Maybe it’s because I am an “unchurched”, humanist religious person, but todays anti-religious tracts and rants do bore me. However, a new book of the primatologist Frans de Waal, raised hope for new insights: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. He made accidentally an interesting point – the reciprocal imago dei (God’s imago modelled after human) of todays atheists (or spiritual deaf).
I hold the opinion that God’s existence can’t be proved nor denied. God can only be experienced personally or by intuitive wisdom. Although I consider myself religious, I can only shrug my shoulder to fierce pro and con advocates. To me, religions have had a positive effect on morale and cohesion of society and intrinsic merits. Religion is formalized spirituality not an ideology, although some ideologies mutated in deadly and evil belief systems. Simply go with Kant’s categorical imperative: How would a world look like, where everybody is… greedy, hedonistic, promiscuous and spiritual deaf? You say that would look like today’s globalized world? Bertolt Brecht concluded that 50 years ago: “Erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral”.
Religions and the zoo
According to Mr. de Waal it would look like a zoo. Doesn’t sound completely wrong to me either. Mr. de Waal has spent his career studying chimpanzees and bonobos, two of humanity’s closest living relatives. He draws on a lifetime of empirical research and claims his data provides plenty of evidence that religion is not necessary in order for animals to display something that looks strikingly like human morality. Consequently to him Gods imago is the “Great Chimp”.
We all went in the zoo, right? While I would admit, that apes look strikingly human, throwing excrements like – say politicians, those in power monopolizing sex and generally follow interaction pattern of large corporation, I am still surprised. Is it my distorted view of moral or my different understanding of “Gods” image? Now, that is exactly where we differ, Frans de Waal, like the old Greeks, or Romans or Goths, proposes to model God after the worldly observation. Social science boldly constructs here not only the world, but also the heaven, and up there is the ultimate alfa male (chimp). There is no place for the female Hindu goddess Kali, Confucius or pantheistic Taoism. Nevermind, lets look where this leads us to.
According to primatologist, Chimps help in lab tests other chimps obtain food even though there is no benefit in doing so, or even refusing rewards themselves until their troop-mates get some. Examples also come from the wild: young chimps fetch water for oldsters who cannot manage themselves, for instance, or adopt orphaned youngsters from other families. Rhesus monkeys are recorded as tolerating handicapped similar to human Down’s syndrome. Mr de Waal’s central aim is to attack the idea that morality makes human stand apart “lower” animals. Thus, he concludes no religion is needed: No philosophy either. I doubt that. In Hinduism the goal of all mystical yearning is union of the individual soul with the universal soul. In the Adhyatma (‘spiritual’) Ramayana, a Sanskrit text dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, Sita represents the individual (jiva-atma), which has separated from the universal (param-atma) symbolized by Rama. In an almost Jungian interpretation, Hanuman (the chimp) here is said to personify bhakti, which annihilates the ‘ahankara’ or ego (Ravana), and re-unites the two. That can be easily translated in the Jung context : The Death of the Ego as prerequisite to find God.
In Hindu symbolism, a monkey signifies the human mind, which is ever restless and never still. This monkey-mind (consciousness) happens to be the only thing over which man has absolute control. We cannot control the world around us and cannot choose our life but we can choose the way we respond to it. Hanuman, when he was a child monkey, was tempted by the sun and he rushed towards it thinking it to be a delectable fruit. On his way however, he was distracted by the planet Rahu and changed his path. Thus Hanuman is the temperamental human intellect, which is unquiet and excitable. It is only by diverting it to the path of pure bhakti (devotion), that it can be made aware of its profound and silent essence. Hanuman is no ordinary monkey. While embarking on the search for Sita, the monkeys were confronted by the vast ocean lying between them and Lanka. They wondered how they would make their way across this mighty obstacle. Someone suggested that Hanuman jump and cross over the sea. But Hanuman was doubtful, “I cannot do that,” he said. At that moment, one of his companions reminded Hanuman of the awesome powers lying dormant within him. Instantly Hanuman regained memory of his divine strength and he successfully leaped across the ocean – the individuation. The monkey is us, specifically our conscious Ego , not God.
Religion and philosophy
Most people, the primatologist notes, accept that their bodies evolved from those of man’s predecessors, but the conceits of religion and philosophy make it much harder to accept that the same is true of human minds. I have indeed my difficulties, together with Descartes: I think – therefore I am.
I agree, that human ethical codes arise from ancient social behaviours, but not exclusively. Different versions of this can be found in a variety of animals and variety of human tribes. Often it was ritualized in spiritual or religious conduct. For Mr. de Waal, religion is just a natural consequence of combining the built-in behaviours of an intelligent, sociable ape with strong dominance hierarchies and God’s image may very well be the ultimate, old, fat chimp with the red “bottom”. Mr de Waal’s sophisticated interpretation of religion seems to make it hard for him, however, to imagine that people can take religion allegorically and spiritually.
I share his little patience for sometimes shallow, overly confident, assertive atheism of today, seeing it as tilting hopelessly against the strive for spirituality in human nature. In other words, a crowd of crashing bores treating the gospel like a car manual. Called or uncalled, God is present, was written over C.G. Jung’s door. Religious experience plays an important role in Jungian psychology. Jung, a Christian maybe of more Gnostic virtue, believed that this experience is nothing but a product of the psyche, and consequently viewed other world religions as an expression of one psychic function that has its roots deep in the collective unconscious of mankind. Jung and Mr. de Waal are strong empiricists, but to Jung religion and spirituality are based on complex archetypes not on low-level instincts.
Religion and totalitarian systems
The second thing to consider is Jung’s point of view toward religion in general, and his various attitudes with regards to fanatics and totalitarian ideologies and states: “Of course, it is not a spiritual religion in the sense in which we ordinarily use the term. But remember that in the early days of Christianity it was the church which made the claim to total power, both spiritual and temporal! Today the church no longer makes this claim, but the claim has been taken by the totalitarian states which demand not only temporal but spiritual power”.
It is no coincidence that the three most religion-hating ideologies (Maoism, Stalinism and National-Socialism) killed also most humans known in history. Jung is speaking only about the USSR and Nazi Germany (he died 1961) in a sense that those ideologies were not only secular and political, but also semi-religious. Jung speaks about totalitarian belief systems not only demanding temporal obedience but spiritual as well and covering not only the spiritual aspects of the human condition but also mundane. If one looks to Jung’s quotes closely, one can derive there are similar concepts between totalitarian religions and totalitarian systems. Thus, Mr de Waal has a wonderful convincing argument against himself. Absolute religions always have striven for absolute secular power and vice versa, and both versions exist and have power today. Deconstructional philosophy and tactics of social science is inherently inhuman. Thus, this sort of atheism is ironically also anti-humanism. As the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao-tse noted – this tactics are against the (divine) law:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Manmade, constructed Gods (even if just for the purpose of fighting religions) are more often than not – evil.
Very often atheism employs a simple understanding of religions based on a personal god and ignores spirituality and pantheism. Mr de Waal’s shows convincingly that social science has to catch up with 2000 years of philosophy. Humanism is not easily found in a zoo, nor can it be a substitute religion for humans need of spirituality.
When human beings are deprived of any “image of god” (imago dei) they are reduced to numbers and seen as livestock (or primates) – result versus costs: anyone who is old, weak, sick, unwilling or just inconvenient would be starved to death or killed. It is Dante’s hell – the opposite from imago dei. Hitlers, Mao’s, Pol Pots, Stalin’s illusion of new societies, new men and totalitarian state religion crashed. Because it was not a spiritual religion, but an ideology and man-made cult utilizing instincts (and archetypes). Charley Chaplin pictured this funny in “The great Dictator”.
Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s approach had all in common that they wanted to form new people and themselves as supreme . Their leadership cult and the state consequently asked for religious obedience. If one looks closely we find, that the concepts of totalitarian religions and systems are similar. In their focus is hate, essentially hate against humanity and clearly defined external groups or simply against everybody, which in the last essence is self-hate. Nazi racism and evilness cannot by diluted by the historical observation of Stalin’s and Mao’s motivations which were often similar national or ethnic. The starving caused by their failed industrialization policies or flawed visions left Stalin and Mao untouched by the death of double-digit millions of humans. Creating their imago as supreme semi-God, they fought a war against the nature, reason, tradition, spirituality and their own people, ultimately humanity: Can Hitler go to heaven? The evil presented in Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot.
It is sad, that humanist movements have become strongly aligned with secularism. Germans used the term humanism to refer to Italian Renaissance and classical learning. There is of course large benefit in learning from cultural, non-Christian sources. But solely centering philosophies and morality around human kind or primates, without attention to the divine is not sound practice. Humanism or human morality, spirituality or religion are all more than sharing a banana (within the tribe).
Question: What imago (if so) you have of God?