Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Fair Weather

“I just saw God up on your ridge.”  (Kudos to anyone who can name the source of that quote!)  Many years ago I read Stewart Guthrie’s remarkable Faces in the Clouds.  The idea that he presents is that pareidolia—seeing faces or people where they don’t actually exist—may account for the belief in God.  Early people, not knowing any way to interpret such obvious examples of humans writ everywhere thought they were gods or spirits.  Since reading this book, I’ve taken to trying to capture incidents of pareidolia where I can.  The other day as I was working away in my home office, I noticed a literal face in the clouds.  I thought “I just saw God outside my window.”

Now I know this isn’t really what I saw.  I know matrixing (mistaking noise for signal) when I experience it.  I hope.  Nevertheless, the resemblance was detailed—brow ridge, nose, distinct lips, chin.  The lighting in the fair weather cumulus will likely make this difficult for you to make out, and you might see a face other than the one I saw.  Not everyone thinks of the Almighty in the same way.  Looking at the picture I snapped I can see at least two faces stacked on top of one another—the council of the gods?  Who am I to tell deities what they can or can’t do?   Or to prevent imagination from going where it will?  Religion seems to be an evolved characteristic of our biological makeup—our eyes show us what to believe about the world around us.  The rest is hermeneutics.

Gods and the skies naturally go together.  We can’t reach the heavens nor can we control them.  We can increase greenhouse gases in them, though, threatening the very illusion we see in the clouds.  The glimpse of the divine we once saw there can easily dissolve into acid rain.  Heaven and Hell, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus, aren’t very far apart.  Even as we gaze into the cerulean sky seeking serenity, others are bending laws to allow them to destroy it for profit.  There’s a reason Dives is simply called “the rich man.”  Does Scripture defend the practice of environmental destruction?  Dives’ friends claim the planet was given to us to use and use up and Jesus will swoop out of those clouds we’re manipulating at the last minute and rescue us from the mess we’ve made.  Looking into God’s face in the clouds, I interpret this all as a mere excuse.  To destroy the environment is to side with Dives as he makes his flaming bed of nails in Hell. This is why windows in an office are divine.

Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?


Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Only Which King James?

Nothing is as simple as it seems. Not that the Bible ever claims simplicity for itself. Among those who make up their minds before seeing all the evidence, there’s a strong preference for the “King James Version” of the Bible. Many with that preference will claim that they don’t interpret the Good Book, they just read it. Reading itself is an act of interpretation and stakes tend to be pretty high when the claim for divine authorship is on the table. So I figured I’d better interpret something about the King James Bible myself. Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version is an informative, authoritative, and often witty treatment of the topic. One of the immediate takeaways is that there is no single KJV.

Beginning in the beginning, Gordon tells the story of the Bible in English. There were translations before the King James, and its translation companies used these previous efforts and sometimes borrowed extensively from them. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. Once the King James was done in 1611 it had to be printed, and printing, being what it is, led to errors. Although these were of the secular, human kind, they nevertheless appear from the beginning and new typesettings led to corrections and other errors, some perhaps intentional. Then came the revisions. What readers buy—and some claim is an inspired translation—as the KJV is a revision of a revision. Of a revision. In other words, the inspiration seems to lie with the redactors rather than the translators themselves. There are many different “official” King James versions. Translations are never static.

King James Onlyists (a modern movement) may not realize that the New Revised Standard Version is the modern descendant of the King James. The Revised Version (RV), followed by the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and its more recent, feared progeny (the NRSV) are all based on the King James translation. That is the version “Revised” in each of these efforts. They consult improved versions of ancient texts that have been discovered since the Jacobean era, but where they earn the ire of conservatives is in the updating of the modern language. A Bible with no thees or thous hardly seems sacred at all. The line of continuity is there, however. Other Bible translations “start over” but still consult the KJV, such is its stature. The real problem comes in supposing that any one translation is the original. No original Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts survive, and no original King James Version exists. How uncomfortable these facts are, everyone will have to interpret for her or himself.

My Heavens

The details escape me. I was a student at Grove City College, working on a paper. In the library I ran across an article about a rain of fish. Always interested in the unusual, I was surprised to see such a piece in a reputable journal, and up until that time I’d never heard of Charles Fort or his gathering of such accounts from around the world. That paper was in my mind when I picked up It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes by Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff at a used bookstore. Subtitled Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, it was published by the mainstream Harper, so I figured it wasn’t too far afield from reality. It turned out to be more the subtitle than the title, but an engaging read nevertheless.

There is a small section on rains of fish and other strange objects, but the book is really a tribute to the sky. Although I’m not an anthropologist, I have long been intrigued by the fact that people everywhere associate the sky with the divine. From the human perspective, it’s massive and all-encompassing. No matter where you stand on this planet, the sky extended over you, engulfing the horizon and implying even more beyond. It is responsible for our weather, and without the buffering of our atmosphere no life would’ve evolved on the earth at all (and that would be a pity because I enjoy writing this blog). Perhaps even before there were humans proper, our ancestors thought there was something divine about the sky.

While the firmament can’t be contained in a book, this one tries to consider just about everything you might find in the celestial realm. From extremes of weather to meteors to strange things falling from the sky, it tells of rain and snow and sunshine, insects, bats, and birds. The four seasons don’t really function as the best conceit for the book, since the sky is eternal and many of the aspects discussed are present all year long—the moon is with us always and the sun rises and sets even in winter. Nevertheless, this strange and alluring book demonstrates how the sky makes us what we are. Even though it was written in the last century it warns of global warming—then merely an idea—and shows how humans are capable of destroying that which gives them life. That article back in college suggested that the impossible happens, and that, given how the world is going, causes me to look upward with wonder.

Eternity, Technically

When the robot uprising comes, we have a factor in our favor, we biological beings. That is our parts, although they do break down, generally heal themselves. I write this as kind of a forecast, because I’m not at home due to the holiday weekend, and neither is the internet at my home. You see, our internet service (which is not cheap) has been going out from time to time. Our service provider thinks it may be old parts. The box was installed in our basement over a decade ago and when the technician sent me down amid the cobwebs before leaving town I had to report to her that all cables were hardwired into the box. No clip and slip here. She thinks the cable has gone bad.

The cable just sits there. It never gets moved or jostled. How it could fail I don’t know. But the consequences are two. There may not be posts on this blog for a while once I return home. I’ve posted every day, holiday and secular-day, for years now. Technology, however, is a jealous deity and will not permit humans taking it for granted. The second consequence is more optimistic; when the robots rise up against us, their parts will wear out and they won’t be able to regenerate them organically. They’ll need to order them and hope they can find a delivery system even more efficient than Amazon’s. Good luck with that! I ordered a book the other day and less than 24 hours later it was at my door. That’s service.

I decided to post this advance warning so there may be no weeping and gnashing of teeth (please—dental work is expensive!) on Monday or Tuesday when no new post appears on this blog. It’s not that I’m not thinking of you all, it’s just technical. Robots may run system tests, but can they feel it in their bones when something’s about to go? Do they indeed sing the body electric? Can they feel the poetry they write? To be human is to think with our emotions and to reason ourselves out of irrational angst. I see the slaves to technology putting on weight as they rely more and more on labor-saving devices to make their lives automated. I’m guilty too. As I sit here many miles from home, however, I worry about the internet back there. Is it sick? Is it dying? And if so, to which mechanical god should I pray to save its technical soul?

Holy or Not?

The ancient divine world was a slippery place. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense. The deities and demons of antiquity were invisible. Different opinions existed as to what they were. The idea of “the Bible” that contains infallible information didn’t exist. Apart from the books now accepted by Protestants, the “Apocrypha” and even more fun Pseudepigrapha contained many more traditions than the average reader might guess. I’ve been a student of that ancient divine world for decades now, and I learned quite a bit from The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Angela Kim Harkins, Kelley Coblentz Bautch, and John C. Endres, S.J. Appropriately divided into three parts (origins of fallen angels, Second Temple developments, and Jewish and Christian reception) these collected essays explore different dimensions of these mysterious beings.

Watchers are seldom mentioned in the Bible, in just a few verses of Daniel. In some traditions they are high angels—think the hymn that includes the word “ye Watchers and ye holy ones”—but mostly they are fallen angels. If you limit yourself to the Good Book you really get only four verses of Genesis 6 to explain them. Other ancient writers, some of whom likely influenced the New Testament, took up the subject. The book of 1 Enoch contains a section called The Book of the Watchers. Here the Watchers come down to earth with a couple of purposes—to share forbidden secrets with humanity, and to mate with human women. The offspring of these matings are giants, Nephilim, or demons. Perhaps all three. These events are retold in Jubilees and are taken up by early Christian writers especially.

Although this book isn’t a monograph with conclusions based on all the information it contains, it nevertheless gives a very good sense of the various traditions that developed around these Watchers. Even when reading through the Bible as a child, the Genesis 6 episode caught me off guard. The story isn’t highlighted in children’s Bibles, and the way it’s told in Hebrew leaves a lot of ambiguities in the adult reader’s mind. It’s almost as if this brief account is bing kept deliberately obscure. The Good Book drops this bomb then blithely goes on its way without mentioning it again. This episode reminds us just how little the Bible clarifies. It wasn’t written to be the “inerrant word of God,” and those heady days just after Eden were full of stories that it never bothered to tell. The Watchers, meanwhile, made their way into popular culture because the silence of Scripture allows readers to fill in the blanks with either angels or demons.