Tag Archives: science and religion

The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.


Make Believer

SmthgFunnyMy brother is way cooler than I ever hope to be. While I was busy learning all a tween and teen could about the Bible, he was listening to Lou Reed and David Bowie and Black Sabbath. Since the “door” between our rooms was only a curtain, I heard the forbidden sounds and, despite myself, had to admit that I liked what I heard. In fact, I once gave a lecture on Christian influence in secular rock music, and found many students staring at me in surprise for knowing so much about such debased music. In any case, when my brother recommends a book I know it will always be an adventure. Thus I came to read Corey Taylor’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven: (Or, How I Made Peace with the Paranormal and Stigmatized Zealots & Cynics in the Process). I didn’t want to admit to my brother that I’d never heard of Corey Taylor and that I couldn’t identify a Slipknot song even on Spotify, but the book sounded interesting, blending as it does bad-boy attitude with ghost hunting. November seemed a perfect time to read it. It could lead to some street cred on the bus.

It is difficult to distrust people like Taylor who write with absolutely no pretension (I’m a working-class kid, too). You know that what you’re getting is the real deal. It is also clear that like my brother and many rockers, Taylor is of above-average intelligence. Being smart can sometimes feel like a curse, and Taylor lashes out in several ways during the course of his narrative. He finds it odd to be an atheist who believes in, and has personally experienced, ghosts. I’m not sure that he would find it comforting to know that such a position is not at all as rare as he seems to think it is. Science deals with neither gods nor ghosts, and the average person is left to their own devices to decide who might speak with authority on such issues. Where are we supposed to look when scientists refuse to address such things? Personal experience is a powerful influence.

As with most books by opinionated, brash extroverts, it is difficult not to find yourself liking the writer. Trust may be too strong a word, but I do believe that Taylor writes without guile. After all, people have experienced ghosts for as long back as we’re aware. Why should it be any different for a celebrity? Is Taylor’s house haunted? (Or, more accurately are his houses haunted.) That’s a question no one can answer with certainty. Ghosts are beyond our realm of knowledge. Although plumbers can use scientific instruments, until actual scientists try to explain the immaterial we will be left to choose whom to believe. A metal singer can know just as much as a priest. Or even more, depending on the context.

Northern Ghosts

It is the time of year when respectable publications can, in a half-serious way, address the unconventional. The New York Times, for example, recently ran a story on ghost hunting in Norway. Andrew Higgins points out that Norway, among the most secular nations in the world, has come under the spell of ghosts. In a country where church attendance and religious belief seem to be endangered, there is a growing belief that people might somehow survive this mortal coil. Since such a story has to come off as bemused, we don’t get any indication that people have good reason for believing in ghosts—as one of the officials in the story says, they represent something that isn’t “generally accepted as existing at all.” But I wonder if that’s true. Scientifically, in our heads, there just doesn’t seem to be any room in this godless world for ghosts. Skeptics ask questions like “why do they wear clothes?” or “how can a soul remain behind if we have no souls?” Who told you that you have no souls?

Even with the constant materialist discourse of only physical reality, some ghosts cases have been very well documented. So have some hoaxes. People have the spirit of being tricksters, and that doesn’t always help when it comes to understanding the unseen. The point that the article is making, however, is that ghosts seem to be filling a need that the church hasn’t. Church has long been understood as being trapped in the past—concerned with issues deemed irrelevant by people who are just trying to get by in the world. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons in my life and remember less than ten. What is it that we’re trying to do?


I don’t know if ghosts exist. Many days I’m not sure what reality is, because if it is simply crawling out of a warm bed into a cold apartment before 4 a.m. so that I can go to work, I’m not sure this isn’t some kind of afterlife already. And maybe not the best kind. I know that as soon as people began to record their thoughts in writing, ghosts have been assumed to exist. Despite Ghost Hunters and other popularizers, vague traces are caught by enough people that we can legitimately wonder about the narrative we’ve been fed that says if it can’t be measured it can’t exist. There isn’t a nation in the world where people don’t see ghosts of some kind. Why should Norway be any different? And we wouldn’t even be asking this question if Halloween didn’t provide us with a buffer that makes forbidden topics chic.

Supernatural Quest

SupernaturalTwo things we’re told about the supernatural: one, it doesn’t exist and two, it can’t be studied. Of course the vast majority of people in the world don’t buy into number one and hardly care about number two. Both, it seems to me, could be wrong. As Jeannie Banks Thomas says in her introduction to Putting the Supernatural in Its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern, and the Ethereal, belief in the supernatural is not declining. In fact, the more we’re told by cocksure scientists that all of reality is quantifiable and material, the more we become aware of the many exceptions to the rules. Of course, “supernatural” may be a misnomer. It could be that anything sloughed off into that category is simply not understood well enough to be empirically studied. Thinking back over the history of science I find it ironic that the very system that had to convince people that something couldn’t be seen (many gases) could be deadly. Now if it can’t be seen it can’t exist. We certainly don’t want any deities hanging out around here.

But back to the book. Putting the Supernatural in Its Place is a folkloric study of place. The contributors to the volume look at popular beliefs, some serious, some not, that accrue around certain places. As I’ve often stated on this blog, we are aware as humans that some places are fraught with meaning. Scientifically we know this shouldn’t be true, but we feel it when we approach any space of significance. The contributors to Thomas’ book look to some very interesting places: New Orleans, Salem, St. Ann’s Retreat, Lily Dale, Japan, and even movies and the internet. If any of these places aren’t familiar to you, it’s worth picking up a copy of this accessible book to learn more. Supporting folklore is a very good thing. Folklore, after all, is the wisdom of the people.

The places in this book are rumored to be haunted by ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, and even fairies. Folklorists, of course, don’t try to prove that beliefs are true. Like any academic they study and analyze. The main form of exploration for the non-academic is the legend quest. Many of us have gone legend questing from time to time. A place where something happened is said to have a certain feel or manifestation, so we go to see what it’s all about. If such trips are given religious sanction we call them pilgrimages. We want to see. But more than that, we want to experience something that the past has left behind. In the part of the year when each night grows longer than the last, my thoughts turn to what is usually termed “the supernatural.” And I, for one, am glad to have able guides along the way to make the simple voyage into a quest.

Ordinary Magic

ConjuringSpirits copyThe concept of grimoires, as well as being seasonal, has been on my mind as I finish up my paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting next month. Grimoires, books of magic, have eluded, for the most part, the interests of scholars. Who takes magic seriously, anyway? Slowly our gaze is working its way away from our noses and out to the magical world beyond. Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic is a textbook example of what happens when you bring the two together (scholars and magic, that is). Like most collected works, the pieces range from fascinating to somewhat magical in their ability to cause the eyes to close. Nevertheless I learned quite a bit from this book edited by Claire Fanger. Magic is not nearly so rare as we like to claim it is.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these essays is that grimoires were not only written by witches. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many of them were written by clerics and monks. They were avidly used by doctors, as science likely has its roots in magic rather than in some sudden enlightenment that matter is all there is. Medicine was still beholden to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Humors and stars could make you unwell, and the wise physician would do well to pay attention to magic as well. Today we’re too sophisticated for that, but we still call the unexplained the placebo effect.

Although the church became the great enemy of magic, it was also one of its main sources. The Mass, with transubstantiation, seemed alchemical. Miracles of healing, known throughout the Bible, suggested that the improbable was indeed possible. A number of grimoires contained instructions to work such wonders. One of the most vehemently condemned was a book informing how to attain the beatific vision—a worthy enough goal—but it did so in a way that circumvented the power of the church. Garden variety magic was also available, of course, as were recipes calling for brain of black cat and blood of bat. Witches, after all, were mainly sought out by the church. Those with power are not easily compelled to relinquish it. It should surprise no one then that magic continues to thrive.

The Climate of Belief

As I’ve noted before, in our culture where an individual voice is hard to hear, those without institutional affiliation are generally considered self-promoting hacks. That’s really too bad, given that so many highly educated people end up in menial positions—our society’s “greatest resources” squandered away behind a counter or sequestered in a cubicle. So it was my great honor to be asked to present Rutgers Presbyterian Church’s Autumn Guest Lecture this year in Manhattan. When I taught at Nashotah House invitations to speak came frequently, even though it was a small school. I even once received an invitation to talk when I was an adjunct at Rutgers University. Since “going corporate,” it seems, I have nothing to say. It really is wonderful to be asked to speak again. Practicing my talk brings back many fond memories. Lecturing is in my blood. The Pastor asked me to come after my book, Weathering the Psalms, was published. Never intended as a best-seller, it has quietly sat on the sidelines, like its author.

weather wiggins ii sml

I suppose a bit of shameless self-promotion might be in order, but of course, I will feel ashamed for pointing out, when it’s all over. If you happen to be in New York City this coming Saturday and Sunday, so will I. Rutgers Presbyterian is located on the upper west side, not far from Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History. I’m always glad for an audience. See? Now I feel bad for having said so. My theme over the weekend will be “The Climate of Belief.” In addition to the weather, we’ll be talking about religion and science. Two worldviews that seem to be in constant conflict are not really the bitter enemies they seem to be. I won’t give away any spoilers since then you’d have no reason to come to my New York debut.

Further along, I am scheduled to give a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT) session on sensing scripture. My talk on that occasion will be on how the Bible is presented as an iconic book in the first season of Sleepy Hollow. Be sure to mark your November calendars now! It’s not too often that a person with no institution willing to back him gets to speak twice in a year. Someone who’s in a position to hire professors once told me that with so many candidates out there, you have to wait until you fall in love with one. Being a Don Juan, whether in amore or academia, has never been my strong suit. Still, if Elijah is to be believed, even an unamplified voice may carry. I’ll utter my “yop” for those who wish to listen.

Weathering Academia

Come the end of September, I’m scheduled to give a talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. I’m personally very flattered by this because, as it has become clear to me, an academic without a post is mute. I’ve seen colleagues who teach at schools I’ve never heard of consulted by the media—and there is obviously more to it than this—because they have teaching positions. Those of us who used to be professors apparently forgot everything when we take jobs out of necessity. That’s why I’m so flattered. My talk will be on the larger issues behind my book, Weathering the Psalms. I never expected this book to be a bestseller. I knew that it was, in some sense, incomplete. Academic books are the kinds of things you write when you have an academic post. When your day is not programmed with “enter this data, follow up on that book, and when you have time, get other people to write books.” People, of course, with university posts. The rest of us know not whereof we speak.

It’s funny. Back when I was teaching, even if it was only at Nashotah House, I used to be asked to give little talks all the time. It was rare for a year to pass without someone asking me to lead a seminar or share what I’d learned with some august body. That tapered off once I became an adjunct, although a Presbyterian Church in Princeton once invited me to speak because I was teaching at Rutgers (the university). And as I prepare my talk in my free time, I wonder about a society so tied up with name prestige that someone who has something interesting to say is just a crackpot unless a college or university or seminary or think-tank hires them. There are many of us—hundreds, if not thousands—who know as much as our university colleagues about a topic. An individual doesn’t have a name big enough to flash around, so we don’t get asked to share. Keep your hand down and your head down on the desk, please.


In any case, it has been good for me to come back to the weather and think through some of the larger implications. I’d just had the book declined by a big name academic press when Nashotah House terminated my position. For many years I couldn’t look at the manuscript since it seemed a symbol of my failure. No, the book isn’t everything that it could be, but there is some good information there. The larger implications are actually of some importance here. The weather is studied both by science and by religion. Both understand aspects of it that the other misses. I’m looking forward to exploring this with the good folks of Rutgers Presbyterian who were kind enough to invite a guy with nothing more than a book and an obscure name to come and talk about something that most academic colleagues just don’t notice.