Thoughts on the progression of religion: awe and alienation

Here’s a thought I had:

I have always found it comical when people said religion was originally monotheistic and that all the ‘multiple gods’ of older societies is a result of some sort of a fall or inability to understand true religion.  Another one is that people had to “make up” gods because they did not understand the world.  And, still another, was that god was “originally a woman”.  Views such as these seem like very simplistic perceptions of the past based on current biases and points of view.  In other words, they reflect the current times, not the times they refer to.  The idea of monotheism is, no doubt, a result of Christianity and their idea of a “one true god”.  The idea that people had to “make up” gods is a result of science.  The idea that god was “originally a woman” comes from feminism with their female-as-superior perspective.  I see no evidence of things like these.  In fact, I see no evidence of things like this:

  • That people originally worshipped a single ‘god’.
  • That the original god was human.
  • That the original god was specifically a male or female.
  • That religion was created by people who do not understand the world.

The original religion appears to be far more complex an issue than that.


As I use it, the ‘original religion’ is the religion when humanity did not live in civilization or a large society.  The reason for this is that these are recent developments in history.  Therefore, civilization, and its effects, cannot be considered the “original” condition of humanity.  As a result, one cannot look at the ‘original religion’ from a point of view of civilization or modernism or mass society . . . that will only lead you off the track.  One must look at it from another perspective.

No doubt, the best representative of the ‘original religion’ would be in primitive tribes as these have no basis in civilization at all.  They display, I feel, some of the most basic human qualities as well and the oldest perceptions of the world.  Because of this, primitive people are instrumental in the understanding of the ‘original religion’.

It’s this ‘original religion’ that is the beginning, and base, of everything that follows.  It is, so to speak, the starting point.  From this ‘original religion’ there would become a progression of religion throughout the years as a result of various historical and situational conditions.


It appears, to me, that there is natural progression in the development of religion based, primarily, on the size and organization of human society.

Why is this so important?

Because the size and organization of human society ‘protected’ people from nature.  In other words, it kept nature ‘at bay’.  This is not to say that people were ‘scared’ of nature.  But nature, by its force, power, and might, created a particular sense, what I would call ‘nature-awe’.  Humanity found itself standing before the great power of nature with its tremendous and  mysterious might.  As a result, ‘nature awe’ became one of the first religious struggles of humanity.  Mankind found itself having to deal with this sense and dealing with its effects.  In many ways, the progression of religion, and much of human society for that matter, is nothing but the reaction to different forms of ‘awe’ that begun with ‘nature awe’ . . . the awe changed as conditions changed.

With the coming of larger societies mankind found itself ‘protected’ from ‘nature awe’.  But this, in turn created a new form of awe created by the growing power of human society.  I speak of this as ‘humanity-awe’.  In this awe humanity gave itself natures powers.  It often became perceived as above nature and beyond it.  In effect, humanity became in awe of itself.  As a result, nature faded into the background.

But as civilization developed,and grew bigger and bigger, this would turn into a new form of awe.  Not only nature but human society began to fade into the background.  With this a representation of awe seemed to disappear.  As a result, this new awe is characterized by an absence of an awe or, rather, there is an absence of a representation of an awe as the sense of awe remains deep within.  It’s as if the growing of civilization made us grow further from nature and further from human society making those previous forms of awe redundant.  As a result, the awe became as if detached from any representation.  This is the ‘alienated-awe’.  Here, people often misinterpret awe, so that it appears as weird fears, paranoia, and worries.  In other cases, people don’t know what it is and, as a result, become blank to it.  This makes the sense of awe go ‘deeper’ into ones psych as if buried in their mind creating neurotic-like symptoms often.

What this shows are two facts:

  1. Awe is innate.  The continuation of awe in many representations, and even without representation, show that it is reflective of an innate human tendency.  In other words, awe is part of the human experience.
  2. Awe needs a representation.  To get a ‘handle’ on awe we need a representation of it, something for it to manifest through.  Otherwise, it as if gets lost in the depths of our minds.

These two facts really describe the ‘religious dilemma’:  the need and inability to get a ‘handle’ on awe.

But awe is so powerful that it creates a disconnectedness, a sense of alienation with it.  This is caused by an inability to relate to the power and might of nature and life.  In short, awe is much like a ‘culture shock’.  Nature and life ‘shocks’ us with our inability to relate to it.  Because of this, it as if drives a wedge between us and life, separating us in two.  As a result, there are two reactions that become part of the ‘religious dilemma’:

  1. A sense of alienation.
  2. A desire to not be alienated (this often appears as a desire for some form of ‘union’ or ‘connectiveness’).

These two conditions creates a tendency of opposing themes which continually appear with awe.  They are as if always struggling, one side alienating and the other side trying to not be alienated.  It creates struggles such as:

  • Human versus non-human (nature)
  • Feeling of connection versus feeling of disconnectedness
  • Feeling of powerlessness versus feeling of power
  • Acceptance versus non-acceptance

Because of this duality we are continually in a tug-of-war with awe.  This shows how awe is rooted in polarities . . . opposites.  This means that a lot of dealing with awe is dealing with opposing natures.  As a result, it creates a continual need for balance.

One of the ways this manifests itself is in ‘ritual properness’.  That is to say, things have to be done ‘properly’, often in a ritualistic way, when dealing with awe.  Things must be done at the correct moment, in the correct way, in the correct context.  This is particularly strong in the ‘nature-awe’ phase.  ‘Ritual properness’ is strong among people who live in the midst of nature, because of its power and might over them, and tends to decrease in power as human society takes hold.

With the moving away from ‘nature-awe’, by the coming of larger human societies, we tend to move away from this tendency.  Because of the different condition created by human society it creates a new form of dealing with opposing natures.   In effect, it simplified it, turning ‘ritual properness’ into a black and white ‘right or wrong ritual’.  Things now became ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  Because the emphasis is on humanity, it usually deals with what a person does.  In other words, its more individualistic than in the ‘nature-awe’ phase, which generally emphasizes ones relation with nature.  The ‘right or wrong ritual’ tends to emphasize what a person does and how they behave.  Nature generally never even makes an appearance.

As civilization progressed and grew this individualistic tendency would turn into the ‘follow the crowd ritual’.  In other words, it becomes a blind following of crowd of civilization and following what it says.  The crowd determines right and wrong and how things are to be done.  Following its dictates makes things ‘right’.  By following the crowd we “appear” to be in balance (though this is not true).  With this we have become completely detached from nature and humanity, in actuality.  We have become the mob.


As the above shows, it appears that there is a historical progression in religion and its association with human society with each phase creating a specific form of ‘religion’.  I often describe each phase of religion in this way:

  1. Nature centered.
  2. Human society centered.
  3. Civilization centered.
  4. Post-civilization centered or mob centered.

1. Nature centered

Originally, religion was nature centered.  In other words, this is religion in its original setting and origin, of humanity-in-the-midst-of-nature with nature as all-powerful.  As a result, religious importance was given to specific qualities and traits displayed by nature, not by humanity.  This is the pattern of the ‘original religion’.  Gods became bears and eagles and mountains and rivers.  There is typically an absence of human traits and human beings.  Not only that, human traits tend to be associated with aspects of nature, as reflecting qualities seen in nature and not as specifically “human” (as the power of a buffalo, or lightning, etc.).  Humanity, and human society, do not figure highly in this way of living.  Almost all representations, and symbols, have origin in nature.  This is the ‘nature-dominant orientation’.  As a result, awe is associated with nature . . . the ‘nature-awe’.

The ‘nature-dominant orientation’ makes it so that:

  • There are many gods, reflecting different traits of life.  Each god, usually, represents a specific trait.  As a result, the god one prays to, sacrifices to, or caters to, reflects the traits or qualities you wish to have.
  • Gods are not human.  Because of the nature-centered orientation, aspects of nature become gods:  animals, mountains, rocks, etc.

One of the effects of ‘nature-awe’ found in this way of life is that it creates the ‘lost-in-nature alienation’.  That is to say, because nature is first, and the measure of all things, humanity becomes ‘lost’ in it, insignificant, and small.  In so doing humanity becomes squashed by nature.  In many ways, much of the qualities of the nature centered orientation consists of attempts at trying to ‘hold oneself against the power and awe of nature’.  Because of this, ‘ritual properness’ becomes very dominant in this form of life . . . it often dominates this lifestyle.  Life becomes a perpetual act of ritual in one way or another.

2. Human society centered

In this phase, human society has developed enough to feel itself removed from nature.  In some sense, humanity slowly turns into something like a ‘cocoon’, protecting the individual from nature.  As a result, humanity is no longer in the midst of nature but in the midst of humanity.  This is the ‘humanity-dominant orientation’.  This causes a general waning of the image of nature in religion.  We start to see the arrival of human representations in two ways:

  1. The human-nature representation.  Nature takes on human images and traits.  Gods become fathers and mothers, heroes, etc.  Nature is interpreted in relation to humanity, often as reflecting human traits (whereas in the ‘nature-dominant orientation’ humanity is interpreted in relation to nature . . . the exact opposite).  As a result, the earth becomes the ‘mother’ and is compared to and look at as if it were a human mother, for example.
  2. The human-society representation.   There become an emphasis on human institutions (leaders, mothers, fathers, etc.) as a dominant theme in religion.  In many cases, some people become perceived as gods (such as kings) and in control of nature.

The result of these new representations is that there grows a growing distance between humanity and nature.  Over time, nature will practically disappear as humanity takes it over.  With this, the ‘humanity awe’ begins to appear and humanity or, rather, human creation, becomes the source of awe.

This new form of awe creates the ‘lost-in-humanity alienation’.  In this, humanity, and its creations, tend to overwhelm us and as if take us over.  We become disassociated from who we are.  This is different from the ‘lost-in-nature alienation’ where we become alienated due to the great fact of nature, which we feel different from.  In the ‘lost-in-humanity alienation’ we become alienated from our humanity by our humanity.  In other words, ‘lost-in-humanity alienation’ reveals the fact that human creation, though it originates from humanity, is not ‘human’ as it actually takes us from our humanity.  As a result, it shows that neither nature or human creation is “human”, which is why they cause alienation.  Because of this, it shows that there is always an alienating element in life and that the “human” is actually something that is elusive.  This fact shows that religion, awe, alienation, and the attempt at preventing alienation, is really nothing but trying to discover the ‘elusive-“human”-in-life’.   Because of the awe and alienation, humanity has always been seeking to find this “human” quality.

3.  Civilization centered

Civilization is when human society becomes like a great machine, running by itself, as if nature doesn’t exist.  In civilization, human creation has reached the point of a ‘perfection’, so to speak.  Here, the ‘system’ rules and controls things.   This, really, is just a continuation of the previous phase but more intense.  This causes a change in orientation.  What ends up happening is the development of ‘human-creation-dominant orientation’.  There becomes a slow ‘mystifying’ and ‘mythifying’ of humanity, as we saw in the previous phase.  Here, life, and the world, begins to become “de-religified” and not looked at in a religious way.  As a result, the awe is no longer based in the great mystery of reality but an awe of human creation which completely supplants the previous awe’s.  The awe begins to focus on things like:

  • Human thought
  • Human organization
  • Human achievements
  • Human inventions

These are things that are “done”, so to speak, or “made” by humanity.  This is quite a bit different from the previous awe’s which were based in “existing realities” and the mysteries of these realities.  Because of this, there becomes an absence of a sense of mystery.  It’s not uncommon that humanity begins to think it is now above nature and beyond it and, in some ways, turns itself into a “god” itself.

The effect of this is to create a “lost-in-civilization alienation”.  This is generally characterized by a sense or need of the mystery that civilization has undermined and destroyed.  In other words, its like a desire to have the earlier conditions.  This is another example which shows that humanity actually fails at creating the “human” in life.  This fact creates a tendency for many people to be ‘repelled’, so to speak, by civilization, often having contempt for it.

4. Post-civilization or mob-centered

This is when civilization has become too big and extensive.  In the human society centered phase nature is lost and replaced by human society.  In the civilization centered phase human society is lost and is replaced by human creation.  In this phase human creation is lost.  Its replacement:  the mob.  The “mob” is neither nature, human society, or human creation, though it has roots in them all.  It stands, in actuality, like an aberration of humanity.  In many ways, it is only a reference to the fact that humanity has become so big that it has become a massive beast and, being massive, it has become a ‘power’ because of that fact.  It is this ‘mob power’ that creates the unique form of awe in this phase.  There develops an awe of the mob, often treating it as if it were like a god.  It’s often characterized by qualities such as:

  • Blind following.  People follow whatever it does without a thought.
  • Little demonstration of belief or conviction.  Whatever the mob says they do.

We see here a tendency of complete blindness with the mob.  As a result, the ‘mob-alienation’ entails an abandonment of who we are, a loss of what we are.  Because of this, not only do we lose any sense of the “human” but we lose who we are.  In many ways, this phase is characterized by making us the  furthest from nature, human society, the “human”, religion, and our selves.  Generally, the sense of religion is gone by this phase.  In that way, this phase sort of marks the ‘end’ of religion.

Ironically, in this phase there often appears a ‘peacefulness’.  Because we lost who we are we are ‘free’ of ourselves, giving the illusion of a peacefulness and calm.  This loss of self, though, is not “human”.  As a result, it creates a great unrestfullness and uptightness in people.

The progression of the phases

The phases show a continual historic reaction to awe and the alienation it creates which is very much influenced by the size of society.  It shows a gradual move away from nature into humanity.  At first this is a reaction of humanity to maintain itself against the awe of nature.  But, as time goes on, humanity actually moves further into itself by moving into humanity, actually becoming more alienated from itself as a result.  In many ways, the “cure has become the disease”.

What all this shows is that there is a continual tendency of ‘moving away’ from something.  With the ‘nature-awe’ it begins.  We move away from nature into human society, and so on.  Each phase is characterized by a moving away from some trait of the earlier phase which, in turn, creates a new thing to move away from.  In other words, it almost seems to show that humanity, as a whole, is continually moving away from itself.  To avoid something about itself, humanity creates something new which, in turn, requires them to move away to avoid it and so on.  It seems as if the history of humanity is really an endless flight from itself, never being satisfied with itself or what it is.  They create something only to flee it and move away from it . . . it never ends.  I speak of this as the ‘moving away tendency’.  Much of the myth, and blindness, of so-called ‘progress’ is nothing but the ‘moving away tendency’.  What is progress but the moving away from the current situation into an imagined utopia that ends up becoming something to move away from later on.

The ‘moving away tendency’ has gone on so long that we have moved away from ourselves . . . the awe has turned into a generalized alienation.  One could say that this is the “condition of humanity”.


As one can see, the effects of alienation seem to be a motive force in the progression and development of religion (and human society as well).  In fact, it has created religion and destroyed it.  That is to say, religion is rooted in alienation.  This is why, I believe, I have reflected so much on alienation.

Alienation means that one is ‘disconnected’.  The purpose of religion, in actuality, is to re-establish a connection.  That is to say, to get rid of alienation.  In its simplest way, this is no different than saying that religion is trying to establish a ‘connection’ with nature/god/life.  As a result, all alienation is, in actuality, a religious issue. 

Another aspect of alienation is the “human”.  In many ways, trying to establish a ‘connection’ is nothing but seeking the ‘elusive “human” in life’.  In other words, the “human” is nothing but being connected . . . that is, not being alienated.  This, truly, is what it means to be human.  This shows that awe, and its resulting alienation, has caused a seeking, by humanity, of the “human” as part of re-establishing a connection and ridding ourselves of alienation.  In actuality, this seeking has gone in many different directions over the years, such as:

  • Religion
  • Philosophy
  • Knowledge
  • Exploration
  • Achievements
  • Art

Many of these directions began to appear after the human society centered phase.  This is quite revealing.  It shows, in actuality, the failure of the human society centered phase to answer what the “human” is, in my opinion.  Because of this, it required more effort and attempts at different directions in order to try to find it.


I have always felt that the recovering of the sense of ‘awe’ is one of the most powerful things to do.  This recovery seems to entail more than experiencing awe.  I see three things in recovering the awe:

  1. The sense of awe.
  2. The alienation.
  3. Representation.

1. The sense of awe

As I said above, awe is the base, it seems to me, of the ‘religious sense’.  But, over the years the sense of awe has been changed and distorted and is basically forgotten, even in religion.  This is why its important to rediscover or recover the ‘awe’, as it is the source.

The nature of awe is like a great powerful mystery, of a looking into something beyond us, a great chasm of awareness of the unknown of something that has power we can’t imagine.  Awe is an inner reaction that there is ‘more’ to things, more than we perceive, more than we can perceive.  Some qualities of awe include:

  • A sense of might and power.  It is a perception of a power above and beyond us.
  • A sense of mystery, of unkowingness.  There is almost always this sense of mystery about it.
  • A sense of ‘livingness’.  The importance of a ‘livingness’ is critical.  In many ways, awe is a perception of the mysterious livingness of existence.  That is to say, it’s a sense that there is a “life” beyond us.
  • A deep inner sense.  It is not intellectual, but tends to be wordless and conceptless.

Notice how these are all forms of a ‘sense’ or an awareness.  As a result, the recovering of awe entails a rediscovery of a ‘sense’ or an awareness.  One does not find awe by thinking, pondering, or philosophizing about it.

Because we are no longer born into a natural condition of ‘nature-awe’ it poses some problems in that it is not naturally appearing and if it does appear it’s often distorted or changed.  In the naturally appearing ‘nature-awe’ situation the sense of awe is a reaction to ones conditions of ones reality.  This is not the case today.  Now we must search for it.  This is why it becomes a rediscovery or recovering.  We don’t have the advantage our predecessors had.  Because of this, recovering ‘nature-awe’ requires one to chase an elusive mystery which a person really never knows.  Chasing a mystery, though it may sound easy, is far more difficult than it seems.  In fact, I don’t think a lot of people can do it.  Some aspect of chasing this mystery includes:

  • Not trying to “solve” the mystery.  In reality, there is nothing to solve.
  • Be in the midst of nature away from humanity.  Live in more natural conditions.
  • Be removed from human society and the conceptions of society.  This means to not use ideas, philosophy, and even belief.  It may even mean being away from people.
  • Be receptive to mystery and awe . . . let it come upon you.  This may entail an acceptance of difficult feelings such as fear.

I should point out that awe is not a fear.  I’ve heard people talk of it as if it was like a terror.  To me, that is not awe.  There may be a fear involved, and at certain times, but it is not a continuous terror or fear.

2. The alienation

This awe is so powerful that it makes one feel alienated, or removed, from it.  Awe, by its nature, creates this sense of alienation, of ‘disconnectedness’.  Many people, I think, have problems with the sense of alienation and ‘disconnectedness’.  This hinders man people.  In other words, the fear of alienation and ‘disconnectedness’ makes it so that people are unwilling to be aware of awe.  It is probably the first great fear associated with awe.  In fact, I feel this fear of ‘disconnectedness’ is worse than the fear of ‘power and might’ that many people think encompasses awe.

Some of the responses to alienation and ‘disconnectedness’ include:

  • Apprehension.
  • Avoidance.
  • Fear.
  • Confusion.
  • Despair.
  • Humility.  Awe tends to create a humility, a smallness of self.  In fact, much reactions, like confusion and despair, are really a result of an unwillingness to be humble!
  • Yearning.

Some responses are bad and mislead a person.  Despair is a good example of this.  Others are beneficial.  One that is critical is the yearning.  This yearning is really nothing but the desire for ‘unification’ after one feels alienated or disconnected.  In other words, yearning is the “remedy” for alienation, it is the want to be connected to what one feels disconnected with.  This yearning, though, means a continual sense of “want”, of an impending “reunion”, of maintaining a continual sense of desire.  For some people this may be experienced as a love.  Others may feel it as a longing, or a wishfullness.

3. Representation

It appears that representation is a naturally appearing reaction to awe.  For much of the above to happen a representation  has to be established.  In other words, awe requires some form of representation for it to be manifested properly.  Without a representation the development and awareness of awe is impaired.  To put it another way, representation is a form of expression of awe.  Without this representation expression can’t take place.  As a result, discovering some form of representation is critical.  In the past they had established cultural beliefs and customs, which were generally considered self-evident, and which were easily used by people.  We do not have that luxury anymore.  Finding suitable representation is far more harder than it seems. I’ve found that ready-made beliefs, such as in religion sometimes, is usually not effective.  They seem to have more of a quality of a wall and tend to hinder awe awareness.  Much of the representation must be personal, something one creates on ones own, with experience.  It is a creation of ones self.  As a result, the recovering of awe has a quality similar to art, of creating a form of expression.  And, like art, it requires skill and practice.  Often, this entails something like the creation of a personal mythology or belief system that may have meaning only to you and no one else.


One could almost say that the progression of religion, and awe, has gone in a number of paths:

  • A coming to terms with awe.
  • An avoidance of awe.
  • A disregarding of awe.

In general, there seems a tendency to avoid or disregard awe.  In other words, coming to terms with the awe is not something that humanity has shown an eager inclination.  One could say that the history of humanity is a continual, and varied, bouncing around with awe and its reactions.

It’s interesting that, throughout the centuries, the attempts at avoiding the alienation caused by awe only created new forms of alienation.  No matter what we did it remained there in some form, reflecting the fact that it is part of the human condition.  No matter what we do there will always be a ‘disconnectedness’ with life.  Religion, contrary to what one may suppose, does not solve this problem . . . it does not get rid of it.  Religion, generally, preaches some form of acceptance and coming to terms with it as well as to give it some form of meaning.  In actuality, that’s about all we can do.  This shows that one of the greatest struggles of humanity is not in understanding, or learning, or achieving, or being good, etc. but in coming to terms with certain facts.  “Coming to terms”, in many ways, is the great battle of humanity, one which it finds hard to win.  A good example of this than in awe awareness.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Dehumanization and alienation, Historical stuff, Modern life and society, Philosophy, Psychology and psychoanalysis, Religion and religious stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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