Caves of Death: Earliest Glimpses into the Origins of Religion and Misbelief


Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless? The deeper we sound. The further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable.”

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers

Caves of death: Caverns littered with corpses & childrens’ heads found in remote Scotland

From these discoveries (and the many thousands of others) we are given a profound glimpse into the earliest psychological misbeliefs and musings of early humans.

Certainly, one of the first “god ideals” dating back to the Neanderthals ( 250,000 – 50,000 BCE) is this superstitious teleological notion that “Life Comes from Death”, and we can actually follow it anthropologically and archaeologically through the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, Bronze, Iron Ages, to present day Christianity, where the sacrificed ‘king” is slaughtered and resurrected at Easter to renew and bring about eternal life.

With all that we are gleaning from the latest in neuroscientific study is that these autochthonous or archetypal “ideals” are imprinted into our nervous systems and evolutionary psychology only to be revivified by certain neurotic, traumatic, ritualistic, or symbolic events where they are experienced anew as personal revelation and religious faith.

“Da Trute? You Can’t Handle Da Trute!”


“We are getting tantalizingly close to a comprehensive cognitive neuroscience of religious belief. Robust Theories. Empirical evidence.”  

Dr. Anderson Thomson Psychiatrist  Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith Pitchstone Publishing (June 1, 2011)

One of the most profound scientific theories coming out of the neuroscience field is that humans are biologically programmed to misbelieve all the wrong things, and thus science (knowledge) was brought into being by various Greek philosophers, Stoics, and others, to systematically ward against this biological mandate through investigation, logic, deductive reasoning, etc. We erroneously, and perhaps, romantically, hold this idea that humankind is guided by a moral search for the truth, whereas it is much more evidentiary that the opposite is true.

“Other approaches notwithstanding, the currently dominant evolutionary perspective on religion remains a by-product  perspective. On this view, supernatural misbeliefs are side-effects of a suite of cognitive mechanisms adapted for other purposes. Such mechanisms render us hyperactive agency detectors, promiscuous teleologists, and intuitive dualists; collectively and incidentally, they predispose us to develop religious beliefs– or at least they facilitate the acquisition of such beliefs.”

                                                 Dennett and McKay (2009)

Responsibilities in the Information Age


“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie– deliberate, contrived and dishonest– but the myth– persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forbearers. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy Yale Commencement Address 1962

What are our individual responsibilities in the Information Age? To learn, inform ourselves, and critically examine our most cherished and persistent misbeliefs. To sort through the endless pseudosciences, teleologies, propaganda, and comfort ideologies to arrive as close to the true history and evolution of our species. To scrutinize and challenge those who knowingly or unknowingly disseminate disinformation, superstition, and falsehood however sincerely offered, and to become vigilant purveyors of knowledge, science, and awareness of the splendor and terror of what it has meant to be human — from our earliest beginnings to our present day reality.

The Allure of Pseudoscience by Sebastian Normandin

Mastering the Art of Misbelief


That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,

which constitutes poetic faith -Coleridge

I wrote this in response to a question about why some denounce the existence of a deity, but then ascribe to even more outlandish conspiracy theories, alien intervention tales, and other implausible scenarios and belief systems.  It got me thinking about the nature of belief, and the art of storytelling and movie making. As storytellers, are we actually  “suspending disbelief” as Coleridge suggests, or now, as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology inform us called upon to master the art of misbelief?

Dr. Richard Carrier points out he is more often attacked by atheists for his scholarly reexamination of the Jesus story than by true believers. I’ve experienced it as well. I’m sure you most of us have in one form or another. When Sigmund Freud dared to turn his mythopoeic analysis to the Moses story, he was denounced as a self-hating Jew. When Joseph Campbell deconstructed the historical context of the Old Testament, he was viciously labeled an anti-Semite. One only needs to consider the intense rivalry between Jesus historist, Bart Ehrman, and mythicist, Carrier, to see how two atheists can disagree so vehemently.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep seated need to believe.”

The truth is we are all, non-believer and believer alike, subject to misbelief. We form false narratives about ourselves, family, ancestry, politics, history and the world at large. It is not a function of ignorance or brainwashing, as some will claim, but more of the result of “the side-effects of a suite of cognitive mechanisms adapted for other purposes. (Dennett and Mckay) In other words, human beings are neurologically and genetically predisposed to misbelief.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggests in his wonderful essay “Suspension of Disbelief”, what we call belief or faith is neither belief nor faith, but promiscuous and prolific teleology and misbelief. Humans detect patterns and make shit up about them. Every storyteller, filmmaker, shaman, theologian, or priest throughout history knows their job is to “suspend disbelief”, or perhaps more correctly to master the art of misbelief.

 Prof. Matt McCormick details this at length in his Biases and Heuristics of Religious Thinking. The psychiatrist Dr. Andy Thomson delves deeply into this phenomenon in “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith” So, no, just because one atheist has cast off a belief in a Supreme Creator, does not holus bolus relieve them of that evolutionary mandate. As we all have experienced, many atheists and theists, are equally prone to transfer the impulse to believe in one thing, but then readily and irrationally choose to misbelieve another. As theists typically claim that proof of god exists, because humans have always believed in some form of god, it is no doubt, they will be disappointed to learn that neurologically, as far as the evolution of the human nervous system, the exact opposite is true.

Cecil, We Hardly Knew Ye!


“Where are the legs with which you run?
Hurroo! hurroo!
Where are thy legs with which you run?
Hurroo! hurroo!
Where are the legs with which you run
When first you went to carry a gun?
Indeed, your dancing days are done!
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!
With drums and guns, and guns and drums,
The enemy nearly slew ye;
My darling dear, you look so queer,
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

Traditional Irish Folk Ballad

There’s an interesting element to this that is not being discussed, and that is the notion of a tipping point, or cultural shift in the zeitgeist. The demise of the big game hunter, matador, the great white Bwana, or Raj, as the heroically rugged adventurer conqueror. Certainly we grew up reading or watching films where this archetype was lionized — everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs, to Isak Dinesen, to Hemmingway, to John Wayne’s Hatari. And then something remarkable happened, and I don’t think it can be laid at the feet of animal rights activists and conservationists. Something visceral shifted in the collective psyche where these characters morphed into anathemas; literally shrank from heroes to zeroes. To shift into the politics of this, when I hear the feckless whining of those who say we have bigger “game to hunt” than to lament for this poor great beast with a human name, they seem to miss the much larger point: human consciousness is moving on while they themselves are the Luddites of a rejected ideal the rest of us have committed to the dung heap of the past.

Was Orpheus the Original Jesus?

Orphic 2

Dr. Robert Eisler in Revue d’assriologie et d’archéologie orientale 1905, p 57; Orpheus the Fisher (London: J.M. Watkins, 1921) Plate X describes this as an Orphic Sacramental Bowl. The central figure is indeed female, but the 16 surrounding stations around her, beginning with the first station and proceeding clockwise depicts Orpheus the Fisher with his fishing pole with the line wrapped around it. He holds a mesh bag in the other hand.

The bowl is representative of a widespread and popular Orpheus-Christos Cult throughout the Greco Roman empire ( rivaling Mithraism) with unique religious, artistic, and literary influences of the West.

Joseph Campbell traces the mystic fisherman motif back to a Babylonian seal known as ‘The Warden of the Fish’ (2nd millennium B.C.E) Many believe this is evidence of the early origins of Christianity predating Jesus by centuries, where Orpheus, “The Good Shepherd and Harrower of Hell” was the model for what would become Jesus many centuries later. ( see The History of Hell, by Alice K. Turner p. 24 Harcourt Brace and Company 1993)

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers

Orphic Sacramental Bowl; Buzau, Romania. 3rd or 4th Centuries