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Not just in words, but in art, dance, music and silence — this book is the perfect overview for viewing divinity from every perspective. The history of God cannot possibly be told. How can you write the history of One who is outside time and space, and who has no beginning and no end? Nevertheless, the desire to understand and experience the divine is a fundamental human need. For billions of people, through many millennia, the quest to answer the basic questions of existence — Why are we born? What will happen ...
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Not just in words, but in art, dance, music and silence — this book is the perfect overview for viewing divinity from every perspective. The history of God cannot possibly be told. How can you write the history of One who is outside time and space, and who has no beginning and no end? Nevertheless, the desire to understand and experience the divine is a fundamental human need. For billions of people, through many millennia, the quest to answer the basic questions of existence — Why are we born? What will happen to us when we die? and how should we live out lives? — has become a search for God. A Brief History of God explores the myriad ways in which humans have sought connection to the divine from the dawn of history to the present — not just through religion and philosophy, but in art and literature, in music and dance, and in science.
Behavior Embedded in the Brain
All people live their lives facing “a choice of catastropes” –the title of a book by the science-fiction writer Isaac Asminov reviewing "the disasters that threaten our world". They range from the remote (the heat death of the universe) to the near at hand (the change of climate and the depletion of resources). On a smaller scale, individuals also face threats to their lives, from crossing the road to catching a virus. Living organisms are vulnerable, and need to be defended if they are to live long enough to create the next generation.
Humans have many defences protecting their proteins and genes. Some are biological, like cells and the skin inside which they live; others, like culture, humans have created - the arrangements they have made to live successfully in families, groups, nations, and empires. Culture, as a defensive "skin", comprises such things as writing and books, traffic lights and schools, and religions.
Religions are the earliest cultural systems we know about that helped to protect both the bringing into being of children and their protection and instruction. That is why many religions have such strict rules in matters of sex, marriage, and food (see Bowker, pp.3-108).
Among the many ways in which religions have protected what is, in more up-to-date language, gene-replication and the nurture of children, one of the most important is ritual. Rituals are learned and repeated behaviours that people in a particular group or religion practice either individually or more often together. Rituals are so important for human life that they occur as much in non-religious ways (for example in the parades and ceremonies of Communist societies) as they do in religous acts of worshlp or in rites (rituals) of passage (at birth, puberty, marriage, and death).
Through ritual, religions tie culture strongly to God, to the purpose and protection of God. Religions agree that is important, but they also ask, "Survival for what?” For what purpose is life lived in the context of such vulnerability?
Rituals are a common and usually non-verbal way of enacting the overriding purposes and meanings of life and of death. Rituals are thus repeated patterns of action and behavior undertaken for an immense number of purposes—for example, to celebrate the birth of a child or to lament the passing of an elder; to give thanks for the life-giving presence of food and water or to bring a death-dealing disaster on enemies; to offer praise or to express penitence; and certainly to recognize and come into the presence of God. For this to work, rituals have to be recognized and understood at the deepest levels of human understanding, so not surprisingly they are embedded in the human brain and body: ritual behaviors are natural in the kind of brains and bodies that humans have – as indeed they are to some extent in other animals: people who study human behavior (ethologists) often speak of “ritual displays” in the approach to mating, or the defense of territory.
This “naturalness” does not imply that ritual behaviors are determined by genetic programs, as some have claimed. rather, rituals are widely employed in human cultures because they hold together the interactions between two major ways in which human brains process information as they respond to the world: associative learning and symbolic cognition.
Associative learning means forming associations between representations of events in the world, and is present in all animals in differing degrees of complexity. The human brain has been formed by evolution to process some stimulus events as intrinsically rewarding (e.g., sweet tastes) or to be avoided (aversive, e.g., very bitter or sour tastes). Such unlearned stimuli are called primary reinforcers. The brain rapidly identifies neutral stimuli which are linked in time or space to primary reinforcers, so that they evoke similar responses in terms of emotions and of motivation to act. These neutral stimuli become secondary reinforcers. The amygdala (p. 44) and orbofrontal cortex are the key brain structures representing the feelings associated with primary reinforcers, as well as memorizing associations with secondary reinforcers.
At one level, rituals employ many stimuli which human brains find intrinsically rewarding or aversive (thus heightening emotion when rituals are performed) in addition to setting up learned associations between stimuli which may be remembered for a life time. Examples of intrinsically arousing or attention-grabbing stimuli used in rituals include: motion, color, luminosity, emotive facial expressions of masks, accentuated sexual characteristics (cosmetics, oils), sudden loud noises (fireworks, bells), styles of language (singing, chanting), pain (flagellation, circumcision), temperature (baptism by immersion), smells (incense, perfumes), and taste (ritual foods), among many others.
Humans, however, do not simply respond to stimuli; they interpret them and identify them to themselves and to each other using symbol-based cognition. Humans are able to think with signs (pp 38-9), creating the possibility of, for example, using metaphors to represent God as a judge or King, and then depicting this conception through signs, symbols, and icons such as paintings or sculpture.
The brain represents a concept such as “king” by splitting it up into component parts (e.g., visual appearance, vocal quality, emotional connotations) , which are each stored in specialized regions, and by then binding this information together in multimodal processing areas (such as the temporal lobe memory system and prefrontal cortex) when the concept is activated by reading the word “king”, by a thought of a king, and so on. By imagining God as King, we are using existing brain-based representations to create a specific sense of what God is like, linking God to a potentially vast network of associated meanings which can be explored in many ways (for example, in ritual symbolism, religious art, prayer, poetry, and the many other ways described in this book). In this way, religious symbolism at a cognitive level corresponds to the ways in emotions, and they too contribute to the emotional experience of ritual performance.
Our capacity for symbolic cognition has arisen out of the long-running co-evolution of culture and the brain (particularly the prefrontal cortex, which co-ordinates the complex cognitive processes which support symbolic representation and learning: see Deacon, 1998). Symbolic cognition allows culturally prominent symbols (such as the Christian cross or Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, p. 104) to be created and to become the focus of layers of associated thoughts, memories and emotions during the course of a religious lifetime. Thus human brains not only form associations between stimulus events, as other animals do, but also interpret stimuli as meaningful by using symbols to create representation of what is going on, both in public expressions (e.g., speech and mime) and in private experience. In this way, meanings can become associated with experience and can resonate emotionally (for example, when the image of the Resurrection is used to express faith that adversity can be overcome, or when the loss of life is accepted as part of the creative and destructive Dance of Shiva). Rituals, therefore, orchestrate the interaction between associative and symbolic learning processes by manipulating the sensory characteristics of symbolic displays. In this way, primary and secondary reinforcers heighten arousal, feelings, sensations, and attention, interacting with the concepts encoded and evoked by the sign stimuli of the ritual (symbolic and iconic objects, gestures, mime, language, etc.) so that they are experienced and felt as especially powerful, relevant and memorable. Rituals are thus extremely common in different religions and societies (many rituals are secular and have nothing to do with religion) because they are a dramatically effective way in which people can find powerful (often transcendent) meaning in the local circumstances in their lives. Rituals create distinctive emotions and feelings, almost like a tone or color, whether the emotions are of joy, awe, reverence, ecstasy., fear, grief, or sadness. A current theory that helps to explain how ritual joins symbolic cognition and emotion is the somatic marker hypothesis.
Meaning is thus constructed, remembered, and reinforced in extremely complex ways, so it is not surprising that humans fill their environments with signs and symbols as well as ritual practices. Through this process even the most abstract ideas, like time, space, and God, can be personalized and interacted with. They can be related to the experienced world, even though they are known to be “not exactly like that”. This is precisely what happens in all religions in relation to God, who is known to be beyond words and description and yet is clearly knowable and approachable through signs and rituals. It is indeed the role of analogy to make the abstract conceivable in terms of the familiar.
On this basis, it is obvious why rituals are so important in human evolution. They are a fundamental part of building a protective culture, because they connect people through the opportunity of what human brains and bodies have in common. none of this diminishes the beauty and importance of ritual; indeed, it explains why ritual is so indispensable, even if one thinks in terms of human evolution alone. Rituals are the world that people live in common with their neighbors, bound together by them in a shared enterprise of life.
Ritual is thus another of the profound and natural “languages” through which people throughout history have given expression to their feelings and understandings of God, not least as the One who confers ultimate meaning on every aspect of life and of death.