Just had a random thunk I had while reading an article on peoples who have remained completely isolated from mainstream human culture. What crossed my mind was that the more primitive a religion is, the easier it is to communicate aspects of your unobservable inner life to others using religious analogs. So perhaps the more abstract a religion becomes, the more it’s adherents tend to introspection and analytical thinking. Perhaps this is why monastaries and the like have always been associated with higher learning and academic pursuits, and why atheists generally wind up being more intelligent than the religious – they don’t have nearly the number of token analogs the religious have to communicate their inner states!So.
While primitive religions tend to personify natural events, they also tend to personify archetypes of human behaviour. You can most easily see this in Greek and Roman mythology, where we have Zeus hurling lightning bolts and controlling the rains as a weather god, and yet the Greeks also had Athena, personifying the very human characteristic of wisdom1.
Anyway, pantheism such as this leads to an interesting communicative possibility that crypto-tritheistic Christianity denies us – people subscribing to these memes can easily communicate their state of mind and emotions just by saying they were ‘possessed by anger’ (an idiom that persists today), or that ‘Coyote tricked them’ when they’ve done something particularly stupid that’s backfired on them badly. I am not certain, as I’m not too familiar with Catholicism2, but I imagine their saints work in similar ways (“the Virgin was watching out for my son”, “St. Christopher guided my steps”, etc).
However, this limitation of expression as imposed by a ‘single’ God was not necessarily a negative thing. No longer could you simply communicate a complex interior state thru a quick three or four words – you had to describe it in more detail, and thus have a more thorough understanding of what you were actually feeling. So monotheism may in fact have forced us to examine our interior lives more closely – always a good thing!
In a similar vein of moving from pantheism to monotheism, moving from monotheism to atheism provides a similar paradigm shift in outlook. Now instead of explaining physical events in terms of supernatural powers (“What a storm! God must be angry today!”), we again must look more closely at the phenomena and try to describe it in a different, more descriptive way (“Wow, that Arctic high really hit that warm front hard!”).
So much like neural pruning, a *lack* of other channels to express something leads to clearer and more sophisticated thought. Monotheism replacing pantheism may have contribued to more people living a richer and more introspective interior life, and in turn the move from monotheism to atheism similarly may have led to a richer and more rational interior life for people as well.
1 I’ve previously read of the notion of communicating one’s state by talking of being ‘possessed’ by one god or another representing an emotion or behaviour (“Soldier of Arete”, Gene Wolfe), which definitely inspired this post.
2 Despite it’s popularity I don’t think I’d classify Catholicism as strictly Christian; my readings of the Bible don’t seem to acknowledge any divinity or supernatural power other than the Trinity.