Rewriting the history of religion, civilization, and the human mind
Like you and everybody else in today’s intellectual culture, I was taught that religion arose in human history as an effect, not a cause. This message was transmitted loud and clear even though my high school and college educations weren’t overtly aimed at undermining a belief in religion’s primacy, and even though I grew up in the conservative evangelical culture of a small Missouri Ozarks town where the narrative of America as a Christian nation and history as a divinely directed affair was central. The secular view of life, the universe, and everything, which holds that concrete material and practical forces are the real drivers of everything, was transmitted right alongside those other assumptions by the corporate-consumer worldview that dominated America in the 1970s and 80s and still dominates America today. And it, as opposed to they, became my unconscious default assumption. Much of my philosophical, spiritual, and psychological life as an adult has been devoted to unearthing, understanding, and quite often rejecting or correcting certain idiocies in this belief system.
And now comes a rather riveting report from this month’s National Geographic titled “The Birth of Religion” that lands right in the middle of the whole affair and promises to overturn our now-ingrained assumptions, not only about the specific facts of history and cultural development, but about the relationship of human psychological and spiritual motivations to the very origin and unfolding of civilization itself. “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion,” says the article’s slug line. “Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.”
The story concerns a site known as Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey. It appears to have been built about 11,600 years ago — seven thousand years before the Great Pyramid of Giza — and it contains the world’s oldest known temple, constructed as rings of carved limestone pillars decorated with “bas-reliefs of animals — a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars.” Göbekli Tepe represents “the oldest known example of monumental architecture — the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut.”
The temple structure was discovered and unearthed (in part; most of it is still buried and awaiting exploration) by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt in the 1990s. Snippets from the National Geographic article convey a sense of the revolutionary significance of the whole event, which threatens to upend what we’ve all come to accept as the standard story of the Neolithic Revolution, when the practical forces of ecological necessity led humans to transition from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to a city-based agricultural one:
[T]he site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species’ deep past. . . . The new research suggests that the [Neolithic] “revolution” was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely. . . . What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred — and the human love of a good spectacle — may have given rise to civilization itself. . . . [Schmidt says] “Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structure, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources.” . . . Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. . . . Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”
[. . .] Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. . . . Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. . . . “Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces,” Schmidt says. “I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.”
— “The Birth of Religion,” National Geographic, June 2011
Did you catch that last line, which is in fact the final line of the NG story? “I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.” The awesome can-of-worm-opening power of that statement is not to be missed. The cultural narrative that has reigned since the 1920s, when V. Gordon Childe determined the shape of future textbooks (including the ones you and I studied in school) by inventing the idea of the Neolithic Revolution, was an unacknowledged cousin to the Marxist view that all human intellectual and spiritual ideas are actually governed by, and are ideological facades for, material forces. (Childe, the article reminds us, was “a passionate Marxist.”) But if Schmidt and his colleagues are right about the implications of Göbekli Tepe, then this is all being overturned and undermined, and we’re seeing the history of civilization becoming the history of the human mind and the human religious impulse as opposed to vice versa. And in learning “that civilization is a product of the human mind,” we’re crashing into the fact that we really have no ultimate idea what that means, since we don’t really know what the human mind is. And this very topic is a philosophical and scientific cause célèbre at this very cultural moment.
I love to notice thematic parallels and isomorphisms not just in art and literature but, increasingly, in life at large. In short, I love synchronicities. And I just can’t help scenting a major and large-scale one afoot in the fact that this NG story, not just the archaeological and philosophical developments it reports but the very fact of its publication, comes right at a time when the question of the human mind’s true nature and workings has taken center stage thanks to explosive advances in neuroimaging technology over the past two decades (a topic that has long interested me, and that I’m presently binge-reading about for my next Demon Muse article.)
The book world and news-o-sphere are positively bristling with stories about the accelerating search for the basis of the mind in the brain, and about the philosophical ramifications of the whole thing. See, for example, “Mind vs. Machine” in The Atlantic, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio, and The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. But various thoughtful and informed observers are pointing out that the materialistic assumptions behind all of this research may be fatally misplaced. See, for example, Dr. Raymond Tallis’s “What Neuroscience Cannot Tell Us about Ourselves” and “A mind of one’s own: the metaphysical limitations of neuroscience.” The thematic parallel between the mind-brain question and the mind-civilization problem is impossible to ignore. Right when a full verification or disproof of the now-patent assumption that the brain creates the mind and self is said to be imminent, we’re hit with the news from another branch of science that old assumptions about the relationship between mind (and spirit/religion) and the material basis of civilization itself may have had it backward all along.
Another synchronicitous-seeming aspect of timing glares at us in the fact that the technological advances in neuroimaging driving today’s revolution in consciousness studies kicked off in the early 1990s, while Schmidt discovered the buried temple at Göbekli Tepe in 1994.
The news from southern Turkey may or may not be enough to bring about a total revolution in our understanding of human history along the lines of, say, a Graham Hancockian occult rereading of things. But it certainly sends a seismic tremor through our collective mainstream understanding of the course of human history, and it forces a direct engagement with the question, usually skirted (or rather begged) in the empirical sciences, of how and whether such things as mind and spirit really do exist and really do impact material life and human civilization.
- Smithsonian map of Göbekli Tepe: By Heliogabulus at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
- Göbekli Tepe: By Creator:Rolfcosar (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons