The evolution of God: the Shaman

This was an interesting chapter looking at the rise of “spiritual experts” in the person of the Shaman.  I appreciated the way that Wright reasonably evaluated the shaman, seeing some of the ludicrous claims, and ways of controlling…yet he didn’t dismiss the possibility that through some of these shaman rites and rituals (probably not the whole rite but parts) some of these men had some true experiences.   Speaking of one particular group but seemingly making broader application the author writes:

“In any event, the possible truth of some part of the num master’s experience isn’t precluded by the means of it induction. No doubt the trance state reached during hours of dancing is a result of, among other things, the rhythmic shocks delivered to the base of the brain, as many as 60,000 shocks in one dance session by the estimate of the anthropologist Melvin Konner. But that doesn’t steal the possibility of truth from the experience Konner himself had while dancing with the !Kung, ‘That oceanic feeling of oneness withe the world.’ The opposite of this experience – our everyday sense of wary separation from all but a few kin and trusted friends – is a legacy of natural selection, no more and no less. Its been good at steering genes into the next generation, and thus must have in some sense faithfully reflected some features of the social landscape, but it doesn’t necessarily capture the whole picture. It has been, in a sense, strategically “true,” but that doesn’t make it morally or metaphysically true” (pages 41-42).

I also didn’t expect to see myself in this chapter but, I did. Wright he puts it this way:

“No doubt the world’s shamans have run the gamut from true believer to calculating fraud. And no doubt many true beliefs have been peppered by doubt. But so it is in other spiritual traditions, too. There are deeply religious Christian ministers who urge the congregation to pray for the ill, even though they personally doubt that God uses opinion poles to decide who lives and who dies. There are ministers who have a more abstract conception of divinity than the image of God they evoke in church. And there are ministers who have wholly lost their faith but keep up appearances” (pg. 39).

I’ll let you wonder in which one I see myself.

I provide you one last quote that I found interesting and true.

“The shaman’s role in cultivating antipathy and violence, both within the society and beyond it, is more evidence against the romantic view of religion as fallen – having been born pure only to be corrupted later. Apparently one of religion’s most infamous modern roles, fomenter of conflict between societies, was part of the story from very near the beginning” (pg. 43).

I must agree that we look back at the origins of various religious expressions (which ever ours happens to be) with a much more romantic view than probably reflects the truth. All too often, as well, religious rhetoric truly stimulates antipathy and even violence, which I am certain the founders of these faiths would have scorned.


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