Myth, Communication, and the Origin of Religion

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Myth, Communication, and the Origin of Religion

Postby Carleas » Mon Sep 10, 2007 5:52 pm

(In this thread, I assume that religion is false or misunderstood. I don't care to argue that point here.)

Communication likely developed continuously, increasing in complexity and expressive power with each generation. Communication began as it exists in out close animal relatives, as grunts, howls, etc. With each generation, the grunts were nuanced, and branching trees of nuance grew into language proper.
Throughout this process, there was perpetually a youth generation whose communicative power, and therefore communicative expectation, was greater than that of their parents' generation. Each generation had a greater assumption of linguistic accuracy, because they were raised with that much more accurate a language; their own language ability exceeded that of their parents, and without this recognition they understood more from their parents words than their parents were able to say.
The result was that, with each generation, misunderstandings snuck in. From these grew myth, legend, and ultimately religion. What began as a truth that some elder struggled to express, ended as a belief born of over-interpretation of the elder's words. Granted, with each generation, the inaccuracies that crept in were small. But over hundreds of thousands of generations, the result was significant, and secure in a cultural-linguistic context.

I think that we have since moved past this paradigm, and these inaccuracies do not continue to multiply. When language became complex enough to talk about it self, it lost the ignorance that was vital to the process. With deconstuction and the advent of the absurd, language changed to move beyond its own trappings, and in some sense it can trascend itself, and the ideas it carries can be understood beyond their linguistic expression. As a result, there has been a trend away from the misunderstandings that have been accumulated.

I propose that this explains the rise, and apparent modern fall, of religion. But if language is passed this point, why does religion persist decades past the proposed turning point? There are a number of factors: the first is religion's prominence. Something as established as religion takes a long time to fade out. Furthermore, though language is developed enough to be used on itself, not all language users are so developed. This is not to say that all religious people are impaired, but there are significant statistical correllations between areligiosity and high-level education and other markers of cognitive development. Another factor is that the linguistic freedom that has enabled the abandonment of religion has also made it difficult for rival theories with more accurate linguistic foundations to gain ground, especially since, again, many are unable to cognize on the necessary level, and these theories often inherit the same flaws that religion exhibits, making them religious-type beliefs themselves, and thus making their rejection, in such cases, justified.
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Postby Mental_Edge » Mon Sep 10, 2007 7:05 pm

Bravo!

I always thought that a simple, natural, and ultimately near-perfect religion was established thousands of years ago, but would eventually mutate into an array of complex ideologies that we see today, for better or for worse.
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Re: Myth, Communication, and the Origin of Religion

Postby felix dakat » Mon Sep 10, 2007 10:40 pm

Carleas wrote:(In this thread, I assume that religion is false or misunderstood. I don't care to argue that point here.)

Communication likely developed continuously, increasing in complexity and expressive power with each generation. Communication began as it exists in out close animal relatives, as grunts, howls, etc. With each generation, the grunts were nuanced, and branching trees of nuance grew into language proper.
Throughout this process, there was perpetually a youth generation whose communicative power, and therefore communicative expectation, was greater than that of their parents' generation. Each generation had a greater assumption of linguistic accuracy, because they were raised with that much more accurate a language; their own language ability exceeded that of their parents, and without this recognition they understood more from their parents words than their parents were able to say.
The result was that, with each generation, misunderstandings snuck in. From these grew myth, legend, and ultimately religion. What began as a truth that some elder struggled to express, ended as a belief born of over-interpretation of the elder's words. Granted, with each generation, the inaccuracies that crept in were small. But over hundreds of thousands of generations, the result was significant, and secure in a cultural-linguistic context.

I think that we have since moved past this paradigm, and these inaccuracies do not continue to multiply. When language became complex enough to talk about it self, it lost the ignorance that was vital to the process. With deconstuction and the advent of the absurd, language changed to move beyond its own trappings, and in some sense it can trascend itself, and the ideas it carries can be understood beyond their linguistic expression. As a result, there has been a trend away from the misunderstandings that have been accumulated.

I propose that this explains the rise, and apparent modern fall, of religion. But if language is passed this point, why does religion persist decades past the proposed turning point? There are a number of factors: the first is religion's prominence. Something as established as religion takes a long time to fade out. Furthermore, though language is developed enough to be used on itself, not all language users are so developed. This is not to say that all religious people are impaired, but there are significant statistical correllations between areligiosity and high-level education and other markers of cognitive development. Another factor is that the linguistic freedom that has enabled the abandonment of religion has also made it difficult for rival theories with more accurate linguistic foundations to gain ground, especially since, again, many are unable to cognize on the necessary level, and these theories often inherit the same flaws that religion exhibits, making them religious-type beliefs themselves, and thus making their rejection, in such cases, justified.


To take just two early examples of religious texts, how did the Epic of Gilgamesh, and/or the Rigveda hymns of the orthodox Hindu canon result from the misunderstanding of younger generations of their parent's words?

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Postby Carleas » Tue Sep 11, 2007 1:43 am

M_E:
If simple perception without layers of abstraction can be considered a "simple, natural, and ultimately near-perfect religion", then yes, that's what I mean. Before communication and high-level cognition, human belief systems must have been pretty much that of apes today. Such a belief system is near perfect, but only because it is not much more than stimulus-response.

Felix:
I'm not familiar with those particular works, but I don't know that dealing with specific religious texts is the right way to deal with this topic anyway. To do so would be like asking how an arbitrary biological feature evolved in a discussion of evolution: though evolution does make the claim that the feature should be explainable, it does not need to explain it in the moment in order to be a sound theory.
Rather, I can explain generally that my proposal is that stories like those you mentioned began as legends, tales from memory of actual events. Over time, the oral history evolved as vocabulary improved, and where there was ambiguity in the meanings, specifics were chosen which did not always reflect the actual event. If language is able to shape theory, and future events are understood in the context of these theories, the linguistic history of misunderstanding would have led to more complex deviations from real events because 1)new events would be understood as fulfilling the expectations set up by earlier misunderstandings, and 2) new misunderstandings would continue to accumulate.

Of course, there are limiting factors involved, such as the need for belief systems to approximate reality in order for adherents to survive. But my focus is on the linguistic influence, and the way that evolving means of communication resulted in religious myths.
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Postby felix dakat » Tue Sep 11, 2007 3:03 pm

Carleas wrote:M_E:
If simple perception without layers of abstraction can be considered a "simple, natural, and ultimately near-perfect religion", then yes, that's what I mean. Before communication and high-level cognition, human belief systems must have been pretty much that of apes today. Such a belief system is near perfect, but only because it is not much more than stimulus-response.

Felix:
I'm not familiar with those particular works, but I don't know that dealing with specific religious texts is the right way to deal with this topic anyway. To do so would be like asking how an arbitrary biological feature evolved in a discussion of evolution: though evolution does make the claim that the feature should be explainable, it does not need to explain it in the moment in order to be a sound theory.
Rather, I can explain generally that my proposal is that stories like those you mentioned began as legends, tales from memory of actual events. Over time, the oral history evolved as vocabulary improved, and where there was ambiguity in the meanings, specifics were chosen which did not always reflect the actual event. If language is able to shape theory, and future events are understood in the context of these theories, the linguistic history of misunderstanding would have led to more complex deviations from real events because 1)new events would be understood as fulfilling the expectations set up by earlier misunderstandings, and 2) new misunderstandings would continue to accumulate.

Of course, there are limiting factors involved, such as the need for belief systems to approximate reality in order for adherents to survive. But my focus is on the linguistic influence, and the way that evolving means of communication resulted in religious myths.


Are you positing the idea that misunderstandings rather than a conscious creative process led to religion as we know it? If so, in order for your theory to to hold water, you need to supply significant examples of major religious works, ideas , practices, beliefs that came into being in the way you propose.

To me your theory is like saying that Beethoven's symphanies are the product of his misunderstanding of Mozart. Even if you were to discover a grain of truth in that hypothesis, it would hardly account for the creation Beethoven's masterpieces.

On a more positive note, Harold Bloom does have a theory about the role of creative misreadings in literature. However, there has to be a lot more going on than that to create great literature. The major world religions include great literature. It seems to me what you are doing is devaluing it.

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Postby Carleas » Tue Sep 11, 2007 5:56 pm

I think I am proposing that what began as a conscious creative process became a cemented worldview due to misunderstanding. Human cognition must have outpaced vocabulary (because presumably language developed as a means to convey thoughts that were already there). This limited vocabulary necessitated creative applications of relatively ambiguous language. The children who heard the resultant tales understood more from them than their parents intended to convey, because the child was more steeped in the vocabulary.

Again, I disagree that I need to present detailed accounts of any specific religion. First of all, this is an abstract theory, and abstracts from a number of things we know to be true, such as the evolution of the moder human, the development of language, and the nature of 'tall tales' and other legendary culltural inheritance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, my proposition is based on extremely small increments of change predating the existence of a fully formed spoken language, much less a written history. If things happened as I propose, or if they didn't, there is little that would still exist that could confirm or deny. Perhaps the best possible evidence would be in comparing religions that clearly diverged from each other, such as Zoroastrianism and Judeo-Christianity. By analysing the divergence, we could perhaps see the elements that were preserved and those that weren't, and derive a theory about how the process occured for those specific religions. If the observed process involved obvious over-interpretation, then my proposal might be confirmed. However, as a high level theory, it would take much more than any one study could provide, and possibly more than any particular religious study could provide. That's why I'm treating it as a question of philosophy, and giving it the armchair treatment.
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Postby Ingenium » Tue Sep 11, 2007 6:36 pm

Carleas:

I think your theory is interesting, although I'm not sure I understand it completely. I take it to mean that noticable change or evolution as you describe would be over periods of multiple generations, even as each one could be considered more evolved in very small increments. It also seems to me that each succeeding generation's experience of the external world must also have some impact on this...but then much of human history has moved more slowly than it does now in terms of each generation having a significant new vocabulary to add to its lexicon. There have always been societal events (although mostly localized historically, because we didn't have the mobility or communication technology) that create significant change in one, or maybe two, generations. Certainly the industrial revolution, the information technology of the past 25 years are examples. But the modern world is more complex than the world you're referring to where these religions developed, so there are more 'major' events (meaning those that would elicit a societal change) to occur at a quicker pace these days. How do you apply your theory that makes it consistent with the way that religions manifest in modern times? I'm thinking specifically of the generic sort of god belief (even to the extent that people will respond affirmatively when asked if they believe in a god, but it has no impact on their daily lives) or fundamentalism.

Which brings up another question that I have, which is how you would weave into your theory not just language, but the human need for dominance, power and property that seems to have accompanied how our societies are organized at least since the advent of agriculture. Religions (being nothing but the ideas of the people who abide by them, or memes, if you will) get a stake in a culture and therefore seek to retain power or influence.
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Postby felix dakat » Tue Sep 11, 2007 6:55 pm

Carleas wrote:I think I am proposing that what began as a conscious creative process became a cemented worldview due to misunderstanding. Human cognition must have outpaced vocabulary (because presumably language developed as a means to convey thoughts that were already there). This limited vocabulary necessitated creative applications of relatively ambiguous language. The children who heard the resultant tales understood more from them than their parents intended to convey, because the child was more steeped in the vocabulary.

Again, I disagree that I need to present detailed accounts of any specific religion. First of all, this is an abstract theory, and abstracts from a number of things we know to be true, such as the evolution of the moder human, the development of language, and the nature of 'tall tales' and other legendary culltural inheritance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, my proposition is based on extremely small increments of change predating the existence of a fully formed spoken language, much less a written history. If things happened as I propose, or if they didn't, there is little that would still exist that could confirm or deny. Perhaps the best possible evidence would be in comparing religions that clearly diverged from each other, such as Zoroastrianism and Judeo-Christianity. By analysing the divergence, we could perhaps see the elements that were preserved and those that weren't, and derive a theory about how the process occured for those specific religions. If the observed process involved obvious over-interpretation, then my proposal might be confirmed. However, as a high level theory, it would take much more than any one study could provide, and possibly more than any particular religious study could provide. That's why I'm treating it as a question of philosophy, and giving it the armchair treatment.


I didn't ask for a detailed account, I asked for examples. Without examples, we don't even know what observations led you to the questionable hypothesis that religion is a result of generational misunderstanding.

Freud in his attack on religion hypothesized that the origin of religious ideas is that they are the fulfillments of the wishes of humankind. He proffered examples of religious beliefs that he believed could be explained as wish fufillment. Can't you produce examples to support your hypothesis like Freud did? If you can't why should anyone accept it?

According to anthropology, religion was born of a sense of the sacred versus the profane. For primitive people the really real was the sacred, the noumenous. That which was sacred was the source of spiritual power. What do you make of that?

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Postby tentative » Wed Sep 12, 2007 3:52 pm

Carleas,

I think that you've addressed part of the stimulus behind religion but I would ask, is the development based on misunderstanding or perhaps elaboration? It just might be that even the proto-religions weren't about misunderstanding, but an elaboration. Each generation of oral tradition storytellers made the explanations of the earlier generations bigger, better, more powerful. Imagination can take people to exciting places, particularly when there are no alternative methodologies of explanation.

There are several other parallel developments that made the development of religion almost a foregone conclusion. Language expanded within the need to 'name' more of the explored world. The repitition of stories over generations established a tradition within the family, then the tribe, of a particular world view that provided social and political cohesion. Religion became a desirable force to establish in-group and out-group concepts. Religion became a natural and necessary 'tool' of social organization. Without getting into the god is-isn't arguments, the beginning of religion necessitated a god or gods as a component of greater social complexity. In short, whether there is a creator or not, we would invent one, give him or her powerful attributes as the catch-all explanation for the unknown.

Tabula and I tried to explore this idea in an earlier thread - without much success, but religion was a neccessity. Whether it is still a vital and necessary part of the "body" or an inflamed apendix left over from our evolutionary past is a different issue...
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Postby Carleas » Wed Sep 12, 2007 7:04 pm

Ingenium, as I touched on before, I'm not sure that my hypothesis continues to function in modern times, at least not on the level of entire religions or cultures. Language functions differently from nacent proto-languages. The way words evolve today is much more complex because the reference of language loops back on itself, and self-reference makes any system unpredictable. Surely similar forces are at work, but their consequences are difficult to conjecture.
Similarly, I think the issues you raise in the your last paragraph are contemporary issues, and as a result they are beyond the scope of my hypothesis. You mention memes, and in the genetic analogy I'm referring to the time before DNA, when RNA replication was the primary carrier of genetic information. Mutations were abundant, but the message made it through mostly intact.

Felix, the observations were not of particular religions, so if that's what you're looking for, I will disappoint. But I have offered other observations, which in my estimation add up better in terms of the abstract theory:
this is an abstract theory, and abstracts from a number of things we know to be true, such as the evolution of the moder human, the development of language, and the nature of 'tall tales' and other legendary culltural inheritance.

My opening post also explains the reasoning that led me to the hypothesis. It seems you are asking for an application of the hypothesis, and I haven't got one. My hypothesis would have been acting prior to any example that is available now. Any examples that might still exist would have been delivered to us through the filter of the same process I'm proposing, if such a process were at work, and there would be nothing to compare them against.

Tentative, I think what you suggest in the first paragraph is the conscious parallel to the unconscious process I'm proposing. Surely, elaboration was used liberally throughout oral history. But even elaboration represents a certain amount of linguistic skill, so though they may have acted simultaneously, the accidental version would have predated the intentional version.
I don't propose that this is the sole explanation for religion. Religion is a complex phenomenon, and it exists in an even more complex social context. I'm only attempting to isolate one aspect of the process, and point out its role.
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Postby tentative » Thu Sep 13, 2007 3:19 pm

Carleas,
Another factor is that the linguistic freedom that has enabled the abandonment of religion has also made it difficult for rival theories with more accurate linguistic foundations to gain ground, especially since, again, many are unable to cognize on the necessary level, and these theories often inherit the same flaws that religion exhibits, making them religious-type beliefs themselves, and thus making their rejection, in such cases, justified.

Even as language finally reaches a point of being able to discuss and dismiss itself, language creates its own set of perspective filters that create boundaries, 'gates', and inhibitions. The 'box' may describe itself within, but it cannot step out and describe what is outside. We are never outside of language, so that while perspectives may change because of language, they are always 'inside' the box.

I question what you mean by "...more accurate linguistic foundations..." Language may gain greater complexity, but the 'rules' within a language don't change.

I see the phenomena of finding alternative explanations as an evolution of inquiry and thought, but I fail to see how the structure of language has changed to account for secularization.
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Postby felix dakat » Thu Sep 13, 2007 3:45 pm

Are you basing your idea on analytic philosophy or semiotics or something else? Again, examples of your critique of religion might help.

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Postby Carleas » Fri Sep 14, 2007 5:24 pm

Tentative, I think that there is a certain amount of bootstrapping going on between language and thought. Language has certainly permitted us to abstract to wonderful levels, but because we can think in non-lingual ways, we can get outside of language, and understand it as a dynamic reference system that is much much more complex than, and yet in many ways similar to, mathematics. As non-euclidian geometries take new rules to redefine the old terms and roll with the implications, 'more accurate linguistic foundations' are those that acknowledge the same nature in language.

Felix, take personification. It is easier, often, to explain the natural world in terms of personal qualities. For instance, someone might say that water pools because it 'wants' to go the easiest way it can. Now, when I explain that to my child, I know that I don't mean that the water actually has the feeling of desire for certain things, or that it will be disappointed if it fails, but my child does not. They may over interpret this. In modern times, the vocabulary exists to differentiate between the different meanings of 'want', but in a primative vocabulary, such distinctions might be too subtle.

For another math analogy, take a set of points on a line. there are an infinite number of curves that pass through those points, though it is a bounded infinity. As the set of points grows, the intifinity becomes more and more tightly bounded. Given two points, the curves can vary wildly. Given a few million, the curves vary within a tightly constrained space. Now, in this analogy, the points are words, and the curve is their meaning. In a primitive language with a small vocabulary, the meanings that can be understood from the words can vary substancially.
If the wrong curve is chosen, and new points are added to the set based on that choice of curve, the new bounded infinity of curves is systematically incorrect. In language, if a novice misunderstands the meaning, and then wields the language and innovates within his faulty understanding, those innovations will be systematically skewed.
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Re: Myth, Communication, and the Origin of Religion

Postby Jakob » Fri Sep 14, 2007 6:16 pm

Carleas wrote:When language became complex enough to talk about it self, it lost the ignorance that was vital to the process. With deconstuction and the advent of the absurd, language changed to move beyond its own trappings, and in some sense it can trascend itself

This is a well formulated and interesting concept I would like to read more about. The rest of your post... I don't see the connection.
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Re: Myth, Communication, and the Origin of Religion

Postby Jakob » Mon Aug 12, 2019 1:19 pm

Invitation to Carleas to, when he has time, continue on this topic.
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Re:

Postby Karpel Tunnel » Mon Aug 12, 2019 2:08 pm

Carleas wrote:I think I am proposing that what began as a conscious creative process became a cemented worldview due to misunderstanding. Human cognition must have outpaced vocabulary (because presumably language developed as a means to convey thoughts that were already there). This limited vocabulary necessitated creative applications of relatively ambiguous language. The children who heard the resultant tales understood more from them than their parents intended to convey, because the child was more steeped in the vocabulary.

Again, I disagree that I need to present detailed accounts of any specific religion. First of all, this is an abstract theory, and abstracts from a number of things we know to be true, such as the evolution of the moder human, the development of language, and the nature of 'tall tales' and other legendary culltural inheritance.
Tall tales, for example, spread over space, not generationally. And there could be evidence of, say, kids in the 70s, taking stories from the 40s and extending them or taking them too literally. I don't really buy the generation portion. Or in the 1900s. Like Chief Wandering Bear tells people about wood spirits and the next generatino doesn't realize he meant something metaphorical, or whatever.

Your hypothesis also does not fit with experiential religious traditions, such as some in Hinduism, where specific experiences are experienced by each new generation.

Also there are shamanistic traditions still existent, that retain features that seem to go back pretty far in time with some consistency. First contact and sympathetic priest accounts of shamanistic traditions and the attendant metaphysics seem pretty consistant over time (and have common features over space also). And, then, people can engage in the practices and have similar experiences today, and use similar language, even cross culturally.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, my proposition is based on extremely small increments of change predating the existence of a fully formed spoken language, much less a written history. If things happened as I propose, or if they didn't, there is little that would still exist that could confirm or deny.
So, is it falsifiable?

Perhaps the best possible evidence would be in comparing religions that clearly diverged from each other, such as Zoroastrianism and Judeo-Christianity. By analysing the divergence, we could perhaps see the elements that were preserved and those that weren't, and derive a theory about how the process occured for those specific religions. If the observed process involved obvious over-interpretation, then my proposal might be confirmed.
What would an 'obvious overinterpretation' look like?

However, as a high level theory, it would take much more than any one study could provide, and possibly more than any particular religious study could provide. That's why I'm treating it as a question of philosophy, and giving it the armchair treatment.
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Re: Myth, Communication, and the Origin of Religion

Postby Carleas » Mon Aug 12, 2019 8:47 pm

To be honest, I don't remember writing these posts, and I don't find my argument particularly compelling. I think there's something to the phenomenon I'm pointing out, where culture evolves in passing from generation to generation. I know from personal experience that words that my parents used in their standard meaning were passed on to my siblings at I as terms of art, and, being a lawyer, I can attest that much legalese is ritualistic superstition rooted in copying what came before without understanding the meaning behind the words.

At least some parts of religious ritual should be similarly traceable to this kind of misunderstanding. I'm reminded of a few years ago when the Catholic church updated the language in its mass. Having grown up Catholic, I knew the mass by rote, and now when I go to mass for family weddings and funerals, the updated language is jarring. But the new language forces me to think about the meaning, and I realize that through my childhood I'd just been making sounds, rather than saying words.

But I don't think think that phenomenon would have been particularly acute during the early development of language. For one thing, my story makes it seem like language progressed generation by generation in leaps and bounds, when really it probably developed much more slowly. And while it was developing, there would have been as much misunderstanding between individual adults or between tribes as between generations. And given that most of the world religions arrived in their current territorial scope mostly fully formed, it doesn't explain much about modern religion. There might be something like that in e.g. early Hebrew myths about giants who lived 800 years, because it's understandable that a child (particularly an orphan) might misremember their parents or grandparents and think they were giants, and misinterpret statements about their age. That's pretty speculative though.

Reading back over the thread, Felix's challenges seem strong and my responses evasive. Similarly, I think Karpel Tunnel is spot on: it does not seem my hypothesis is falsifiable, or at least I avoided making so definite as to be testable.
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