I find it fascinating that religion and philosophy arose at about the same time. Except for the last hundred years or so when philosophy became professionalized, the two subjects have gone hand in hand; indeed for much of human history philosophers were religious philosophers, embedded within a religious tradition. So where did this burst of religion and philosophy come from? I am sure the anthropologists and the archeologists of the world have an answer, but here’s mine.
Be forewarned: my answer is a myth, with all its connotations of confabulation and insight.
I believe that humanity discovered religion and philosophy at the end of a long period of development as it separated itself from other species and slowly started enveloping itself in its own world. Urbanization was probably a major catalyst — cities appear in infinitely varied forms, but in all of them, nature, especially animals, trees and plants were subordinated to human control. It’s one step along the path from farming, where humans controlled the natural world but lived amidst it rather than away from it. To give just one example of the marginalization of nature in cities, there are no large creatures who challenge human supremacy; whether elephant, camel or horse, they’re there to extol our glory. Animals exist as pets, for food and war and as vermin, but never as fully autonomous beings. In cities, humans live primarily in a built environment rather than a found environment. That built environment is like a collective extended mind, an extended mind that expressed its power over the earth and its ambitions over the skies.
Of course many of the major religions of the world were founded in tribes, far away from cities, so there’s no obvious connection between urbanity and religiosity, but we have to recognize that all the marks of institutionalized religion — temples and churches, monks and priests, are urban institutions. At the very least they need the technosocial infrastructure of urban civilization. No city, no cathedral. However, it happened, humans found themselves separated from nature, alone with their own sorrows and ambitions. Perched on our lonely throne, bursting with ambition but hobbled by mortality, is it any surprise that we discovered god as well as reason and of our special place in god’s creation?
I attribute the intertwined history of religion and philosophy to the discovery of the human, of a rational being who’s also the chosen species; separated from the earth and aiming towards the sky.
Of course, it’s not as if religious ideas were invented then, or for that matter, philosophical speculation. However, organized religion and organized philosophy seemed to have taken off at about the same time in India, Greece, China and elsewhere. As I said earlier, we can only speculate about the reasons: urban settlements with large populations, a degree of leisure, technological developments that turned nature into an instrument of control and so on. Myths are arguably as useful as facts. Whatever the truth may be, it’s clear that humanity discovered itself in a special way as an isolated, fragile and ambitious creature around twenty five hundred years ago.
More than two thousand years later, an even more isolated and even more ambitious European human being discovered existentialism, but I won’t go there
That image of humanity as halfway between heaven and earth continues to inspire us even as we shed many of its founding assumptions. One major assumption that’s been challenged is our centrality to all of creation. In the early exuberance of religion and philosophy, we were convinced that God prefers us to any other being, that if he’s the unmoved mover, we are the species around he makes the universe move. That wasn’t a sustainable hypothesis; too much evidence pointed away from a special status for human beings and it was only a matter of time before the special status was challenged. After Copernicus, we are no longer the chosen species in the chosen planet. We are still the species that controls this planet though; if anything the Copernican revolution has masked the Anthropocene, diverting our gaze from our overweening self-importance at the very time that it needs a critical look.
Doesn’t the spaceship look like a gun? I’m a lifelong fan, but the wishful thinking captured in Star Trek and the desire to reach the stars is probably more harmful to the earth than the belief that the world started in 4004 B.C.E. After all, the only means we know how to send spaceships into the sky is at from the top of an extractive pyramid. Until we can turn that extractive civilization into an ecological civilization, we are a danger to the earth and to the stars.
A certain mode of contemplation revealed humanity to itself and as science, it revealed the universe to us as well. We need to turn the crank once again. A renewed contemplative enterprise will be an essential component of the shift from extractive to ecological, as a corrective to our collective hubris; hubris that’s most powerfully expressed in technological utopias.
We invariably imagine the future in technoscientific terms, both as utopias and as dystopias. Either the earth is being destroyed by fossil fuel industries or it will be saved by gigantic carbon suction pumps. Either we will travel the stars in hyperfast spaceships or devoured by flesh eating frankenbacteria. These techno-utopias and dystopias may well come to pass but independent of what transpires, we need to understand our condition. Everyone knows that it’s our lot to fall ill, grow old and die, but it’s the Buddha who turned that obvious fact into a deep insight into the nature of suffering. Contemplative insight colors our lives as a whole and gives it the energy to address every challenge. Seen in that light, it’s an enabler of scientific and technological progress and it brings a holistic vision that’s absent in those disciplines.
If contemplation — so far — has been about the discovery of the human and the slow release of that human into the vastness of the non-human universe, the next contemplative turn is about accelerating that release and returning the human back to nature. Not as a noble savage but at the very height of scientific and technical progress. That’s the premise behind quantemplation, as a quantum shift in the contemplative enterprise.
Quantum shift or not, we can only stand on the shoulders of giants; we have to build upon existing contemplative traditions and insights. That’s a difficult task because religion and philosophy have diverged from each other and also from science. Religion, for most of us, is about emotion, community and identity. Philosophy is framed in terms of abstract concepts, while scientific understanding is framed using concepts of space, time and matter. We need a halfway house, a resource that has a contemplative purpose but couched in the language of space and time.
Contemplation can’t be hurried; despite the demands of a 24/7 online on-demand world, our contemplative archetype is the tortoise not the hare. We have to move beyond tradition, however hard or foolish it might be. We have to try to turn the contemplative wheel full circle. We will proceed at a pace that suits us and suits the task. Slow and steady.