THE QUEST FOR FIRE
By Ian Wishart
“The God Hypothesis comes in many versions. Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and Islam” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
No one alive today knows for sure when the first human emerged, nor do we know when the first person looked at the stars and wondered about the meaning of life. We do know that religious rituals of some kind existed – even among Neanderthal cultures, where graves have been found featuring the deceased in the company of prized possessions, generally indicating a possible belief in the afterlife.
It is true that we don’t actually know very much at all about human history. As Professor Robert Winston points out in the BBC series Walking With Cavemen, all the bones and fossils found in the world relating to human evolution could fit in a cardboard box in the boot of a small car.
The task of investigating human history is made even harder by, ironically, ancient global warming. As a paleontologist adviser to New Zealand’s national Te Papa Museum once explained to me, humans traditionally build settlements close to the sea – a major source of food. During the Ice Ages, sea levels dropped by around 150 metres and beaches receded, meaning people living in warmer climes had to move their villages to match the new tidelines, sometimes – like on America’s west coast – up to 160 kilometres further out.
People often have this impression of the Ice Ages as a time when the entire planet was cold. Not so. The ice simply pushed the temperate and tropical zones closer to the equator. It rained heavily on jungles and lakes in what is now the Sahara desert, for example.[i]
As the ice melted somewhere between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago (and by many scientific accounts it happened fast), the sea rose again quite rapidly, quickly drowning the villages and cities lining the shores in those ancient times.
To get a feel for what happened, imagine the city where you live. If the sea level were to rise by 150 metres, how far inland would you have to go to remain on the mainland? In my case, Auckland, the city’s highest piece of land is the Mt Eden volcanic crater. At 196m high, the sea would wash against the hill three quarters of the way up. With that kind of deluge, it is obvious that virtually an entire city of 1.5 million people would vanish beneath the waves. In the case of Sydney, Australia, only 50 metres above sea level, the new shoreline would be the base of the Blue Mountains, 100 km west of the city; Los Angeles would no longer be the City of Angels but the City of Islands.
Give it 6,000 years underwater, pointed out my paleontologist, and any hope of finding these cities under 20 or 30 metres of sand and sediment, 150 metres underwater and up to 100 km out to sea, would be akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. As a result, he told me, it’s a pretty safe bet that the vast majority of human history is submerged and lost to us. Apart from one or two brief fluctuations several million years ago, the sea levels on earth have never been higher than they are now.[ii]
Several things emerge from this revelation. Firstly, that when our scientists are digging for fossils – particularly human or hominid – they are digging in areas that would have been considered outback hill-country 10,000 years ago – far from the larger settlements on the [now submerged] coast. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the image we get of our ancestors is one of, well, fossilized hillbillies. It’s the difference between finding New York, and finding Walton’s Mountain.
Secondly, the same thing applies to animal fossils – we’re digging up a large number of cave bears, woolly mammoths, dire wolves and other such creatures particular to these locations, and we have no way of digging up the vast herds of creatures who roamed the plains closer to the coastline. Therefore when we talk of “evolution” at all, we should acknowledge that much of what science currently does is guesswork.
Thirdly, all of this has a major bearing on the arguments of atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Their collective efforts to debunk religion in general and Christianity in particular rely heavily on a presumption that they know most of what there is to know about human history. As I’ve just established in the space of less than one page: that’s a pretty flawed and dangerous presumption to make.
Let’s return to the concept of submerged cities to illustrate the point. In 2000, a Canadian expedition searching for sunken Spanish galleons located what appears to be an underwater city off the western coast of Cuba, 650 metres (2,132 feet) below the surface of the Caribbean Sea, on an earthquake faultline.[iii] Using an expensive remote controlled submersible with robot cameras, they videoed massive granite blocks, between two and five metres in length each, forming various structures.
According to news reports in the Canadian and American press, the granite is not native to the area and the nearest possible source today is central Mexico. The underwater “city” is estimated to be around 7,000 years old. If correct, it was built by a civilization that predated the invention of the wheel in Sumeria in the Middle East. Unless, of course, the Sumerians were only re-discovering older technology lost in the disappearance of older civilizations.
The submerged architecture in Cuba is not the only example of its kind. There is speculation that underwater blocks discovered in the Bahamas 40 years ago are also the remains of a submerged town or city, and National Geographic has reported on one submerged city found off the coast of India.[iv] Now another, even more spectacular, has been added to the list:
“The remains of a huge underwater city off the western coast of India may force historians and archaeologists to radically reconsider their view of ancient human history. It’s believed that the area was submerged when ice caps melted at the end of the last ice age, 9-10,000 years ago.
“Marine scientists say archaeological remains discovered 120 feet underwater in the Gulf of Cambay off the western coast of India could be over 9,000 years old. The vast city – which is five miles long and two miles wide – is believed to predate the oldest known remains in the subcontinent by more than 5,000 years.
“The site was discovered by chance last year by oceanographers from India’s National Institute of Ocean Technology who were conducting a survey of pollution. Using sidescan sonar – which sends a beam of sound waves down to the bottom of the ocean – they identified huge geometrical structures at a depth of 120 feet. Debris recovered from the site – including construction material, pottery, sections of walls, beads, sculpture and human bones and teeth – has been carbon dated and found to be nearly 9,500 years old.
“However, archaeologist Justin Morris from the British Museum says more work will need to be done before the site can be said to belong to a 9,000 year old civilization, since there can be errors in carbon dating.
“ ‘Culturally speaking, in that part of the world there were no civilizations prior to about 2,500 BC. What’s happening before then mainly consisted of small, village settlements’, he says.
“Strong tides make investigations in the Cambay difficult. Marine scientists led by the Madras-based National Institute of Ocean Technology are solving this problem by taking acoustic images off the sea-bed and using dredging equipment to extract artifacts.
“The Indian Minister for Ocean Technology, Murli Manohar Joshi, says the images indicate symmetrical man-made structures and also a paleo-river, with banks containing artifacts, such as pottery. Carbon dating on a block of wood brought up from the depths suggests it dates back to 7,595 BC. “We have to find out what happened then … where and how this civilisation vanished,” he says.
“The city is believed to be even older than the ancient Harappan civilisation, which dates back around 4,000 years and is the oldest on the subcontinent. Although Palaeolithic sites dating back around 20,000 years have been found on the coast of India’s western state of Gujarat before, this is the first time that man-made structures as old as 9,500 years have been found deep beneath the ocean surface.”[v]
If you look at human history scientifically, Homo sapiens sapiens has been around for 50,000 to 100,000 years according to the boffins. Yet the entire history of our species is compressed so that we went from caveman to spaceman in only 8,000 years. If we can do it in 8,000 years, it is possible that humans reached some form of high civilization before the last Ice Age. The person walking around Times Square today clutching a Blackberry has the same intellectual capacity as the guy slugging a saber-tooth with a stone ax did 10,000 years ago. Genetically and mentally we are identical to them. They thought, loved and debated as we do, albeit with a far lower knowledge of technology than we now enjoy.
Is it possible that we have reached high civilization before, only to lose it? Yeah, it’s certainly possible, but it doesn’t figure in orthodox history books where the assumption – based on modern-centric evolutionary principles of advancement – is that we are the crème of the human crop.
Maybe we are. Then again maybe we are not. For example, it is now well-documented that ancient civilizations appear to have developed electric batteries, similar to the ones powering your radio or flashlight today. What were the Mesopotamians or Egyptians doing with the equivalent of a Duracell battery?[vi]
For more than a few readers, these opening pages will rekindle memories of the legend of Atlantis, the advanced civilization that supposedly sank beneath the waves in a massive cataclysm at some point in ancient times, possibly 11,000 years ago. The only record we have that specifically names “Atlantis” is Plato’s writing in Critias and Timaeus, published around 355 BC:
“For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they [the Atlanteans] were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.
“By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, the qualities which we have described grew and increased among them; but when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power.”
Sounds like a description that could equally apply today.
Plato wrote that Atlantis was situated beyond “the pillars of Hercules [in modern terms, the Straits of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic Ocean]”, and that Atlantis formed “the way to other islands [the Caribbean?], and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent [presumably America] which surrounds the true ocean [the Atlantic, as indeed America does].”
Now regardless of whether you believe Plato was trying to record a real place, or merely painting an allegorical picture for the sake of making a point, he certainly struck the jackpot in describing how the Atlantic Ocean was encircled by a landmass on the other side. I mean, how would he know? For what it’s worth, a century earlier, Herodotus was calling that ocean the “Atlantis ocean”.
According to Plato, an Egyptian priest with access to the ancient library records (later destroyed by invading Romans) told the Greek traveler Solon the story of Atlantis and how a cataclysm that hit Greece also took out Atlantis, more than 1,600 km to the West.
“But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your [Greek] warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”
Plato timed this destruction around 9,000 BC, which was another lucky strike given that it coincided with the end of what we now know (but he didn’t) was the last Ice Age, and during which the sea level worldwide rose 150 metres.[vii]
I raise the Atlantis legend only to illustrate that no matter how much we think we know through science, we probably don’t even know the half of it.
So when modern authors like Dawkins, or Lloyd Geering, try and build a picture of primitive ancients worshipping tree spirits and gradually “evolving” to a higher form of religious belief, it should be remembered that these claims are based on presumptions that human civilization has no surprises, that we have all merely “evolved” from peasant to physicist, from simple beliefs to a ‘modern, enlightened, scientific view’ of the world.
“The ancient storytellers saw nothing odd in attributing creation to the utterance of words. Language fascinated the ancient mind. Although words could be heard they could never be seen or touched; yet the uttering of them seemed to be very powerful.”
Oh really? Was he there, then? I’m sure mere “uttering” wasn’t half as impressive as hooking up the ancient Duracell battery and conducting experiments with electricity.
Geering, like many intellectuals before him, harks back to this storybook view of ancient cultures and has evidently watched One Million Years BC (featuring the iconic Raquel Welch as cavewoman “Loana”) far too many times. Geering forgets that the ancient Hebrews were as clever as he is, and the ability to speak was no more wondrous to them than the ability to whack doddery old tribesmen over their heads in a bid to ease their dotage before they started spouting daft theories about words and drove the rest of the tribe insane.
Long assumed to be brutes, and erroneously portrayed by Hollywood and graphic artists in science departments[viii] as part man/part ape, even Neanderthals apparently had no trouble talking – scientists have discovered a Neanderthal hyoid bone[ix] (essential for human speech) “identical” to that of modern humans. Speech has a long heritage,[x] and it’s a fair bet that when Moses opened his mouth to lecture the Israelites, the last thing they were wondering was how clever he was, being able to speak and all that!
Of course, Geering isn’t the only one with a dodgy perspective on the origins of religion. The vogue theory among a small group of vocal academics is called “the Axial Period”, and if you’ve read books by former nun Karen Armstrong, you’ll recognize the term. It was actually coined by a German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, in 1949, and refers to the period between 800 BC and 200 BC when, Jaspers claims, similar ideas allegedly arose in religions around the world – apparently independently of each other. He points to developments in religion and philosophy in ancient Greece mirroring the ideas emerging in Buddhism and Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Judaism.[xi]
“The spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently,” Jaspers says, “and these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.”
It was not divine revelation, Axialists like Geering or Armstrong or John Shelby Spong argue, but growing wisdom among the ancients responding to changes in their societies that led to the new ideas.
Lloyd Geering, for example, waxes lyrical in the assumption that older religions played a major role in influencing Christianity. One of his assertions in Christianity Without God is that Zoroastrianism is the origin of “such ideas as the Last Judgment (preceded by a general resurrection), an afterlife with rewards and punishments, the concept of a personal Devil, the writing of our life story in a heavenly book of life and the naming of angels with specific functions.”
Once again I am forced to say, ‘Oh really?’.
Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion, supposedly gave these ideas to the Jews during their Babylonian captivity around 500 BC. But if the idea of God judging the world only emerged in Judaism in 500 BC, how do we explain a verse like this, written around 1400 BC:
“Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right?” asked Abraham in Gen. 18:25.
And doesn’t this Psalm, written around 900 BC, give hope of an eternal afterlife beyond the grave?[xii]
“You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Psa. 16:10-11.
If you want it more explicit, Psalm 1, also from around 900 BC, talks at verse 5 of “the wicked will not stand in the Judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous”.
If it’s a personal Devil you seek, look no further than the Book of Job (pronounced ‘Jobe’), which records events that scholars attribute to as far back as 1800 – 2000 BC because of its cultural nuances and archaic language.[xiii] The entire book is about Job’s sustained attack at the hands of a very personal Satan.
In truth, this is one of the frustrating things about books written by skeptics: they offer unsourced anecdotal tales and claims that make persuasive soundbites but which are utterly untrue.
We will return in detail to which religion borrowed from which, later in this book. But regardless of the sport that Geering, Armstrong, Spong, Dawkins, Hitchens and others will provide us (and trust me, we will have fun doing it), there is no escaping the reality that humans and a belief in the supernatural go hand in hand. Always have, always will.
Opinion polls in the West consistently show anywhere in the region of 80% to 90% of people believe in a divinity of some kind.
A Fox News poll in 2004, for example, found 92% of Americans say they believe in God, 85% in heaven and 82% in miracles. Surprisingly, support for New Age beliefs was a lot lower, with 34% belief in the existence of ghosts, 34% in UFOs, 29% in astrology, 25% in reincarnation and 24% in witches.
“Young people are much more likely than older Americans to believe in both hell and the devil,” noted Fox News. “An 86% majority of adults between the ages of 18 to 34 believe in hell, but that drops to 68% for those over age 70.”
You would think that older people would be more likely to believe in hell and the devil and orthodox Christian theology, until you realize that most of those people grew up in churches who’d been hit by a crisis of faith in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The liberal view, that ideas of hell or miracles were merely “quaint” stories which science had disproved, poisoned the mainstream churches through the first three-quarters of the 20th century, until fresh scholarship overturned that lukewarm Christianity. Seen in that light, it is no surprise that young people have a stronger faith – the growing churches today are those that have returned to the basics of Christian doctrine, such as the existence of a real God, a real hell and a real Resurrection.
Intriguingly, there’s not just an age gap, there’s a political gap as well. Left-wingers are more likely (an additional 14%) to believe in New Age ideas than conservatives. As for the state of religion in society, the poll turned up a figure that is an undoubted source of fury to atheist fundamentalists like Dawkins and Hitchens: a staggering 69% of Americans believe religion needs to play a bigger role in people’s lives, with only 15% arguing it should play a smaller role.
Another poll, from 2003, found that more than a quarter of those who say they are not Christian nonetheless believe in the resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth.
A Gallup poll in May 2007 showed a slight drop in belief in God, down to 86%, although when the question was rephrased to include belief in a higher power it bounced back to nearly 90%.
But we all know Americans are the most “religious” westerners. What about the rest of us in the English-speaking world?
A UMR research poll in New Zealand in September 2007 that directly compared the May 07 US Gallup poll shows only 56% downunder believe in God, and only 48% believe in Heaven, compared with 81% of Americans. Seventy percent of Americans believe the Devil exists, while only 26% of New Zealanders buy into that.
When researchers broke down the “God” question the same way Gallup had, 46% of New Zealanders professed a belief in “God”, while a staggering 31% opted to believe in the New Age concept of “a universal spirit or higher power”.
Then there is the question of ‘Why?’. Why do we believe in God?
Time magazine put it another way:
“Which came first, God or the need for God? In other words, did humans create religion from cues sent from above, or did evolution instill in us a sense of the divine so that we would gather into the communities essential to keeping the species going?”[xiv]
Examine the last part of that statement for a moment. It’s the idea that evolution created the idea of God in our heads. Yet evolution is supposed to be purposeless and randomly-caused. How could a single-celled organism know in advance that in order to succeed it needed to believe in an imaginary friend called ‘God’?
The idea seems more farcical and fraught with contradictions than simply believing in God himself, but it has led to what some scientists are calling their theory of “the God Gene” – the idea that humans are programmed to believe in God.
“Even among people who regard spiritual life as wishful hocus-pocus, there is a growing sense that humans may not be able to survive without it,” says Time. “It’s hard enough getting by in a fang-and-claw world in which killing, thieving and cheating pay such rich dividends. It’s harder still when there’s no moral cop walking the beat to blow the whistle when things get out of control. Best to have a deity on hand to rein in our worst impulses, bring out our best and, not incidentally, give us a sense that there’s someone awake in the cosmic house when the lights go out at night and we find ourselves wondering just why we’re here in the first place. If a God or even several gods can do all that, fine. And if we sometimes misuse the idea of our gods – and millenniums of holy wars prove that we do – the benefits of being a spiritual species will surely outweigh the bloodshed.”
These, then, are some of the questions this book sets out to answer. Is there a rational basis for believing in God? Did humans simply invent the concept of God? Is belief in God, whether fiction or fact, scientifically necessary for us as a species in order for us to avoid slaughtering each other? Are all gods and religions created equal, or is it possible that some are either better or closer to the truth than others? Can belief in God be reconciled with scientific discoveries?
Perhaps the biggest question of all, though, is this: If God exists, is that ‘just another news story’, or the most significant piece of information in human history?
As you can see, it promises to be an intriguing journey.
[vii] Rising sea levels are not the only determinant involved. As the sunken remains 700 metres below the Caribbean suggest, tectonics can play a definitive role
[viii] These “artists” pulled the same stunt with the 2004 discovery of the ‘hobbit skeletons’ on Indonesia’s Flores Island, by drawing them as small humans with chimpanzee heads, even though the skulls are so close to ours in style that there is a heated dispute in the scientific community about whether the hobbits are indeed a different species or just a dwarf race of modern humans. Every time artists draw ancient humans as part-ape, they are guessing, based entirely on their own belief in Darwinism
[x] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/science/19speech.html Another discovery late October 2007 confirms Neanderthals had the FOXP2 gene necessary for human speech, identical to the one the rest of us have, and apparently they had it from about 350,000 years ago, throwing evolutionary theory into disarray, again
[xii] The answer from Axialists will initially be that the earliest records of a written Book of Psalms date to the sixth century BC, which means the ideas could have been borrowed from Zoroastrianism during the captivity. The answer is simplistic however. With Jerusalem captured, the temple destroyed and its inhabitants bundled off to a foreign land, it is easy to see why we no longer have physical copies of manuscripts dating back to the time of Moses or King David. However, there is ample circumstantial evidence to suggest the older books of the Old Testament were well known to Jews at the time of the captivity, and that they were not changed. Firstly, the Jews held fast to their Jewishness and what little they had been left with. Rather than widely integrating into Persian society they were mindful of the previous great captivity in Egypt nearly a thousand years earlier, and the need to preserve their beliefs and culture through this time. Having been warned by their prophets repeatedly about the dangers of worshipping false gods, and that the captivity was a punishment for Jewish disobedience, it stretches credulity to believe that the Jews then would further anger their God by importing foreign religious beliefs into what was left of Judaism. Secondly, portions of the Psalms are quoted in other pre-Exile books like 1 and 2 Samuel. Thirdly, the internal evidence in many of the earliest psalms – the words used and events referred to – clearly place them between 1000 BC and 900 BC in origin.
[xiii] Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Gleason Archer, Moody, 1994, pp. 503-515