I was very pleased to note Adam Katz’s reaction to Chronicle 752 suggesting that GA’s relationship to religion would be a good subject for a future Summer Conference. Adam subsequently proposed a topic along these lines for our 2023 conference, which should be announced shortly. The sentence he was responding to was the following:
I remain hopeful that, given the faith and energy of its adherents, our “unproven” hypothesis will increasingly be able to serve thinkers and believers as both a supplement to and a substitute for organized religion, providing in either case a source of originary anthropological understanding as the basis upon which our public sacrality may begin to be restored.
Although Adam’s post suggested that I had rejected the “substitution” point in the past, I had really never raised that possibility in quite these terms. What I had said was, in agreement with a point Richard van Oort had made some years ago, that GA was not itself a religion and could not be expected to serve as one. The difference is subtle but important: I was thinking of GA not as seeking to “convert” religious believers or atheists to a fideistic belief system, but rather, as I conceive my own case, as providing, in a minimal hypothesis on which to base an anthropology, a hypothetical originary event that generates the first communal human scene, whose coherence depends on language and the sacred. There is a faith involved in any hypothesis, but ours remains hypothetical without ever being experienced as revealed.
The large number of “nones” that appear in current surveys of religion are not as a rule looking to convert to a new faith; yet if they think at all about the fundamental problems of humanity, they should be open to a plausible hypothesis of how our species emerged and survived—and they should be persuadable that regardless of one’s view of the existence of God, one cannot explain the human and its culture without a conception of the sacred.
The dismissive attitude toward religion that has become the norm in today’s social sciences reflects a fundamental anthropological misunderstanding. As an illustration, Chronicle 519 contrasts cognitive scientist Michael Tomasello’s cavalier remarks about religion with his serious research on the acquisition of language. In fact, at the root of language and religion, significance and sacrality differ only by degree: what is sacred is uniquely significant; what is significant is at least a little sacred, worthy of the serious concern of the human community. It is notable that we have no word for the shared meaning of both terms, for which the closest approximation is perhaps transcendence.
In the absence of an originary hypothesis such as GA provides, one is reduced to expressing the presence of the sacred in all human cultures in fuzzy, subjective terms like “we all need something to believe in.” But this need is not in the first place individual but communal. Each member of human society translates in subjective terms the lesson of the originary communal event, whose primordial act is the substitution of a common sacralizing sign for interdicted and aborted individual attempts at physical possession.
Regrettably, the social sciences’ lack of response to our “new way of thinking” has made it difficult to conceive a strategy for drawing academic attention to the originary hypothesis. No doubt the entire academy, outside the more procedure-driven branches of the hard sciences, has under the influence of the epistemology of resentment strayed far from the old academic ideals. But the real problem is deeper. The reluctance to reflect on originary anthropology is not mere Wokism; it reflects the contradiction at the heart of Western culture between sacrality and rationality, science and faith, of which victimary thinking is only a symptom. Western science and technology invented modernity and now dominates the world, but its current cultural malaise reflects a serious deterioration of its communal “sense of the sacred,” in Europe as well as the US.
As those of my generation will recall, the USA formerly maintained a broadly accepted public sacred that remained largely uncontested until the 1960s, a tradition that made reference to God in the Protestant religious framework that had formed the core of American culture. It included the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance and holiday pageants in schools, Fourth of July parades, and patriotic statues and monuments, any number of which have been denounced and even torn down for Woke reasons. Renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, events such as the kneeling ceremony to George Floyd/Black Lives Matter referred to in Chronicles 695 and 697, exemplify a new, antinomian mode of sacrality—as does what should be called Speaker Pelosi’s desecration of her copy of President Trump’s State of the Union message on February 4, 2020.
Well before the current crisis, the contrast between the modern world and the preceding “Age of Faith” had led important conservative thinkers such as Eric Voegelin to view the entire modern project from the Enlightenment on as marked by the inauthenticity that Daniel Boorstin (see Chronicle 652) pointed out in its proliferation of “pseudo-events”—that is, as ultimately a historical error. Yet, however much respect we owe such thinkers, I find the idea of repealing modernity unworthy of serious consideration. The survival of Judeo-Christianity, and of humanity, for whatever duration either will be achieved, cannot be won by turning our back on the modern world.
We must assume that the founding characteristics of the human as defined in the originary event are permanent, so that it should be our priority to understand them in as fundamental terms as possible. This implies that, despite all we have learned about historical and prehistorical humanity from research in biology, psychology, etc., in the absence of an originary hypothesis, neither the intentional deferral/différance of reflexive acts that founds the sacred and human language nor the religious and representational culture that derives from it can be understood on its most fundamental level.
Linguists have a right to avoid speculating about the pre-declarative origins of human language, but they cannot then claim to have sought to understand what is specific to human language in contrast to whatever preceded it. Language is not found in nature; it is an entirely artificial, cultural, inter-human reality.
Analogies with animal “languages” or attempts to teach human language to chimps provide us only with an understanding of the limits of minds that, although they can achieve a certain level of interaction with humans, cannot assimilate language into their own social world. Animals have priorities that we may if we like consider “sacred” or “significant,” but these analogies fail insofar as these fellow creatures lack the ability to think them or talk about them.
Yet the notion is nonetheless quite widespread among analytic philosophers that language, on the model of mathematics, is a phenomenon that we discover rather than invent, such that its historical emergence is of secondary interest. These thinkers view language as so to speak a programming system with “switches” for grammatical and lexical variants that our ancestors downloaded one day from a great server in the sky.
For unless we make the effort to trace it to an originary event, the philosophers’ world of propositions seems to have just as little to do with humans as the mathematicians’ world of numbers. The laws of logic are as rigorous as those of mathematics: if Socrates is a man and all men are mortal, then… The difference is that, although like language, mathematics too is a human invention, where its example leads philosophers astray is that once we invent mathematics as a formal system, learning its deeper implications is indeed a work of discovery rather than invention. So too with logic; but language is not derived from the axioms of logic.
Nor does the analysis of language in terms of the Saussurean architecture of signifier/signified/referent, however useful, speak to the origin of the linguistic function. The originary hypothesis postulates that language and religion, the two fundamental forms of human transcendence, had a common origin in the originary scene. And simple common sense tells us that, like other cultural phenomena, they could only have emerged in real-world events that we must hypothesize in order to understand them, even if our hypotheses cannot be verified by historical data under present circumstances.
Physicists like to see the universe as the exemplification of mathematical formulas, matrices, etc.; even if the operation of the quantum universe amidst 95+% of “dark” matter and energy has so far remained beyond their understanding, it is susceptible to mathematical expression. Yet dealing with the material universe does not provide a model for dealing with the one known fragment of this universe that has a means for thinking about it. The ontology of particles and even biological beings does not include the phenomena of language and the culture that derives from it. Analyzing its operations does not provide an explanation of how, or why, our species came to invent it; and the same is also true of mathematics. Pace Descartes’/Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura, Deus may have invented language and mathematics, but Natura surely did not—which is why Deus, or perhaps just humanity, invented religion.
As Chomsky demonstrated against Skinner in his famous “Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior” (Language 1959;35:26–58), the human sign is not a mere signal, not a conditioned reflex: it is a deliberate act. But Chomsky was not interested in its anthropological origins; it sufficed for his purposes to demonstrate that human language was incompatible with Skinner’s behaviorist psychology, which applies without difficulties to animals.
As we describe it, language begins with but does not remain limited to an “aborted gesture of appropriation.” Insofar as this originary gesture becomes the basis of language, it will have taken on the new, emergent character of an intentional mode of communication within the community: an ostensive sign, a pointing. The mutual exchange of the sign within the group by common accord confers on its worldly referent the quality of sacrality, demonstrating a shared appetitive interest in the object (presumably an animal to be shared for food among the group and its dependents), so that, in order to forestall the danger of mimetic conflict, the group’s nascent “sense of the sacred” interdicts it to appropriation and makes it accessible, at first, to contemplation, and subsequently to equal sharing, ending with a communal feast on the scene defined by the presence of the originary humans.
Which is to say that the appetitive drive that might have led to violently contested acts of individual appropriation has been deferred (Derrida would say, différé) and, in Hegel’s terminology, lifted up (aufgehoben) into an act of signification. Is the interdicted object of appropriation itself sacralized? Yes, but as the participants must soon have realized, our collective notion of the sacred cannot be permanently embodied in a mortal animal; even animal-gods are more like words than like real animals.
Why is it only now, forty years after having formulated the first version of the originary hypothesis, that I have come to explore the relationship between GA and the sacred, both within and independently of religion? It is because religion as a cultural phenomenon cannot reveal its worldly, anthropological truth without disguising it. Religion, in its urgency to preserve us from mimetic violence, asks us to accept the sacred as revelation before situating it at the origin of the human. To the extent that a genuine anthropology is possible, its creators must resist this urgency.
Although I regret repeating in somewhat different words ideas I have expressed many times, it is only through thus reimagining the originary scene and rethinking its description that I have come to understand some of its deeper implications. The lesson I have learned from this repetition, and that I hope to convey to my readers so that they may begin from where I leave off, is that whether or not my hypothesis is “true,” it has shown itself to be true enough, revelatory enough, to merit the faith that I have maintained in it. Indeed, is this not really the core of what we mean by revelation?
Some may have had transcendental experiences such as that of Moses at the burning bush on Mount Horeb, or Paul on the road to Damascus, but if indeed, as John 1 suggests, language is of the same sacred origin as incarnate sacred beings, then my imaginary experiences of the scene of origin are, in their modest way, revelatory as well. And in sharing them with you, dear reader, I invite you to further deepen our common attempt at self-understanding.