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Religion: What It's Really Like

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I think this belongs here.

I've recently decided to take on the task of surveying the entire history of philosophy. I've bought a few of the books mentioned by Piekoff and others as the best resources for getting the kind of education that doesn't require poring over original sources. However, as I began to approach the Pre-Socratics, I realized that I would be well-served by an understanding of the atmosphere in which their brand of science suddenly burst forth, namely that of religion.

I've already got a pretty good understanding of epistemological intrinsicism as defined by AR, which has been supplemented by own past experience as a devout Christian. I've also taken a stroll through the history of primitive religion, focusing on those that were prominent before Christ, going back all the way to animism and shamanism. However, drawing general conclusions is nigh impossible. Defining religion as fundamentally mystical or ritualistic or metaphysical or cultural or epistemological or instinctual just does not seem to encompass what is meant by "religion". In looking at the Greeks, for example, "religion" and "existence" were synonymous. Every aspect of life had its religious connotation.

And there are certainly concepts (to use that word loosely) that are exclusively religious, such as "numinous" or "revelation" or "omnipotent" or "afterlife", but there is something distinct about this non-rational attempt at knowledge that is, to be honest, ineffable. Even the word "knowledge" is too reductive. What was being sought was a relationship with existence that is intended to be more holistic - something you might colloquially call "life".

One feature that AR's instrinsicism/subjectivism divide has made clear is that "physicality" and "phenomenology" - or "existence" and "consciousness" - were nigh indistinguishable for primitive man. The idea that the "imaginary" could simply be imaginary was lost on him - at least that's the impression I get, however I imagine that the idea of "delusion" has been around as long as men have had disagreements. The point is, the subjective realm of experience was at least severely delimited. Moreover, there was, for a long time, no such category as "non-religious", just as for Objectivists there is no "non-reality".

But what I think the factor that my understanding of religious life is missing is best exemplified by this quote by Will Durant:

"The secret of polytheism is the inability of the simple mind to think in impersonal terms. It can understand persons more readily than forces, wills more easily than laws."

He's talking here in particular about Hinduism but points at the Kantian-ness of their religion. Of course, anthropomorphism is just about ubiquitous in all religions, but the phrase "wills more easily than laws" hints at something that I think is really difficult for modern man (or at least the modern skeptic) to comprehend. There's obviously an implication of fundamental chaos in the anthropomorphic stance, but there's more to it than that. What the "more" is I'm not sure. I believe it has something to do with the hierarchical nature of religious metaphysics and may explain the bizarre bigotry and power structures that have been basically omnipresent in human culture between the dawn of homo sapiens and now. For example, I can't fathom enforcing and believing in slavery or sharia law without the belief that an all-powerful and arbitrary creator had commanded it. What's more, I get the impression sometimes that primitive religions were especially "sophistic", so to speak. "Might makes right" but only because Might happens to be the cornerstone of reality while also being a person. Therefore, being that man is made in God's image, it stands to reason that might in any form also has the quality of being right and that women and minorities, for their own sake, would be wise to keep this in mind, despite what any man or majority may wish.

In this sense, Marxists have been right to obsess over power politics. Might does not make right. They have, however, taken things too far. Nowadays, might makes wrong. Centuries of burgeoning liberalism undone. From social metaphysics to social metaphysics in 500 years. And that, I think, is the essence of it. Anthropomorphism translates the fabric of reality into a social fabric. It might even be that modern subjectivist-humanist-agnostic religions are more demanding than Moloch ever was. If anything, the irony that is primitive man's search for a systematic worldview has at least the objective-adjacent feature of believing that regularity is fundamentally an aspect of the perceiver's relationship with the perceived. I suppose as much is to be expected when daily life is punctuated by visceral, immediate cause-and-effect "relationships". In a sense, these embryonic "sophists" were the OG empiricists.

Well, I think I've answered my own question, for the most part. But any and all feedback is welcome. I'm beginning to realize that the denseness of religion, being a feature rather than a bug, provides an endless amount of "philosophy" to chew on, even for a rational mind.

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On 7/11/2023 at 5:21 PM, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

. . . . However, as I began to approach the Pre-Socratics, I realized that I would be well-served by an understanding of the atmosphere in which their brand of science suddenly burst forth, namely that of religion.

. . .

Religion in Human Evolution – From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

Robert N. Bellah (Harvard 2017)


Start with chapter 7 for your interest in Ancient Greeks and their prelude. Jump back to earlier material in the book for needed wider layout and the terminology (use Index).

The Beginnings of Western Science – The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450

David C. Lindberg (Chicago 2007, 2nd edition)


     What Is Science?
     Prehistoric Attitudes toward Nature 
     The Beginnings of Science in Egypt and Mesopotamia

     The World of Homer and Hesiod
     The First Greek Philosophers
     The Milesians and the Question of Underlying Reality
     The Question of Change
     The Problem of Knowledge
     Plato’s World of Forms
     Plato’s Cosmology
     The Achievement of Early Greek Philosophy

     Life and Works
     Metaphysics and Epistemology
     Nature and Change
     Motion, Terrestrial and Celestial
     Aristotle as a Biologist
     Aristotle’s Achievement

. . .


Edited by Boydstun
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  • 2 weeks later...

@boydstun Went ahead and bought those two books. I realize I'm begun to verge on overly ambitious but here's my curriculum at this point...

- those two

On the empiricist side:

- Dialogues and Natural History of Religion

- Weber's Sociology of Religion

- Durkheim's Elementary Forms of Religion (I'm hoping this will give me some insight into social metaphysics. It's a mystery to me how anyone can hold it as a position, even where sociology is concerned, but Durkheim certainly does)

- William James' Varieties of Religious Experience

On the rationalist side:

- Schleiermacher's On Religion

- Rudolf Otto's Mysticism: East and West, and The Idea of the Holy

In addition:

- Julian Jaynes' Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

- Paul Tillich's What is Religion?

- John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

- Jung's Answer to Job

- Paul Veyne's Did the Greek Believe in Their Myths?

- Erich Neumann's Origins and History of Consciousness  and the Great Mother

- Robert Graves' White Goddess

- Elaine Pagels' Adam, Eve and the Serpent

- Bhagavad Gita, Dhammapada, Upanishads

Then I've got a book lined up for a summary of the Pre-Socratics. I'm realizing more and more that ten books would be more appropriate. Living in this decade gives one an appreciation for how ambitious it was for them to delve into metaphysics.

After that, Plato and Aristotle will each get a "semester", so to speak. Then the rest of the Greeks for a semester, some Romans and then maybe two semesters for Christianity/Gnosticism/Scholasticism. And then probably a summer vacation before starting the Renaissance. Then the Enlightenment, of course, and a separate focus on Kant & Co. And finally, the house of mirrors that is Postmodernism.

Anything I need to add?

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  • 2 weeks later...
2 hours ago, HowardRoarkSpaceDetective said:

How do you mean?

Man always strives for an answer to causation , and that a conscious agency is always posited. “We” never seem to have ever “started” with materialism. Whether animistic or polytheistic and monotheistic consciousness and disembodied agency is/was that which is most potent and primary.

Perhaps an artifact of projection of our self conscious nature.

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17 hours ago, tadmjones said:

“We” never seem to have ever “started” with materialism.

I've actually had a very hard time, in my thinking about primitive religion, understanding how mankind didn't begin as materialist. Part of that is my own history as a materialist; from that perspective, positing deities comes off as very sophisticated (which it would certainly be, if done in bad faith). But I also think that religions have incredible staying power as far as survival goes. Especially when you consider the way intrinsicism justifies emotionalism so well, it turns out to be a very powerful intellectual parasite. And since religion is so closely tied to family and education, its power as a cognitive context is unquestionable. One thing leads to another and you end up with pantheons, child sacrifice, and theologians who can sustain cognitive dissonance despite the most damning of contradictions.

17 hours ago, tadmjones said:

Perhaps an artifact of projection of our self conscious nature.

Piekoff theorized in his work on induction that children inferred causality from their own volition. He basically said that he wasn't confident enough to die on that hill, and neither am I - I don't see why induction alone is insufficient, although maybe volition just gives us a hint. Either way, I can't think of a more appropriate explanation for the origins of cosmic telology/agency.

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