How trance states forged human society through transcendence


EXCERPT (Mark Vernon): . . . In the decade of the New Atheists, religion was the root of all evil. Nowadays, however, it tends to be thought of as a good, even necessary, part of society. In his recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (2019), the agnostic historian Tom Holland argues that Christianity underpins our civilisation; and the atheist philosopher John Gray has repeatedly stressed that atheism is not the natural default for rational people, but is often a type of religion too. Even Richard Dawkins has admitted there may be an upside to religion insofar as it stops people doing bad things. The calculation is that, while religion undoubtedly causes bloody conflict, it also prompts prosocial behaviour, and the benefits outweigh the downsides. In this, the thinking has moved in line with the scientific understanding of religion’s origins, drawing on work in the cognitive sciences that acknowledges religion and its precursors as a key feature of human evolution that enabled our ancestors to live successfully in ever larger groups.

But I’m wary of this argument. It makes me feel that its advocates are trying to have their secular cake and eat it. Aren’t they neutralising what lies at the heart of human religiosity – experiences of the supernatural, transcendence and gods? Aren’t they turning it into a noble lie? So I’ve been glad to discover that the scientific understanding of religion’s origins is itself changing. Different proposals are making the running. They not only seem better supported by the evidence, but treat the otherworldliness of religion as critical to its prosocial effects.

The hints that our ancestors lived in worlds shaped by meaningful symbols, as well as the need to survive, go back as far as archaeology can see. [...] The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar sums it up in his book Human Evolution (2014): ‘Anatomically modern humans mark an important transition in our story because with them comes culture in a way that had never happened before.’ And from that culture came religion, with various proposals to map the hows and whys of its emergence.

Until recently, the proposals fell into two broad groups – ‘big gods’ theories and ‘false agency’ hypotheses. Big gods theories envisage religion as conjuring up punishing deities. [...] In short, big gods are not a universal feature of religions and, if they are present, they seem correlated to big societies not causes of them. False agency hypotheses don’t do much better. These assume that our forebears were jumpy and superstitious [...] The upshot was that those who believed in supernatural agency tended to live, while those who didn’t died, which meant that evolution selected for the false perception of an enchanted cosmos. Religious delusions became part of human experience.

This simple version of the hypothesis is readily refuted. Observations of indigenous peoples today reveal that they are astonishingly astute about what’s going on in their environments. They tend not to make mistakes, which is the real reason they survive. That said, false agency proposals come in more sophisticated forms as well. [...] Miguel Farias ... has tested whether an assumption of spiritual reality leads people to attribute false agency to the world around them ... his team’s findings chime with other research ... ‘The idea has been tested and disconfirmed across various experiments,’ Farias told me.

So there is a need for a new idea, and coming to the fore now is an old one revisited, revised and rendered more testable. It reaches back a century to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim who observed that social activities create a kind of buzz that he called effervescence. Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.

The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins, which proposes that our palaeolithic ancestors hit on effervescence upon finding that they could induce altered states of consciousness. Research to test and develop this idea is underway in a multidisciplinary team led by Dunbar at the University of Oxford. The approach appeals to him, in part, because it seems to capture a crucial aspect of religious phenomena missing in suggestions about punishing gods or dangerous spirits. ‘It is not about the fine details of theology,’ Dunbar told me, ‘but is about the raw feelings of experience, and that this raw-feelings element has a transcendental mystical component – something that is only fully experienced in trance states.’ He notes that this sense of transcendence and other worlds is present at some level in almost all forms of religious experience...

[...] Intentionality, or focusing on someone or something, comes in various guises. [...] higher-order intentionality helped our ancestors consciously to incorporate visionary dimensions of existence into the complex interactions of their lives: it meant that humans could forge more organised sets of shamanistic practices and develop animistic worldviews. ... It took a long time. There’s archaeological evidence that this kind of systematisation reaches back some tens of thousands of years.

[...] when villages and then towns appear, they massively increase social stresses, which is to say that new techniques for managing social pressures are required. A release was found with the creation of what Dunbar calls ‘doctrinal religion’, by which he means religious systems that include specialists such as priests and impressive constructions we’d call temples and/or domestic house-based shrines. Such features increase the prosocial effects of religiosity beyond what’s possible through shamanic rituals alone because constructed sacred spaces, coupled to visibly enacted theologies in the form of sacrifices and feasts, maintain the presence of ancestors, spirits or gods in built-up communities. They give meaning to the years and seasons, as well as the comings and goings of every day, by translating the sense of transcendence originally found in visionary experiences to a sense of transcendence generated by temples and house shrines. ‘Doctrinal religion’ thereby sustains the prosocial effects of earlier types of religiosity for groups that are now growing very large indeed.

[...] However, there is a tension that arises when religious experiences are institutionalised. It can feel as if what’s on offer is somewhat thinner than experiences gained in the immersive rites that precipitate altered states. Encountering spirit entities directly in a dance or chase is not the same as the uplift offered by a monumental building, tremendous though it might be. The vitality of one is not easily contained within the structures of the other. It’s as if a degree of disenchantment is the price paid for large-scale social cohesion.

Dunbar calls it ‘the problem of mysticism’. It’s manifest in the wariness with which the organised religions of history have regarded revivals and awakenings. Such charismatic eruptions are perceived as a threat to the main cult, which they are because, implicitly or explicitly, they press for a fresh connection with the original deity or spiritual wellspring. [...] You might say that religions are caught between the Scylla of socially useful but potentially dreary religious rites and the Charybdis of altered states that are intrinsically exciting but socially disruptive. It’s why they bring bloody conflicts as well as social goods. This way of putting it highlights another feature of the trance theory. It interweaves two levels of explanation: one focused on the allure of spiritual vitality; the other on practical needs.

[...] Of course, science cannot decide whether the claims of any one religion are true. But the new theory still makes quite a strong claim, which brings me back to the role of the supernatural, transcendence and religious gods that today’s secularists seem inclined to sideline. If the science cannot confirm convictions about any divine revelations received, it does lend credence to the reasonableness, even necessity, of having them. Where the big gods and false agency hypotheses seemed inherently sniffy about human religiosity, the trance hypothesis positively values it. As Fuentes writes: ‘Meaning-making, the transcendent, and openness to revelation and discovery are core parts of the human niche and central to our evolutionary success.’

‘For myself, I remain an atheist,’ Dunbar told me. ‘The trance hypothesis is neutral about the truth claims of religions whether you believe or don’t, though it does suggest that transcendent states of mind are meaningful to human beings and can evolve into religious systems of belief.’

And in this final observation there is, perhaps, some good news for us, whether we’re religious or not. It’s often said that many of today’s troubles, from divisive political debates to spats on social media, are due to our tribal nature. It’s added, somewhat fatalistically, that deep within our evolutionary past is the tendency to identify with one group and demonise another. We are destined to be at war, culturally or otherwise. But if the trance theory is true, it shows that the evolutionary tendency to be tribal rests on an evolutionary taste for that which surpasses tribal experience – the transcendence that humans glimpsed in altered states of mind that enabled them to form tribes to start with.

If we long to belong, we also long to be in touch with ‘the more’, as the great pioneer of the study of religious experiences William James called it. That more will be envisaged in numerous ways. But it might help us by prompting new visions that exceed our herd instincts and binary thinking, and ease social tensions. If it helped our ancestors to survive, why would we think we are any different? (MORE - details)
What is, or how can you tell, the difference between a genuinely crazy person and someone who deliberately or artificially alters their state of mind? How good at discerning this difference were the ancients? 

At some point in the past a member of the most intelligent species to ever walk the Earth had a revelation in which it was deemed necessary to mutilate female and male genitals. Whether it supposedly pleased a divinity or society matters not because today the revelations of madmen are recognized for the most part. I think modern society constantly compares ancient society as barbaric or uneducated, thus we either evolve towards reason or more insanity.
(Nov 19, 2019 01:41 PM)Zinjanthropos Wrote: What is, or how can you tell, the difference between a genuinely crazy person and someone who deliberately or artificially alters their state of mind? How good at discerning this difference were the ancients? 

At some point in the past a member of the most intelligent species to ever walk the Earth had a revelation in which it was deemed necessary to mutilate female and male genitals.

Male circumcision goes back thousands of years and arose independently in various places, with no single universal origin or justification for the practice. In Egypt, it varied from cosmetic reasons to a symbol of manhood that one could endure the pain / discomfort (especially pertaining to warriors).

Female body mutilation supposedly isn't mentioned and prescribed in the Quran, long predating Abrahamic cultures; and likewise had miscellaneous geographical inceptions. With the original motivations (similar to today) primarily revolving around control and restriction of female sexuality, but also the pudicity and body aesthetics stuff.

The diverse array of bling-related body mutilations today in genital areas are purely pop-culture driven and voluntary acts of "notice me" egotism or fit in the crowd conformity. Religious approval of already existing cultural practices would thereby add little but sacred overtones to those. Force from policy and societal intimidation were already ensuring their application in history beforehand, without priest or imam standing in for "police" and administrative elders.

Patriarchy's virile status signals and oppressive customs only require a low-tech civilization (or lack of any) to enable and establish them. With the latter's high death-rate of infants and children and lack of contraception keeping women regularly pregnant early on. Its lack of modern household appliances, clothing stores, and supermarkets to lessen the otherwise incredible workload of domestic labor and immediate farm chores (those not out in distant fields). And with its heavy militant orientation due to disputes over hunting, grazing, timber, mineral and planting territories and constant threat of invasion, encroaching or invading tribes, warfare, etc.

Quote:Whether it supposedly pleased a divinity or society matters not because today the revelations of madmen are recognized for the most part. I think modern society constantly compares ancient society as barbaric or uneducated, thus we either evolve towards reason or more insanity.

As the essay contends, the old theories about why religion evolved or developed have been refuted. The "new lad on the block" -- Émile Durkheim's "collective effervescence" -- still applies to binding people together with intoxicating experiences in even secular settings (musical concerts, festive celebrations, political and ideological rallies, state ceremonies/rituals like in non-theist North Korea; and other grandiose and experimental gatherings promoting "something larger than one's self").

The latin root combining form of "lig" in religion means to bind or tie together. [Deep] etymologically the word "religion" ironically lacks any direct references to transcendent elements other than getting beyond individuality to contractually acquire a group or communal identity and set of practices.

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