I have been having a discussion with Cliff Burns from Beautiful Desolation about the evolution of God and the role of God in human society.
Cliff is a very intelligent man, and a fellow curmudgeon, so I knew that a discussion with him would force me to think deeply on the subject. We approach God from two different directions.
He from a position of belief and I from a position of disbelief.
I attempted to comment on his suggestion that “By having a sense of greater power all around us, humans are humbled…and believe me, as a species, we need a lot of humbling. When we dispense with God, you’re right, we get Mao, we get Pol Pot, Stalin (I just posted an essay that brushes on this). Without God, we’re lost…”
My reply became convoluted yet I felt there were valid points which maybe needed expansion and so here is a new posting on the subject of evolution and rulership, God and genetics. It is based around my reply to the above. I apologise for any duplication of thoughts.
Cliff, I agree that we, as a species, have a social habit of following a leader, corporeal or incorporeal. As you say, our arts and customs are based on this habit. Could it be that in order to have a civilisation, or even a small grouping of people, it was better to have a few leaders and many followers, These genetic traits could have been concentrated in successful societies.
A successful tribe in the hunter-gatherer days of mankind needed a strong and successful leader. A failure in leadership would lead to either a change of leader or the demise of the tribe. As mankind settled and developed agriculture and pastoralism, leadership was again required, both to deal with the feeding of the embryonic civilisation and to help protect it from marauding animals and acquisitive neighbours. Good leaders need followers and those who would not follow had been weeded out back in the tribal days. As villages grew into cities the leader became much more of a ruler.
It was known that there was a realm of magic which decreed the seasons and the Ruler was close to this realm. His pronouncements and decisions were for the over-all good, even if it meant some individuals had to be sacrificed. Figuratively or literally! The magic realm slowly developed into a supernatural realm.
A recent news story I found suggested that it seems that radical and conservative politics attract different genetic types. Could it be that there is also a “Leadership” gene and a “Follower” gene which could be traced back to the original tribal organisation in pre-village life. Having that leadership in the hands of a human individual or, in the hands of a representative of whichever Deity the society condones, doesn’t seem to matter.
Rulers tended to breed within their own group. A Ruler would marry a neighbouring Ruler’s daughter. Over generations, if there is a “Ruling gene” then it became concentrated within certain family groupings. Leaving the rest of the population to follow. For if you did not follow, you were either dealt with or became a ruler yourself. Rulers do have a habit of spreading their genes around. Many individuals, such as the illegitemate son of Rollo and “the Tanner’s daughter” who grew up to become William the Conqueror, would be given half a set of ruling genes at birth. Excellent foremen and sergeants. And occasionally, successful rebels.
So successful societies were led by successful leaders. The long lasting civilisations had, as history shows, not only a human leader, but important supernatural support. A priestly class, probably well endowed with “ruler genes” was a way to carry the wisdom of a successful style of rulership across generations. Where there was not a strong God-belief in a tribe or civilisation, as with Ghengis Khan or Atilla the Hun and other one generational conquerors the civilisation and the tribe died with its ruler or was absorbed into a new culture.
Whether human or divine, it is the fact of leadership within a population grouping which is important. Sometimes it seems that a divine leadership is safer for the general population because there are not generational leadership contests. Too often a human God can go mad as happened with Stalin, Pol Pot and now Mugabe. A God can evolve within a stable community but to change a God requires a macro-shift in exterior conditions. A major drought, food disease, global climate change or innovative change any one of which could lead to population or influence movement where one group wins and another loses.
To a good follower class, and as explained above, every successful society needs good followers, it matters little from where leadership originates. God and the King are almost inseparable. In ancient Egypt and in Rome, the Pharaohs and Caesers were God and there were Priestly dynasties to ensure intergenerational continuity of the God-ship.
In our modern world we have seen Hitler (Godwin preserve me), Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and now Mugabe remove the “old” religion and take on their own shoulders the mantle of divine abilities. Their kingdoms are doomed. There is no continuing supernatural presence within those cultures. The possible exception in this group is China where Rulership is codified in a Committee which could become immortal.
While such leader/follower dynamics are necessary for a successful and relatively stable civilisation, often it is the free-thinkers or atheists who create the conditions for progress as opposed to simple change.
The new theory on the genetics of radical and conservative politics is not proven, yet there is some data which indicates that it may be a viable theory. Could it be that millenia of civilisation has also created a “Belief” gene pool? Separate from, but similar to the postulated political gene.That civilisation has grown to need a God. Not that I am being specific here because it is obvious that there are a number of successful civilisations around the world which each have their own God. The similarity is that they HAVE a God.
PZ Myers has written on his blog that he believes the New Atheist should aim at the destruction of all religious belief. While I admire his aim, I fear for the result.
As civilised men and women we, or most of us, have had bred into our genes a belief in the supernatural. A belief in magic and superstition. It is the major glue which holds our civilisation together. It doesn’t matter whether there is a supernatural realm or not. The belief is what matters and is what enables us, as a group, to live together. Mostly. And that group over there in the next valley or on the next continent is a danger to us and our belief.
Despite being on the same side of the belief fence as PZ I find I agree with Cliff and disagree with PZ. We need religion.
As an atheist, I see my role as looking outside the square. Finding new ways of doing or looking at things. Developing new thinking systems because those who believe are followers and those who rule are natural conservatives.
It is from my actions that God evolves.