Thursday, 20 March 2014


Religion? "Don't listen to its mad voices," says former Bishop

Is there anybody there?  We recently discussed Richard Holloway who in the epilogue to his candid, soul-bearing Memoir of Faith and Doubt, says this: ‘I wanted to keep religion around … because it gave us space to wonder and listen within’ (see also another post on this site: The silent centre of our spirit).  In his equally honest UnapologeticFrancis Spufford described ‘turning to a space where there is quite possibly no one’, but where he eventually becomes aware of ‘something that had been going on unremarked, so steady and continuous that we had never picked it out of the general background roar of the world’.  Rowan Williams has described the Christian religion specifically as ‘the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus’ life’. 

Advocates of religion would seem to be telling us that we are missing something if we do not make, or find, that space and open ourselves to … something.  Significantly, Holloway also urges us not to abandon religion, but not to listen ‘to its mad voices’.  In our April reading  for our Wychwood Circle discussion (for once a mere 16-page essay) we listen to the voice of a Princeton University psychologist whose lecture was presented to a 1983 Symposium on Consciousness.  Speaking of an era which he dates before ‘consciousness’ (as he defines it) dawned, Julian Jaynes  says:
Whenever a significant choice is to be made, a voice comes in telling people what to do. … These voices are called gods. 
The period he describes is based on the oldest parts of the Iliad (eventually written down in about 800 BC), times when ‘auditory hallucinations’ were really quite common and seen as a normal part of life. Indeed:
Verbal hallucinations are common today, but in early civilization I suggest they were universal.

The bicameral mind

The mentality in this time was what he calls ‘the bicameral mind’, which means, if I understand it correctly, that there was a decision-making part and a follower part, but neither was ‘conscious’.  The importance of this mentality was that it had to exist in the sort of society that then prevailed, ‘ one rigidly ordered in strict hierarchies with strict expectancies organised into the mind so that hallucinations preserved the social fabric’.  He cites a number of examples of such societies from 9000 BC to 3000 BC (when writing provides even clearer evidence). He also goes on to say that ‘every person had a personal god’, as suggested by evidence in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  And he links – perhaps provocatively – this personal god to evidence from modern research (including his own):
It is possible to suggest that a part of our innate bicameral heritage is the modern phenomenon of the ‘imaginary’ playmate. … In the rare cases where the imaginary playmate lasts beyond the juvenile period, it too grows up with the child and begins telling him or her what to do in times of stress.


The implication is that this is one way the idea of the personal god might have started in ‘bicameral times’ before being developed into shared gods and idols.  Eventually we get to the development of a variety of ways of ‘discerning messages’.  He notes that one of these methods is still around, astrology. Significantly for our broadly theological Wychwood Circle discussions, such divination must apply also to the early prophets in the Hebrew Testament (our Old Testament) and he refers specifically to one of the oldest books, The Book of Amos (around 800 BC): 
I suspect that such prophets as Amos were those left-over bicameral or semi-bicameral persons in the conscious era who heard and could relay the voice of Yahweh with convincing authority.

So from ancient texts about earlier civilisations to modern sufferers of schizophrenia, we have evidence of a bicameral mind, and we have a new angle on human nature. What is left of the voices of the gods are remnants which are all around us of ‘a mentality that we no longer have’.  The remnants of course include – in addition to ‘hallucinations heard particularly in psychosis’ and problems with identity – our modern-day religions and the observed need for religion, and ‘our search for certainty’.  All excellent themes for a Wychwood Circle discussion.

[Jaynes ‘ final idea must be kept for another day, viz his ‘neurological model for the bicameral mind’. This bears significantly on the concept of the ‘divided brain’, and in particular the neglected right hemisphere of the brain which has only attracted the interest of neuroscientists since the 1960s. We came across this idea when reading Jonathan Sacks last year (see under Instances of the number 2: THE DIVIDED BRAIN). We may well return to it.]

On April 6th at Wychwood Library (7.00 – 9.00 pm) we will explore in discussion the significance and the implications of these ideas, led by Ian Cave who suggested the piece. The meeting is, as always, open to anyone to come along and join in.  If you cannot open the link, please email for the pdf of the 16-page Lecture. 

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