Chapter Two: In the Beginning
This chapter is dedicated to debunking an idea that is apparently common among some of the people Ian doesn’t like, such as Karen Armstrong. The idea they espouse is that there was an “Axial age” – a time in history when disparate cultures made similar leaps in their thought. In India, Vedanta was showing up, as did Gautama (the Buddha). Plato was doing his thing. Isaiah was doing his for the Hebrews. Taoism in China, etc. Basically, it’s considered a pivotal (axial!) time in the development of these cultures.
Ian’s concern is that some of these thinkers believe that there is an evolution of theism, from animism to polytheism to monotheism (to atheism, apparently), which therefore lends some kind of historical superiority to atheism in the minds of these thinkers. Comparing atheism to monotheism is like comparing Einstein to Newton – “we know better now”. Ian will have none of that.
In order to debunk the evolution-of-religion idea, Ian cites various creation myths from around the world, and shows that similarities and differences don’t follow any kind of evolutionary progression. Monotheism and creation ex nihilo was a very old idea, rather than a later stage of natural religious development, as his targets assert.
Recent Middle Eastern archaeological discoveries suggest that analogies to the Genesis creation stories existed long before the penning of Genesis, in a city called Ebla. Tablets recovered relatively recently from Ebla make references to names that are potentially Hebraic biblical names, like Adam and Eve, and Sodom.
While I don’t find myself as blown away as Ian apparently does by the idea that two Middle Eastern cultures shared similar creation myths (when Adam and Eve are referenced in 2500-year-old Chinese writings, I’ll be impressed), I think he adequately messes with the theory that monotheism is only ever a development out of polytheism, rather than a potentially older idea.
Though, really, it’s a long-winded way to go about things. If the concern is that Some People Say that atheism is the most advanced step of evolution of a natural religious progression, then one need look no further than the confirmed atheists of ancient India. I’ve never been much of a fan of the essentially Hegelian idea of a natural progression of ideas. It has the worrying tendency to imbue recent thinkers with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, as evidenced in just about every German philosopher ever. They all seem to think that no one has got it right in history until them, and they’re the culmination of human wisdom. Hegel finished writing The Phenomenology of the Spirit and thought, “There, I’m the end of history.” Kant called his Critique “a Copernican revolution” in thought and went on to write The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, which could have been titled “all you motherfuckers gotta take me into account”. He was right, but come on, fella. Chill out. And then there was Nietzsche. He thought he was so right that people wouldn’t even understand how right he was for another few centuries.
Of course, no one actually got it right until me. Syntheism all the way, baby.
Anyway. People just think stuff. Ian does a good job here of presenting counter-examples to the evolving-religion hypothesis he finds in Armstrong. That doesn’t greatly concern me, because my views aren’t embodied by the people with whom he is concerned. I do find that with Ian, though. He tends to think that citing people he considers “liberals” gives him some kind of added weight when debating people he considers “liberals”. Kind of a “you don’t like Hawaiian pizza? WELL, LIBERAL HISTORIAN HOWARD ZINN LOVES PIZZA” thing.
Anyway, interesting chapter. Moving on.