The Old Religion

Copyright 2018 by Paul Connelly

Related articles:
What Is Religion? A Definition
Why Do Religions Persist?
Premodern, Modern, and Postmodern Eras
Is It True?

The First Error

The Old Religion—it sounds formidable—and it is—but what do we mean by that term? To some it may recall “that old-time religion”, and may bring to mind images of dour-faced men and women belting out hymns in a revival tent. For others (mainly neopagans) it may conjure up visions of ancient hippies dancing around a maypole at a rest stop somewhere between Atlantis and Shambhala. But aren't most widely recognized religions hundreds or even thousands of years old? To even use the term hints that we may be talking about a likely candidate for the oldest religion, as indeed we are.

We can say that the Old Religion was born in the moment when the original religious impulse first met up with an existing partnership of superstition wedded to illusions of control. Illusions of control refer to one's tendencies to misattribute efficacy to one's own will and actions for the causation of external events and circumstances which are actually beyond one's control. Superstition means the misperception of a causal relationship between two unrelated events or objects, a type of bad pattern recognition (of the sort also underlying paranoia), that leads one to predict something about the second event or object based upon encountering the first. And usually the predicted causal sequence makes no sense given what we know pragmatically about how physical interactions in the world behave.

When one combines an excessive belief in one's own ability to effect or control external events with a tendency toward superstition, the result is the kind of illogical personal “micro-belief” that many of us are familiar with on a mundane level. “I was holding the hot dog in my left hand and the beer in my right hand when the White Sox scored a run. I better keep doing that if I want them to win the game.” Something relatively simple that we would scoff at if fully articulated, but that our minds prompt us to act upon in the spirit of Pascal's Wager—it can't be harmful, so if it might help, “I better keep doing that.” Needless to say, these simple superstitions can develop dozens of subordinate clauses as reality diverges from our expectations, and we can maintain hierarchies of these nonsense beliefs with different levels of confidence while still barely being conscious of any subset of them for more than a fleeting moment.

Adding religion to this complex amplifies both the degree of irrationality that one is willing to tolerate in forming one's superstitions and the amount of control one attributes to oneself in producing the outcomes predicted by them. To the extent that our religious experiences have engaged us with the sacred, we now have an immensely powerful entity or set of entities noticing our behaviors and able to violate the normal rules of causality to bring about the outcomes we predict. To the extent that our religious experiences have engaged us with the spiritual, we now perceive a continuity between our minds and physically distant events and objects that makes plausible the ability of the former to seamlessly influence the latter.

God Loves Me Better!

And, even more importantly for the development of the Old Religion, we can interpret the reliability with which the outcomes we favor occur as a personal judgment upon ourselves by the larger mind that religion has revealed to us. Rather than experiencing awe, reverence or mystical unity, and seeking to understand those feelings, we now have to worry about needing to please the ancestral spirits or the Higher Power, about shriveling under the glare of their disfavor, or about basking in the radiance of their approval. From this first cognitive reversal we can leapfrog to a second: when we attain outcomes favorable to ourselves, that indicates to everyone else that God favors us. Truly nothing succeeds like success in the Old Religion, as each new victory confirms one's standing with God and men.

The Old Religion thus makes a case for the strong, the cunning, and those fortunate in wealth and influence being favored by the divine intelligence, and for the weak, the simple souls, and those mired in poverty and insignificance being objects of divine displeasure. It argues for a Higher Selfishness, in many ways like the doctrine atheist Ayn Rand tried to market after excising all associations contaminated by religion. To a large extent it lurks within and guides so-called mainstream Christianity, even though Jesus is preeminent among those vocally repudiating its belief system.

On the way to its present articulation, one can detect some variants or intermediate forms of the Old Religion. In one form, a hero is “fated” (predestined in a more or less impersonal way) to win battles, riches and renown, only to fail and meet his inevitable downfall and death if he violates a particular geas or magical proscription—which, of course, he is also “fated” to do. This reflected the tenuous nature of much human prosperity and the impermanence of human accomplishment and reputation. A similar conception of transitory glory, or divine favor granted on a strictly limited time basis, can be seen in the “year king” of The Golden Bough and similar works—the figurehead ruler, avatar and proxy of the eternal divine being, who is eventually sacrificed to assure the continued favor of that being for the society at large. And, naturally enough, given the proliferation of human laws, there have been devious attempts to bind God up in legalistic agreements or “covenants” to guarantee continued favor.

As the monotheisms of late Antiquity began to apply the “logic of perfection” to God, the Old Religion gained more support for extending its notion of divine favor into the afterlife. If one followed the arguments of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, God must have personally predestined the “elect” to enjoy eternal bliss while everyone else remained condemned to perpetual suffering—to argue otherwise would be to say that God could make mistakes, which was impossible for an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and in all other ways perfect being. Because the criteria being used to define the attributes of a perfect being were based wholly in human values (and primarily self-important male human values), the promulgators of these doctrines rarely questioned the notion that a perfect being would impose infinite torture upon helpless creatures in reprisal for finite acts of sinfulness—especially when they were predestined to commit those sins. Indeed, the elect were predestined to sin as well, but they were also predestined to be “saved”—irrevocably—via the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card of divine forgiveness.

Die Harder

In the Old Religion, as it has adapted to a more stable social environment, current success is still the measure of the divinely favored, but the fated fall of the ancient heroes is no longer a worry. Medicine promises a long and vigorous life to those who can afford the most advanced treatments, lawyers and investment counselors can maximize the wealth of the best families across generations, compliant broadcast media can keep the prominent elevated in public renown, and the lifeboat of salvation is still available to those among the elect who find themselves in a spiritually fallen and sinful state. And justifications for one's favored position are never hard to come by, since one can pay for them to be written by endowing think tanks and underwriting political action groups that will do so—and then pay again for the purchase of these writings, to be used in media promotions or given away to likely converts.

The endless justification of the present state, whatever it might be, presents it as not only right but inevitable—in Margaret Thatcher's words, “There is no alternative.” This modern form of predestination may acknowledge a divine author in venues where that will meet with a positive response, or it may instead credit the “invisible hand” of some naturalistic mechanism where a pseudo-scientific argument will carry the day.

Popular scientific writings based on neo-Darwinist thought often fall into this sort of argument. From an early stage the ideas of Darwin and his like-minded contemporaries were abused to justify the superiority or inferiority of “races” and the deserving status of the upper strata as opposed to that of the degenerate “useless eaters” in the lower classes. Part of the ease with which evolutionary theory is diverted to serving up “just so” stories about the inevitability of the present order comes from the backwards jargon that it employs. If we understand the biological environment as an information replication system, to which the normal rules of information theory apply, there is no evolution per se, merely more or less imperfect copying of information. It would be just as appropriate to call the overall framework of ideas a theory of extinction. There is no “survival of the fittest” but only “extinction of the unlucky”, since the driver of all change is basically blind luck. And while one frequently reads that “natural selection causes” some outcome, this is exactly the wrong formulation, since “natural selection” is a term describing an effect of blind and always changeable luck muddying the propagation of information, rather than a cause of anything. In removing a divine agent behind the variation of life forms and the disappearance of some varieties, evolutionary theory popularizers substituted a different term in the same position in sentences where an agent is customarily found. But there is no agency in this theory, by definition.

The reality is that our environment is an exceedingly fragile tissue of atmosphere over relatively thin layers of water and soil, probably a very rare environment among the planets in the universe—and any perturbations of it can be lethal to many of the creatures living within it. If we accept this, and acknowledge that what may seem “fit” for its environment can become extinct overnight (relative to geological timespans), due to a very unlucky event (or “catastrophe”) occurring, then it becomes impossible for a sane person to argue with a straight face for the natural (and moral) superiority of some self-appointed elite of humanity.

But the adherents of the Old Religion will continue to promote that argument, whether based on divine favor or on the supposed laws of nature. When luck has rewarded you with all the material comforts, social status, prestige and in-group solidarity that any rational person could desire, it is both very easy and extremely reassuring to believe that “all's for the best in this best of all possible worlds” and that one's own merit has been—and will continue to be—validated by the ultimate Authority. On some far future day, when the human race is reduced to its last two members fighting over the crumbs of all the long dead civilizations, the victor will undoubtedly swell in pride with that same sense of validation, and the Old Religion will be last as it was first.

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