April 17, 1992

Religion and History

There is a kind of Natural Selection in religion; the creed which is best adapted to the mental world will invariably prevail.

Where now is Osiris....where now is Isis? They are dead; gone to the land of the shades. To-morrow, Jehovah, you and your son shall be with them.

Winwood Reade, 1872

Most of us have been brought up in cultures and religions that believe in a personal god; that there is some omnipotent power that can, if he wants to, alter the state of the earth and the condition of the people on it. People who believe this also think that human affairs are regulated from the outside. If something good or bad happens, God willed it. This attitude goes as far back as spoken history. Many believe that people are themselves gods who can alter the world to suit themselves.

I have just finished reading a book that was very far ahead of its time: The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade. I discovered this book when Arthur Conan Doyle plugged it in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories. I wanted to see what Conan Doyle called "a remarkable book."

The book, published in 1872, makes a good case for the existence of cultural and social evolution. Reade sees every primitive religion and culture as a step toward whatever will happen next. He sees Judaism and Christianity as a necessary step toward some "higher" belief system in which people will follow the "Golden Rule" without the promise of an afterlife with its reward and punishment.

Reade applies Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection to religion, culture and civilization. He traces world history up to his own time, and even speculates on the future. Considering the variables, he doesn't do too bad a job of it. While he could foresee air travel, and some kind of peace brought about by a weapon so terrible that war would become unthinkable, he didn't foresee an electronic age where machines would do almost everything.

A friend of mine who has known me for a long time, and knows me well, said that he thought that I was a "social Darwinist." I do believe that social systems and belief systems evolve, not so much with time, but with events. The American revolution used the lessons of all of the social struggles that had gone before. People really haven't changed much, at least not since recorded history, but social systems have, and they have changed for the better. I expect to get an argument on that score.

I don't believe in the efficacy of revolution, in the accepted sense of the word. Attempts to change things too rapidly have much the same effect as trying to teach a kid to walk before he is ready. It just doesn't work. The Russian experiment with communism failed, in part because the country just wasn't ready for it. It was much too fast and didn't take the nature of people into account. Could it have worked? I have no idea, any more that I know whether capitalism can continue to work.

Until people are prepared to love one another, Christianity is not likely to work too well. If people are ever ready to love one another, Christianity may not be needed. Everything is, of course, contingent on the survival of mankind.

Consider the culture of the American Plains Indian. It remained the same for millennia. One great change came with the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards. The next great change came with the introduction of the rifle and the massive invasion of Europeans. The final demise of the culture as it was, came with the extermination of the buffalo.

Cultural evolution has little to do with intrinsic superiority, intelligence, genetics, or ability of ethnic groups. Switch a bunch of Indian, or African, and European babies at birth and you wouldn't find much, if any, difference in their attitudes, beliefs and performance. Those would go along with the beliefs and attitudes of their foster parents. While there are great differences in intelligence between individuals, racial or cultural groups of people seem to show about the same spread from the most to least intelligent.

Students of intelligence and culture have been puzzled by the relative lack of difference in intrinsic mental ability between people in primitive and advanced cultures. It seemed to some that the intelligence was there before it was ever put to use. What good is high intelligence if there are no books, computers or intelligence tests?

It took as much genius to invent and develop the various primitive dwellings such as the tepee, the igloo, the log cabin, as it takes to design a modern building. Genius has existed for a very long time or we would never have gotten to where we are today. Every time that I look at a steam engine, I am astonished at the quality of both the engineering and workmanship. It is no less marvelous for its time than a jet plane is for our time.

Reade assumes that things are evolving toward a better world. In some ways he may be right; in others he might have been mistaken.

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