Rational Religion

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Keeping What We've Got:  The Ignored Lessons of Rapa Nui.


For the better part of the last 275 years, the giant monolithic heads discovered on Easter Island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean have been regarded as simply an enigmatic mystery.


They are much, much more, in their implications for the human race.


In the last few decades, archeological and anthropological research has slowly revealed a chilling pattern of the establishment, rise and ultimate self-destruction of a sophisticated civilization.


The first Easter Island settlers, probably within only the last 1500 years, found an isolated bit of land which was evidently something of a "tropical paradise:" heavily forested, but with a good deal of arable soil and an ideal climate. 


Over the course of alarmingly few generations, they exploited their new homeland to construct an advanced society with a complex social structure and an even more complex theology. 


For at least a short while they were economically comfortable enough to expend a great deal of time and energy in quarrying, transporting and erecting those huge totem heads; probably as evidence of each individual family or clan's strength and importance, as evidenced by their ability to carry out this monumental task. 


But they lived on an island!  


And as islands go, a very modest-sized one. 


Their early success in exploiting their environment came with no instructions about how to preserve that environment.  In abysmally typical human fashion, they exploited their wretched little speck in the middle of the ocean into irreversible economic disaster. 


They cut all the trees, over-farmed their arable fields, and starved themselves back into the Stone Age; all within what was evidently a remarkably short span of time.


When modern European explorers finally found them in 1722, it was inconceivable (especially to the colonial-minded explorers of the time) that the few primitive people eking a living on this treeless outcrop could possibly have created the magnificent, brooding stone heads which surrounded them. 


It became part of the celebrated metaphysical mystery of the world, inclined to be woven somewhere into the tapestry of accepted superstition which was Western religious thought. 


Maybe the great heads were the work of another of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who created them and moved on.   Or maybe they were simply one more of God's eternal mysteries, put on earth to amaze us.


In the world of the True Believer it is much easier to create a scenario which fits with the Belief than to explore more logical solutions, such as those the archaeologists and anthropologists have lately formulated. 


Easter Island is a living parable for the rest of us, living on an only slightly larger island in an ocean of Space. 


How long until we denude our environment and finally exist, in catastrophically reduced numbers, scrabbling to hang on to bare existence in the shadow of our great physical achievements...standing among us as mocking reminders of what we were, but had not wit to remain?


The lesson is complicated by the myriad of metaphysical influences which infect our societies, like a plague of blindfolds.


The great Easter Island society, or individuals within it, could doubtless see what was happening to their homeland.  They were sophisticated enough to carve and erect those monoliths; they must have been able to see the handwriting on the wall. 


Why didn't they just stop cutting down their forest and cut back their reproduction to avoid exhausting their farmland?  Why didn't they stop spending so much effort in erecting ultimately useless monuments (To whatever?  Each family's relative importance in a deteriorating society?) and start trying to reclaim their environment while it was still possible?


Because human beings, in general, don't do those kinds of things, especially when there is a strong metaphysical component to hold them on the path to destruction. 


One of the scientists' most plausible scenarios for what really happened holds that the construction and erection of the great heads became so central, so vital to the society, that everybody simply pursued this over-the-cliff obsession until there was nothing left to do it with; or to do anything else, for that matter. 


Can we look, and learn?   Or are we doomed to pursue our own myriad of competing over-the-cliff metaphysical strategies, ignoring the obvious dangers and equally manifest possible solutions of the real world, until it is too late for us, as well?