Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

One Size Fits All

The divide between religion and science is often artificially widened by one side or the other. Of course the divide’s artificial—both science and religion are human constructs, after all. This is illustrated well in the sense of wonder in an article titled “True Story Of Volcanic Eruption Told By Aboriginal People For 7,000 Years” by Robin Andrews on IFLScience!. The very concept that a scientifically verifiable event survived in oral tradition for thousands of years completely unbalances those accustomed to think that the ancients were superstitious dupes who looked to the gods to explain everything. What’s often not realized is that the gods were an early version of science. Think about it—ancient people observed their environment for cause and effect. They couldn’t use the empirical method because it hadn’t been invented yet. That didn’t mean they were unsophisticated.

We look at the pyramids and wonder. How could such archaic people construct such advanced monuments? The rudiments of science actually begin to appear in the human record very early. Our species is a curious lot. The explanations for the close observations tended to be mythological. Gods are great for filling gaps. What we don’t see is any conflict between knowledge acquired by reason and ideas conjured by imagination. They fit together nicely. Human brains evolved that way. Belief is a strange thing—it influences reality, at least on a quantum level, but somehow it must be denigrated when compared to “pure science.” A large part of the blame, of course, has to go to those who had learned to take the Bible literally, particularly beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Bible had a disproportionally influential role in the founding of European empires. From the regular Roman under Constantine to the Holy Roman under Charlemagne, what became Catholicism informed political structures. In the British Empire, ever vacillating between Catholic and Protestant, the Bible played a major intellectual role. Real problems developed, however, when the idea of science alone took over. This was after Newton, Galileo, and Darwin. None of these lights suggested religion had no place. The real issue isn’t vanquishing, but finding proper balance. No matter how well calibrated our instruments may become, until we learn to detect “spirit” we have to admit that science can’t replace religion. Such harmful ideas as eugenics and behaviorism indicate that we need a balance and not a slam dunk. Who knows? Some of even the Bible may be true. Unless we learn to admit we don’t know all, those sitting around the fireside telling stories should be given credibility regarding what they’ve seen.

Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?


Sidelines can be interesting places to sit. You’re close to the action, and you’re privileged with a close view that few others have. You can’t, however, play the game. Sidelines are familiar to biblical scholars. I can’t count the number of times and/or ways the input of those who spend their lives trying to comprehend the Good Book are, well, sidelined. In the publishing world those who work with Bibles are simply ignored by most others, despite the enormous revenue Bible sales generate. In the academy religion departments overall are fair game for any potential budget cuts. And since what religion study survives tends to be intercultural, the Bible faculty are deemed somewhat less necessary than other sub-disciplines. It’s easy to forget that Christianity is the largest organized religion in the world and that some 2.2 billion persons claim that name. The Bible’s their foundational book. It tells us what motivates them. And yet, it’s easier simply to ignore the whole thing. Then something insane like an Evangelical-fueled Trump election, and everyone continues to say, “we can safely ignore this.”

I recently saw an article by scientists which explored why people engage in dangerous behaviors. The main idea was that although we know certain things are bad for us individually or as a planet, we still do them. We do them with the full knowledge that they’re deadly and will likely hasten our demise. Ignoring religion (and in the case at hand, the Bible) is very much like that. A well-armed true believer can ruin your day pretty quickly. Religion, in recent years, has generated over $82 billion in revenue per year. At least those in the dismal science ought to sit up and take notice of that! Hey, for once, the numbers are with us! Statistically, religion is very important. Sounds like a good thing to pretend doesn’t exist.

Having grown up a Fundamentalist, I often ponder this state of affairs. The Bible, we all knew, was the most important thing. Studying it formally does tend to force new ways of considering it, but few Bible scholars would want to dismiss the Good Book out of hand. It still means too much to too many people simply to ignore. Far safer is the proper handling of Holy Writ. This is much easier to instill when institutions support it. It really is a necessary kind of education. Still, it gets sidelined for industries with lesser profits and lesser baggage. I grew into a career defined by the Bible, but even if I hadn’t I’d hope that I’d be able to recognize that some things just shouldn’t be ignored. Yet I’m on the sidelines cheering on those who consider such a career a tragic mistake.

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

To Whom?

The other day I heard someone use the phrase, “preaching to the converted.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that regional variations on folk sayings exist, but I’ve always heard this as “preaching to the choir.” What’s the difference, you ask? Actually, these two statements imply very divergent things. It all comes down to preaching. Preaching is what clergy do. (I know I’m over-simplifying, but bear with me.) And where do ministers preach? That’s right, in the church. Aha, you might say, those in the church are both converted and some, anyway, are in the choir! What’s the difference? The difference is the choir has to be there. It’s an issue of volition.

Since this isn’t eighteenth-century New England (at least not yet, although the current administration is trying to make it so) there are no real consequences for not attending church. Many of the converted exercise their God-given right not to worship. The choir, however, has committed itself to being there. They’re more than converted. They’re the faithful. The minister, in other words, doesn’t really need to preach to them at all. Turn this around. Preaching isn’t necessarily to convert someone so much as to improve their lifestyle. Preaching to the unconverted is actually evangelizing. “Evangelizing the converted,” though, just doesn’t have the same ring to it now, does it? Preaching to the choir is applicable to the rest of the church goers who show up regularly. They’re not, however, in the same league with the choir.

I decided to research the history of the saying. It turns out that the original is “preaching to the converted.” The saying originated in England in the 1800s. “Preaching to the choir” appears in America in the 1970s. Perhaps the choir emerged as a new ecclesiastical force in twentieth-century America. Some of the clergy I know would certainly agree with this assessment. They’re really a smaller subset of the converted, after all. The committed converted. Of course, it’s a distinct possibility that I’m spouting nonsense here. If that’s the case, I’m probably preaching to the choir.

Dark Lite

Maybe you’ve noticed it too. While certainly not universal, many forms of Gothic cultural expression (novels, movies, television, etc.) have a playfulness to them. As if taking the genre too seriously might be a misrepresentation. Even Edgar Allan Poe can be caught smirking from time to time. I’ve often wondered about this unusual combination of darkness and light. Catherine Spooner obviously has too. In Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of the Happy Goth she takes on a number of these cultural expressions—both Goth and Gothic—and tries to understand the lighter side that they often present. Sometimes it’s comedy and sometimes it’s irony, but those fascinated by darkness aren’t always as gloomy as they seem.

This book is a real hodgepodge of both British and American explorations of the smiling dismal. It’s a cultural contradiction, maybe, but it certainly feels authentic if you look closely enough. Although Spooner doesn’t discuss it directly, I couldn’t help but think of that great progenitor of the Gothic—the medieval church. Perhaps it was the very real fear of the plague and the nearly constant warfare of the time in Europe, but liturgy, when done right, has a palpable darkness to it. References to ourselves as “miserable sinners” begging God to “have mercy upon us” clearly call to mind some of the deeper elements of the Gothic sensibility. Having attended Anglo-Catholic services for years I came to know many who were compelled by this intensity. A Gothic chasuble is a thing of beauty forever.

Spooner, however, focuses on popular culture. Beginning with the Goth movement of the 1980s, a subculture formed that brought much of this darkness to light. She’s careful to point out that being Goth isn’t the same as being gloomy all the time. It is an expression of creativity, and, as Spooner notes, closely associated with Steampunk. Such things, however, require a recognition on the part of participants that in order to taken seriously, such expressions must become part of daily life. There are risks, however. Even in enlightened cultures we are not yet fully tolerant of those who are different. And really, much of the book is about this—accepting those who are not like ourselves. There is quite a bit going on here that’s beneath the surface. And depth is something the world could use a bit more of. There’s nothing wrong with having some fun while acquiring it, either.

Thick Skin

Religion and folklore encapsulate what folk believe. Human beings, despite rationality, are ritualistic creatures. Psychologists have their work cut out trying to explain why we do this or that odd thing, and historians sometimes dig deep into the backstory to find some hint of a tradition’s origins. Although I lived in Edinburgh for over three years, and drove through South Queensferry in the shadow of the great Forth Bridge a number of times, I never heard of the Burryman. In case you haven’t either, here’s a link a friend sent to a brief video about him. In it Andrew Taylor explains the tradition. Each year, going back to South Queensferry’s pagan past, a citizen dresses in a suit of burrs to ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. What’s fascinating here is that burrs are something people generally avoid, although they are an ingenious method of seed dispersal. They stick to clothes, and even skin and can be annoying even singly. Why anyone would submit to an entire outfit of burrs is something only folklore can answer.

Anthropologists are in short supply. Universities don’t like to fund the study of folklore since it doesn’t lead to jobs. The end result is that what we know of many strange traditions is anecdotal. A few years back I got soundly dressed down in an academic setting for referring to a popular publication of Scottish ghost stories. You see, I was writing an article for publication in an academic journal. I wanted to document a story I’d memorized by dint of the fact that a ghost tour guide would stand beneath our window every night in Mylne’s Court and recite his tale. (I traced it back to a potential Ancient Near Eastern origin.) The problem was, no academic would deign to write about such decidedly low brow tripe. In order to find a written source, I had to cite a popular book. Academic reviewers responded with scorn that I would never pass on to an author, speaking as an editor. This was, however, in the old school days.

So, how would we find the backstory to the Burryman? Great Big Story went straight to the source. Andrew Taylor, the incumbent Burryman, tells what he knows of the tradition. You can’t even see the Burryman from high in your ivory tower where pure thought is your only companion. I’ve always been a street academic, though. Growing up blue collar, I find it much more interesting to see what people are doing out here where the professionals don’t tell them how to behave. The pagan past is still alive. We don’t need a wicker man to prove the point. All it takes is a bunch of dried burdock and some very thick skin.