Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

Science and

Do science and religion have to fight? It’s not evident that they do, but some on each side of this divide like to keep the conflict going. Many religious believers feel threatened by the incredible success of scientific explanations. The gods who used to explain everything are now responsible for so little that it’s easy to feel foolish for believing. It doesn’t help that the most vocal scientists have made religion their personal court jester, adding ridicule to the mix. Krista Tippett’s book of interviews with scientists, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, is a refreshing counter to this trend. Although it’s a few years old now, the book just landed under my tree, so I started off the new year with it.

A blend of interviews with scientists, quotes from their books, and personal observations, Einstein’s God is a fascinating and quick read. Covering topics from the wonder many scientists feel about their discoveries to medical understandings of how spirit effects healing to the ongoing debates about evolution, this book looks at the big picture. The scientists Tippett interviews, although some are atheists, don’t dismiss religion. In fact, many of them suggest religion in some form is necessary for healthy human living. As scientists they don’t dismiss science either. It’s refreshing to read about how those with scientific bona fides sometimes come to the same conclusions that those of us without the credits have surmised.

Once I began working at age 14, one of my earliest purchases was a subscription to Discover magazine. I was a charter subscriber. I was also a Fundamentalist. Not realizing that science and religion should be squabbling, I read science that could be digested by someone without professional training. Until I felt the tug of the ministry, I had intended to be a scientist. The only professional religionist interviewed in Tippett’s book is John Polkinghorne. A physicist cum priest, Polkinghorne has come to prominence among those involved in the debate between how we know what we know (the fancy term is epistemology). I wondered as I read this how it might differ from the other direction. Some of the interviewees were raised religious—Jewish and Hindu, notably—but none started out as professional religionists who went into science. That, I learned after college, is a much harder transition. Perhaps it says something about the nature of reality that to move into science as a career you must start with the undergrad prereqs if you ever hope to make the switch. Otherwise, those who start out with A’s in high school physics end up watching from the sidelines while others set the terms of the conversation.

The Ethics of Swallowing

GulpMary Roach never fails to please. I first discovered her during a jaunt to my local, lamented Borders (not a weekend passes when I don’t mourn the chain’s closing anew) on an autumn evening when Spook leaped out at me (metaphorically) from the science section. I have read layperson-digestible science since I was in junior high school, having been a charter subscriber to Discover magazine. I was, therefore, amazed when I realized an author with some scientific credibility would take on the topic of ghosts. This was followed by Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and now, Gulp. The subtitle of Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, captures the flavor of this book about eating. While some live to eat, we all eat to live, and it makes perfect sense that religion could come to shine a little light in this facet of human existence. Actually, although Roach doesn’t emphasize it, the ethics of eating has become a major interest in embodiment theology over the past few years. Food and faith, it turns out, are closely connected.

In Gulp, the one instance where religion comes into major play regards, ironically, rectal feeding. Roach points out that the question of its effectiveness had been part of discussions of fasting in the contexts of convents. Some traditions in various religions advocate denying oneself food as an act of penance or contrition. The question of whether nourishment taken without the satisfaction of eating counted, however, is one that the church took up. Characteristically not making a definitive answer, the practice mutely continues. Roach notes that clergy have been among the avowed supporters of colonic irrigation as well, making one wonder why the upper half of the alimentary canal has typically caused religions so much trouble. Of course, Roach is not writing about religion, but about eating. But still…

Religion, broken out abstractly from everything a person does, is a modern phenomenon. In fact, it is questionable whether religion can even be considered as a phenomenon of ancient societies at all since it was so thoroughly integrated into everything a person did. When priests separated themselves from laity, at least as early as ancient Sumer, the idea that one class of people could handle the requirements of the gods while the rest of us got along with the secular business of living life took hold. But religious specialists still maintained control over morals. Food, in a world of unfair distribution, will forever be an ethical issue. Instead, most religions have brought the focus down to the individual. What you eat may very well reflect your religious beliefs. Whether we feed the world or not we have, unwisely, left to politicians. As I ponder this indigestible topic, I recommend reading Gulp for a bit of relief from the serious business of the ethics of eating.