Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.

Post Thanksgiving

Yesterday morning, like many others mesmerized by the commercialization of holidays, I had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television.  I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but I know that growing up poor we used to watch this, and that my wife’s family, from different circumstances, also watched it.  The friends with whom we ate our main meal watched it, and given the advertising revenues, I imagine many other people tune in every year as part of the holiday tradition.  What struck me were the testimonials just before or after the commercial breaks.  Celebrities shared what they liked about the holiday and many of them, unsurprisingly, focused on food.  Many indicated that overeating was pleasurable.  I began to think of what it means to be a nation of foodies.

Not everyone is of a cenobitic sensibility, but focusing on the food seems to be paying more attention to the finger pointing at the moon than to the moon itself.  Commercials for television shows of sweaty, nervous chefs wanting to be recognized as the best cooks in the world struck me as somewhat decadent.  Like many professionals I’ve had occasion to eat in “fine restaurants” from time to time.  Do I remember the food for long afterward?  No.  More often I recall the people I was with.  What we talked about.  The food, chefs may be pained to hear, was incidental.  There were deeper issues afoot.  If the internet’s any indication, I’m in the minority here.  Foodies rule.

Special foods on holidays are, naturally enough, a holiday tradition.  Many have their origins in the changing foodstuffs available as the seasons wend their way through their invariable cycle.  Thanksgiving is like the ancient festivals of ingathering—the celebration of plenty ahead of the lean months of living on what we’ve managed to store for the season when winter reigns.  Some animals cope by hibernating until food becomes available again.  Others scavenge their way through chilly, snow-covered days.  Gluttony, however, isn’t primarily a sin against one’s body; it’s the sin of taking more than one’s fair share.  Unequal distribution of wealth is a national sin that grows worse each year.  On Thanksgiving there are many people who don’t have enough to eat.  Jobs can be lost through no fault of one’s own, and want can haunt late November just as readily as jouissance.  Driving home we passed a shopping mall brimming with cars after darkness had fallen.  The larger holiday of Black Friday had begun.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Leftovers

It looks like I forgot to click “publish” yesterday, so my blog post never appeared.  With apologies for doubling up, I need to complete the trilogy today.  So here goes…

Unlike All Saints Day, which, we were told, was a day of obligation, All Souls Day, today, was not.  It was kind of a leftovers day.  Ironically, it developed into Día de Muertos—the Day of the Dead—along with Halloween and All Saints.  Yes, there are many who declare, and rightly so, that Día de Muertos is something different.  It is and it isn’t.  Cultures around the world have always felt that at this point in the year something odd was going on.  The carnal summer was becoming the spiritual autumn.  Thoughts of those who’d died come back.  So it is a three-day celebration—not officially recognized in the United States (it would interfere with business, which is, as we all know, a thing not to be imagined)—has become a commercial boon.

Still, not being among the saints, I have to wonder if the leftovers—All Souls—are somehow second-class citizens in the afterlife.  Does the social stratification we experience daily here carryover to there?  The view of Heaven among the poor is generally one of comfort and equality.  Fairness, which is in very short supply down here, will finally see the end of the moral arc of the universe, to borrow from a departed sage, bend toward justice.  And sharply.  The idea is ancient and powerful.  Primates of other species don’t object to having leaders.  They do, however, reject leaders who abuse power.  And so it is that we’ve evolved beyond that.  Civilization teaches us our place.

The Day of the Dead has become commercial, along with Halloween.  Why not stretch out the profits, which, after all, come from the leftovers?  There is a capitalist vision of Heaven, you see, and it is one we see working out on earth these days.  Those with money take power and use their money to buy more power that in turn leads to more money for them.  We call it “making a living.”  Those who are wise, however, recognize something deeper in Día de Muertos.  It is the time when we welcome family home, indeed, when family becomes more important than job, or status, or power.  It is a very human, if supernatural, holiday.  All Souls, it seems, has received less than its fair share of attention.  The Day of the Dead, in its own way, warms up those leftovers.

Headline News

Some headlines just can’t be resisted.  George Knapp: Christian Fundamentalists in the Pentagon Shut Down Government Paranormal and UFO Probes Due to Demon Fears” is one such headline.  It appears on the blog of Jason Colavito, a name I recognized from the book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture that I read several years back.  Skeptical of many strange claims made, Colavito criticizes journalist George Knapp for some sloppy reporting.  If you go all the way down the rabbit hole, you will end up in some very weird places indeed!  What caught my attention here, however, is the connection between demons and UFOs.  More than that, the claim that government funding was deep-sixed for fear of the Devil.  (Has anyone else noticed that it’s October?)

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about this.  Having grown up Fundamentalist, I often heard talk of the Devil’s wiles.  One of the things he had his demons do, I was told, was fly around in UFOs to deceive people into thinking demons were aliens.  If this sounds far-fetched to you, remember that God made dinosaur bones to plant in the ground to test people’s faith in Genesis 1.  That’s just the kind of universe we live in.  Better get used to it.  The real problem, and one with which Colavito concurs, is that high ranking military officers (and other government officials) believe the Fundamentalist screed.  This is a matter of documented truth—much of our government policy is dictated by the evangelical agenda.  Stranger than fiction.

In 1952 there was a UFO flap in Washington DC.  No matter how you choose to explain it, this is an incident on the public record, and the Air Force responded with its famous temperature inversion explanation.  At the same time, some Fundamentalists were thinking that demons had improved on the bat-wings they’d been using for millennia.  They now zipped around in silvery discs with the same object as they’ve always had—to dis the Almighty.  As entertaining as such a story may be, it becomes scary when it might indeed be the motivation for government action.  I don’t know about you, but when I look at just how much of my meager paycheck goes to the powers that be, I want to know that rational people are spending it wisely.  Wait.  Well, I thought some of them were rational until a couple of years ago, about this time.  In any case, we do get some entertainment value for our cash, which is some comfort I suppose.  Keep watching the swamp!

Read, Mark and

One of the persistent questions of Christianity, given that there are four Gospels, is how to account for the differences between them.  The issue isn’t unique to Jesus-followers, however, as the composition history of the “books of Moses” shows.  Discrepancies in Genesis got the whole ball rolling, after all.  In fact, once I learned about historical criticism I decided that I’d better stick to the Hebrew Bible—there are some things you just don’t want to know about your own faith.  The way doctoral programs are set up these days, you can’t specialize in both testaments anyway, although that’s becoming a lot more common among scholars in these latter days.  In any case, I was reading about the Gospel of Mark lately and the question kept coming up of whether certain phrases went back to Jesus, were coined by Mark, or had their origin in the early church.

The picture that emerges from this kind of jigsaw gospel is of Mark sitting down, pulling his sources together like a graduate student in the days before computers.  Only Mark won’t get a doctorate when he’s done.  More recent scholarship asks the question of what if Mark wasn’t really a completed book after all—we read the gospels through lenses that were ground in the eighteenth century, at the earliest.  Nobody thought to question that Moses or Mark would sit down to write a book just like anyone did then.  (People writing books on their phones in electronic form only, as they do these days, will play havoc with future historical critics and their theories.)  Maybe these weren’t meant to be finished books.  Check out Gospels before the Book by Matthew Larsen and you’ll see what I mean.

The Bible, in other words, is a very complex book.  We know little of its authors beyond Paul of Tarsus.  We don’t even know that they were setting out to write Holy Writ.  Bible is a matter of interpretation.  As I thought about Mark—whoever he was—shuffling his papers about, mulling over what it would mean to become the first evangelist, I thought how like us we’ve made not only God, but also the writers of sacred texts.  True, they weren’t worried about tenure committees, or bad reviews, or being accepted by prestige presses.  It seems, however, that they were also not thinking of what readers down the millennia would do with their words.  When it’s all done we still don’t know who said what, but at least we have persistent questions that can’t be answered.  And job security ensures that Bible reading will continue as long as there are discrepancies to debate.