Monday, August 13, 2007

Foundation legends.

It is taking me a long old time to start to put together the foundations for a theory of religion that doesn't depend on gods. (Some forms of Buddhism, recognisably for most purposes religions, do not seem to have deities).

So I started to think about foundation legends. For a long time it has seemed to me that they fall into two broad types: autochthonous legends: we were literally 'born from the earth' or our ancestors have lived here since some mythical beginning; and legends of conquest: a mythical point of arrival, or the fulfillment of a destiny. Of course, a given society may well not have a simple foundation legend corresponding easily to one of these types. The foundation legend of Christianity provides a suitably convoluted example. The Eden legend is clearly autochthonous, but the Fall leads to exile and that notorious conquest legend involving the 'Promised land.' Of course, the post-Pauline church added, and Augustine significantly expanded, a new conquest legend which pulled the circle back to the original autochthonous legend: the City of God presaginging a return to Eden for the 'Chosen People.' None of this seems to me to undermine the basic scheme of two broad types.

What, then, of the foundation legend of the modern aetheist? Perhaps more importantly, what of the secularist believer of the modern European nation state? The second question is probably incredibly difficult. The first is arguably answerable.

Many foundation legends look, to post-Enlightenment eyes 'irrational.' What are the bases of their truth-claims? There is always, of course, a source of authority promoting the claims of predominent foundation legends over the claims of other versions. This might take the form of collective tradition (for example in the oral traditions of an ancestor cult), a particular text or group of texts, or in the knowledge of a particular caste or hiercarchy of individuals.

The rationalist challenge tends to take the form of an attack on the knowledge system being promoted by this authority. So a Christian might give priority to the legend contained in the Bible, and the authority of the Bible might be re-inforced by the very sanctity of the text, by liturgies containing rituals of reverence, by the sharing of this reverence with community peers, and by the instruction of a hierarchy of clergy. The rationalist might ask: "But how can you believe in this legend, transmitted as it is in a text of doubtful provenance, with a hugely controversial tradition?" The Christian answer will normally be along the lines of "This is the word of the lord."

An ancestor based foundation legend will tend to derive its authority from a societal reverence for the knowledge of ancestors, and for the methods by which this knowledge purports to be transmitted (requently repeated stories are a common method). Two objections which a rationalist might raise are the problem of generational 'Chinese whispers', and the exclusion of new knowledge (progress as New Labour would say) from the tradition. The former can be dealt with quite easily: it has been effectively demonstrated ad nauseam by anthropologists that the form of a story can change markedly over generations, but the frequently oral traditions retain their substantive content to a remarkable degree. The latter raises the consistent point of tension between Enlightenment rationalism and other systems of knowledge. Rationalism cannot accept that, whatever the absolute truth-value of scientific theory, there can be any better method of apprehending the truth than rational thought. In this sense, it is arguably an intellectual cul-de-sac. If so, rationalist attacks on other foundation legends might be suffering from a serious discontinuity.

What of the rationalist foundation legend? The world came into existence as a result of the 'Big Bang;' life evolved according to the principles first formulated by Darwin. That would be my brief take on the current state of rationalist play. It certainly has the possibility of producing a fairly organic cosmology. Rather than tying a social group to a delineated territory on earth, it is a autochthonous foundation myth for humanity, and the territory is the earth. I am not about to dispute that Darwinism is currently the only convincing theory for the development of complicated life forms from simple life forms. However, there are two broader points where the rationalist foundation legend looks highly questionable, even on its own terms.

Firstly, the so-called 'Goldilocks Enigma' - that it is extraordinary that earth should provide a complicated matrix of conditions 'just right' for life - cannot be answered with the observation that if life was to happen anywhere, it must be here, or we could not be here to think about it. This is the reply proposed by a large number of important physicists, and yet philosophically it just won't do. It does not address the 'Goldilocks Enigma,' it just passes the buck.

The second, and more serious, problem lies with the physics of the Big Bang (or any other similar theory). Those who purport to believe that this explains their ultimate origins are placing immense amounts of faith in a small caste of initiates who are privy to secret knowledge. This may seem a bizarre way to describe physicists(!), but the reality of cosmological physics is that all but a select few do not in reality even have any possibilty to understand the science behind the models. For most normal people, the maths is simply beyond us.I suspect this includes most popular science writers, who happily use their authority over their readers to assert such theories as more or less fact, despite lacking the tools to understand them.

It would be absurd to follow this line of argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to attack rationalist theories of knowledge altogether. I am not claiming that 'standing on the shoulders of giants' is not an important part of knowledge acquisition. But I am attempting to demonstrate the circularity of the rationalist foundation myth. It is as externally unverifiable as any other foundation myth. Hence to attack any other foundation myth as 'irrational' is to miss the point.

The point of all this is to suggest that science offers no superior alternative to other kinds of foundation myths. They remain a category of knowledge systems which "provide satisfactory answers to important questions to which nothing else seems able to give satisfactory answers." Naturally that satisfaction remains in the eye of the beholder (or believer). But there simply does not exist an objective alternative.

It seems to me that this (foundation legends) might be one example of the kinds of things which constitute religions. Of course it is a fairly tentative first step, but you have to start somewhere. Suggestions welcome...


At 1:54 AM, Blogger UK plc said...

Dealing with some but not all of the post: the problem of hybridity and adaption seems to me to be important. In other words, it's important to ask what is the role of the sacred in modern 'secular' European societies? And what does this tell us about religion and modernity? Thorny issues, but for a fascinating case study, Susan Morrissey, Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia (Cambridge, 2006). More generally, Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore MD, 1993) and especially Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford CA, 2003)

Also thinking about the meaning of the soul in modern societies, and the various answers suggested by Foucault, Roy Porter (esp in his last book, Flesh in the Age of Reason (2003), and others. Tantalizing, but thus far inconclusive.


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