Arthur Koestler asked Freud if he could answer the first question of this post’s title. The second question is the one I thought I might lodge, in some form of words or other, with the bishop of our county’s cathedral (see previous post).
The answer that fits both questions is “Human nature.” This is an answer that begs many other questions. What was it that made our species so different from our closest relatives, that we are capable of horrific atrocities, human on animal, and human on human; that we wage endless wars, and insist on the truth of so many, varying and unprovable beliefs?
I am about to order a book which was reviewed in last Sunday’s Observer. It’s written by Richard Holloway – “famously a bishop who stopped believing in God”, says the reviewer Peter Stanford. Holloway was once the head of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. Now he’s agnostic. I’ve always been relieved to call myself agnostic. When I say the word, I think of it in Greek: άγνωστος, unknown, obscure, unverified. Gnosis is knowledge. The ‘a’ in front makes it ‘without’. I am without knowledge.
The title of Holloway’s book is “A Little History of Religion” and he starts his history from 130,000 BC, a rough approximation of the time when we first started burying the dead in a way that showed we believed in an afterlife. With talismans, we could magick-up immortality. Magic – imagination. Can a chimpanzee imagine? Yes. It can imagine the consequences of an action. With the widest possible spectrum of ability over aeons of evolutionary time we can go from hitting a lever that will deliver a banana to putting undesirables to death. And our imagination can turn the sounds of raindrops on forest trees into symphonies.
The development of our brains has led us to imagine more and more extraordinary ways of using our animal abilities. We can imagine a harmonious time when everyone around us will agree with us – so let’s get rid of those who don’t agree, right now. We can imagine what it must be like to lose a leg or a parent and what it must be like to be flayed alive. We empathise and give support but what will stop me flaying my adversary alive? Oh, I know: God. God will punish the bad and reward the good. Without our idea of the revengeful God we might have destroyed ourselves, the human race, long ago. War and God mean survival despite and because of our nature.
This notebook – these posts – are scribble thoughts, being tried out for size. “I write to be read,” I said the other day, when I talked about self-publishing. But that was in relation to my books. Here, in these posts, I’m finding it liberating to write without any thought that my thoughts will be read. Irresponsible, I know.