Origins of Theistic Systems

It’s simple really: we’re not cats.

Or elephants.  Or chimpanzees.  Or orca whales.  But let’s use cats as an example.

Look at your typical cat, like the Hubby’s cat Spot.  She sleeps.  She poops and pees.  When she still had her girl parts, she had sex and had babies.  She plays.  She hisses at other cats.

Not once does she desire to be other than what she is — a cat.  She doesn’t dwell on the past.  She doesn’t plan nor pine for the future.  She doesn’t see herself as moral or immoral, ethical or unethical.  She doesn’t want to be better or worse than she is.  Neither does she construct a world in which she can be better than what she already is, better than what she already has.  She doesn’t think about or believe in these things because cats don’t do that.  Cats just ARE.  

And this is true for all of the members in the Animal Kingdom.  With one notable exception.

Homo sapiens.

Humans, as far as I know, are the only animal species that are not satisfied with what they are — biological animals.  Primates with big brains.  Really, as far as simple living goes, all we need is food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep, and sex (to make more of yourself).  The activities to acquire these basic needs for living are pretty simple.  Just look at any “primitive” people, past or present.  We don’t need much to be born, to grow up, to sustain ourselves, to propogate the species, and to die.  All we need is a little bit of territory to maintain these basic needs, and enough people to secure these needs from other people — a close knit family unit or a “tribe” or “clan” of family units.  In many respects, the “society” of such a basic human life would be a human version of chimp or bonobo society.

And yet we do not live this way.  In fact, most peoples around the world, after a certain point in their “development”, move away from this basic model of human living.  “Stone Age” peoples, we call that kind of life.  Negatively, philosophers like Plato (under Glaucon’s voice in _The Republic_), called it “a city of sows”, and Thomas Hobbes called it in _The Leviathan_ “the state of nature… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Positively, philosphers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and the standard Judeo-Christian myth call it an innocent age,  a “When times were simpler and better.”

Whatever you call it, it didn’t last long.  And why?  Because we are not cats or the other animals — we desire to be other than what we are born with, to be other than what we are, i.e., biological beings in random nature, so live and let live.  We want to live our lives with a purpose other than the basic biological needs.   We desire a life better than what we already have because, amazingly enough, we imagine such a life to exist, believe in it, and therefore make choices to try to make that happen.

It’s a life THAT DOESN’T EXIST, and still we believe it JUST THE SAME, striving for it, affecting our present, existent life in the here and now.  Why we don’t call that madness just shows just how universal this desire — this belief — in a life more “meaningful” than the basic animal life is part of the human condition.

Another philosopher, Freidrich Neitzsche, stated that all human beings contruct for themselves a myth of meaning in their individual lives, and therefore in the societies that they live in, called “horizons of meaning.”  The “horizons” are the goals of our lives — that perfect, true love who’s my soulmate; that job that’ll match me exactly; that God that will reward me for being so wonderful/ dutiful/ loyal; that technology that’ll make me live forever.  Whatever it is.  It is both the motive and the goal for major choices in our lives, above and beyond the basic, animal needs.   With these horizons of meaning we call societies “progressive” or “civilized” or “advanced” or “cultured” or even “moral.”  All human beings are ambitious in this one respect: wanting to distinguish themselves and their successive generations from the animals — above and beyond the simple, biological needs — through active choices.  No other animal does this.  No polar bear wants its polar bear cub to be other than just another polar bear.  So why do we do this?  Why?

As the Hubby simply puts it, “Human beings are the animals that HOPE.”

That’s not logic.  That’s not a factual, knowledge statement.  That’s a FAITH statement.

We hope for things that don’t exist.  We create whole realities in our heads and from our hearts THAT DON’T EXIST.  And we believe in that non-existent reality so strongly, that we grieve when that reality doesn’t come to pass, a reality THAT NEVER EXISTED IN THE FIRST PLACE.  Let’s take a common-place phenomenon for example:  My mom buys state lottery tickets all the time, especially when the jackpot hits the megemillions.  She buys several tickets, using several “lucky” numbers, and then she waits for the day of the drawing.  Meanwhile, she’s imagining what she will do with that money: pay off her debts, pay off her family’s debts, buy luxurious merchandise like a fancy car, house, whatever.  And when her numbers don’t win — which they ALWAYS have done — she feels grief over her loss.  But what has she lost?  Ten bucks worth of LOTTO tickets?  Nope — the megamillions and the stuff she had bought IN HER HEAD.  Stuff that doesn’t exist, in a reality that doesn’t exist.

In other words, human beings, in order to live in a world above and beyond the basic animal existence, operate in various horizons of meaning, i.e., belief systems of our making.  We close on the house, believing that we will pay off the mortgage in its entirety in 30 years even though, materially in the here and now, that’s not guaranteed to be true.  We marry our significant other, believing that we have found our one, true love who will love and cherish us forever, till death do us part, even though, materially in the here and now, that’s not guaranteed to be true, either.  We bear children, believing that we will raise beautiful, loving children who will make us proud and be good parents someday as well, even though…

You get the picture.  We create a reality in which our lives in that reality are better somehow, and we live our lives with that belief.  Folks who do not live their lives believing that we call “depressed” or “in despair.”  Or, even worse, “psychotic” or “an animal.”

And folks who treat people as if they were animals we call “monsters for trying to enslave a fellow human being.”

With our ordinary lives shaped by belief systems, it isn’t too far a jump to believe in a reality that doesn’t exist in the here and now –because it’s in the future —  to a belief in a reality that doesn’t exist in the here and now because it’s in a different time-space/ timeless-spaceless dimension.

We’re already in the habit of believing in all sorts of non-existent things (because they haven’t happened yet); this habitual activity, one can safely infer, more than prepares us to believe in non-material entities and realities as well, i.e., dieities, spirits, and transcendent/immaterial realities.

As hinted earlier, Neitzsche stated that theistic systems are also horizons of meaning, likely the most powerful of them.  For not only do they shape individual lives but also whole societies.  Whether those theistic systems are *true* or not is not Neitzsche’s concern.  What he acknowledges is the power those theistic systems — like any other horizon meaning — have in shaping human reality in the here and now.  And, like death and taxes, those theistic systems are perennial and are part and parcel of the human condition.

Of course, one can choose to depart from one’s given theistic system for another theistic or entirely non-theistic belief system altogether.  That’s part of being human, i.e., free choice.  But the desire for non-existence of all theistic systems for all of humanity belies that phenomenon of where theistic systems come from — from the same matrix where *all* horizons of meaning come from:

Our ability to hope for something that doesn’t exist; i.e., our ability to believe, no matter what the material reality of the here and now happens to factually give us, no matter what we happen to know 100%.  “Faith is what we have in the abscence of knowledge,” said Flannery O’Connor.  What she DID NOT mean is that to have faith is to be ignorant.  What she meant is that often, when we do not have all the facts, we often have to go on faith.  Do I know, 100%, that my father is a good man?  No.  But, given what I know and do not know about my father, do I have faith that my father is a good man?  Yes.

That’s faith, in the ordinary sense.  The “theistic” sense is no different.

So, where do Theistic Systems come from?  In a nutshell, let me recap:

1) We believe we are different from mere animals, in so far as needing things beyond mere survivial.

2) As “more than mere animals,” we believe we can be better than what we are simply born with.

3) Part of that belief is that we believe in a *future reality* in which we are better than what we are in the here and now.

4) We believe we can actually make that future reality happen by our choices, even if we aren’t 100% factually sure that’s true in the here and now.

4) Many of us around the world believe that part of that future reality happens to be in a different/immaterial reality, even though we aren’t factually sure that’s true, either.

In other words, we’re not cats.  And thus, we can actually believe in a cat god.  Or not.  Because, unlike cats (and the other animals), we can also pick and choose our horizons of meaning.  Afterall, those horizons of meanings are meaningful to us — not to the cats.  The fact that humans have Theistic Systems is what distinguishes us from the other animals.   And the fact that some humans choose not to have Theistic Systems is a consequence of that first fact.


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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10 Responses to Origins of Theistic Systems

  1. Pingback: My Belief in God | I Am the Lizard Queen!

  2. Pingback: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | I Am the Lizard Queen!

  3. happycrow says:

    Zathras: LQ has effectively answered this one… a “monstrous horizon of meaning” is just that… Stalin’s purges were meant to be the horrific things they were.

  4. lizardqueen says:

    HP: That’s where I have a slight quibble, regarding the original intent of said Theistic or Non-Theistic belief system and those who use said system for their own, personal, twisted horizon of meaning. Let’s take the Spanish Inquisition (SI). That episode in Roman Catholic history gets thrown in Catholics’ face, usually by atheists, as “proof” of how evil Theistic Systems as a whole are. Now, those in power, administering the Spanish Inquisition, where probably not exactly what Jesus and St. Peter thought of as being shepherds of the flock. But that wasn’t the horizon of meaning those in the SI were adhering to. A horizon of meaning based on religious and ethnic intolerance? Definitely. A horizon of meaning based on conversion like Jesus’ talking and walking with tax collectors and prostitutes? Not so much.

    That’s why I call it “Theistic Systems gone wrong” — not “wrong” from the point of view of the perpetrators: they certainly meant what they believed to be true. But wrong from the point of view of the original intent of the Theistic System in the first place, and those who hold beliefs, similar in name but most definitely different in intent.

    Now, how humans get to that point is an interesting lesson in the worst of human possessiveness, territorialism, and solipsism, given to a grand, apocalyptic scale. If only humans were mere animals, the damage done would only be to their immediate family/tribe/clan unit. But since humans strive to be larger than that, monstrous horizons of meaning have far-reaching and long-distance effects, e.g. 9/11, Hitler, Leopold II…

  5. Zathras says:

    “They are exactly what they were MEANT to be.”

    Meant by whom?

  6. happycrow says:

    Except… they’re not “gone wrong.” They are exactly what they were MEANT to be.

    It’s how human beings get to that point that is the trip down the rabbit hole…

  7. lizardqueen says:

    I think that “them” are the people who, in the name of their belief system (either Theist or Atheist) wreak havoc and destruction upon the unsuspecting and the weak.

    Examples of Theistic Belief Systems gone wrong: The Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trails, U.S. slavery, Darfur, etc. etc.

    Examples of Atheistic Belief Systems gone wrong: Stalin’s pogroms, the PROC’s Cultural Revolution, Hitler’s Aryan Heaven-on-Earth, etc. etc…

    “Monsters”, operating under their Belief System, believe that the people they are subjugating and destroying are not human beings and therefore can be treated like beasts of burden (to be used), like ants (to be exterminated), or both.

  8. Zathras says:

    “So, yes, I describe them as monsters.”

    who is “them?”

  9. happycrow says:

    And, worse for it, I teach history.

    There are theists and atheists alike whose world of hope sleeps easy and untroubled each night, wrapped in linens sewn from shrieks of terror, and resting on a foundation of the skulls of hopes cut short.

    So, yes, I describe them as monsters. Because it is my job to make people UNDERSTAND those worlds of hope. And my wife wonders why I don’t smile as often as I should…

  10. Zathras says:

    Exactly. And in their prosyletizing, many atheists just prove this point, just with a different theistic system.

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