A narrative essay by - Heather Spoonheim
Years ago I found myself alone and shivering, hands trembling as I struck match after match trying to ignite some damp tinder. I desperately wanted that fire to light and all the intention of my mind was focused and I started pleading, “Come on, fire, come on!” As the tinder began to smolder I sighed, “Thank you!” and I dropped to my knees and began blowing gently until flames began to lick up at the shavings … then at the kindling … and finally at some small sticks that I had carefully stacked.
Over the next hour I fed more little sticks into the fire as I struggled back from the edge of hypothermia. When I was finally comfortable, I just sat by the fire wrapped in a small tarp and reflected upon how I had begged that fire to start. It occurred to me how natural it had been to anthropomorphize the very concept of fire in order to create an outlet for the strong intention that had built up in my mind. I needed fire to understand that I needed it, and I had to create an avenue by which to persuade it to my line of thinking.
Sitting there, deep in the forest, I thought about how it must have been so easy for the concept of god to slip into the human psyche. You see, an advanced ‘concept of mind’ was just as essential to the evolution of early man as language. Language itself is meaningless without understanding the concept that other beings have minds independent from your own, including different knowledge and intention. Without that concept, what would motivate the first words? What would there even be to say?
So powerfully entrenched in our psyche is this theory of mind that even after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution it compelled me to project a consciousness onto my concept of fire so that I might invoke its appearance; even after this projection had served its purpose, I went on to say thank you. Everyday, people run toward teetering objects begging them not to fall. Everyday, people turn the keys in their cars with focused intention while pleading for them to start. Here we are, still doing this in an age when even an agnostic would vehemently refute the possibility that a car has a conscious mind. What chance, then, did primitive man have of grasping the fallacy of projecting a conscious mind into an inanimate object? How compelling it must have been for him to project a conscious mind into something as important, fleeting, and seemingly ethereal as fire; it had, after all, been compelling enough for me to do so hundreds of thousands of years later.
Entreating the return of fire would have been a daily ritual for Stone Age man. Keeping them warm, staving off nocturnal predators and pushing away the shadows, fire was a very welcome guest in every cave and likely a beloved parental figure in most. Sometimes I like to think that the first great philosopher leaned back one day and postulated, “Where fire go when not burn?” The first theist answered, “Fire always burn in my heart.” The first atheist retorted, “When fire not burn, fire go out.” Then all three turned to the first agnostic who, sitting in the corner with his eyes shifting, said, “Me don’t know.”
Little can be said authoritatively about prehistoric religion other than it consistently exhibited the attribution of a conscious human mind to important aspects of man’s environment. One can only imagine that the first religious war might have been fought between a dozen cavemen arguing over whether fire or rain was more powerful. One thing is certain, though, and that is that the concept of god was born of the minds of men who felt compelled to invoke the cooperation of their environment.