Ch1 L27: Beliefs – part III (Taboos)

  1. Fighting Death was the starting point of our journey throughout which we’ve explored how we’ve evolved to survive [1]. We’ve seen that our emotions were the first tools to evaluate and learn from experiences and they dichotomically categorized experiences into two groups of the good and the bad [2].
  2. The emotional judgment forms the first beliefs [3]. In the 18th post, we studied the case in which a member of a primitive tribe went in a cave and never came back [4]. To the rest of the members, the incident was deadly terrifying. Thus a belief was engraved on their mind that the cave was dangerous.
  3. To put ourselves in their shoes, we should consider that the world was a big mystery to them and everything was possible [5]. They could even think that there was a dragon in the cave [6]. Comparatively, their confidence was very low, so they would pick the flight reaction and stay away from the cave [7].
  4. In order to protect their people, they needed to set up a rule such as “Don’t enter the cave”. Afterward, the cave turned into a taboo [8].
  5. If a thing or action is a taboo, it’s strictly prohibited. The degree of prohibition depends on the amount of fear [9]. That’s why the primitive humankind was insanely terrified of breaking a taboo. Because they believed that a disaster would take place. “For instance, the innocent offender who had eaten from a forbidden animal became deeply depressed, expected his death and then actually died.” [10]
  6. It’s very difficult to understand what went on in the mind of the poor person. From the outside, it looks like an explosion. The belief was planted in their mind like a landmine and after they’d broken the taboo, it detonated. So let’s imagine how a tragedy like this could happen.
  7. To prevent people from entering the cave, especially the coming generations who hadn’t witnessed the incident, the seniors or chieftain needed to transfer the rule through education. Thus, they created a story about the cave.
  8. Though in the first version of the story the guy might simply go in the cave but never came back; generations after generations every storyteller would add something to it. For example, the witnesses had heard his screaming; or they had seen that a dragon had eaten him alive. No one can tell if they just let their imagination run wild or they intentionally spiced it up to induce more fear.
  9. Another way to educate and warn people would be creating a ritual about the cave. They’d develop some moves and dances and if they were creative enough, they could create a dragon mask or costume; so the people could easily visualize the consequence of entering the cave.
  10. We can imagine that if a kid saw such a horrifying performance, it would be imprinted in their mind. Not only the emotional impact was high, but the belief of all the tribe members which was their whole world could consolidate the lesson as a belief. Besides, they weren’t equipped with the advanced thinking tool (doubting) to question the teaching.
  11. Apart from the stories and rituals, I think that the main tool tribe members used to crack down on the outlaws was a punishment which could be either physical or emotional. In some cases, if a tribe member broke a law they would be boycotted or exiled. The fear of losing security, love, and support was so immense that they would never consider risking it.
  1. Year after year, the tribe would come up with new taboos which created the need for someone or an organization to keep track of the stories and rituals. Therefore, the first religious institution was formed.
  2. In parentheses, in the beginning, there was no difference between something sacred and impure. Some taboos gradually became sacred and others cursed. [11]
  3. If you look at the Ten Commandments [12], all the commands are taboos, proscribing you from doing something wrong which is religiously called sin. It was discussed that the commands had been derived from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” [13]. The book of the dead states the things that you must not do so does the ten commandments [14].
  4. To wrap up this post (we will continue discussing it in the next one), I’d like to point out two things: First of all, emotional beliefs can cause emotional reactions which can be escalated to the physiological or physical level. People can throw up if they discover that what they swallowed is forbidden. In this situation, it’s their life and belief and they might harm no one (they might throw up in a restaurant). However, if according to one’s belief, some experiences or lifestyles, such as gay marriage, are disgusting and they express it to homosexuals verbally or showing them a disgusted face, then they will be hurting others.
  5. Secondly, a wrong belief can create a vicious yet self-fortifying circle. The death of the ill-fated man would consolidate the belief of the rest of the tribe that eating the taboo animal could cause death. Religions normally use this strategy to impose limitations. They cherrypick the mistakes people make when they break a law or there are no restrictions, concluding that the taboos must be preserved.

Exercise 27:

  1. How can we address and resolve the conflicts between people caused by their beliefs?


[1] Link to the first post.

[2] We’ve discussed the effect of emotions in several posts starting from the third post talking about fear. Link

[3] Link to the first post about beliefs.

[4] Link to the post.

[5] In the 11th post, we discussed that one of the signs of growing up and becoming more rational is finding some events impossible. Link

[6] I should give it to the primitive humankind that they were more curious than us since they had to detect many dangers which have been identified and resolved for us. So, they were sensitive to the occurrence of each phenomenon or its changes. Besides, I don’t think that they were stupid. Since they couldn’t analyze problems multi-variably, their connections were more superficial and wrong. However, I guess that one reason behind the invention of the dragon could be that they discovered the dinosaur fossils and they created the rest of the detail by their imagination, not the scientific deduction.

[7] In the third post, we discussed that fear is the alarm and confidence level is the switch that we choose either fight or run away from a problem. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that if someone has low confidence, will run away from most issues. Link

[8] Link to the wiki page about taboo.

[9] If fear passes the panic threshold, then our thinking brain stops performing which we discussed through several posts starting from the 4th one. Link

[10] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, Link

[11] Again you can refer to Totem and Taboo. Link

[12] The Ten Commandments are:

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet. Link

[13] If you compare the commands from the Book of the dead, you’ll find out the undeniable parallelism between them.

Hail to thee, great God, Lord of the Two Truths. I have come unto thee, my Lord, that thou mayest bring me to see thy beauty. I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the 42 Gods who are with thee in this broad hall of the Two Truths . . . Behold, I am come unto thee. I have brought thee truth; I have done away with sin for thee. I have not sinned against anyone. I have not mistreated people. I have not done evil instead of righteousness .

I have not reviled the God. 

I have not laid violent hands on an orphan. 
I have not done what the God abominates . . . 
I have not killed; I have not turned anyone over to a killer. 
I have not caused anyone’s suffering . . . I have not copulated (illicitly); I have not been unchaste. 
I have not increased nor diminished the measure, I have not diminished the palm; I have not encroached upon the fields.
I have not added to the balance weights; I have not tempered with the plumb bob of the balance. 
I have not taken milk from a child’s mouth; I have not driven small cattle from their herbage . . .
I have not stopped (the flow of) water in its seasons; I have not built a dam against flowing water.
I have not quenched a fire in its time . . .
I have not kept cattle away from the God’s property. I have not blocked the God at his processions. Link

[14] We can easily change the wording of the 3rd and 4th command, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” and “Honor your father and your mother”, to follow the taboo structure which is negative imperative. “You shall not forget the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” and “You shall not disrespect your father and your mother” respectively.



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