Posted by: Green Knight | September 16, 2011

Science & Religion (and Philosophy)

A friend was asking me the other day about paganism, Wicca, interest in native worldviews, and all the New Age nature-worship traditions (not a paradox; all traditions were new when they began).  I was taking an early-morning hike, which in Fall weather is a good time to contemplate, and reflecting on the issue, I came up with some observations that I might as well share here too.

Anthropology was one of my several majors during my three stints at three different universities, and it provided a nice balance to the hard science stuff.  One thing you learn is that human nature is mutable, and culture is heavily influenced by geographical opportunities and limitations.  We anthros dislike the term “primitive,” because it smacks of social Darwinism, 19th-century imperialism, and all the other stuff that eventually led up to Hitler.  A revelation I just had this minute I think explains away that pejorative “primitive” label once and for all, after 35 years of thinking about it.

Most people don’t know that it was Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  He urged Charles to use it after reading the first edition of On the Origin of Species, but was unsuccessful.  At any rate, think about the fact that surviving “primitive” societies are still here because they outcompeted their less well-adapted neighbors.  Success doesn’t always result from technological superiority, either, but from being best-adapted to one’s environment.  A great book,  Ecology in Ancient Civilizations by J. Donald Hughes, 1975, points out how many perished by overexploiting their environment.  Sound familiar?  The Maya didn’t “disappear,” they just exhausted their resource base and those of their subject neighboring tribes, and just plain couldn’t afford to live in cities anymore.  Had to go back to living in the jungle.  I liked economics better when it was taught in anthro departments instead of business school; at least they were dealing with palpable commodities instead of “mythical” numbers.  It’s ALL voodoo these days…I guess that’s our new mythology.

Back to our relationship to nature, and religious attitudes.  In prescientific societies, Nature was sometimes benign, but more often terrifying.  It always helps to personify the unknown, to put a face on it or give it a name, to make it more easy to compartmentalize in the human mind and thus easier to handle, not just psychologically but practically.  Once you start calling something “cholera” instead of “this other thing that makes us sick,” it becomes a focus that can begun to be dealt with.  Humans made up gods to put an accessible aspect on the various forces that affected them: sun, rain, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the like.  It’s a convenience, so that our limited minds can take in and try to process the limitless universe.  In all disciplines, there are the lumpers and the splitters, but in this case you had to split ‘em first to identify who was who, and whom needed to be propitiated, and when, and then you lumped them together in a pantheon.

With science, we now understand what causes volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, earthquakes, and monsoons.  I just wish we knew what causes buffoons (and poltroons); I dealt with that in the last post.  But in doing so, we’ve lost some of the romanticism and poesy of the old tribal stories.  I use, like, and NEED textbooks and technical dictionaries all the time, but they’re hardly bodice-busters.  What we’ve lost is the awe, in its good and bad aspects (awesome and awful), of the world around us, because we’ve built enclosures to separate us from it.  Alan Watts is my favorite philosophical pretension-buster to take us out of our individual and professional ruts and just SEE what IS for what it IS.

Luckily, we have helpers to keep us from being trapped in one or the other perceptual sinkhole, and to balance knowledge with feeling.  I recommend Watts, Loren Eiseley, Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, Farley Mowat, Stephen Jay Gould, David Suzuki, Black Elk, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Patrick McDonnell with his Mutts comic strip, and especially James Lovelock with his Gaia theory.  Another great book is The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot, which describes a view of physics and cosmology that I prefer to string theory and loop quantum gravity and the variable speed of light idea and all that stuff, and even explains so-called “paranormal” phenomena.  I recommend a chapter every night before bed.  It’ll change the way you look at and therefore perceive your surroundings, impel you to slow down and reflect before acting, and perhaps help you evolve as a worthy participant in this wonderful mess that is life.

The final thing I meant to say is that I read an eco-thriller novel last week that had an Inuit scientist, who’d divorced himself from his culture, have to go back to the Arctic to bury his father, and hooked up with his uncle, a shaman, and they discussed the old tribal and family stories and legends about ravens and wolves and orcas turning into people and back, and all that stuff (the book is The Swarm by Frank Schätzing, great but long read).   The nephew was discounting the old lore, and his uncle said that the point wasn’t that what happened in the stories didn’t actually occur, it was that they had lessons to teach.  On my morning outing, I was trying to think of a shorthand way to express that idea, and came up with my own phrase, “they may not be REAL, but they’re TRUE.”  ‘Nuff said.



  1. I’m really amazed by this blog. Tons of useful posts and info on here. Thumbs up,

  2. many thanks! 🙂

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