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From Religion to Reality

15 April 2013, 09:09

How do we perceive reality? We sense it, thereby gathering data – and then filter it according to our internal mind maps. The first part of the process is the same for everyone, but what makes us different to one another is the nature of the mind maps that we’ve each developed to be able to cope with the overwhelming sensory input we receive.

Our mind maps give us equilibrium in a physical world that is unpredictable and often hostile; they allow us to experience the higher human values within the chaos and cruelty of nature.

In ancient times, humans were totally at the mercy of our environment. We could not predict, let alone protect ourselves from, storms, floods, droughts, or even the attacks of predators and enemies. Illness and disease were more of mystery since they seemed to attack us without warning or cause.

Social anthropology shows us that we coped with these phenomena by ascribing human attributes to them in a non-physical realm, thereby providing a means to engage with them and somehow make them less frightening and unknowable. We put them down to spirits, demons and gods. How we tried to mitigate against the disasters and ensure the favour of nature by way of pleasing these entities became the primitive archetypal basis of what we now know as religion. Our entire worldview was dominated by emulating, and thereby pleasing, an ultimate power beyond our ken, that resided in one or even an entire pantheon of gods. Tracking the genealogy of these gods is really interesting since it shows that even the modern monotheistic or “only” god is but one out of several others who are no longer revered.

Naturally, religion became a subject of abuse by those who saw past the supplications and gifts to invisible guardians of nature’s power. It became a socio-political, ripe for manipulation of followers by leaders.

Inevitably, some practitioners of these early religions created systems of thought and practice that they felt brought them closer to an ultimate truth or power, a source if you will of all wisdom and fulfilment. Such an ideal represented the pinnacle of security and provided a human value system that would be robust enough to protect the practitioner from the impact of all manner of worldly troubles and calamities. So was born from religion the pursuit of mysticism as a means for humans to identify with and be allied to the mooted ultimate power in the universe. We see the development of all sorts of methods of divination, tools for plumbing the depths of the soul and fate such as the I Ching, astrology, entrail reading, analysis of tea leaves, throwing of molten metal, card games – the list is long, and we see vestiges of many such methods today. All in an attempt to be more attuned to the random chaos of external forces and our internal nature, and less at their mercy.

The most recent, and perhaps final, step in humanity’s path towards mastery of the worldly realm has been the realization that we need neither be subservient to nature nor simply reactive to it, but can be in control of it. We began this phase through the conscious pursuit of objective and provable knowledge about the world around us such that we can now increasingly understand the deep inner workings of physical processes and, with that knowledge, begin to direct them. This is the discipline of science.

Furthermore, we’re now able to see the natural processes beneath what have for so long been regarded as “supernatural” phenomena, those whose workings are somehow beyond the bounds of nature. Physics, chemistry, mechanics, mathematics all allow us to understand the purely physical, but neurology, biology, psychology, and other modern scientific disciplines allow us to understand why we are who we are, how we think, feel and relate to others and how our cognitive filters, our mind maps, contribute to our deeply held beliefs about the realm we live in.

The three phases of humanity’s development that I‘ve described here were first outlined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in his Law of Three Stages. He proposed an “account of social evolution” in which society goes through three stages in its quest for truth. These were firstly, the “theological”, then the “metaphysical”, and finally the “positive”. The first phase was characterised by belief in gods and spirits, the second by application of reasoning and the questioning of religious authority, and the third by the application of scientific thought to societal problems.

It’s interesting to note that Comte attempted, after the French Revolution, to establish a secular religion. The intent was apparently to provide a cohesive force in society to replace that which had been performed by traditional worship. It was ultimately unsuccessful, but laid the groundwork for what we know today as humanism. It was he who coined the term “altruism”.

We see people in all stages of Comte’s evolution on this forum, and it’s usually pretty clear where they stand. Where are you, and what's the next stage in your journey?

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