So, work still progresses very slowly on my Magnum Opus, and when I talk about it with people I admit to struggling with one key factor about its content. The whole premise of the book is that, by looking at the history of mankind and the evolution of spirituality and religion as we know it, we might be able to cobble together some kind of blueprint for meaningful human spirituality. That idea is not new. The secondary idea is that we might also not really be working with an accurate understanding of ancient, especially prehistoric, spiritual thought. Also, not something I would be the first to assert.
But how do you tell someone you’re writing about how our common understanding of science might be wrong without sounding like a crackpot?
The simple fact is that I think we make a lot of biased assumptions when we seek to interpret archaeological evidence. And let us not forget that much of the earliest work in anthropology was done by missionaries who had an preconceived notion regarding the history of mankind and its place in the universe, not to mention a call to save the natives.
By the same token, I’m no scientist. I mean, I could have been a scientist, I quite enjoy studying science, but my degree isn’t in science.
The truth is, though, that what we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people who aren’t scientists and therefore get our scientific knowledge through the media and such’) are always several steps behind the current state of scientific understanding. Papers are constantly being published and new research is being done all the time, much of which contradicts or alters the understandings we’ve previously held to be true. And discoveries are being made which never make the press because they aren’t exciting to those outside the field. What we understand about our history is constantly changing, and the more we learn the more we see the bias of the past.
So the point I think I’m making in the book is not that our previous notions about the roots of spirituality in mankind are wrong, but that they could be and that we should be critical of our assumptions. What happens if we assume that our ancient ancestors had ritual without spiritual underpinnings? That the presence of artistic expression doesn’t point towards religion? That not all ancient stories can be read as myth? It changes our view of what religion does for us, what it means in the context of human development.
Anyway, it’s a struggle to condense all that to a two-sentence blurb that doesn’t make the book sound like some kind of romp into conspiracy territory, or at the very least some kind of atheist propaganda. But the ultimate point of the work isn’t really about science. It’s about searching for the reason why some of us are called to ritual, to practice, even when we know there’s nothing particularly sacred behind it all. What is it we really want, and how can we find it if we don’t want the religious baggage that might come with it?