Vertical Religion And How We Interpret The Paleolithic: A Wandering God Review (Part 3)

As social relations become vertical, it influences the development of religion and politics, giving us, you guessed it, vertical religion and vertical politics.

In Wandering God, Morris Berman writes:

“… under what would become the stress and insecurity of Neolithic life, what is a natural spiritual life — love of the world as it presents itself — moves aside to make way for the shaman, for ecstasy, myth, ritual, charisma, and in general, vertical religious experience. The fear of death that is generated by that life, and the altered child-rearing practices that often accompany it, make transcendent solutions (and explanations) increasingly attractive.”

As the till-plant-harvest process ramps up, more people start living in smaller areas, sharing their living quarters with domesticated animals. This closeness creates a utopia for ambitious germs that spread their germ-y self all over the place.

This contributes to disease and food insecurity. In short, the world becomes filled with uncertainties.

And here we have our motive. “(T)ranscendent solutions (and explanations)” become “increasingly attractive.” Vertical religions and their necessary sidekicks, vertical politics, build up those explanations.

Much of history is the story of what happens next. However, lets take a step back and see how we got here.

Vertical Religion

Recap: Existential Awareness

Next on stage: Existential Awareness (clap, clap, clap).

Its role in the human story is essential but dramatic because its appearance brings with it the painful alienation that splits the Self from the World.

(But maybe it was time to separate? Who knows…)

Either way, humans have been scratching their heads in confusion ever since and, historically speaking, deal with it in three ways

  1. Paradox: The “yeah I can live with it” approach that develops mature ambiguity.
  2. Sacred Authority Complex: The “yeah I can transcend it” approach that develops an obsession with certainty.
  3. Dullardism: The “yeah is this goin to be over by commercial break?” approach that develops an obsession with daytime television and a sluggish mentality.

In this multi-part annotation of Morris Berman’s Wandering God, we are looking at how he charts the shift from number 1 to number 2. The first “corresponds to more than 99 percent of the human experience on this planet” whereas the second mostly ties in with agricultural civilizations.

The unsettled versus the settled. How unsettling?!

The emergence of existential awareness (or ego-consciousness), predates both of these but is essential for understanding what is common to each and how each differs in its approach to this common human experience.

The first post in this series expands upon the above.

Recap: Social Inequality

As we begin shifting from an ability to live with mature ambiguity to an obsession with certainty, our social relations change from horizontal to vertical. From egalitarian to hierarchical. From social equality to social inequality.

The anthropologist Alain Testart traces the origin of this inequality to the development of storage among certain hunter-gatherer groups. This was before the rise of agriculture –an important point that helps dispel another myth.

The myth of the “noble savage.”

The HG structure is not “immune” from stratification due to some inherent “nobility”, however, the structure of their society creates safeguards against its widespread adoption.

“… conflict plays a crucial role in the emergence of vertical structures. Of course, there is no way to know for certain how Paleolithic HGs dealt with conflict, except that all the evidence points to the use of he easiest conflict resolution mechanism of all, namely, movement (…) people are not coerced (i.e. do not coerce themselves) into ‘community’; the system is much more laissez-faire. When a conflict arises, people simply pull up stakes and move on.”

The stratification and social inequality that arises as societies become more complex is kept in check through movement. However, the ability to “pull up stakes and move on” becomes much more difficult as the stresses mount.

Stratification becomes inevitable. The dormant gene becomes activated and aggressive subgroups gain power during the time of instability.

These unstable periods stick around for longer and longer. They mix and mingle with other shifting factors like population pressures, new child-rearing practices, and environmental shifts to give us an entirely new social fabric.

Society gets vertical.

Vertical Politics

Spirituality in the Paleolithic

“Whether modern or postmodern, our world is caught up in a consciousness that has its origins in the SAC as the source of truth. (…) In order to escape from this ‘entrancement,’ as it were, we need to look at a number of things. One is the possibility that pre-agricultural societies had a different mode of consciousness. (…) Another is the question of how this got lost (…) We also shall have to talk about attempts to resuscitate nomadic consciousness.”

This leads Berman to hold out the possibility that “contemporary trance behavior could reflect modern developments.” In his view, “contemporary trance behavior” is largely shamanistic and, therefore, part of the sacred authority complex that comes after the stresses that lead us away from the paradoxical mode of consciousness.

Although he agrees that “sacred experience did exist in the Paleolithic”, he thinks that “it was not the sort envisioned by writers such as Eliade.” Eliade is essential in developing the modern idea of “shamanism” and the tendency to interpret Paleolithic experience through a shamanistic lens.

Berman, however, doesn’t wear those glasses. He sees the Paleolithic as a time when “a more horizontal spirituality” exists, one “that is a lot less exotic” than the cadre of entities who inhabit the spirit worlds.

Fragile Flowers

“Hierarchy, competition, and belief in spirits and witchcraft all arose together. Paradox and egalitarianism are extremely fragile flowers; it doesn’t take much for religious and political hierarchy to overwhelm them.”

Although it doesn’t take much to overwhelm them, it does take quite a lot to pull up all the roots.

The earlier embrace of ambiguities morphs into a mono-focus on certainty and control. However a persistent secular tradition exists. This underground stream runs from the heyday of paradox to the current days of dullardism.

In later posts we will explore how to take a swim in it.