Humans evolved huge brains and we use them for various purposes. One of the first things humans tamed was not dogs nor horses but fire. And tending fires, making fires and using fires requires lots of culture and care. And the easiest way to pass this on is to make it into a religion.
Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, “belief in hope beyond reason” — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. “Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?” asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-à-terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.
If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?
Humans are interesting creatures. I love studying them. Starting with the ever-handy mirror. Lecturers have all sorts of fun tools: since they totally control the floor they can have anything happen. I'll give an example from my favorite lecture tool: surprise.
I used to ask audiences to watch me closely. 'At some point in this lecture, I am going to pretend to assault someone in the audience. When you see me doing this, even as I get close to someone, stop me.' I would then talk about self-defense and survival skills. After around 20 minutes, the audience is lulled into beginning to ignore me. I watch them from the corner of my eyes looking for signs such as eyes straying, people whispering in the back, etc.
Then I walk, still talking, to the audience and then I take someone by the shoulders and make them stand up while holding their arms so they can't touch me. Invariably, EVEN WITH POLICE, the person surrenders to me and even more interestingly, not a soul will move a muscle to stop me.
In other words, despite my earlier warning and complete instructions, they are in my control, the entire audience cannot react even when told they must resist me.
On the other hand, if I announce that at the beginning of a lecture and people hoot at me and yell, they won't cooperate at all, if they are suspicious and angry at me, they watch me like a hawk and there is no opening for me to 'attack'. If I stray even one step beyond the podium, they are ready to pounce on me. In general, teenagers and younger children are of this mind. To fool them, I tell them I am going to take control of one of them but only when they are actually practicing martial arts.
After a while, I ask them to show me how they fight. They always forget I am watching like a hawk and I swoop in and take my prey, unmolested.
I used a similar technique when training teenagers how to fight in Medieval battles was to teach them the basics of sword fighting. But they had to have a first lesson. 'Never give anyone your sword,' I would warn them, 'No one, not even me.'
Then we practice for a while. I would then call a halt and have them line up. I would then say to the first in line, 'Give me your sword.' Invariably, he or she would. I would then pretend to run them through, tapping them on the chest. Heh. The lesson was simple: follow instructions but when there are two conflicting instructions, use your head and think about it first. Since I warned them to not give ANYONE, even myself, the sword, that should be the primary survival instruction. This is because, if you disarm, you are helpless and can be killed by for OR friend!
Survival is resistance. All the older fighters would laugh each time new recruits were caught with this trick. We would embrace the one who handed over the sword and give them our salutations because this whole exercise is done with love and a desire to create a full-functioning warrior, not a dupe who would be turned into cannon fodder. Modern military training desperately tries to destroy this ability to think about the need to survive and to think for one's self.
How does all this fit into the evolution of 'religion' in the human mind and culture? All human cultures without exception have a belief system of greatest antiquity. Indeed, many elements deeply embedded into this matrix including many religious 'myths' and stories are shared by all humans because the very first tribes to set out from the African Rift Valley region already had an amazing system of beliefs and stories which date back to the domestication of the most difficult of our servants: fire.
Long, long before we became friends with any animals, long before we began to grow plants, back when we ate raw meat and used sticks and rocks in increasingly deadly ways, we changed radically the day we figured out how to make fire---using our brains and hands.
1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2: The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
3: And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.
This particular religious book glosses over the discovery of fire and runs on merrily within the second chapter, taking farming, herding of domesticated animals and cooking for granted. There is no tension about this matter, it is accepted in Chapter One when 'God' says Adam has 'dominion' over all living animals and plants. Even then, there is no mention of fire even though the Jewish religion has fire-worship deeply embedded within itself.
Over 2,000 years ago the Jewish people fought against an enemy who would not allow them to practice their religious traditions. Their enemy destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem which contained many holy objects including a sacred lamp called the menorah. One small band of people, called the Maccabees, was led by a brave man named Judah. He led them in a fight against their enemies. Even though they were outnumbered the Jewish people were brave and won the battle! When Judah returned to the Temple in Jerusalem the first thing he did was restore the sacred lamp. But there was almost no oil left -- only enough for one day. The lamp was filled with this oil and lit. Instead of lasting only one day, it burned brighter, and brighter, lasting eight days -- a miracle!
To this day, they light MAGICAL candles to chase away the winter's darkness. This is nearly universal with all humans living beyond the equator. The oldest domesticated servant, fire, was used starting nearly immediately, as a tool to preserve the sun and to bring back springtime. For we evolved our great brains right alongside the most terrible ecological event to hit mammals since the extinction of the dinosaurs: the Ice Ages suddenly began.
Fire, our greatest servant, was needed not once and a while but nonstop. In addition, our evolution ran alongside this servant's service: our teeth got weaker and smaller rapidly as we needed fangs less and less as we learned how to cut, shred and pound meat and then cooking in in various ways. Humans became much weaker as organisms: any chimp can beat us up. We can't bite, nor claw or grab or even run faster or better than nearly anyone else. All animals are better than us.
But we have not only brains but a very powerful servant: fire! Humans that were unable to tend and control fires were displaced by those who could do both. And the key for keeping the flames going while controlling them means humans have to delegate labor and they must practice caution and control far beyond what any living creature can do!
So the humans that evolved the ability to talk about and pay service to fire won the evolutionary race. They celebrated this by eating the losers. Yes, we are cannibals.
FROM the earliest time, the sun has been the object of human adoration. But the common flame itself, being destructive, yet beneficial, while ever mounting upward as if disdaining earth contact, became with most races of mankind a religious emblem, if not a Deity.
Pyrolatreia, or fire-worship, was once nearly universal. The Moloch of the Canaanites, Phœnicians, and Carthaginians, was the divinity of various nations under different names Moloch was not the only deity tormenting simple maids and tender babes with fire The blazing or fiery cross, in use among Khonds of India, was well known in both Ireland and Scotland The Egyptians, with more modern Africans, have reverenced flame.
Tribes that lose the knowledge of fire quickly dwindle into nothingness. They cannot compete with neighbors who keep the flames going and who enshrine---literally---fire. Some, thanks to lack of materials, have to have limited fires like the Inuit living in the far reaches of the Artic, still keep and practice the ability to make fires even if they eat raw blubber. They still burn the fat and retain the skills for making fire from flints or bows.
The light from the flame of the Butter Lamp symbolizes the wisdom of the awakened mind, dispelling the darkness of delusion and mental obscurations. Butter Lamps are used in nearly every Tibetan temple, household and altar. They are traditionally burned with ghee butter. Butter Lamps are normally made of silver, brass, copper or white metal.
Offering Butter Lamps is the most powerful offering because their light symbolizes wisdom. Just as a lamp disples darkeness, offering light from a Butter Lamp represents removing the darkness of ignorance in order to attain Buddha's luminous clear wisdom. The lamp offering is a sense offering to Buddha's eyes. Because Buddha's eyes are wisdom eyes, they do not have the extremes of clarity or non - clarity. Our ordinary eyes however, are obscured by the darkness of the two difilements - gross afflictive emotional defilements and subtle habitual defilements. While the Buddha does not have desire for offerings, we make offerings for the purpose of our own accumulation of merit and wisdom. Through the power of this accumaltion, we can remove the cataracts of our ignorance eyes in order to gain Buddha's supreme luminious wisdom eyes. When we offer light, the results are the realization of Clear Light wisdom phenomena in this life; the clarification of dualistic mind and the dispersal of confusion and realization of Clear Light in the bardo; and the increase of wisdom in each lifetime until one has reached enlightenment. The lamp should be thoroughly cleaned and the wick made very carefully so that it is not too short or too long, too thick or too thin. The bottom part of the wick should be thicker than the top portion. The oil should be poured into the lamp very slowly, so that none overflows; the amount of oil should be the same in each lamp and not too meager.
On top of the desperate need to keep, retain and pass on training and information about fire meant the tribal elders had to have some sort of mental tools to impress on young minds, the need to absorb and use this vital survival information. We used these same training tools on other animals because they work. Namely, the whole idea of domestication is to teach animals to 'think' like fire-using homonids. Our animals are just as unafraid of fire as we are. They are willing to rush into a fire if we wish them to. This is why horses run into a burning barn. We bred them into thinking barns are safe and fire is safe, too.
Dogs, our first friends, love fires. If you light a fire where there are wild dogs, they will creep closer and closer for they want to be near the flames. Wolves run off. As do all wild animals who fear and hate fires. The first humans nearly annihilated many mammals because of this. We drove them off of cliffs or terrorized them with our fires. We drove huge, dangerous cave bears out of their homes by the simple action of lighting a fire! No bear wants to be near flames even today.
When I light the fires at home here, my cats and dogs all run to it and lay as close as they dare. This is what makes them domestic. My sheep, when I would go out in a storm, seeking lambs lost in the pastures, if they saw my flaming latern, they would bleet for me and struggle to come to my side. Wild animals shy away.
So passing on all this, we humans developed a knack for mentally torturing ourselves if we forgot to tend the fires, forgot how to make fires. The story of Prometheus is very revealing:
Stewart, Michael. "Prometheus", Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant. (November 14, 2005)
Prometheus was a not a fool, but why else would he rebel against Zeus? He tried to trick Zeus (who knows all and sees all) with a false sacrifice. How foolish can you get? Prometheus also stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the primitive mortals on the earth. Zeus did not punish Prometheus alone, he punished the entire world for the effrontery of this rebel god.
Prometheus was the son of Iapetos and Klymene (Clymene). His name means Forethought.
Unlike the three modern 'Human beings are really gods or messenger of gods' religions that so trouble the world, the ancient Greeks kept the proper story intact. Namely, the creator of control of fire is very much attached to the human ability to THINK AHEAD. Fools are burned by fires. Fools let the fires burn out and can't restart them. The most astute, the most foreward thinking member of the tribe was also the one who worried about the fire all the time and worried about teaching the younger generations, how to make fires, tend fires and use fires.
This means being intelligent. Reckless, careless, thoughtless humans fared worse than humans that took greater care and interest in fire and how to use it. And the easiest way to pass on this caution is to clothe it in religion. Namely, the inventors of religion were the creators of fire.
To compound his crime, Prometheus had stolen fire from Zeus and given it to the mortals in their dark caves. The gift of divine fire unleashed a flood of inventiveness, productivity and, most of all, respect for the immortal gods in the rapidly developing mortals.
Zeus gave Pandora to Ephemetheus (brother of Prometheus). Ephemetheus knew better than to trust Zeus and he had been warned by Prometheus never to accept gifts from the Olympians, especially Zeus. One look at Pandora and Ephemetheus was rendered helpless. He could not resist her, he accepted her willingly. When the gift was ‘opened’, evil and despair entered into this world. Mistrust and disease spread over the wide earth. After Pandora was emptied of her curse, only Hope was left inside. Unreasonable, groundless Hope that makes the curse of life into a blessing.
Indeed, civilization rests upon the ability to make, control and exploit fire. Cooking, metallurgy, pottery, telling stories at night while sitting around the campfires, there are a host of ways fire using has shaped our brains as well as our cultures. One of the signatures of a defective brain is the inability to understand or use fire. We can teach chimpanzees and gorillas to use sign language or tools of various sorts but we can't teach them how to make and preserve fires. The amazing, swift development of the brain is directly connected with fire-making and fire-using.
Coupled with this is our fear of death. All animals feel death. I can give many stories of animals reacting to the death of others, even other species. They are curious about, disturbed by, attracted to death and dying. So are humans. But unlike animals, we can visualize our own deaths. We know we will die. We can't evade this fact no matter how hard we work at pretending otherwise. To keep functioning without falling into despair and gloom, we created an alternative to death: religion.
Humans can 'think' their way along the road of existence without using religion in this fashion but it is a terrible struggle. This is why I decided to use my own inclinations and visualizations to put my interior fears to rest. Pretending Pegasus is somehow involved helps me in an odd way. Unlike the dire gods of many modern religions that roar at us and threaten us even as they pretend they can protect us from eternal death, this particular entity merrily lives his life and simply exists. I can hitch a ride if I give him a Golden Apple.
And he loves poetry, music, dance and the various arts and sciences. So, by doing all that, I am protected by his aura of invincibility. Namely, being a horse at heart, he doesn't give a neigh about anything but being entertained, grazing rights and golden apples. An easy god to follow.
And he is the giver of the first fire: lightning.