In Our Image

Preparing course notes on Ancient Near Eastern religions often sheds light on the religions we practice today. Religious beliefs are organic and, although many religions claim special revelation, their basic components have been around for millennia before they appeared. In the broad sweep of ancient times it becomes clear that religions evolve to fit the viewpoint of the power structures of society. The favorite god of a puissant sovereign became the chief god of a nation. When rulers change, gods sometimes change with them. Without doubting the sincerity of ancient believers, the truth is that gods serve the needs of the state as long as the state upholds the monarch. When gods become too sympathetic to the working class, well, it’s time to shuffle up the pantheon a bit. The story of Akhenaton’s advocacy of Aton worship is a case-in-point.

Somewhere along the way to modernity, symbolism became literalism. Anyone who follows the news of the various theocracies of modern history can see this pattern endlessly repeating itself. Politicians need a power-base and religious believers are often natural followers. By wedding gullibility to expediency a religious right is born. Akhenaton would have been proud. Of course, the message repeatedly doled out by our rapidly evolving, technical society is that studying history and religion (among other arcane subjects) is a waste of time. Look! New toys! We set ourselves up to fall prey to the unscrupulous.

How else do we explain the revelations of hypocrisy that spring up like toadstools whenever an über-religious candidate claims public office? Thank goodness modern religions teach forgiveness! In the empires of days long gone, kings lived a life out of touch with the common worker. They enjoyed luxuries that the laborer couldn’t even conjure. When a challenge arose to that power, all you need to do is bring the gods onto your side and even the most stalwart peasant will back off. When Akhenaton’s young son Tutankhaten inherited his shaky throne, the populace demanded the old gods back. Tutankhamen acquiesced and the balance of power was restored. The gods, apparently, did not seem to notice.

The wise say nothing.

Right by the Numbers

Reading about ancient religions helps to focus the long view. I’m brushing up on ancient Egyptian gods for my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class. Seeing how various gods rose to prominence with the fortunes of their patron kings or priesthoods suddenly struck a chord for modern-day religions as well. Many of society’s most conservative like to think that this is the day of Yahweh (or, not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus). This pre-biblical god has come into his own with the rise of the Catholic Church, following on from the conversion of Constantine, into the post-Reformation development of Evangelicalism. With the superiority of numbers and fiscal wealth, there is no disputing the one true god, is there?

What happens when the ultra-selfish free market consumes itself to a point that other cultures rise above it? Already outnumbered in souls by China and India what will Americans say when Buddhism or Hinduism outstrips Christianity? Is religion proven correct purely by the numbers? Cultural dominance has become inseparable from religious truth for many brands of Christianity. If in doubt, check out Andrew Schlafly’s Conservapedia (if any state would like to take him off New Jersey’s hands, you are certainly welcome). Being the right religion means being the might religion. Somewhere along the way it seems that the message of Christianity has become equated with bullying others around. I think Jesus must have gotten pushed around quite a bit as a kid on the playground.

What's behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

When Amenhotep IV became king of Egypt, the priesthood of Amun had grown very strong. Probably in an effort to suppress this powerful rival, the king changed his name to Akhenaten and promulgated the sole worship of Aton. Some like to give Akenaten credit for being a monotheist. To me it seems more likely that the old pharaoh was attempting to show intolerant bullies the way to behave: use religion to political advantage. If the opposition disagrees, shut them down. Problem is, this doesn’t work well over the long term. As soon as the unpopular king died, the former religion reasserted itself and things went back to the way they had been. Tut, tut. Seems like religious bullies never learn.

Who’s Your Mummy?

Yet another paternity suit appears in the news as promiscuous fathers try to slink off into the pages of history. This time, however, the kid is famous and his father will bask in reflected glory. Scientists in Egypt have been doing DNA tests on King Tutankhamun, “King Tut,” to determine the father of this most famous of pharaohs. Nor is this an idle bit of trivia, since it may rightfully be claimed that American interest in ancient Egypt was born with the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922. Art Deco styles began to emulate ancient Egypt, and even skyscrapers in Manhattan incorporated pharaonic stylings. If it weren’t for Tut’s wealth, this experiment wouldn’t garner any public interest at all.

Tut's famous visage from Wikipedia Commons

In a classic case of ancient meets modern, the paltry wealth of Tutankhamun’s burial dazzled American imaginations. Here was a guy who matched the American dream – young, exceptionally wealthy (by even today’s standards), and powerful. Not just a metaphorical god, but a literal one as well. And yet his kingdom was troubled. Was it his father (Amenhotep IV, aka Akhenaten) who launched Egypt into turmoil with an unwanted religious revolution? The state reacted strongly, foundering under this uniformity of a religion that many couldn’t accept. Young Tut was forced to recant, if he hadn’t already rejected the reforms of his predecessor, back to the “old time religion” of eternal Egypt.

We may not know for sure who his father was, but King Tut remains a symbol of the power of religion. Ancient and modern believers alike ascribe strongly to their perceptions of the true religion. No one knowingly accepts a false religion. The truth claims of religions are sometimes mutually exclusive. What seems to have brought about the collapse of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was the insistence on a religion not widely accepted, but enforced by the government. Considering the religious outlook of the James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons and Sarah Palins of our own political landscape, such a collapse becomes comprehensible. Religion must be allowed its freedom to be sincere. Those who believe only because forced to do so will soon place their own child king on the throne, regardless of whom his father might have been.