and religion against atheism.
Atheists say that the root cause of wars is religion, and that once we get rid of – or transcend – religion, we can have a peaceful, global world. But of course we can have a peaceful world if the people who disagree with us are eliminated! Any framework, including religions, can embrace that way of having peace in the world. That is like a person saying there can be a peaceful home once his spouse agrees with him.
A standard contemporary narrative is that religions are backward because they are local, and that atheism is correct because it is universal. The problem with this narrative is obvious: if religions are local and atheism is universal, then why hasn’t atheism already managed to render religions obsolete? The response is given: because the locals, in their ignorance, are fighting back and are resisting their own enlightenment. But does that mean that the atheists are also fighting religions? And if so, how do you fight religions without sharing some core assumptions?
An alternative diagnosis is that religions and atheism have this in common: they see their views – and their foundational texts – as the right symbolic structures for the whole world. A Christian who resists an atheist isn’t content to simply have a part of the world which is Christian, while the rest of the world can do whatever it wants. That might be how a Christian in the modern sense might behave; one who has accepted the Enlightenment idea that in some sense religion is a private matter. But such outward deference is in tension with the form of his inner prayer, when he seeks to commune not just with his God, or the God of his community, but with the One God who created the universe.
Any disagreement requires a shared background, and this is the shared background between religions and atheism: they all lay claim to being universal symbol structures. That is how they arose thousands of years ago, with the social and institutional contexts they made possible. And in which we still live.
It is this shared background which makes it intuitive to ask, “Does God exist?” As if a “yes” or “no” answer can settle the issue. As if a “yes” answer justifies the religious resistance of atheistic structures, and a “no” answer justifies the atheistic resistance of religious structures.
In a deep way, both options muddy the waters, and make it hard to have a perspicuous understanding of our past. Religions see the past through the lens of their respective creation stories; and so ignore the 200,000 years of human cultural evolution which preceded them (well, 6 million years; but no matter for now). Atheism sees the past through the lens of how everything until the rise of atheism was shrouded in tribalism and conformity, as if it was all one big, dark animalistic period until the big bang of atheism brought forth a new human world; and so atheists ignore the 200,000 years of human cultural evolution which preceded them.
What we have here are competing origin stories, which are really competing for which symbolic, institutional structures now should be universally powerful. Left to its own terms, there is no resolution to this competition other than fighting till death. Religion and atheism belong to a common framework of the last several thousand years when human societies started to grow so big that they were able to envision a global society. As competing stories in that common framework, they need each other to be the intellectual other in order for themselves to have an identity. Hence in its own terms, that debate will never end, nor make progress.
The only path to progress is to develop a framework which can incorporate both religion and atheism, and so thereby transcend each into something truly universal. That framework cannot be stated as having already been found, since to assert that requires contrasting it with an intellectual other who is seen to be wrong, and one thereby falls back into the kind of dichotomy one is trying to transcend. But one can work to state that framework as an ideal to be oriented towards. A ideal forever in front of us.
That is to orient oneself towards the coming human transformation, the next in a long history of such transformations.