Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Nicholas of Myra

It may be a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but archaeologists don’t often worry about timing. A piece in the Washington Post announced something of potential interests to hagiographers everywhere—Saint Nicholas may still actually be in his tomb. According to the article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., bandits broke in and stole the relics of the saint centuries ago. In fact, they took them to Bari where a thriving cult grew up around the giving bishop. It seems, however, that they got the wrong tomb. If the analysis is correct, Nicholas of Myra is right where they put him sixteen centuries ago.

Photo credit: Bjoertvedt, via Wikimedia Commons

None of this, however, impacts Christmas as we know it. The relationship between the historical Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is a wide-ranging and fascinating one. Stories of generosity surrounded Nicholas during and after his earthly life. It took centuries of evolution to get from that to what we now accept as standard Christmas mythology. In the early—pre-rampant capitalist—United States Christmas wasn’t much observed. It was even illegal in some places. Too Popish to appeal to the dissenter sensibilities that made up the colonial majority, the holiday season simply did not exist. It was, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “winter without Christmas.” For those of us who grew up with warm memories of presents, special foods, and days off the obligations of school, such an existence is difficult to imagine.

The feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6. Because of its proximity to the revisionist birthday of Jesus on December 25, the gifts of the Magi and the storied presents of Nicholas to families in need eventually merged. The holy days eventually became spending days and the whole jumble of Yule and other solstice celebrations got mixed into a wonderfully tolerant holiday. And all this time we thought Saint Nicholas was missing. He was missing in his own grave.

Miracles are attributed to the relics of saints. I suspect they work even if the wrong bones are plundered. Belief is like that. Historically, little is actually known of Nicholas of Myra. Little is known of Jesus of Nazareth, for that matter. The holiday that grew up in the wake of those willing to give, and to give to those who were undeserving, is a lesson that seems to have been interred with their bones. “So let it be with Santa,” you can almost hear Mark Antony say, standing before Congress, itching to slash any safety nets so one-percenters can have the happiest holiday season ever. Yes, Saint Nicholas is well and truly dead.

More Conjuring

Among the most revered traditions of the horror film is the sequel. Originally a financially driven feature, sequels have now become an expectation among fans. And although in general we prefer to appeal to our higher cultural aspirations, many horror movies do remarkably well at the box office. I’m not much of a sequel-watcher, but sometimes in my effort to understand the close connection between religion and horror, I succumb. So it was I watched The Conjuring 2. As with the formula for the initial movie, cases actually investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren are brought together with exaggerated special effects and demonic entities. Starting out in Amityville, the demon Valak is introduced. It later appears as the source of the Enfield poltergeist.

In real life controversy never strayed far from the Warrens and their investigations. Amityville and Enfield have both been implicated as hoaxes. The Hodgson girls, just like the Fox sisters in upstate New York, confessed to some faking, and, of course once that dam has been breeched, there’s no stopping the flood to follow. Nevertheless, such incidents make for good horror film fare. In the case of The Conjuring 2, bringing a named demon into the mix keeps the religious pot roiling. Ironically, the demon takes the form of a nun. This character is a complete departure from both the Amityville and Enfield of record, although demonic influences were posited for both cases. Valak appears to go back to The Lesser Key of Solomon, a grimoire familiar to watchers of the now departed Sleepy Hollow.

Even with the hoax light cast on the “based on a true story” tagline, The Conjuring is well on its way to spawning a cinematic universe. Annabelle was a spinoff, and Annabelle: Creation scored high marks this summer. The success of The Conjuring 2 has led to work on The Nun, scheduled out next year. There’s talk of a third Conjuring film as well. As religion becomes less obvious in the traditional forms of weekly worship gatherings, it crops up more in other areas of culture. Don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty of secular horror as well. What does stand out is that when religion knocks at that creaking door of horror, nobody’s especially surprised. The Conjuring 2’s climax is quickly resolved once the demon’s name is remembered. The fallen angel is banished, not so much back to Hell as to another sequel. Eternal life is, after all, a religious idea as well.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

The Name of the Game

I have a confession to make. I’m not a gamer. Just like everyone old enough to be aware in the 1970s, I was amazed at Pong. Television, which had always only been a passive producer of entertainment, could now be interactive. Slower than real table tennis, the game nevertheless easily consumed hours of life otherwise productively spent. I went off to college and left the burgeoning video game market behind. Then in the late 1990s Myst appeared. The new Macs of those days came loaded with action games about dinosaurs stealing eggs. My daughter was fascinated and so I played. Then I lost interest again. That had been family bonding time, so it wasn’t completely wasted. Now we live in a world where, writers tell me, the real money lies not in movie rights to your novel, but game rights.

Kids, developmental psychologists assure us, need to play. It’s how they explore their world. As the human world becomes more and more electronic, games become more a part of virtual life. Some even have plots and genuine character development. A friend sent me a link to a story on Mashable, “Jesus battles the Buddha in fighting game hellbent on offending.” Victoria Ho describes Fight of Gods where deities of all denominations duke it out for dominion. After posting about god novels recently, it seems to me that we’ve begun to enter a time when the divine world hasn’t disappeared, but has transmuted. In this new world while all gods are not exactly created equal, they all have a shot at supremacy. It’s a matter of who can hit hardest.

No matter whether one finds this offensive or not, there is an element of profundity here. Historically religions have made gods of the things we fear. Storms, diseases, wars, and death—all of these have been, and continue to be, represented as deities. Human insecurity is deeply rooted in our psychology. We’re afraid of things we can’t control. In periods of governmental chaos, phobias naturally rise to the level of personal panic. What can we do in the face of such forces? Especially when prominent figures tell us all religious belief is for the weak-minded and feeble? Don’t we have to strap on our virtual armor and hope some powerful divinities are on our side? In such times as this we need our gods, no matter their tradition of origin. For me, I fear I won’t be able to spin this dial fast enough and that strangely square ping-pong ball is going to get past my virtual paddle.

Contemporary Scripture

Being born into a religion makes all the difference. I say this as someone who was born into a family that would now be labeled Fundamentalist. That orientation stays firm unless a reason arises to question it. And that reason must be compelling. Many today wonder how, for example, Mormons can believe the narrative of golden plates told by Joseph Smith and that led to the Book of Mormon. Like many non-LDS members, I am curious. While this isn’t the main question in Terryl L. Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, he does address it. The answer comes in the form of a community of belief. The idea is perhaps surprising in an age of individualism, but communal belief has been, historically, the mainstay of religion. A few individuals in any tradition dig deeply and ask questions. They rise into leadership roles, and steps along the way confirm their convictions. Most, however, are everyday believers.

The Book of Mormon is an interesting scripture. The idea of tribes from Israel colonizing the New World has its challenges. The Bible itself tends to go silent about what happened to the northern tribes (“Israel” proper) after the exile. This opens the door to all kinds of possibilities. Various cultures have claimed to be the remnant. Native Americans, of course, tend not to apply the idea to themselves. As Givens points out, the Book of Mormon states that the Israelites of the New World died out long ago. Probably when the Latter-Day Saints are few centuries older, it may happen that metaphorical views toward the Book of Mormon might become prevalent. It took over a millennium before “mainstream” Christians began to ask some pointed questions about their own Scriptures.

Scriptures are products of their own periods. No matter how sacred or inspired they are thought to be, they were written down in human time and human space. Hints are often left along the way regarding authorship, origin, bias, and perspective. The Book of Mormon is rare in having a known publication date, and that in the nineteenth century. Autographs—original texts—are available, even if the golden tablets are not. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a scripture come into being. We know who wrote the Book of Mormon, and when. Its printing history is known, as is its context in the Second Great Awakening. All that’s needed are a few more centuries for scholars to see how things develop. Those who study scriptures are inclined towards the long view anyway.

Hieroglyphs

The word “hieroglyph” translates to “sacred writing.” If you’re like me, your first attempts to learn writing were probably not very sacred at all. Tongue pressed to the corner of my mouth, eyes staring fixedly at the paper flat in front of me, my hand going anywhere but where I wanted it to, writing was a burden. I soon grew to love it though, not realizing it was changing my brain even as I was assimilating how to do it. Anne Trubek introduces quite a few new angles to the story in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. She begins at the beginning, cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and offers a brief sketch of how handwriting developed into the phenomenon we know today. And how it is now becoming something very different than what it once was.

Trubek’s book is full of delightful surprises about the development of scripts and the technologies that attend them. Like most non-specialists in cuneiform suppose, she suggests handwriting is basically anonymous therein. In fact, it’s not. Molding clay into a smartphone-shaped tablet doesn’t seem like technology, but the process of writing took a leap forward when someone figured out how to do this. Those who work with cuneiform can learn to identify handwriting. In the Ugaritic corpus, the tablets “signed” by Ilimilku can be distinguished from those written by others, and not just by his name. Technology has been devised to measure depth and order of stylus strokes in the clay, the angle the stylus was held, and many other seemingly insignificant features. Handwriting was present from the very beginning.

Perhaps what is most striking about Trubek’s study is how religion enters the discussion at almost every stage. Very early on writing was identified as a sacred activity. This continued through the middle ages when monks were those who performed writing as part of their non-secular duties. Even those who piloted penmanship in the modern period often noted that a person’s moral, Christian disposition could be measured by how said person made their letters. Writing, as those who do it for a good while know, becomes a sacred activity. Most world religions have holy books. Many of those books were the reason for an interest in literacy in several cultures. Even a surprising number of secular writers have understood the activity to have spiritual dimensions. Trubek’s book gives bibliophiles plenty to ponder. She doesn’t see the rise of keyboarding as a threat to writing because even in the computer age, individuality comes through. And for those who truly understand hieroglyphs, all writing is sacred.