Better Off Without?

It is a commonly held belief in many secular societies that religion is not only unnecessary but also, in an historical perspective, inextricably linked with violence and hatred on an unparalleled scale.  The induced assertion, then, is that religion has been little more than an ornamental obstruction to our species’ development.

Neither history nor anthropology knows of any society in which religion has been totally absent, and even those modern states that have attempted to abolish religion have replaced it with beliefs and practices which themselves seem religious (Rappaport 1971).  The anthropologist E. B. Tylor, writing in 1871, attempted to account for the universality of human religious beliefs by reference to the psychic unity of humankind.  It is the experience of dreaming, posited Tylor, that has suggested to all men the existence of a soul, and it is from this primordial notion that all religion has evolved.

At the turn of last century, Tylor’s view was challenged by the great sociologist Emile Durkheim, who asked “How could a vain fantasy have been able to fashion the human consciousness so strongly and so durably?”.  It cannot be accepted, he argued, that “systems of ideas like religions, which have held so considerable a place in history, and from which, in all times, men have come to receive the energy which they must have to live, should be made up of a tissue of illusions (1961).”

As Rappaport (1971) has noted, it is both plausible and prudent to assume, at least initially, that anything which is universal to human culture is likely to contribute to human survival:

“Phenomena that are merely incidental, or peripheral, or epiphenomenal to the mechanisms of survival are hardly likely to become universal, nor to remain so if they do. When we consider further that religious beliefs and practices have frequently been central to human concerns and when we reflect upon the amount of time, energy, emotion, and treasure that men have expended in building religious monuments, supporting priestly hierarchies, fighting holy wars, and in sacrifices to assure their well-being in the next world, we find it hard to imagine that religion, as bizarre and irrational as it may seem or even be, has not contributed positively to human evolution and adaptation.”

Would not an enterprise as expensive as religion have been defeated by selective pressures if it were merely frivolous and illusory?  Surely its benefits must outweigh its costs?  Rappaport’s hypothesis, therefore, is that religion has not merely been important but crucial to human adaptation.   If such a contention is valid, as much evidence since amassed has suggested it is, it may prove a further thorn in the side of those secular humanists who so readily and naively engage in the religious hatred they supposedly abhor.  The reactionary dismissal of “Religion” based only on consideration of its costs is akin to throwing away one’s stove because one occasionally burns one’s fingers.  So, would humankind somehow have been “better off” without religion?  Ask an orangutan.

The Bareback Human Oasis

And although it seems heaven sent / we ain’t ready, to see a black President” – Tupac Shakur.

When Barack wins this evening, it’s a victory for all of America – because black people and brown people and red people and yellow people all understand that he understands that all villages matter.” – Oprah Winfrey

Tupac is dead.  And as of November 5th 2008, so too perhaps is history.  Not in a Fukiyama-melodrama kind of a way.  No.  But in becoming the most eligible candidate for assassination in a generation, Barack Obama appears inadvertently to have ‘redefined’ history.  Or to have inverted the space-time continuum, which is likely well within his powers.

Consider: the term ‘history’ has traditionally been applied to an aggregate of past events, or to a branch of knowledge concerned with the systematic narrative of such events.  (Granted, history is a bit of a cad, having fathered numerous illegitimate intellectual offspring and probably screwing Hegel on alimony.  So treat the preceding definition loosely, like history has his women.)  ‘Past events’, like a wall coming down in Berlin, or bombs falling on a harbour, or the penning of a timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people (cf. Tribe Called Quest, A. 1991.  Can I Kick It? New York: Jive Records).  Past events.

What business, then, have contemporary affairs in being packaged up and sold as ‘historic’?  Does not ‘the historic’, as a temporal division, necessitate some future period of reflection, the privilege of, in President-speak, our children, and our children’s children, and so on?  Is it not this interval itself that ultimately constitutes history?

It seems the post-modern obsession with reflective histrionics has finally caught up with itself.  The temporal dislocation of history, which allows for events to exist simultaneously both in the present and in an imagined future-past, has rendered its study overtly metaphysical.  But wait.  Is this really anything new?  Haven’t prophets, leaders, sportsmen and the like been looking to ‘situate’ themselves in future-history for many centuries past?  As social beings predisposed to seeking the approval of others, is it not inevitable that we entertain ideas about how we will be perceived by coming generations?  Has anything changed?  And how long is this string of rhetorical questions?

In recent times, the definition of the term ‘historic’ appears to have been expanded, with many new meanings having been appropriated and introduced into public discourse by politically dominant groups.  (That singular, current events can now be deemed ‘historic’ testifies to this subtle semantic manipulation.)  The word is increasingly applied to the cessation of processes, such as wars or Olympic medal droughts, and occasionally even to incipient ones.  Consider the recent example:

When Barack Hussein Obama was ordained as the 44th President of the United States, leader of the free-world, saviour of the solar system and legitimate puppy-purchaser, celebration was unconfined.  A jubilant nation witnessed scenes of unparalleled excitement; not since November 1989 had the world’s media captured in such totality the joy and anticipation of a people.  What do these events have in common?  Teary, rosy-cheeked girls; a cross-cultural camaraderie; the collective warmth of heart that fought off the chill of a November midnight?  In Berlin they played Beethoven’s 9th, with the word “Joy” (Freude) changed to “Freedom” (Freiheit); in Chicago’s Grant Park, where some 750 billion people had gathered to witness the Second Coming, they played Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”.  Yet despite these startling similarities, the two occasions differed in their temporal orientations.  While the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated chiefly as an ending, the coming of Barack was heralded as a beginning.  Of what remains to be seen, and as such the widespread elation that has accompanied his ascension seems at once baffling and injudicious.

Yet the excitement is neither illusory nor localised.  The global community has endorsed the occasion of Obama’s election as ‘historic’, based on novel, pervasive and slightly contradictory definitions of this term.  These new strains of ‘the historic’ interbreed with older, grander and more abstract ones, in turn producing highly resistant, air-wave-borne forms.  Upon contact with these virulent ideas, people come to believe that they are indeed witnessing a pivotal moment in some logical sequence – human progress perhaps – leading to symptoms of (unbounded and unfounded) hope and joy.  Side-effects include back-slapping and fist-pumping; celebrity sufferers may choke on their own soundbites.

Seduced by the sirens of history, paralysed in a future-past, it is an excessive pattern of emotionality and attention-seeking behaviour that characterises the children of HPD (Histrionic Personality Disorder).  Hungry for history’s approval, and impatient for his arrival, they build history in their own image.  Chants resound: “Yes we can, yes we can, yes we can”.  In sun-scorched canyons, through bristling forests and ‘cross the icy wastes, sweet melody on the breeze: “…taking me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted be-…”

In the distant valleys of time, history lies in wait.

All this is absolute nonsense of course.  Except maybe Tupac’s quote at the beginning – I can think of 49% of a certain adult population who would probably agree with him there.  But as Oprah so astutely observed, it’s not about black and brown and red and yellow, not anymore.  We have to rid ourselves of this Lego mentality if we’re not to be overcome by those Eastern powerhouses, the Reds, the Yellow Reds and the Browns.