The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Ancient Wisdom, Schmancient Wisdom

Humanity is not bad or flawed or evil.  Not as individuals or in the aggregate.  Indeed, our entire history, the entire tapestry of our existence is a testament to the exact opposite conclusion.  Our civilization's very existence is a glorious song to the power of the better angels of human nature.

Consider where we came from.  The ancient texts that most religions rely on were chiseled in rock or inked on papyrus during the very infancy of human thought.  They represent some of the earliest musings of our collective thought.  In many ways, they represent the expression of our basest, most primal, most primitive thoughts, fears and ambitions.  Our collective Id, set in stone.  Those ancient texts were scribed within the brutal cauldron of early human development, during a time when humankind was utterly at the mercy of forces it could scarcely describe, let alone understand.  A time when death and disease and starvation were not abstract concerns, but an everyday reality.

Understand that the world in which our seminal religious texts were forged is one that would be utterly unrecognizable to anyone born in the modern world.  Ask yourself this simple question.  When was the last time you saw a corpse in real life.  A real corpse, and not on television.  Recognize that most people will go through the majority of their lives without ever encountering a dead body.  In the ancient world, death was quite literally everywhere.  Death was entertainment.  Hangings, executions, torture were not something to be reviled and shunned, but were conducted in public for the entertainment of the masses.  The ancient world, the crucible in which our most important religious texts were written was incredibly violent, incredibly brutal and incredibly misogynistic, a world where slavery was laudable, where women were property, where violence and disease and death and starvation formed the tapestry of existence.  It is no small wonder that the moral and civic codes of the ancients are unbearably draconian and harsh by modern standards - the world in which these codes were forged was unbearably unforgiving and unrelenting in its brutal cruelty.

We no longer dwell in that world.  Those fears no longer define us.  Our understanding, our culture, our civilization has evolved.  We have grown.  We have surpassed the greatest ambitions of the ancients and created a civilization that any one of them would have described as heaven itself.  Compared to the brutal hellscape of early humanity, our civilization would truly be one where streets are paved with gold, where light and peace and justice reign.  We have created a society, a civilization that any ancient human would describe as divine.  And yet even our civilization is merely reaching its early adolescence.

Ours is a magical world, one filled with light, where we can travel virtually instantaneously from any place on the globe to any other, where we can access miraculous devices that enable us to share our thoughts with friends, family, the entire world if we wish, where even the poorest have access to foods the kings of old could not have dreamed of, where knowledge and information are as freely available as air.  Compared to the world in which the ancient texts were scribed, our world IS heaven.  Indeed, when one looks at the promises of heaven set out by the alleged prophets, it seems obvious that heaven is not another place - it is another time.  The prophets of old were not talking about some magical sky kingdom out in space, they were visionaries, talking about the future.  They were talking about us.

And even as amazing and marvelous as our civilization is, our civilization has virtually unlimited potential to grow, to mature, to become even greater.

The ancient world is readily analogous to the infancy of a child.  Infants have virtually no understanding of the world around them and even when they develop the vocabulary to describe what they can see and feel, they still lack the tools to describe the mechanics behind what they see, so they invent stories.  Indeed, to children everything is miraculous.  The children I know have plastic dolls with elaborate names who inhabit fantastical worlds.  Their imagination is boundless and enviable. Infants are also remarkably volatile, prone to fits of rage and weeping and joy that are seemingly unrelated to any external stimuli.  Fortunately, infants are also relatively weak and forgetful, so their bouts of rage rarely result in any lasting damage either physically or emotionally.

In much the same way, our early ancestors had virtually no understanding of the world they inhabited.  The world was truly mysterious, and while early humans certainly possessed the intelligence to discern patterns within weather and seasons and the movements of stars, they lacked the tools to discern the mechanics behind any of those phenomena, so like infants with their fertile imaginations, those early humans invented stories, gradually refining them for dramatic effect, all within the crucible of the relentlessly violent struggle for survival.  Is it any wonder that the ancient world was so violent?  Why so much blood was spilled?  When every civilization is struggling for its very survival, conflict over each and every resource is virtually inevitable.  Fortunately for us, the ancients, like infants, lacked the technological sophistication to inflict lasting damage on the human species.

Which is where our own civilization, now in its early adolescence is in a starkly different position from our forebearers.  Unlike the ancients, our civilization, like an adolescent who now has access to the family car (or a gun) now possesses the technological sophistication to actually inflict severe and lasting damage on ourselves.  Fortunately, like an adolescent, we also have developed a more sophisticated understanding of the world around us and of one another so that we are far less prone to random fits of raging infantile tantrums than our predecessors.  To be sure, our global civilization and its constituent civilizations certainly have issues and occasionally, those issues turn violent, but in the last 60 years, our species, horrified by the unparalleled carnage wrought by our last great wars have worked diligently to avoid the occurrence of such an event, recognizing that the consequences of a comparable conflict with modern weapons would almost certainly result in the deaths of not millions, but billions of innocent people.

We no longer live in the world of our ancestors.  And while their musings about the world provide an interesting glimpse into the worldview of long dead civilizations and cultures, we should no longer be constrained by their understanding of morality.  Any more than we are bound by their understanding of the Universe, their understanding of civic duty, their understanding of politics, their understanding of gender and race.  If we wish to move forward, if we wish to progress as a civilization, it is incumbent upon us to develop an ethic, a code, an understanding of morality consistent with the world that is, not the world as it used to be.


  1. love it! great analogy about civilization being like that of a growing person.

  2. "Our civilization's very existence is a glorious song to the power of the better angels of human nature." Wow. I'm quoting you on that, and I look forward to reading more... thank god you are sharing this brilliance, Jeff!

  3. One thing I find endlessly fascinating and something I'll be posting about later, is how civilizations mimic on a macro level, individual humans. It makes sense in that each sovereignty is an aggregation of millions of individuals, but it is quite striking how each nation state has both physical attributes approximating human functions and ethereal attributes approximating human functions.

    Our physical infrastructure is in many ways analogous to the cardio-vascular system of some meta-organism. Our information infrastructure is in many ways analogous to a neural network. And our cultural, historical, educational systems, our zeitgeist, if you will is what gives sovereignties their 'character.' Our institutional and cultural memories are what unite us as a people.

    And as civilizations grow, as they become more advanced technologically, economically, scientifically, culturally, they evolve from inefficient meta-organisms with limited understanding and a highly limited capability to share resources and information to amazingly complex entities capable of sharing information instantaneously and rapidly allocating resources.

    Our world is filled with growing civilizations and nearly all of them have evolved well past the stage of those who wrote all of our seminal religious texts. And just as the first writings of infants are precious and cute, they don't necessarily reflect the maturity and understandings of more mature beings. Which is why I think we as a civilization need to stop forever looking backwards for inspiration and moral guidance, and start honoring what we have achieved and forge our own moral destinies based on a more mature, egalitarian, peaceful world.

    And aww, thank you Andi!