Because its hypothesis is conceived as a minimal object of belief, GA is in principle an optimal meeting place for believers and unbelievers. The postmodern era has been dominated by assertions of identity and difference, not attempts at conversation, but we have reason to hope that this will not remain the case throughout the post-millennial age that is now upon us.
An individual’s relationship to the transcendental cannot be reduced to belief in a set of propositions. The constitutive blindness of metaphysics that is at the same time the source of speculative thought lies in taking for granted to the point of effectively ignoring the transcendental nature of language, the genesis of the proposition or declarative sentence not being thought to require an explanation. The counterpart of this lack of attention to the transcendental nature of formal representation is the limitation of the transcendental to the explicitly religious or institutional forms of transcendence that invoke the “supernatural.” What we call secularization is the historicizing of this blindness in a narrative of “disenchantment” with the diminished salience of these institutional forms with the rise of the market in the Renaissance. This apparently experiential term reflects not an individual experience of spiritual disillusion but a romantic, retrospective view of the historical process, of which Charles Taylor exhaustively elaborates the various strands in A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007). When Musset expressed this disenchantment in 1834 by “Je suis venu trop tard dans un monde trop vieux–I have come too late into a world too old” he was projecting onto history the passage from childhood to adolescence, envying an imagined past plenitude as ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.
GA is founded on the principle that the uniquely human activity of representation, including above all language, cannot be understood independently of transcendence. Nothing in nature is comparable to the implicit shared agreement as to meaning that grounds the existence of the individual signs (words, morphemes) of language. The analogy between type:token and genotype:phenotype is like that between a circle drawn on a blackboard and the trace of a moving mathematical point. The simple evidence of these truths makes equally evident the ideological nature of the “materialist” refusal of a distinct ontological status to language and other forms of representation. Whether or not a sacred being of some sort is logically necessary to sustain the community of the sign, the historical necessity of the concept of such a being at the origin of this community can hardly be doubted.
The affirmation of the transcendental nature of language does not render nugatory the analysis of secularization, but it allows us to understand the emergence of modernity without postulating a sea-change in human ontology. To adopt this perspective is to object in principle to attempts such as those of Pascal Boyer or Daniel Dennett to explain the emergence of religious phenomena in terms of the evolution of the already-(speaking) human. In Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Dennett invokes a collection of just-so stories to explain the “memes” of ancestor-worship, animism, ritual recitation/enactment of texts in oral culture, and so on. Dennett freely acknowledges that all these activities are dependent on language: “once language evolved we became not just curious but inquisitive: we actually asked questions aloud, in articulated language. . . . On one point at least, the Darwinian and Biblical accounts of how we got here agree: in the beginning was the Word” (367-68). But he fails to understand the central implication of his Darwin-Gospel alliance: not only are religious phenomena dependent on language, but language is historically dependent on them; what must be explained is not religion, given language, but religion emerging coevally with language. This is the key idea of the late Roy Rappaport, whose Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge UP, 1999) Dennett and his fellows occasionally cite, but without attacking the dilemma of this common birth.
The believer conceives transcendence as a “mystery” and accepts a historically revealed creation story that claims to tell us how we came to exist as God-naming, sign-using beings. The non-believer rejects the mystery of transcendence and with it, the need for any such scene of origin. For the non-believer, signs, including those of language, are just a variety of things that stand in for others, a new use of matter rather than a new mode of being. From this perspective, creation stories and their associated discourses have no truth-value; they persist because they enhance their believers’ chances of survival. Belief in them can then be explained, as in Rodney Stark’s analyses, as the result of a rational (albeit not necessarily conscious) decision. The only update Dawkins’ or Dennett’s view of these discourses as collections of “memes” makes to Stark is to replace his problematic notion of rationality with a spurious analogy to the genetic code. To call a given topos of belief a “meme” is to do no more than identify it as a memorable element of human culture; the generality of the term implies–without the least effort at demonstration–that the survival of all such elements, however diverse their content, can be similarly explained, in a manner analogous to that of the favored genetic combinations of the four components of DNA.
The personal side of GA
Although the autobiographical element cannot be wholly eliminated from these Chronicles, it obeys the same law of parsimony as the content of the originary hypothesis itself. The hypothesis, once formulated, may be adopted by anyone, but its original formulation by either a believer or a committed atheist would have been highly unlikely; neither would have an incentive to devise a minimal creation story. It could only plausibly be devised by someone for whom it could serve as a non-religious substitute for religion. I will not attempt to speculate on whether anyone other than a Bronx Romantic meets this criterion.
By the same token, despite the maximal openness of the originary hypothesis to supplementary beliefs, its formulator, so long as he maintains faith in it as a model of human emergence, would have no incentive to adopt a more elaborate creation story. The same need for an “own” version of human origin that motivated the originary hypothesis would deter him from taking on faith a more elaborate version. In contrast, for one who already adheres to such a version, the originary hypothesis offers the possibility less of conversion than of reduction; in the context of conversation with others of different beliefs, one must agree to reduce the content of one’s assertions to a common minimum.
This is not to say that the originary hypothesis is not minimally in competition with other creation stories. That its creator has a uniquely personal reason for making it the basis of his belief system does not preclude others from doing the same. Any such fellow adherents would be neither believers nor atheists. In abandoning the narratives of traditional religion they would forego historical connection with the great revelations of the past, which can rightfully claim, despite the difficulty of determining the exact causal chain, to have provided the historical basis upon which the hypothesis was constructed. It is common (although far from universal) parlance among atheists that religion with its “absurd” beliefs is often useful for society, that believers both benefit from its consolations (the “afterlife”) and pass this benefit on to the larger society in the form of a diminished propensity to immoral behavior. If, instead, we consider religious creation stories and their associated doctrines as reflecting specific historical revelations about the human, then these stories’ contingent “irrationality” demonstrates a reverence for the event-nature or historicity of humanity that the originary hypothesis can demonstrate only minimally. Since the Enlightenment, rationalists have been awaiting the universal triumph of atheism that will supersede all wagers on behalf of specific historical revelations. That this has no appearance of happening reflects an anthropological reality that Enlightenment-style atheism cannot accommodate: the human intuition of the scenic origin of transcendence as the deferral of mimetic violence. That not everyone accepts this intuition is understandable, given that the collective nature of meanings is no longer located in a well-defined community to which all are called to adhere; but that most people accept it nonetheless suggests that this intuition is an indispensable element of global civilization–one whose minimal expression would be something like the originary hypothesis.
A movement toward such minimality would have to dispense with the reinforcement of what Durkheim called communal solidarity provided by ritual–prayer, ceremony, sacrifice–which reproduces the ostensive nature of the originary event. The long-term tendency of the major religions has indeed been toward deritualization, with the sacrificial moment of the sparagmos occupying an ever less central role (compare the wafer of the Mass with the lamb of the Paschal feast). As for the future, barring catastrophe, no particular historical revelation can possibly unify what we may begin to call the global community. Jean-Pierre Dupuy and others argue that the ecological and military catastrophes that threaten us indeed constitute a new revelation, which, as I tried to show in Chronicle 349, has provided the basis for something like a new religion. I remain an unbeliever. Only a hypothetical reconstruction can be shared by all. What this suggests for the foreseeable future is not the abolition of religion and its replacement by a minimal model, but rather the survival of the various religious traditions within the context of the global community, for which something like the originary hypothesis can provide a lingua franca. It is tempting to speak of humanity’s apocalyptic éternel retour, the arc of history linking, over a million years, the small group of original humans with the global billions whose fate seems equally precarious. But the key precondition of this expansion has been the multiplication of degrees of freedom that the transcendence of human representation has made possible. The different historical traditions are interpenetrating and mutually transforming streams in the general flow of our global cultural heritage; however we may long for the end of their often violent turbulence, we could not survive their dissolution in uniformity.
If the originary hypothesis can serve as the beginning of a post-millennial tradition of anthropological self-understanding, I will be satisfied to remain its only “true believer.”