On the Origin of Religious Phenomena

1.As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng.

5 Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and 6 my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.

7 Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.

8 By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God my Rock,
Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”

10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

11 Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

-Psalm 42

Julian Jaynes offers a beautiful framework in which to think these verses. He says that the entire Bible can be read in terms of the bicameral mind and its breakdown upon the development of large scale civilization. The bicameral mind is a hypothesized mentality of ancient humans that is based on a neural control mechanism initiated in the right hemispherical equivalent to the language centers in the left side of the brain. In this way, a hallucinated personality matrix called a “god” analyzed situations in times of great stress, made a decision for action, and then relayed this command to the left side of the brain in terms of an auditory hallucination, which then interpreted the order and carried it out automatically. In such a schema, it was not the men who controlled their lives, but rather, the gods.

The story of Genesis captures the original relationship between God and man. There were no boundaries between man and his God and the ego could not get in the way of divine command. Adam spoke freely with God and was directly linked through a neural hookup to the patriarchal wisdom of His roaring voice. But as civilization developed, so did consciousness. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, humans gained self-consciousness. We saw our mortality and nakedness exposed before the harsh light of frontal lobe calculation. After this development in psychological maturity, our direct line to the gods vanished and we come to the situation of the Psalmist above: forsaken by God, yearning for his voice to manifest directly, waiting for His command.

In the early books of the Old Testament, the prophets could still tune into God, hear His voice, and relay commands as if in a hypnotic trance, akin to the early Aiodoi who tapped into the Muses’ inspiration from above. For Amos then, the hallucination of God still thundered in his mind:

“The LORD roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.”

But over time, these divine experiences lessened in frequency and intensity. We as a species no longer directly heard our commands from the gods. The skys were empty and the gods had retreated into the heavens. Prayers and divination rituals were invented. Oracles such as the one at Delphi became our last contact with the gods until they too were unable to call forth divine hallucinations.

Seen in this light, is not the Bible a wonderful metaphor for humanity’s contact with the divine? In the beginning of history, it were the gods who ruled, who commanded pyramids and temples to be built, who commanded sacrifices and rituals in their honor. But as time went on, as self-consciousness and introspection developed in functional power, the need for divine control lessoned and it was only the religious middlemen who claimed to hear God’s voice. And of course, there are still people today, namely schizophrenics, who are still able to hear His voice. But we do not listen to these people anymore. If you hallucinate God’s voice, you are no longer seen as a special communication tool, but rather, as insane. The lack of historical consciousness in the face of hallucinatory phenomena is disheartening as we label voice hearers as “crazy”. They are not crazy; only born in the wrong century.



Filed under Psychology, Theology

5 responses to “On the Origin of Religious Phenomena

  1. Cathy Sander

    I so happen to be one of these “voice hearers” which you speak of…except that Alexandria [the bearer of that ‘voice’] and I have promised each other not to make a big deal out of it. In fact, she encourages me to ‘naturalise’ these experiences, which sounds quite unusual, since people often think that this is an indication of the presence of some deity.

  2. Gary Williams

    Cathy, that is fascinating, thanks for sharing. I also think that naturalization is the way to go. By putting the voices into a perspective of naturalization, they no longer seem as mysterious, and thus, allow the hearer to cope with the phenomenon without losing his or her sense of control. I’m curious, does your voice manifest itself an coming from “outside” your head as an external voice or as coming from inside as another persons’ thought?

  3. Cathy Sander

    The ‘voice’ seems to come from inside, rather than outside, my head. It’s a bit like earworm, where I sometimes get an annoying cycle of music that sounds real, but isn’t.

  4. Cathy Sander

    I find it quite unfortunate that there is still a stigma of mental conditions. We might find out how these people experience the world, and perhaps understand ourselves in the process.

  5. Gary Williams

    Well said Cathy!

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