When Tradition and Religion Break Down, All Truth Is Liable to Erupt: The Center of the Onion Is Nothing … The Last Secret to Be Told Is That There Is No Secret.
The Elders’ “New Clothes”
This overall pattern of behavior has remarkable parallels to something that happened in recent history … several decades ago … among a particular culture in Papua, New Guinea. As the story goes — according to a well-known anthropologist who was studying there at the time and observed the entire sequence of events — this particular tribe, from time immemorial, had perpetuated a sequence of male rites of passage beginning with adolescents of a certain age. The rites were especially brutal. (See, for example, Masculinisation or Dehumanization? The Sambia Tribe of Papua New Guinea)
But in the course of them, the initiates were led to believe that great value would come from their endurance of the rites. For they would be given certain aspects of “secret” knowledge. Furthermore, they were informed of the various other stages in the rite that they would need to go through in the course of their life — each of which would be excruciatingly painful; but each of which would be rewarded with a little more of the secret knowledge until, near the end of one’s life, one would be instructed into the highest knowledge of all: This was the knowledge that was the possession of only the most elderly males in the culture.
These secrets were never shared with women. The women were never let in on any aspect, at any level, of the ceremonies that the males performed and underwent, nor any of the secrets they were told. Indeed, there was such a taboo against women finding out or males sharing secrets with females that death was used as a penalty for either infraction.
It follows that the whole truth was only known by the elders of the tribe.
Now, this anthropologist observed these ceremonies, studied them, and was let in on certain aspects of them. He could not be told “the whole truth” of course; for that was reserved for the elite, the elders — only those who had successfully completed all the stages of the ordeal, only those who had sufficiently suffered. And this anthropologist studied other aspects of the culture and returned again and again over the course of several decades.
But one time when he returned after a several year absence, he was to find everything changed. The elders no longer ruled with an iron hand, in fact they were despised and openly rebuked, especially by women. And the initiation ceremonies were no longer carried out.
The anthropologist, to his amazement, found out that what had happened is that a group of the elders had announced to one and all, in a large community-wide meeting, that there were no secrets they held, that there never were. The elders revealed that the entire deception of “the secrets” had been maintained for the purpose of getting younger men to go through the ceremonies — with the inducement of greater and greater rewards — and in order to insure their power and status in the community. Essentially, these elder men “fessed up” that the only last secret to be told was that there was no last secret; that it was all a sham; that the entire foundation had nothing beneath it — like a house of cards built in the middle of the air; that the center of the onion, after peeling back layer after layer, was in fact nothing.
Now, how do we know the elders were telling the truth this time? We know this because they confessed in a state of great distress and guilt. They expressed again and again their shame at perpetuating the system. In fact, they let it be known that a big inducement they had for coming forth with the truth was the guilt they felt, in the rites, at having to follow through on inflicting suffering and torturing the younger men, all the time knowing the truth and the fact that there was no reason to be doing it. They said they simply couldn’t bear the guilt, or the burden of lying anymore.
When I first heard this story, I could not help but think about its striking parallel to my situation in graduate school, where I happened to be at the time as a first-year doctoral student.
The rest of the story is that what had been happening is that the culture had been increasing its contacts and ties with the outside world; the villagers were becoming aware of other beliefs — a cargo cult in particular. And there were other signs to them of another world out there beyond that of their tribe.
In this light, it was speculated by anthropologists that this awareness of other realities other than that of one’s own culture — the one that one was indoctrinated and tortured into accepting — may have had something to do with their losing faith in their way of doing things. It was suggested by such observers of the phenomenon that this had led to the elders finding themselves having remorse about such things as hurting other people — for they would now know that there are other ways of living and being; that everyone does not believe and live as one’s own culture does; hence that the torture and suffering were not absolutely necessary … as they had once been convinced, and then continued to convince themselves. It might be said that losing divine, or ultimate, justification for their actions caused them to view them in the human context of the here-and-now relation. With their sights no longer in the heavens, they could finally observe the tribesman before them.
This is a true story. Still, it can be seen as a parable or metaphor for many things currently arising. In addition to what it tells us about knowledge and epistemologies, the last part especially might be telling us a lot about the effects, one might say benefits, to be wrought, in terms of truth, by this century’s increasing mixing of cultures and races and by the worldwide emergence of a multiculturalism as a common basis of global belief. We might also relate its message to what was said in Chapter Three about the inauthentic nature of ritual and of initiation . . . and about how when belief and ritual are removed, real feelings, authentic feelings are possible.
This might be considered a directly opposite interpretation of the normal explanation of ritual/religion/beliefs and their relation to feeling, by the way. The traditional explanation is that without such ritual/religion/belief people are left at the mercy of their aggressive and incestuous inner natures. Thus, when religion breaks down, all hell breaks loose — and then the situation in urban America is usually pointed to, to bear this out.
However my interpretation is that belief/religion/ritual keep real feeling from happening. They also keep truth from happening. They keep spontaneity and authenticity from happening. Therefore, when religion breaks down, all truth is liable to break loose. And this is bound to be a bit disruptive at first — as it is true that any dam that holds a river in check is going to see that river explode across the countryside at first until it finally comes to rest in its normal stable peaceful courseway!
But most of all this story reminds me of what Jones wrote about his fellow physicists — those scientists who through the suffering of years of tortuous graduate study and the equally challenging hoops of research, research grants, and university tenure tracks are led to face the foundations of their beliefs as being as equally insubstantial as those tribal elders knew theirs to be. In this respect, Jones’s book, Physics As Metaphor, is practically the Western equivalent of such a confession as those tribal elders put before their people. Indeed, his feelings at carrying around the lie, the “deception” or “swindle,” are remarkably akin to those of the guilt-ridden tribal elders, so many thousands of miles and so many millions of cultural beliefs distant.
So we can be thankful to Jones for coming forth. And we find, further, that he is not alone in doing so….
Continue with “Science Itself Has Now Superseded the Mechanistic World View”: Science As Myth, Part Three — Dire Consequences of Scientists’ Closed-Mindedness
Return to “The Footprint We Have Discovered on the Shores of the Unknown Is Our Own”: On Science as Idolatry … A Physicist Reports on the Truth Behind Scientific Conjuring
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