Here’s an audio version
I have a really vivid memory of sitting at the kitchen table with my older brother when I was 17, while he helped me navigate the involutions of the university course calendar. I was dazzled to discover I could take courses in things like the history of the Catholic Church, or Asian mysticism. I clearly remember his bemusement as he asked me, with a mild contempt, why I would possibly want to sign up for stuff like that. Even back then when I was so young and intellectually spongy, I had the intuition that religion was a key that unlocked all other aspects of human endeavor. Its presence is felt in all the humanities, and I felt like I could dabble in all disciplines at once by studying it.
Two of my favourite courses were the history of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. They didn’t need to be titled as religion, because religion was such an integral aspect of both cultures that history inevitably encompassed it. The most lasting insight I got from these courses was that, for ancient people, things in the real world were not symbols of the divine, but divinities themselves. Later, people might have thought of thunder as a symbol of Thore, or the morning and evening star as a symbol of the goddess Venus. For ancient people, thunder was a god, and the morning and evening star was the goddess Ishtar.
25 Years later, I still feel the same cognitive disorientation when I try to think hard about this. As a devout agnostic, it takes yogic feats of imagination to project myself back not only to a time when natural phenomena were imbued with discrete divine identities, but when such conclusions were not beliefs, but truths.
When did we begin to doubt? Is it endemic for us to question everything, or are there massive swaths of our past during which we were incapable of conceiving the idea that the universe and our own existence didn’t arise from a supreme being? I don’t think even a dyed in the wool atheist has an answer to where the universe came from, but how recent an achievement is it for us to even consider that there’s an answer other than the divine creator? I feel confident that my Neolithic ancestor had no trouble doubting the truth of statements made by people she didn’t trust, or whether her mate would bring back an elk for supper, but was she capable of doubting what the religious specialists in her culture taught about how the world works?
Every civilization feels itself to be the pinnacle of human achievement. We generally feel that our cultures have answered the basic questions of the universe and our place in it correctly. Do you doubt this statement based on observation of our world? If so, it’s because we know more about human history than any culture before us. We have access to a multiplicity of cosmologies and belief systems. We’re on the far side of the scientific method and skeptical inquiry. We value thoughtful critique and the questioning of authority and orthodoxy. This gives us an enormous power that is relatively recent. Without mass media, or contact with people who have a different belief system, how difficult or impossible would it be to shape the world in a way other than that which you’d been taught?
In talking with a friend about the novel I’m working on, I remarked that one of my main characters is a religious devotee, and that, as a main character should, she’s someone different by the end of the novel than she was when it began. Not having given details, I was initially startled when, later, my friend said something making it clear that she assumed this character had gone through experiences that had made her question her faith. I had been thinking in terms of the ancient world, where my novel is set. Understandably, my friend had been seeing character development through the lens of the luxury of doubt. The fundamental truths of the world aren’t up for debate or even consideration by my ancient heroine. I wasn’t sure they could be.
Am I doing a disservice to the human mind by limiting it in this way? Perhaps cynicism is built into the human spirit. Surely ambitious or acquisitive priests in ancient Egyptian temples had motivations other than the enrichment of the soul, but were they skeptics of the identity and nature of the divine? These are, of course, unanswerable questions. As a historical fiction writer, these kinds of questions are some of my favourites. We can guess, we can extrapolate, we can conjecture, but in so many respects, when considering our ancestors, that’s the best we can do. I feel confident to say that imagination is endemic to humans however, and I like to think about how that’s one thing we’ve all had in common, even if I can’t be sure about so much else.