In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins the question is asked ‘Where do gods come from?’ but no answer is given.
Every human society around the world has some belief about a spiritual afterlife. Why should that be the case? If it is universal then presumably it cannot be a human quirk developed by accident and dependent on some special configuration of circumstances. This suggests that we are hard wired to develop a belief system or at the very least evolutionary inclined towards adopting this strategy. Here is my attempt at an explanation.
In his book The End of Forever, Darryl Reanney suggests that a belief in an afterlife was necessary to counter the negative impact of self awareness in consciousness. As consciousness developed in our species we inevitably realised that we as individuals would die one day – using intelligence to plan strategy will inevitably pose the question “what happens to us?” No other species has this knowledge, they all live in the moment. I am confident of this assertion because of the reasoning I will give later. If you are aware of your own mortality then this can produce a profound negative feedback loop in your thinking. If you’re going to die anyway, what is the point of doing anything significant or of planning too far ahead? Evolution ‘encourages’ species to develop and adapt to the environment and to ultimately replicate themselves. If we keep reflecting on what is the purpose of it all then, there is a danger that we will find no purpose and ’shut down’ in our consciousness preventing its further evolution.
As an experiment in evolution, consciousness is a hugely dangerous adaptation. For it to develop fully it needed to have a fail-safe mechanism for avoiding the downsides of self awareness.
In mathematics, the appearance of infinity in any equation is an abomination to the mathematician as it produces unacceptable results. In human consciousness the opposite is true; the finite is unacceptable. The realisation of our own mortality is an abomination for our consciousness, therefore the concept of an afterlife has to be created to avoid this finality.
Our species can now continue with the process of procreation using the powerful advantage of higher consciousness safe in the knowledge that there is a purpose for doing so.
In my opinion, Richard Dawkins‘ exploration of a god concept missed two crucial elements to its development, namely, art and drugs (particularly hallucinogenic drugs). To a lesser degree, language is another key component in the origination of an afterlife.
It is my contention that any species that produces art will have a concept of an afterlife, this is why I am convinced that although a species such as the elephant has self awareness, it does not produce art, therefore it has not made the leap into higher consciousness that allows it to extrapolate its own inevitable demise. The footage of elephants fondling the bones of other, recently dead elephants suggests that they are on the cusp of such an awakening. Incidentally, the ‘art’ that some elephants have produced has been shown to be the result of their handlers subtle signals and not any spontaneous expression from the animal.
So what is art?
Art is the demonstration of creativity. It is the leap of consciousness from merely observing the environment to manipulating it. Art has power. It is no accident that Islam forbids the representation of humans and animals.
The cave paintings from Lascaux tell us a great deal about the significance of art and narcotics.
What is not widely known about the cave paintings is that many of the pictures are difficult to interpret because of the curious marks that accompany them; mostly dots obscuring the image beneath. There are also zigzags and semi circles. It has been suggested that these marks represent the visual effects produced by certain narcotic substances. Whether the paintings were done under the influence of these narcotics or the visions were remembered and then reproduced is unknown. But here is the holy trinity for the origination of religion: art, narcotics and language.
Art is an attempt to make a connection with that being depicted. In the case of the Lascaux painters, the beasts that they observed and hunted. Art is creating something out of ‘nothing’ – the colours come from dirt, minerals, plants, insects. The representation of the animal from these basic, fundamental ingredients is a god-like act. It is not difficult to extrapolate from that realisation to the idea that a much larger artist created the world in just such a way. Art is creation, as is god. This connection can be verified by witnessing the hand silhouettes of the artists from thousands of years ago. I find these images disturbing because the art does what it intended to do – to reach out through time in an immortal salute and to defy death. I shiver at their timeless question; who was this person?
The predominance of human and animal sacrifice in many early belief systems points to an obsession with mortality and an afterlife.
The role of narcotics in helping to develop the idea of an afterlife is equally easy to understand. Anyone who has taken any kind of drug will know of its power to provide an alternative view of reality. For a human being (and indeed many other species) this window to another reality is hugely attractive. Again, nearly all human cultures have been shown to use narcotics in one way or another. Why do humans crave an escape from the one reality that they are familiar with? Perhaps we are back to the unacceptable ‘reality’ of our own mortality. Whatever the reason, the drug experience allows us to extrapolate to the conclusion that there must be other dimensions that are yet to be discovered.
The Lascaux artists were probably viewed as shaman or interlocutors by their fellow tribespeole. Vocalised language allowed these shaman to communicate the content of their visions to others. The story of another world that exists beyond our knowledge must have been so easy to believe and the story was then corroborated by the language of art.
The paintings themselves at Lascaux are not easily accessible for the casual observer, they are deep within a cave system. This suggests an early development of the concept of sacredness or exclusivity for the ’seeing ones’.
How does this help from an evolutionary point of view? My guess is that those tribes with a strongly developed sense of an afterlife would co-operate more with each other and have a stronger sense of community. Crucially however, it would allow the investment of resources and time for bigger projects such as stone circles, calendars and burial mounds. These would help the future generations to have a better chance of survival. Here could be the very foundation of civilisation itself. A large scale meeting of tribes would increase trade, ideas and knowledge. This would give the group a greater resilience to future hardships when compared to godless humans who operated without this network.