Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Basic individual minds are developed by dynamic brain organization -- self-creation -- pushing against the environment through the use of the senses and muscles.  This happens according to the instructions encoded in the genome and annotated by the epigenome.  

Gradually the fetus assembles itself in the first environment, literally supported by the womb, which has its own separate genome+epigenome (the mother’s, not the father’s).  It gives the fetus what it can spare, while the fetus seizes what it can.  Once the infant emerges into the world, there are two environments: the sensate world which is presumed by interaction with whatever is outside the skin through the senses and the internal mental world which is partly unique to the person and partly “imparted” by the culture through other humans.

Environment provides the basics of food, shelter, and nurturing through whatever resources are there (animals, plants, minerals, temperatures, water).  Foods might be rice where there is shallow water, wheat where there are grasslands, marine animals at the north pole.  What is eaten, how shelter is formed, responses to weather -- all form the culture which encodes survival: boats, weapons, cooking, sexual relations.  Once internalized, the person becomes committed and finds it hard to change.

Certain ideas are valorized when they lead to success and weeded out when they cause bad things to happen.  “Thou shalt honor thy father and mother” is usually a good and “Thou shalt not kill” is usually preventing a bad.  But if father and mother are abusive and restrictive, one might want to kill them in spite of knowing there will be bad consequences.  These ideas are stored in the brain, generally behind the forehead.  We call them “ethics” or “morality” or “laws.”

At the same time the body is storing a different kind of thought which every living creature has, an accumulation of knowing that is not conscious.  The autonomic nervous system governs this knowledge, which does not normally become conscious unless it prompts noticeable reactions like panting, fast heart beat, or a clenched gut.  The autonomic nervous system is deeply involved in what is called the spiritual when practices or ideas trigger basic blissful or otherwise intense internal reactions.  These abilities form in the fetus as soon as the necessary structures have formed.  They are wordless.  They constantly adapt to new circumstances, maintaining homeostasis.  They are vulnerable to drugs.

Probably the experiences described by saints -- which involve basic binaries (hot/cold, dark/light, embraced/falling, distant/close) -- are perceived, like sex, through the autonomic nervous system.  This system is parallel to conscious nerve/muscle systems and not necessarily controllable.  At one time it was described as dyadic whole-body reactions that work in opposition: calm and resting (parasympathetic) versus alert and ready for action (sympathetic).  Now the enteric system, a mesh of nerves in the wall of the intestines, is considered part of this larger system.  In fact, even the colonies of microbes that live in the guts can influence mood.  These things are connected to the limbic mid-brain unconscious that every mammal has.

Freud realized that something "below" consciousness existed and tried to get at it with free association and by thinking about old stories like Greek drama, which are very close to being religiously valorized and which provide the idea of sitting together, focusing on some kind of performance.  The most distinctly and recently evolved human capacity is that for empathy, which allows us to experience second-hand what another person is experiencing.  Thus we can know strong emotions and deadly reactions without endangering ourselves.  These can prompt us to put felt concepts into words.  These functions are located partly in the pre-frontal cortex.  The arts can move unconscious ideas to consciousness.

There is a thin wall between the religious practice of a communal experience and psychological or artistic sharing.  The crux of “religion” is survival, either survival of the group and species or survival of an individual.  When they support each other, the autonomic system runs along happily and the ordinary sensate world is enjoyed.  The opposite might be called evil and be felt as coming from the outside or seeping up from the inside -- something supernatural and uncontrollable.  If it IS controllable, it is merely sin or crime.

cucumber flower

Beyond empathy is rational thought like mathematics and, more recently, science which by observing certain rules (detachment, testing, repeatability, mathematical measurements) can offer shared concepts that don’t change as obviously as humanities ideas or art styles, what are called “memes”.  Through the use of instruments, we have extended our perception and understanding of realms never dreamed of: subatomic particles, virus codes that invade cells, how the neural networks connect.  These are real and provable, imperceptible without instruments but not unconscious.  When the attitudes of reflection and analysis are used on the problem of non-sensate but significant concepts, they become theologies -- theories of the sacred, which are felt through the autonomic system, translated into social assumptions and groups.  (If the system has no “theos” or concept of “God,” then it is called philosophy or sometimes anthropology.)


Individual unconscious feelings (felt meanings) guide people into socio-economic groups provided by the environment and culture.  We call them “congregations” but could call them aggregations.  People group together spontaneously in a pluralistic society but can be forced into groups by a coercive culture.  (Schools, military)  Or they may simply have developed as genetically related people or people in a specific environment or of a certain age.  (Though I don’t know of any teenaged religious congregations, maybe a case could be made that fan groups count.)  When the business of the group is supporting a world-view that controls their behavior, then they are seen as religious by others and begin to be institutions.

Ancient grain

In the Middle Eastern lands around the Mediterranean, kingdoms and tribal groups spontaneously formed which defined themselves with theological dogma drawn from living in that place.  Gradually through the millennia, responding to war over territories, dwindling resources, the invention of agriculture allowing grain storage and domestic animals to accumulate wealth, and forms of government that developed into walled towns with focused resources, supported by a specialized priesthood who performed a kind of theatre of sacrifice -- all this formed into a few dozen theological stances and their members.  Then three “took off” in power and wealth, supported by written “books” that were said to be supernatural:  Judaism (Torah), then -- emerging from it -- Christianity (Bible), then -- using many of the same concepts -- Islam (Koran).

These three have dominated our idea of what a “religion” is: an institution.  As Christianity spread over Europe, piggy-backing on the Roman Empire, it became the Holy Roman Church and managed to convince the several governments that it represented “God” who was the Caesar of all Caesars.  It brokered peace, crowned kings, created a supernatural reality of heaven, saints, the devil, and so on that gradually became corrupt.  The reacting Protestant movement meant that many small subdivisions of Christianity formed, according to the environments, temperaments, and sources of success in different groups.  

The original Christian church, as expressed in the Catholic system, had many different styles and subdivisions that came out of spreading into new territories (like teachers learning from students, the Romans were penetrated by Celts), but they were strongly connected to Rome.  The Protestant church had no such restraint and often reached into “spiritual” sources as guided by the autonomic system, the mammal brain of felt meaning.  But also theology could build on rational ideas.  All these differing groups could then be called “denominations” or different "namings" of the basic idea of Christianity.  Denomination is a term usually reserved for Christian sub-groups.

Islam and Judaism are related but separate RELIGIONS, not denominations.  They are grouped with Christianity as the Abrahamic religions, since the holy books of all three say they descended from Abraham, who was asked by God to kill his son but was then spared, an emblem of survival.   Religions and denominations are both institutional: that is, they are organized, hierarchical, supported monetarily and with staff, housed in buildings, legally documented as corporations.  Spirituality continues parallel/beneath/overarching theology.  If the institution supports spiritual meaning in the lives of its people, it succeeds.  Survives.  As do the people.

Spirituality is immanent, an upwelling from within, a product of the limbic/autonomic brain and therefore unconscious except in physiological phenomena.  Theology is a way of unifying and empowering institutions.  What I want to understand is the path from a felt meaning to a power structure intent on perpetuating itself.

The dance of life

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