Dreaming of Neverland: Faith and Extinction

This essay is my response to a song from Peter Pan. Here’s a video

Many historians and observers of the human condition have likened the “stages of life” of civilizations and empires to those of individual human beings. They have spoken of the birth, infancy, adolescence, maturity and senescence and, of course, death of countries and cultures. This is, needless to say, a poetic use of language; but poetry often serves as a vehicle for truths that cannot be conveyed nearly so well – or perhaps at all – by other means.

 

I want to take this line of thought a step further: I propose that the human species as a whole follows a parallel developmental trajectory, and that there are valuable insights to be gained by recognizing it. It may be a bit surprising to some, exactly where I fix the watersheds.

 

In a nutshell: I liken our Pleistocene, Paleolithic condition to the childhood of the species, and reckon its condition ever since the Agricultural Revolution to be a form of adolescence out of which we are currently struggling to emerge into full maturity. Dotage is far in our future, and whether our species will survive to see it is very much an open question.

Just as none of us can remember his own birth, it is almost certain that our species will never be able to “remember” its own beginnings; the best we can hope for is the recovery of a few snapshots. In the same way that our earliest individual memories are those of childhood, our earliest species memory is of our Paleolithic condition, the situation of our ancestors who lived for about two hundred thousand years in a state that might be called Edenic (and of a very tiny few foraging tribes who persist to this day). Understand that I’m using poetic language here: I do not recognize anything like the biblical Eden, nor do I imagine the lives of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to have been a bed of roses. I’m talking about a time when humans were conceptually “at one” with the world. To judge from what the few extant hunter-gatherer tribes say about the world, there was no hard and fast demarcation between “self” and “other” to be found anywhere in the thinking of those remote forebears of ours: everything was thus sacred to them. That wasn’t “religion” as we know it. “Religion” literally means to re-unite, which could only be a senseless notion to people who had never experienced dividedness in the first place.

 

It was during the Paleolithic that humans invented art. No wonder: art is and has ever been the domain of children. Until they are compelled to color within the lines, children are the most creative artists of all.

 

It was during the Neolithic Revolution that our species embarked upon its adolescence. You remember what the onset of adolescence was like, don’t you? Wasn’t that the most hellish time of your life? When absolutely everything was going all out of whack and you first became conscious – to your horror – of a great competition in which you were obliged to participate: a competition for territory and mates? Do you remember when you first experienced pangs of cynicism? I remember those awful years as though they happened yesterday. Adolescence is the onset of the “age of accountability.” And it’s when the squabbles over territory and mates begin, that continue to occupy most of us for the rest of our lives. If that’s not the loss of innocence I don’t know what is. And the parallels to the history of the species are compelling: we’ve been in tremendous, often genocidal and sometimes fratricidal competition for territory and resources ever since one parcel of land was deemed more valuable than another, i.e. ever since the dawn of agriculture. That’s also when our religions (in the modern sense) were born. The squabbles have accelerated and intensified ever since the dawn of agriculture, as has the spread – the virulence – of religion. (Art – the product of our species childhood and a means of truth-discovering and truth-telling – garners my deepest respect. Religion – the product of our adolescence and a means of control – not so much.)

 

Most of us have a vague notion that the earliest religions were polytheistic. I suspect that’s not entirely accurate. Paleolithic man’s notion of the sacred was nothing more than his instinctive understanding of his being a part of all things, being deeply embedded in the world as in a womb. (Please don’t mistake my use of the masculine pronoun for a sexist bias: I’m using it for convenience only, to avoid clumsy constructions.) It isn’t that he worshiped many gods: he simply possessed an overarching sense of the connectedness of all things and personified some of their features.

 

Revering the world that surrounds you – revering in the sense of feeling a deep fraternity, or love, for the world – is not at all religion in the modern sense. I suppose you could call it pantheism, but it seems to me that in so doing, you’d be adding an unneeded layer of conceptual complexity to something that is actually very simple. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “We are in the universe and the universe is in us.” Paleolithic man seems to grasp this relationship instinctually.

 

But when the modern religions began to arise – in cities, which were administrative centers for agriculture and thus the realms of rulers – those religions were either monotheistic or potentially so, because every one of their multitudinous deities was in a hierarchy and someone was always at the top of that hierarchy. (This, of course, reflected the administrative/executive order of the mundane realm, with an absolute[ly privileged] monarch at the top of a pyramid whose base consisted of countless thousands of slaves who enjoyed no privileges whatsoever.)

 

Adolescence is also that time when one begins to feel genuinely rebellious against authority – starting, usually, with our parents. For it is at that time that one comes to recognize and begin to chafe under the all-pervading authoritarian structure of the world – a structure whose range extends from one’s own parents to the chief executive of the most powerful country on Earth. For the first time in one’s life, one feels trapped by systemic authority (and as the world becomes increasingly authoritarian, one may predict with confidence that adolescence will become an increasingly, incrementally worse experience for each succeeding generation).

 

The rebellion begins with the question posed by the hissing reptile in the Garden: why should the monarch’s prerogatives be denied you? Trying the door and finding it locked, one soon resorts to kicking it. (The bloody revolutions of the 18th through 20th centuries are a manifestation of our species’ adolescence. In future, the battle for hearts and minds will be won by philosophers or not at all.) Meanwhile, a huge and exhausting contest rages: the contest for territory and mates. It’s thus during adolescence that a lot of people go insane, and many commit suicide. I can’t say I blame them. I can’t think of anything else ever inflicted on us by the natural world that brought us into being, that is quite as horrible as adolescence.

 

DirkvdM_santa_fe_scorched
DirkvdM santa fe scorched“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The birth of the earliest civilizations was the birth of war. War between and among “kingdoms” is a manifestation of our species’ adolescence. Tempers run high among the newly-pubed. That’s pretty much a description of where we are now, except for the fact that the intellectual capacity of humankind is growing by leaps and bounds as we bore full-steam ahead into our maturity. I’m talking about our sciences, our scientific understanding of the world, aided and abetted by that planet-wide neural connection known as the World Wide Web. The human species, in our own time as never before, is awakening to the realities of the cosmos. That’s what our sciences have granted us. That is by far the greatest gift that any discipline or endeavor has ever given to humanity.

 

Our sciences have enabled all of us to grow up (if only we will) by making it possible for us to see ourselves in proper perspective. What a great blessing that is! Just imagine being in a position to know that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago in a great expansion, that our own solar system started coalescing out of a vast cloud of dust and gas about 5 billion years ago, that life had already gotten a toehold on this planet over three and a half billion years ago; that the Earth has layers, nested spheres of chemistry and conditions that go all the way down to the solid nickel-iron core that lies thousands of miles beneath our feet; that all of us humans are part of one great human family; that all living things are related; and on and on. Most of the people who have lived never knew any of these things – never even suspected them. Thanks to our sciences, we get to know all those things and enjoy knowing them. We’re the luckiest people who ever lived. Those of us who can appreciate and embrace these kinds of facts find ourselves ennobled immensely by the knowledge of them. The direct experience of the universe, unclouded by weird and unsupportable preconceptions, is an occasion of transcendent beauty. Every time I have that experience, I find myself feeling glad to be alive.

 

But of course we’ve turned those same sciences on ourselves – and that’s our juvenility at work. We use them to extract hydrocarbons from the Earth’s crust at the tremendous cost of environmental ruin so that we can burn them in the production of useless crap and in the service of our pointless routines, all the while dumping toxins into the soils and waters we depend on, depleting ancient aquifers, killing the oceans and heating the planet’s atmosphere thus setting in motion vicious feedback loops that threaten to turn Earth into another Venus: holding the gun of extinction to our own heads. And we also build hydrogen bombs. We could take ourselves out in an instant.

 

There’s that side of us that’s so ready to grow up, to leave adolescence behind and find a measure of serenity and composure that is more than likely impossible during our tumultuous teenage years. But maturity involves the shedding of old prejudices and outmoded belief systems, and many people are spectacularly unwilling to consider doing this. It is still an open question, whether we – the human species – will reach maturity and enjoy the fruits of having finally come to our right minds, or exterminate ourselves in a fit of adolescent rage and/or despair. Should the latter happen, it might well be said of us that we were a species that died young: we were only about 200,000 years old, according to most estimates: metaphorically speaking, just another sad teenage statistic.

 

Monotheistic religion was born at the beginning of what I have characterized as humankind’s adolescence. I know that some people will resent what I’m about to say and find it offensive. To offend is not my intent, but the parallel that impresses itself upon me is impossible not to draw or to write about. So please consider: it is during adolescence that people become religious fanatics. Children are not religious fanatics: they simply believe whatever the authority figures in their lives tell them to believe. (Children are immensely creative, but they are not particularly noted for critical thinking. It would be wrong to expect that of them, seeing that a long childhood during which we implicitly trust those who are in authority has had adaptive advantages for our species. Children are by nature… children.) No, it is the adolescent who suddenly becomes seized by the spirit and fancies himself commissioned to do battle with Satan with the guidance of the Holy Bible and the voices in his head. It is during the turbulence of those awful adolescent years that one begins to clutch at straws and develop convictions, and religion in its glorious ubiquity is always there, ready and waiting to lend a hand (or a tentacle, if you will).

 

It is no disgrace to have seized – as a desperate last resort – religion as a lifeboat during adolescence. Indeed, it’s possible that it saves some teenage lives. (Sadly enough, it’s also responsible for the snuffing out of some teenage lives – by enabling hate crimes and driving the dispossessed to suicide.) When you’re an adolescent, you kind of have to go with whatever gets you through the day.

 

What does start to become a little disgraceful, however, is the failure of many to outgrow adolescence when they’re old enough to know better; or, better said, the stubborn refusal of many to outgrow it (couched always in the high-sounding jargon of religious faith). Think of the people you know who have remained combative, selfish, impulsive, narrow-minded and doctrinaire long beyond their teenage years. Think of those supposedly mature adults who hold onto the same racist or sexist beliefs and ideals that they imbibed innocently enough during childhood, from parents who themselves had never “grown up.” Think of those who, long after they should have outgrown such adolescent notions, want more and more for themselves and less and less for everybody else. Aren’t they a little disgraceful? Certainly their condition is at least lamentable. I can’t help feeling the same way about religion – a product of humankind’s adolescence.

 

Religion clouds people’s judgment and keeps them from discovering the world. It enables our worst instincts, supporting our prejudices and confirming us in our closed-mindedness. It fans the flames of ancient hatreds and fuels wars. It could even precipitate the Armageddon it hopes for. We need to get beyond it, to grow up. We are wise to recognize the danger in it, wise to try to counsel people out of it, and those who are still held in thrall to it are well-advised – and hereby invited – to join the rest of us in a condition of mature humanity. We’ve got some heavy lifting ahead of us, and we’re going to need all the help we can get. We’re going to need unclouded judgment not sectarian hatred, if we’re to survive and finally outgrow our troubled species’ adolescence. Religion is, in my view, the first of the big messes that we need to clean up. Perhaps then we’ll be clear-headed enough to address the other existential threats to a species destined for greatness at birth but woefully diverted by juvenile impulses.

 

Peter Pan’s way is not the way for mature human beings. In fact, that way lies madness and death.

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