All in the Family

Autobiographical memory is a term psychologists use for the uniquely human ability to construct a continuous narrative about our own lives. This built-in feature of anatomically modern humans stems from the rapid enlargement of the prefrontal lobes of the brain some 300,000 years ago. The prefrontal lobes control such higher cognitive functions as speech, abstract reasoning and foresight. Our understanding of the world is no longer limited to what is immediately present in our sensory experience. We have the capability to tell ourselves stories about ourselves — not just what is happening to us right now but also what happened in the past and what is likely to happen in the future. This is how we come to know that our stories will end badly. We realize we are going to die.

Counterfactual thinking, another feature of our enlarged hominid brains, has come to the rescue of those contemplating their eventual demise. It enables us to imagine alternative endings to our otherwise unhappy fate. Our bodies may wind up on a funeral pyre or in a hole in the ground. But what if some essential part of us lives on in an invisible spirit realm? Our own survival is thereby assured, along with those we love.

Such notions predate written records, so we have no idea when or how they took root. To a startling degree, the living and the dead commingle in many cultures. According to popular belief in such places, ancestors continue to take an active interest in the affairs of their living descendants and often govern their daily lives. Just as children obey their parents, the parents obey dead ancestors. Prayers are offered up and sacrifices are made. In many societies, the living and the dead are regarded as one big family.

As egalitarian hunter-gather tribes were succeeded by more hierarchical agricultural societies, ancestor worship was replaced by local deities and then by what anthropologists refer to as “higher gods,” the ones we are most familiar with. Ancestor worship as such is now regarded as idolatrous, but it has never entirely disappeared. In Christianity, the living and the dead are still regarded as one big family known as the “communion of saints” — “saints” in this case referring to all Christians, not just the ones depicted with halos around their heads. This latter category are still venerated in some churches, and prayers may be offered to intercede on behalf of the living.

The Greek poet Xenophanes observed more than 2500 years ago that “men make gods in their own image.” This was certainly true of the gods that hung out on Mount Olympus. They looked and acted pretty much like humans, except they were immortal. They were all part of one big dysfunctional family, descendants of the aptly named god Chaos and goddess Nyx. The Christian pantheon is pretty much a father-and-son team, with Jesus’ earthly mother Mary enjoying quasi-divine status. From ancestor worship to the present day, one dynamic remains constant: people are still worshipping parents.

© Copyright 2004-2022 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved