Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Game of Thrones

IMG_2763I risk my already flagging street cred by admitting this, but I don’t watch Game of Thrones. In fact, I started to read the first book a couple years back and I just couldn’t get into it. Well, only 80 pages into it. The fault is, I’m entirely sure, my own. I lack some gene or enzyme that makes life without Game of Thrones impossible. Still, I have to admit curiosity. A story on the Washington Post, by Ishaan Tharoor, suggests “The ancient Persian god that may be at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’” is Angra Mainyu, aka Ahriman. This managed to catch my attention. Zoroastrianism is a religion that seems to lie behind quite a bit of modern religious thought. Although dating Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, is notoriously difficult, concepts from his religious system show up in Hinduism—one of the earliest forms of religious expression about which we know a fair deal—as well as in Judaism and therefore Christianity and Islam. In fact, many of the ideas you may associate with the central tenets of Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition may go back to Zarathustra.

One of the certainties about Zoroastrianism is that it was a dualistic religion. Good and evil are engaged in a constant struggle for control. The good god, Ahura Mazda (which sounds like a blend between Star Trek and a Japanese auto maker) struggles constantly against Angra Mainyu. Mazda’s website states that the car line is named after the deity (according to Wikipedia, I note, losing the last vestige of cred), pushing his reach even further east. With this incredible pedigree, it is no wonder that George R. R. Martin may have tapped into it. This kind of dualism is ripe for the picking.

My friend K. Marvin Bruce wrote a satire about the Persian gods, in fictional form, that was published a couple years back in Calliope, a small circulation literary journal. He told me he even won third place in a contest for it. The idea was that a disgruntled professor wanted to start the apocalypse (a Zoroastrian idea) by summoning Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu to earth to try to start a fight between the two. It was a fun story, but the point, if I may speak for my friend, is serious. Warring religions stand the best chance of beginning the end of times. We don’t even need the gods to do it, really. Although I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I can’t help wonder if Martin had the same idea in mind. If you want the answer to that, don’t ask me. I’m not even a hundred pages into it, and I don’t have triple play.

Brains and Selves

TellTaleBrainThe Tell-Tale Brain is an ambitious, yet humble attempt to find the self. V. S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist with considerable psychology experience who is well equipped to take on, as the subtitle puts it, A Neuroscientist ‘s Quest for What Makes Us Human. The book will take you to some very strange places. And although he’s a scientist, Ramachandran keeps an admirably open mind. Right at the start he notes that he sees no reason for using “merely”s and “only”s when discussing brains and their realities. In fact, he knows that scientists aren’t qualified to answer the question of whether there is a god. Having grown up Hindu, he used to pray to many gods. A true scientist has no need to belittle beliefs. Belief, as Ramachandran demonstrates, is far more complex than most pundits would suggest. This is based on his close study of the brain and those to whom it has been less than kind.

Already in the first several pages it becomes clear that Ramachandran finds religion a useful trope. It illustrates something we all know. That doesn’t mean he (or you) has (have) to accept it, but we all recognize it. Studying how the brain works, in this book, means looking at patients with various disorders, most of which have tongue-twisting names, that are inherently fascinating. Phantom limbs, people who see the colors of numbers or feel the emotions of fabrics, or who can’t recognize their own mothers—all of these things really happen in the brains of intelligent people. For them these are reality. For Ramachandran, they can frequently be chased down to a neurological cause. And sometimes people even really think they’re God. One of the treasures of this book is to experience the non-normativity of western culture. The use of Indian art and religion as illustrations of what humans believe is refreshing.

Anyone who fears the loss of self take warning; we may not be who we think we are. Brain studies show that, in certain circumstances, brains can contain more than one self. Memories can be fabricated and the continuity that we call our life stories may well contain a healthy dose of fiction. Experiments on brains can change who we think we are. Descartes would, perhaps, go insane. Ramachandran doesn’t claim to have figured out the self, or consciousness. He may have ruled out some options, though. At the end of the book, however, he reintroduces the concept with which he started: science and religion. Quoting Darwin he shows that the main mind behind evolutionary theory refused to make an absolute declaration about the divine. Humility, it seems, may be just as effective in making converts as a Bible in hand. And to figure that out will take some brain power.

Martian Ethics

MartianIf you need a boot of optimism, look to Mars. Or, more specifically, read Andy Weir’s The Martian. Not that it’s the greatest literature ever produced, but it is a story brimming with humanity. Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars. His crew-mates, in the midst of their multi-month-long return journey, adjust their course to go back for him. Naturally, nothing goes as planned. Although much of the story is far beyond the believability scale, Weir has the technical background to make it all sound plausible. As an engineer, Watney fixes most problems with an optimism that would leave many humanities specialists weeping in the dust. Time after time a potentially fatal situation develops that is solved by technological ingenuity. Relying on his will to survive, and good humor, the protagonist makes a remarkable journey across the surface of the Red Planet to a potential means of escape. I shouldn’t throw too many spoilers into this post since the book is fairly new. I will say it left me feeling good about being human.

Part of being human is thinking about larger issues. Often, throughout the book, Watney wonders about belief in God. Not enough to make it a main theme, but enough to merit mention on this blog. In a somewhat humorous moment, one of the mission controllers says that he’s Hindu, so he believes in lots of gods. In contrast, Watney, alone on Mars, has a vastly different perspective. Without divine intervention, or even any aliens, he finds a way to persevere when the Fates (or the author) have stacked the odds against him. Mark Watney believes in himself, and he believes in human goodness.

The decision of his crew-mates to return for him is one of potential self-sacrifice. There are no guarantees that they’ll survive. Nevertheless, there’s no second thoughts. When they learn Watney is alive, they decide to go back, no matter what might happen to them. The story awoke a strange optimism in me. Although people are capable of horrendous acts against each other and the planet, I do believe that we are basically good. The bad ones make it into the news. We could all be better, I’m guessing. Still, we will help others when we can, even if all we get from it is the good feeling that we’ve done the right thing. Unfortunately, the only people, it seems, that don’t have the best interests of others at heart are our politicians. Watching the posturing before the primaries I do have to wonder if one wouldn’t stand a better chance abandoned on Mars than in the land of the free. This may be one of the times, it seems, that trusting in human goodness might well be equated to a prayer.

Life as we Know it

Dying2BMeA friend asked me for a book. Since my life has mostly been about books, I’m generally happy to supply what I can. This friend is a cancer survivor and wanted to read Anita Moorjani’s Dying To Be Me. The last time I saw this friend, she handed me the book, saying she didn’t care for it. Although the author tells of her dramatic Near Death Experience, and is very optimistic about all that we can improve by loving ourselves and others, she isn’t a Christian. Raised as an Indian living in Hong Kong and sometimes attending a Catholic school, Moorjani is conversant with several religions but doesn’t favor one above the others. Her experience of being in a coma with very advanced cancer and having a prognosis of days, at most, to live, yet coming out of the coma and being completely healed of disease within weeks could be overlooked on the basis of a belief system. I decided to read her account myself.

Ironically, Moorjani directly describes why she can’t accept any single religion in her book. Her reason is because religions tend to block being open to possibilities that fall outside of doctrine. Her Near Death Experience, described in great detail, doesn’t fit any particular religion very well, including her native Hinduism. It led her to believe in a kind of universalism with everyone ending up realizing their own divinity and loving all others unconditionally. Even though many of her interpretations of her experience are a bit too New Agey for me, I have a deep appreciation for her advocacy of trying to understand others and loving everyone. I saw nothing incompatible with Christianity there. Or any other ethical religion.

Religion can divide as much as, if not more than, plain common sense. Those who think deeply about it realize that religion should make life better for all. That seems to be its evolutionary purpose, apart from personal survival. Of course, some religions also reject evolution as well. When missionaries reached far shores and found good people living ethical lives, they feared for their souls, thinking only one religion could fit all. Many of us are heirs of such missionaries, being taught from our youngest days that living in fear and self-abasement is the loving, Christian way. It may be that a Hindu who learned to trust herself by nearly crossing the brink of death has something to teach the missionaries as well. If only they could listen.

Holi Daze

It’s pretty white out there. For many parts of the eastern United States it has been a season of snow on snow on snow (why does that sound familiar?). The wisdom back in old white Wisconsin was there’d be three snows on the crocuses. This year the crocuses have remained buried, even in New Jersey. Judging from the number of people not driving, it looks like most people had a snow day yesterday. The color white has often been treated as a symbol of purity in various religions, but today is also the celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival of color. I’m no expert on Hinduism, but I do find the concept of a day of color to be immensely appealing. Anthropologists trace its roots to some fertility festival, but the fact is, we could all use some color right about now.

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Winter technically lasts, in this hemisphere, until the vernal equinox. Religions around the world have festivals to celebrate this slow turning of the seasons, and the lengthening of days. A long while back I wrote a little book on the holidays. In it I tried to find the basis for various holiday colors. We all know red and green clash, but when we see them together we think of Christmas. Black and orange make a standard Halloween combination, and red by it self suggests St. Valentine, while green alone gives St. Patrick his identity. A more recent addition is black and silver for New Year. Easter, coming in the spring, however, is a celebration of color. We don’t dye the eggs just one hue—it has been a long winter and we celebrate its close with a burst of color. Even the staid old Episcopal Church reverences the liturgical seasons with distinct colors. In other words, colors mean something.

Years ago a friend recommended Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (this was before Fifty Shades of Grey took over the world). It quickly became one of my favorite novels. It’s all about color. Apart from a few years under the influence of a friend with a strong personality, I’ve always been a subdued haberdasher. I tend to wear understated colors because I don’t like people commenting on the way I look, or, even for that matter, looking at me. I enjoy public speaking, but having someone single me out on the street or the bus has always felt distinctly uncomfortable. Still, I think we may have lost something that Holi has retained. Color exists to be celebrated. And shared. It is so important that commerce and trade apparently stopped last week to figure out the color of a certain dress. I may not be a Hindu, but I think I might wear my brightest shirt today to welcome color back to the world.

Call it Civilization

HinduismWhile brushing up on Hinduism by reading the book of that title by Cybelle Shattuck, it once again occurred to me how the concept of religion distorts itself. Prior to the Roman Period, the concept of religion really had no name. In fact, religions were sets of folk beliefs held in common by people of a single culture. These beliefs had many functions: keeping social order, establishing common practice, undergirding a kind of optimism in the face of inevitable death. Since long-distance communication was rare and unreliable, communities separated by more than a few miles soon developed details that fit their own situation and would hardly apply universally. Until they were written down, anyway. In Hinduism—which is in no sense a unified religion—even the “sacred writings” were not held to be authoritative for all people across all places and times. That concept would emerge with Christianity, a religion that would define the term and try to make it stable.

Hinduism is the oldest continually practiced “religion” in the world, as far as we can tell. The religions of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians eventually died out (although they have been revived by some in recent times) but the folk belief—or better, folk practice, of ancient India has continued relatively uninterrupted while new religions from Israel and Arabia changed the rules of the game. Monotheisms quickly demand heresies. A single God would not tell people different truths. Something upon which Shiite and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant, Pharisee and Sadducee all agree. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. By fire.

Meanwhile, even with Muslim and Christian missionaries afoot, Hinduism continued its accustomed continuity. To be a Hindu doesn’t mean worshipping the same god with the same ritual as everybody else. It is a way of living intended to keep dharma and avoid bad karma. And even as trendy westerners stretch themselves into impossible yoga postures, they are participating, at some level, in ancient practices that we call the religion of Hinduism. Shattuck’s brief introduction is a nice little primer that explains this time-honored folk tradition in a way even a believer in religion can understand. There are, it turns out, more things in this philosophy than our universe has ever dreamt of. Or perhaps the one dreaming is really Vishnu after all.

Born Identity

Richard Dawkins, most famously in The God Delusion, made the claim that children are born without religion. Faith is something we’re taught in the growing up process, and we generally learn it from our parents or guardians. A recent piece in The Guardian (the newspaper, not ersatz parent) by Andrew Brown, stakes a bold, and surely correct, counterclaim: children are not born atheists. This isn’t just wishful thinking. As Brown points out, study after study has shown that people, especially children, are prone to belief. Where Dawkins does have a claim to verisimilitude, however, is that religious branding is not a product of nature. We have to learn what flavor of religion tastes good. As Brown points out in his opinion piece, we also have to learn to be the nationality that everything from our passports to our job applications requires of us. I can’t decide to be Scottish or Canadian. I’ve tried both, and here I am, an American mutt, just as I was assigned at birth.

What should  I believe?

What should I believe?

Like nationality, religion is frequently a matter of where you are born. Take a look at a world map of religions and see. India is the most statistically likely country to be born Hindu. It can happen elsewhere, but it would be unlikely where no Indians live. Life sometimes offers the opportunity to change belief, generally through education or through proselytization, but it is fairly uncommon. Most people don’t think too deeply about their religion. You accept what your parents tell you about what’s poisonous and what’s not, and how to drive a car. Would they steer you wrong on religion? Not willfully, surely.

The tabula rasa myth has been one of the most difficult to eradicate. We’re born with all kinds of things going on inside already. Specific religious belief is not one of them, but the tendency to believe is. We believe because it is human nature to do so. We can learn not to believe, and we can even become wealthy by sharing that outlook vociferously. You can also get a good deal of money by being religious and selling alternatives to science. The Institute for Creation Research is well funded, from what I hear. The one place where there is no money, and where you’re not likely to be noticed, is in the middle. Some of us are born as middle children. We had no choice in the situation, and no matter what we decide to believe, we’re no less Episcopalian than we are atheist, or vice versa.

Uisge Beatha

Water is essential for life. Life as we know it, in any case. It is no surprise, then, that many religions incorporate water into their rituals. Last week I posted about the biblical stories of Jonah and Noah, both of which involve acts that were later interpreted by Christians as baptism. Muslims use ritual ablutions as part of their worship tradition. Water is life, after all.

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While wandering the halls at work, I notice the various artwork on the walls. One large, framed image has frequently caught my attention: several men are shown carrying a statue of Genesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, through the water. Coming at this from a Christian background, I wondered what was going on since it looks like baptism. Hinduism, I know, is not a unified religion, but rather a conglomeration of many folk traditions from ancient India—one of the two seats of ancient religiosity. The stories of ancient India are colorful and diverse, and a bit of research suggests that this particular photo is likely the festival Ganesha Chaturthi, commemorating the story of how Ganesha came to have an elephant’s head. Crafted from inert matter by his mother Parvati, Ganesha was posted to watch the door while his mother bathed. Parvati’s consort Shiva returned and not knowing who the boy was, the lad’s refusal to allow anyone to enter led to a war. Eventually the Ganesha was beheaded and to appease his consort, Shiva supplied him with the head of a dead elephant and the boy resurrected. The immersion of Ganesha statues, or Visarjan, takes place as part of the Ganesha Chaturthi, during August or September.

I admit I’m not an expert on Hinduism, so some of the details may be a little off here. What strikes me, however, is the similarity between this story and that of Jesus. Like Ganesha, Jesus was associated with a modest mother, slain, and resurrected. He, too, is associated with ritual baptism. Growing up, we were taught of the many unique aspects of Christianity. We had, we were led to believe, the only resurrecting deity in the world. Our God alone could bring back from the dead, and the way in was through immersion in water. While learning about Ugaritic religion I read of Baal’s death and resurrection. Although stories of baptism haven’t survived, he also battled the sea and came out victorious. Some ideas, it seems, are particularly fit for religious reflection. The details may be unique, but the archetypes are very similar. Religions may be many things, but in the end, unique is a word that must be applied with the greatest of care. In the meanwhile, the next time I read of walking on the water, I will recall that even Asherah was know as “she who treads upon the sea.”

Darwinian Dawkins

Richard Dawkins seems like he’s probably a nice guy in person. You can tell quite a bit about somebody from their writing, and even when Dawkins is being abrasive in script, you can almost see a gleam in his eye. When I read The God Delusion, for example, I found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit. Not that I agree with everything he wrote; as an academic I can’t, in principle, agree with everything anyone writes. Nevertheless, Dawkins expresses himself with passion and clarity, if with a bit over overstatement. I was interested to read the interview with him in the 10 Questions section of this week’s Time magazine. When one is building a case, it is easy to pile on rhetoric, and pretty soon the force of an argument takes on its own life and sometimes a few casualties are left bleeding in the wake. Still, it is a good exercise to sharpen the mind.

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

The last of Time’s 10 questions deals with how Dawkins can be certain there is no God. Dawkins, in a conciliatory move, declares that there is much of which we can never be certain. Noting that future science will discover realities that we simply don’t foresee, he suggests, “it’s extremely unlikely that it would happen to home in on an idea from a Bronze Age tribe in the desert.” I found this final sentiment a touch off-kilter. We have plenty of scientific developments that have come out of the “Bronze Age tribes,” but God is not one of them. “Desert tribes” gave us metal smelting, bovine and caprid domestication, and, perhaps most importantly of all, writing. God, however, comes from a much earlier evolutionary strata. In fact, by the time that the Sumerians appeared, multiple gods were already in their train.

In fact, evolutionary scientists seem to indicate that our brains have contrived some need for God/gods. That God isn’t a semitic desert mirage, however, is attested by people all over the world developing the idea independently. Not only did the Israelites and their forebears have deities, so did the Vedic cultures that we now call Hinduism. So did the Native Americans, indigenous African religions, and those who developed in isolation on Australia. Gods evolved everywhere. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that this means that we have some need of them. I like what Richard Dawkins writes. I enjoy his candor and passion. We do, however, have to credit the desert tribes with much of the thinking that leads to science, but the gods, they are far more ancient than that.

Continental Religion

In the course of my duties as an editor of religious studies, I was pondering the origins of the world’s major religions. Now, agreeing on what the major religions are is an exercise fraught with political incorrectness. What does “major” mean, after all? In any case, when we count in terms of numbers, there are more Christians, at the moment, than any other single religion. They are followed by Muslims and Hindus. So far there is little upon which to disagree, at least according to self-professed affiliations. Buddhists are usually counted as the next largest group, followed by Sikhs. When religionists mention “the big five,” however, they usually mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are likely far more followers of traditional Chinese folk religion, perhaps mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, than most accountings record—such beliefs aren’t neatly categorized. Jains make up a sizable population, and Shinto is often classed in with all those religions of the far east. Many of the more modern religions, such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sprang from Christianity, and so can safely be classed as a form of that faith.

What occurred to me that day was that all the major religions of the present world began in Asia. Judaism and Christianity, with all their numerous progeny, started in Israel or Palestine. Islam, as we all know, began in Arabia. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism all have their origins in India, the big winner for the seed-bed of religions. Traditional Chinese religions and Shinto trace themselves to the far east. Yes, there are indigenous religions throughout the world. Native American and African religions are not to be discounted, yet they never quite attain the level of public awareness to be qualified as “major” religions. In this spiritual accounting, “major” has nothing to do with importance. For the religions with the largest followings we must turn our eyes to the one-stop continent, Asia.

Where major religions begin

Where major religions begin

Considering this, the obvious question is why. Why Asia? Civilization itself began in Asia, and one of the marks of a civilized society, at least until the day of the New Atheists, has been religion. Religion may be abused, as might any human innovation, but it has also been a harbinger of a more civil world. Not only fear of the divine, but also a sense of gratitude toward whatever forces might be greater than humanity, allowing us to survive for another season, or through another storm. Even in the world of science, religion has been a motivator. Gregor Mendel, the scientist who gave us genetics, was a monk experimenting in a monastery. Sir Isaac Newton was an occultist. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian. Religion is at least as old as civilization. Its forms may be morphing, but, I suspect something our Asian forebears knew: religion will never truly go away.

Bridge over Troubled

ReligionThe fundamental question of what counts as religion remains elusive. I read Robert Crawford’s What is Religion? hoping to find out. Crawford begins with the admirable assertion that in a pluralistic world all religions must learn to get along. Unfortunately, learning hasn’t always been one of religion’s strong suits. And we still don’t even know what religion is. As becomes clear within minutes of starting the book, consensus will be a stranger in this room. Nevertheless Crawford plows on, hoping against hope that comparison will reveal conformity. Religions aren’t really team players in that way.

Crawford keeps his focus on the “big six”: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Although these faiths contain the lion’s share of numbers, they in no way corner the market on religion. I wonder if Crawford’s net is really large enough. When trying to define religion, cutting corners gets you into trouble every time. No matter how we count it, religion is more than a matter of belief and broader than prescribed rituals. It must take seriously the attempts of even small knots of seekers in its preternatural accounting. Crawford sometimes gets bogged down in the details. Science plays a key role in his discussion but then the scope shifts to Christianity, a religion with more than its share of scientific troubles. Islam, for a while anyway, led the world in scientific thinking. What of Sikhs and science?

The more I read of What is Religion?, the more I got the feeling that all of these pieces don’t go to the same puzzle. Religions develop out of historical circumstances and needs. They, with a few exceptions, are not consciously devised by a bunch of eggheads shut up in ivory towers. Religions develop from people in difficult situations, whether physical or psychological. Think about it. If the Bible is to be believed Judaism grew out of slavery in Egypt (either that or Abraham’s childlessness). Christianity out of Roman oppression. Islam from Muhammad’s conviction that polytheism didn’t add up. Hinduism’s old enough to have lost its origins in deep antiquity, but Buddhism is clearly a reaction to pervasive suffering. Sikhism tried to steer between the clashes of Hinduism and Islam. We could go on, but I don’t wish to try your patience. I’m not suggesting I’ve finally done the impossible and defined religion. In fact, I may be suggesting the opposite. Religion encompasses many ways of being in the world. Crawford maybe got a start on the discussion, but it will go on as long as people have troubles.

Bart’s Gospel

One of the near constants of the entertainment world is the social commentary on The Simpsons. The morality issues that get frequent play had led to a book entitled The Gospel According to the Simpsons some years back. And since Americans like their morality straight from the popular media, The Simpsons is not a bad place to look. The episode “My-Pods and Boomsticks,” although a few years old now, raises issues that are still current in our culture. I watched it with my daughter recently and she commented, “It’s just like Zeitoun.” My family read Zeitoun this summer (some high school reading programs have a way of involving more than just the student) and the revelation of just how deeply suspicious the nation is of Muslims disturbed us all. This particular Simpsons episode involves a Muslim family from Jordan moving into Springfield. Although Bart befriends their son, Homer just can’t get over the assumption that Muslim equals terrorist. In the end, however, it is Homer who ends up dynamiting a bridge rather than believing Muslims can be good citizens.

Apart from being the longest running primetime animated feature in history, The Simpsons bucks the convention of veering away from religious topics. Indeed, many episodes foreground religion and feature Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism as well as Christianity and now Islam. The religions may be gently chided, but they are not mocked, and we are given a glimpse into our own religious biases. Islam, as a religion, is not evil or bent on destruction. Like Christianity, it has many varieties and believers range from the sacred to the profane. It is not the religion that is a problem, but the society that gives the lie to true equality. Believe what you will; harm no one.

At work the other day I received an office memo about lunchtime Yoga. Whenever I see such notices I consider how this religious practice, in American minds, has become completely secular. The same may be said of some of the martial arts which, in original contexts, have a deep base in eastern spiritualities. These things do not bother us because we do not bother to learn about them as religious activities. Even Kung Fu Panda has a spiritual undertone. Religions display a wide variety of expressions throughout the world. Going to church one day a week and condemning those who believe differently all seven, many people do not stop to think of the contributions that other religions have made to our society as it exists today. American culture, while predominantly evolving from a Christian base, has strong elements of most of the major religions that go unrecognized or packaged as secular self-helps. We could still stand to learn a thing or two from Springfield.