Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

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.

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.

Avoiding Ritual

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While on my current British kick—not really intentional, but sometimes life gives you limes—I thought I’d mention another piece sent to me by a friend. This one falls under BBC Earth, and it’s about “Why Ancient Brits threw out their most valuable possessions.” You can find the story by Amanda Ruggeri at the link. The basics are pretty simple: some people with a metal detector discovered what turned out to be a Bronze Age “hoard” in Lincolnshire. You have to understand that, in a way that makes me totally jealous, the United Kingdom has tonnes of ancient artefacts still undiscovered. While my wife and I lived there it wasn’t unusual to read about such finds in the newspaper. (Newspapers still existed then.) People had been smelting in the British Isles for a long time. The Phoenicians actually popped round the pub to get their tin—which can be one of the main ingredients for Bronze. What the article somewhat embarrassingly addresses is the nature of the hoard.

Hoards are where a large number of (usually metal) objects are discovered, after having been deliberately buried. These are not uncommon, what with Phoenicians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Vikings, and others invading all the time. The issue that embarrasses is the “r word.” Ritual. While we don’t know the reason, the fact that people deliberately deep-sixed their valuables, routinely, suggests a ritual. As the article makes clear, professionals try to avoid the r word. Ironically, such deliberate burials, often with items purposefully broken, is also known from the ancient Levant, often predating the hoards of the prehistoric UK. Intentionally broken items—often of clay, and not infrequently depicting perhaps deities—were buried in biblical times. We don’t know why, but scholars suggest they could’ve been offerings. After all, breaking something potentially useful is an act of faith.

I’m not suggesting a direct connection here. I took a sound scholarly thrashing some years ago for suggesting a tale I heard on the streets of late twentieth-century Scotland had its origins in ancient Sumer (grad students are prone to such thinking). Still, it might not hurt anthropologists to cast a wider eye now and again. People had similar rit— well, let’s just say strange habits, in a land far away. Just cross the Channel and make a left. When it starts getting arid head south. The ancient world may have had more of an “internet” than we think. While that pathway may not always be marked by material remains, we now know ideas travel fast. Even something such as putting a daily post on a blog might become a ri—, strange habit.

Le sacrifice humain

The thought of lying tied to an altar while you know someone is about to murder you is a terrifying one. For several reasons. Clearly, you don’t want to die. A more potent fear, however, may be that a darkly savage deity lies behind the dead. An angry, demanding god who desires nothing less than your annihilation. A story in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan suggests new findings by anthropologists now suggest a much more frightening rationale behind the world-wide phenomenon of human sacrifice. Kaplan reports that the article in Nature suggests human sacrifice was a means of social stratification. Maintaining control. Surely it must be obvious that those sacrificed are never the powerful and elite, unless, in a reversal of power structures, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the might that makes right. Think of England’s King Charles I, for example. The societies scrutinized in this study, however, are less “civilized” and human sacrifice is a means to remind people who’s in charge.

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What I find interesting about this is how easily the discussion slips into religion being part of the mix. Those of us who’ve spent our professional youths earning advanced degrees in the field have long realized that there is a political element to religion. Temples, yes, were built to the glory of their gods. They were also built to help finance the monarchies in power. Even the temple in Jerusalem was only erected after the monarchy was finally entrenched. Priests supported kings and kings supported priests. They were the elites of society. As Nathan so aptly pointed out, you don’t sacrifice your own lamb when you’re rich. You take someone else’s. Thus it has always been with the exercise of power.

The Nature study examines stratified and egalitarian societies. Human sacrifice is most pronounced in the most stratified. Those where—let’s not be too blunt here—the top one percent want to demonstrate their obvious control over the rest, human sacrifice is most common. Is it really religious? I think the answer is obvious. The gods people worship are those that are most like themselves. The difference is largely one of power. Might, despite all protestations to the contrary, does make right. Or at least right-wing. Human sacrifice still occurs. If the new study is right (and who can argue with science?) there is only one way to avoid being at the wrong end of the sacrificial knife. Or stone. Or torch. And it is to sacrifice the potential to become rich in order to ensure true equality.

Detoxing God

There’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible. Those who are only familiar with all the “thou shalt not”s are missing a great deal. Some of the material is strange enough to rival Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole (Charles Dodgson was, after all, a deacon). Anyone who’s read Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Revelation, knows the feeling of having been slipped into some kind of alternate state of consciousness. As students of the Bible have been saying for decades, “What was Ezekiel on?” I’ve always tried to put these unusual writings into context for my students. Nevertheless, some scholars still explore the possibilities that something more than revelation was going on in the desert. A friend of mine pointed out the website Time Wheel, which has a story about Moses and his experience of the burning bush. Time Wheel is an artistic collective, and the story about Moses is richly illustrated. The title, however, is the attention-grabber: “The Bible’s Moses Was On DMT Says Hebrew Professor.”

The article explores the thesis of Benny Shanon, who suggests Moses may have found DMT in the natural store of psychedelics available in nature. As the piece suggests, you have to accept a literal Moses for this to make any sense. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting question: did ancient people use hallucinogens for religious purposes? We do know that cultures throughout the world have found alternate states of consciousness to be religious in nature. Before the days of controlled substances certain plants and fungi were known to distort reality. Alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization, or perhaps even predating it. When other views of the world are available, it is possible to say that one is by default the true one? It’s a question we face every morning, to some degree. The dream, another biblical favorite for alternate realities, can be just as real as waking.

Controlled substances are dangerous in large groups of people. Not only have modern scientific techniques refined the active ingredients, but we live very close to one another and erratic behavior, perhaps fine isolated in the desert with a cognizant adult, can lead to problems when other people live right next door. Anthropologists assure us that the use of natural “drugs” is/was not uncommon among many peoples who don’t fall under the rubric of powerful centralized government. But was Moses among them? To me, the burning bush hardly seems fantastic enough to require a chemical explanation. In fact, detailed study of even such books as Ezekiel and Revelation often reveal a much more mundane reality behind the writing. Still, imagination is often the key to unveiling realities left hidden to more prosaic minds. So why not see what might happen when the religious are left to their own devices in the desert? The results could change the world.

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Doubt No Alleles

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA. Is there anything it can’t do? For many decades anthropologists have built painstaking methods to trace developments in human culture. Those of us who’ve studied linguistics in any fashion remember well the many times instructors corrected our false cognates and pointed out family trees of languages that showed who came from whom, based on subtle shifts of orthography or some other aspect of philology. Entire careers could be made in ancient Near Eastern studies by shuffling around the way words were formed and speculating about how they influenced one another. Then DNA. A recent story in the New York Times demonstrates that DNA studies now tell us whence came the Europeans. Among the three groups that eventually settled in Europe were agriculturalists from the Near East, coming along at just about the same time as the Sumerians show up in southern Iraq. They joined the hunter-gatherers already in situ. Their languages, however, did not dominate as a third group, from western Russia showed up and gave (according to DNA) many of the groups their base languages. And here I thought Latin and Greek and Anglo-Saxon had something to do with it.

No doubt we’ve benefitted much from learning about DNA. We can fight diseases that were mysterious, if not divine, in previous centuries. We can learn how closely we’re related to other animal species, or even the neighbor next door. Sneaky fathers can be determined with a precision that sometimes puzzles, such as the recent story of twins who had different biological fathers. Without DNA such a thing could only have been a myth. I wonder, however, what we’re losing in terms of humanity. I suppose we’ll still need a few archaeologists to dig up the remains for scientists to date. And many traditional cultures will still insist that the human remains uncovered be reinterred and not probed and prodded, even after death. We’ll call them backward and superstitious. We’ll consult the genome and decide who to marry.

Meanwhile some hopeless romantic will insist on sitting off in a corner and composing sonnets to the woman he irrationally loves. Looking at the nighttime sky, he may compare her to the beauty of the moon. We know it is a lifeless rock trapped in our own gravity, mechanically reflecting the light of a burning ball of hydrogen and helium 93 million miles away. And if she’ll run this cotton swab across the inside of her cheek we might well be able to tell if she’s a good choice for mating purposes. We’ll also be able to determine the origins of her ancestors and remove a great deal of the mystery about her—there! Won’t that be better than having to woo her and find all that out for yourself? And when your children grow up you’ll point them to the STEM disciplines, since that is the only direction in which there is any human future. And the anthropologists can join scholars of religion as we wait for someone to put the soup in our bowls.

Different Bites

SharkGodThe South Pacific brings to mind light-hearted musicals, uncomplicated lifestyles, and Gilligan’s Island. For those of us born in the eastern parts of North America it can seem pretty exotic. Especially since we can seldom afford to go there. Since my income has wavered around the subsistence level of a reluctant urbanite, I instead travel there in my mind. I came across Charles Montgomery’s The Shark God at a recent book sale. I generally scour the anthropology tables since I find the belief systems of others so fascinating. Montgomery, a journalist, traveled to Melanesia to trace the route his great-grandfather took as a missionary. A non-believer himself, Montgomery wanted to see the magic that a former generation believed in firsthand. Noting that missionaries often despoil the cultures they are trying to “convert,” his tale is full of insights and observations and disappointments. My kind of book.

Montgomery is remarkably open minded. Like many of our generation, he outgrew the religious fervor that seemed so strong just a few decades ago. Still, he is open to the possibilities in the lesser understood cultures of the South Pacific. He notes that E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, opined that non-believers made poor anthropologists. Even missionaries might make better, he suggested, since at least they know what it is to believe. And here is the driving tension of Montgomery’s narrative. Sometimes you simply have to be open in order to see. Not all evidence is empirical. He recounts little “miracles” that he later reflects may have been mere diversions. Nevertheless, the world opens up when it is seen through native eyes.

Missionaries, although they may be better equipped to understand foreign (or native) believers, nevertheless try to change them. What I found most fascinating is how even those who fully identify as Christians in the south seas have combined that belief with their indigenous religions. Christianity, even among the clergy, is an overlay for culture. In ways that shock and frustrate missionaries, those converted maintain elements of their culture that fit uncomfortably with doctrine. How do you convert the converted? Or maybe the word is more properly “pervert.” Belief systems grow in cultures and tend to introduce high moral standards, no matter the deities (or non-deities) known. The Shark God is a wonderful window open on the South Pacific, a place to which some of us will only ever be able to travel in our limited minds. We are, after all, products of our culture.

Intelligence, Evolved

intelligenceinnatureAnyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.

As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.

There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.

The Power of Magic

Open-minded academics are somewhat hard to find much of the time. This stands to reason when jobs are already rare and having a reputation for thinking outside the box frequently equals thinking outside the academy. I am always pleased, therefore, to find unconventional works by credentialed authors. I just finished reading Sabina Magliocco”s Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Magliocco takes head on the dilemma that non-empirically verified experiences sometimes do happen. Of course, Paganism accepts that as a matter of course, and Magliocco notes that many Pagans hold advanced degrees in the sciences and some even have university posts. Experiences have a way of defying the rules. Most of us have had a bizarre coincidence or uncanny occurrence or two transpire in our lives. We are trained, via our scientific worldview, to shake our heads and try to dismiss it. Magliocco pauses to wonder if we’re perhaps being too hasty.

Sabina Magliocco is an anthropologist with a legitimate doctorate and a university post. Witching Culture is largely an analytical study of Paganism, but it also allows for the possibility that experiential knowledge might complement academic knowledge. This remains a debated issue among specialists: who can really know a phenomenon objectively? Many argue that empirical data reveal the truth of the matter, but truth remains a slippery concept. At the opposite debating table sit the smaller coterie that argue that you can’t study magic until you’ve experienced it firsthand. The debate does not divide along even lines and this is reflected in society at large. We accept the utility of science, but many still pray for divine intervention. Specialists in religion fear to take sides—after all, jobs are hard to find and increasingly harder to keep.

Fully aware that the modern Pagan movement is a revival movement following the hiatus of Christendom in Europe, Magliocco nevertheless admits to being a practitioner. Fascinating her readers with first-hand accounts of mystical experiences, she draws back to try to analyze what has just happened. And she tells us so. Years ago, as part of a seminary assignment, I attended an Al-Anon meeting as an observer. I am, however, the adult child of an alcoholic and when the circle came around to me I confessed to being both an observer and a person seeking healing. It was a difficult place to be, so I respect what Sabina Magliocco is offering us here. Anthropologists increasingly doubt the possibility of pure objectivity, and even physicist Werner Heisenberg realized that to observe is to be part of the experiment. And so are we all.

Explaining Religion

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, is one of those books that I wish had been written earlier and I had read earlier. Like several of my recent reading projects, this book was suggested to me by my cyber-friend Sabio Lantz’s blog. In the course of a very busy semester, it took several months to read, but Religion Explained is an astounding book that raises the ultimate issue: whence religion? Among the many revelations in this monograph – based on solid anthropological and sociological data, as well as neuroscience – is that religion has multiple origins. As Boyer demonstrates repeatedly throughout his book, religion arises from several mental processes symbiotically supporting assumptions that, taken alone, would often fail to survive in the meme pool.

Summarizing Boyer’s work would require a book in itself, but a few of his points struck me as particularly apt to today’s struggle between religion and society. At one point (140) Boyer demonstrates that doctrine is not nearly as important to religions as most specialists assert. In fact, most regular adherents to a religion misunderstand the doctrine to which they give lip service. After having spent too many years in a doctrinally ossified seminary, reading Boyer’s analysis was like liberation at this juncture. As Boyer points out later (282) Christian doctrine emerged in the conflicted environment of revolutionary movements with differing ideas as to what a messiah was. Only after the situation became too complex did one group decide that councils were necessary to decide what they in fact believed. Not really an inspiring story for those who wish to claim absolute certitude about their belief structure! Boyer also draws from other religions around the world to support his case.

Having stated that, Boyer does not attempt to destroy religion, but to explain it. The very premise itself will obviously strike many as blasphemous, but religion, like all human practices, can be studied with a scientific outlook. Accessing anthropological studies and neurological analyses, and the battery of tools provided by decades of psychological and sociological research, Boyer’s portrait is lifelike and believable. Religion developed as an amalgamation of human survival strategies that synchronized into a relatively consistent system that helped to explain a confusing world. If I had read Religion Explained when I was in college, my lifelong religionist enterprise might have turned out rather differently.