The house stands. Green food is here. I give, you give, all must give.
— from a Kepele spell

Many years ago, I was fortunate to discover Pascal’s Wager, and applied it to my own life. Now, in its original form, the bet is tainted by Monsieur Pascal’s own belief that God — the Creative Force — set things up so that humans who do not believe are tormented for eternity in a place called hell. A booby trap.  Suffice it to say that I never was one to paint God in vengeful dictator colors.

pascal's wager

But I was intrigued by the logic. What if, I thought, I make the bet my own? If I believe, and I am wrong, nothing happens after death, no gain. If, on the other hand, I believe, and this turning changes my life for the better, and possibly enables me to make connections to unseen forces and mysteries of the universe, I come out ahead.

Correspondingly, if I remain an unbeliever, and God does not exist, no loss in the next world. But, on the other hand, I miss out on a life that turns me away from the path of arid materialism and, possibly, cynical “nothing matters in the long run” orientation. This was a time when the strictly scientific, rationalist vision of the universe began to grate on my nerves, and I discovered I much prefer my world enchanted. Pascal helped me see that when it comes to beliefs which, at present, have no way of being proven one way or another, my intuitive preference could be a starting point for turning my life around. Decades later, I can confirm that the wager has more than paid off, though of course that rational escape hatch inspired by Pascal was only one element of my younger self’s transformation.

Nevertheless, it was with great amazement I came recently to understand that such a bet was commonly taken by our tribal forebears, who understood our needs and our psychology far better than the modernists who have been predicting the demise of religion for more than a hundred years now. My new insight was triggered by two books: Shamans, sorcerers and saints: a prehistory of religion, and Historical vines: Enga networks of exchange, ritual, and warfare in Papua New Guinea. Though the tomes are dense and slow reading, they are well worth the effort as they trace the deep history of religious/spiritual currents and practices. I will be referring to them in the future; they illuminate the problem of power and the paths away from Babylon.

Tribal people did not have ‘religion’ as we commonly understand it; they had cults. I searched for a better name since the word ‘cult’ has unpleasant connotations, but there are no other options. Perhaps it’s time to rescue it. The dictionary tells me that a cult is “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols,” or “a system of religious veneration and devotion.” And that is exactly what tribes had. Their cults were always evolving and responding to the social needs of the present; they could do so because the cult’s direction and adaptation was fully in the hands of the local “users.” Indeed, it’s been said that cults were for them a powerful social technology that addressed ecological and other problems the tribe was facing in its cultural evolution. For example, in Papua New Guinea they used egalitarian, altruistic, unifying cults to balance the tribe’s induction into the increasingly inequitable and competitive “cult of MORE” which originated long before the coming of the whites.

Cults were concerned not with the afterlife but rather with effectiveness in this life. First, they were utilized to help assure the thriving of family, clan and tribe by “doing right” by the unseen forces and tribal ideals. Second, they provided a tool for dealing with problems in the here and now. In effect, the power these ceremonies unleashed enabled people to embody certain values and behaviors that were helpful in alleviating a crisis. For example, when a smouldering feud burst into flame and angry, vindictive feelings ran high, a Kepele cult ceremony might be organized that entailed building a ritual house by common effort, storytelling (related to cosmology, tribal origins, and legends), specific rituals, a feast, dancing, and a boys’ initiation ceremony. These shared, hallowed activities defused the tension and helped turn the tide of violence.  Cross-clan and cross-tribe cults like the Kepele opened up local clans to innovation from abroad and fostered amiable relations with distant neighbors while creating possibilities of new alliances for marriage and trade. And lifting people’s spirits and resetting their orientation in the world was a big part of the magic.

If I needed more persuasion to consider seriously the value of spiritual practices at this point, Brian Hayden’s argument from our biological heritage would be the next best thing. I quote at length below. But I confess that for the very first time, I appreciate fully the power of shared ritual, and mourn the magnitude of what we lost when religion was either hijacked by power brokers, or abandoned altogether.

We can look at our ancient human biological heritage in a new way — the aspects of our human emotional makeup that instinctively resonate within us. These include our natural reactions to rhythm, dance, song, drama, ritual, and all the myriad factors that tend to produce altered states of consciousness in us. These are not simply behaviors that we have learned because cultural traditions have taught us to enact them, with our minds serving as a blank canvas. I contend that these are all evolutionarily structured basic behavioral penchants, similar to the proclivity that human infants exhibit for learning and structuring language. All these factors — language, play, family closeness, kinship, ritual, rhythm, dance — probably played important adaptive roles in the early evolution of the human race. Cultural traditions may model the styles and the details, but the basic penchants undoubtedly stem from ecological adaptations. Not everyone may feel the pull of each factor equally strongly. Some people seem more sensitive to music, others to ritual, others to masks and drama. However, there are probably very few people who do not naturally feel some reaction to at least one of these factors. Recognizing these aspects of our human nature and our human heritage and valorizing them as the essence of what it means to be human is an important step in coming to terms with our contemporary religious experience.

Politicians, philosophers, scholars, scientists, and others have often expressed dismay that in this age of science and enlightenment, such large proportions of even the most modern populations continue to hold irrational, unverified superstitions or beliefs about the existence of a supernatural world, gods, ghosts, or spirits. For such people, science and modern social or political life should have eliminated the need for supernatural beliefs and ritual practices. But they have missed the point. Religion satisfies an inner craving for meaning, a feeling of wholeness or union with greater forces, and an inner satisfaction that comes only from ritual life, just as music and rhythms satisfy an inner emotional craving deep within our souls and minds for the trances, the ecstasies, and the profound experiences only they can produce. These are fundamental adaptations of our biological heritage. To argue that advances in science or politics have eliminated the need for religion is tantamount to arguing that science and politics have eliminated the need for music….

Rational thought on its own becomes pathologically self-serving and destructive of life. Einstein purportedly expressed a similar sentiment when he said that the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant; we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.