Monday, December 17, 2012

More about gods. With added bonobo.

I was watching The Devil's Mistress last night, which is a spot of historical fun based in the Civil War (our one, not the war against slavery), and that led me to rummage around a bit on the interwebnetz. I was led to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which expressed what the Presbyterians who were effectively running England believed (and what the Church of Scotland still believes).

It's interesting to me that a person can write:

he is the alone foundation of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things ... his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain

yet believe that God not only allows us to sin but can punish it.

As with all Christians, these Calvinists created a god who is too powerful, but were able to see some of the consequences of that power. (Chapter III shows that they were aware, in a way many Christians refuse to be, that an all-knowing god must necessarily know which beings he has created to save, and which to damn. They seem entirely unconcerned, however, by any notion that this also necessarily excludes free will.) However, they were not able, or not willing, to recognise that they had conflated two beings: one that is the fount of all living things, endowed with perfect knowledge of his creation, incapable of error (unless he chooses to make one) and so on; the other a sort of daddy figure who cares whether you bang your neighbour's wife.

Either one is credible and my main problem with Christianity, bar the practicalities of Christians' influence on our societies, is that they want both: a beautiful, inspiring all-encompassing creator and a jealous tribal god who really likes sacrifices. Recast God as an unapproachable, ineffable spirit, and Jesus as a teacher with a bent towards self-negation, and we dispense immediately with the burnings, the hatred, the fear. Of course, it leaves less space for the priests, ministers and gang of other charlatans who profit from religion, whether directly as interpreters of God's will or indirectly as predators on the credulity of believers, but they could always keep their horrible thunder god and punish themselves for being human in his name.

Would I believe in the eternal unknowable figure? Of course not, but it would at least be meaningless to believe in him, rather than unreasonable. Seriously, I recall how painful it was for Bella that anyone could believe that she had evolved from something like an ape and that her life had only that meaning she herself created. Science made her angry. If you had offered her a world without reason, in which faith ruled, she would have been content. If you think the Taliban impose themselves on the people, you do not know the people. You don't hear from the faithful in your documentaries or on their blogs, because their story is not palatable to us and gets no airtime. We like to read what middle-class dissenters, people somewhat like us, however much the minority they are where they live, have to say, not least because it lets us believe that religion is a fraud perpetrated on ordinary people, not something they share and take part in.

I often think about this when I read about how the Taliban do not like music and are somehow stopping the people from dancing in the streets, or that Ahmedinajad is some kind of dictator who forces Iranians not to be modern. Do you really think Ahmedinajad is running a con on the Iranian man in the street? No. He is expressing what they believe in a voice they would echo.

The people who wrote the Westminster Confession did not like music much either, and certainly felt that dancing was sinful. It's saddening that people should think such a natural expression of humanity so hateful but the notion in their religion that we are disgusting beings who must watch ourselves constantly is common. We are full of impulses that make us uncomfortable.


Sometimes, when I think about us, I think about how we ought to live. I do not mean how we should order ourselves in the world we now inhabit, but how we should live in accordance with our nature.

Our closest relatives are chimpanzees and bonobos. Should we be like them somehow? Bonobos are matriarchal, open and friendly with each other, do not pair bond and use sex as a social tool. However, when kept in captivity, they can be spiteful to each other and start bullying. I think we are like them somewhat. Perhaps we are more like chimpanzees. They do not pair bond for life, but may have temporary consortships. They form elaborate social structures, often with a linear hierarchy among males, which lower-ranking males destabilise by encouraging power struggles and switching support from one alpha to another, which prevents the alphas from the dominance over females that they seek. Females may mate with many males when in season, or choose one, whatever works for them. The males have to scrap it out to get their attention.

Why do we do what we do? Like all animals, we seek to pass on our genes. You might not think that's what you're doing, but it is behind everything, lurking. We could have tried different methods (and who knows, we may well have done "in the wild"). We could simply have fucked anything that moved, and allowed our sperm to fight it out. We could have formed harems. We could have formed small, stable groups, sharing women and providing supportive networks for them so they could have plenty of children and we could have variety, which would increase our chances of fit descendants.

We chose what is on the whole a poor strategy. We invented ownership of women so that we could have one to ourselves. In this way, we seek to diminish competition between our sperm and others', but we have to rely on our own resources to raise children. Men are tied to children, which I do not think really suits us (although you'll find few men willing to admit it), and to a single woman, which definitely does not. We are not good at it, and women do not like it either. Has it ever occurred to you that the reason a woman who has been with you even for a reasonably short while wants to change you is in part because what she wants is a different father for her children, someone with different characteristics, so that she too can have babies that are genetically varied and have more chance of winning the selection lottery?

Some animals do pair bond, and we think them superior for it, but we are not penguins; more to the point, penguins have reasons for it that do not apply to us.

When I read people talking about "traditional marriage", I wonder why any woman would want to support it. We invented it so that we could formalise our exclusive access to them, so that they would remain our property and no one else's. Part of the tradition has been to stigmatise female sexuality. They are chattels, after all, not sexual beings, and we fear enormously that they might choose someone else, given the choice. This is the basis of the Muslim seclusion of women (which is by no means restricted to Muslims, of course). Women are seen as dangerous, not simply because men, who make the rules, know perfectly well that other men will sneakily fuck them if we can, but also because women do not want other women to be allowed to choose from a wide range of men, because that allows the choosing women a better shot at producing fit offspring. (In this sense, women are like gorillas, who, unless related through their mother, may fight over males.)

Of course Bella did not want to be an ape! Accepting you are an ape doesn't just make you not special, not chosen by your god, it also means you're doing it wrong. I think the likeliest is that like chimps, we belong in fission-fusion societies, members of a broader group who form smaller groups. We feel comfortable in families and we yearn, do we not, for the bigger grouping; yet we find it hard, on the whole, to relate ourselves to large entities. Our lack of community hurts us, and replacing it with nations has tended to alienate us further. Because we are quite bad at raising children in pairs, I think we might be better served in larger groups, where women could more easily share childrearing. I think also that women do tend to have more facility for sharing with each other, an ability to bond in ways  that are satisfying to them that men tend to lack. They are competitive still, bitchy, willing to undermine each other, particularly when men are involved, so it's not all roses, but they can be comforting for each other. And are you not, ladies, miserable when you feel isolated, with only that prick of a man to try, and all too often fail, to understand, let alone meet, your emotional needs?


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