one of many

It’s been some time since I’ve read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There are so many religions that I need to refresh my study on them periodically.  So it was that I received a mailing from the local Kingdom Hall.  You see, the very last people at my front door before the pandemic was declared were bearing the Watchtower and telling me the end is nigh.  We knew about Covid-19 at that point and were being urged to keep social distance, although the authorities were still dithering about masks.  They knocked nevertheless and we stood several feet apart on the porch as they tried in vain to convince me of their truth.  So now, a year later, they’ve reached out by mail.

You’ve got to have a soft spot for a religion that has its origins in Pittsburgh.  Well, maybe that’s the case for those who grew up where it was the nearest big city.  And I do admire that pioneering spirit that says “established religions just aren’t doing it for me.”  The great swath of NRM—New Religious Movements—shows that you shouldn’t feel lonely if this applies to you.  Even today’s Christianities bear little resemblance to the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth.  He who said even to look upon a woman lustfully was to commit adultery, but whose followers support a president who recommends grabbing them by the, well, where the originator said not to look….  Religions evolve.  The literalism many associate with Christian belief is really only about a century old.  We have no business castigating religions just because they’re recent.

My mailing from the Witnesses included a personalized (somewhat) letter inviting me to a virtual commemoration of Jesus’ death.  Due to the pandemic it’ll be held on Zoom, of course.  The expected flyer with its Anglo-Jesus contains the details.  I did attend a Witness service back when I was in college.  Those days of heady explorations never really ended for me.  You have to settle into a tradition to get to know people, of course, but there’s a world full of ways of looking at our spiritual side and there’s more being propagated just about every year—even Jehovah’s Witnesses have splinter groups.  I suppose missionaries are something we’ll always have to put up with as long as people are convinced that their way is The Only Way.  Trust that others have perhaps quietly, perhaps deliberately, perhaps with a great deal of thought and reflection, have found their own way seems never to be good enough.  Still, an invitation is an invitation and those have been rare during a pandemic.


Recent Religions

A project at work has made me curious about Christian Science.  Oh, I know the basics, as many religionists do, but when trying to find a neutral treatment of the tradition I was struck by how little was out there.  It is a symptom of academia, I fear, to ignore that which isn’t conventional.  I’m fascinated by what are called New Religious Movements (NRMs)—many of which have sprung out of some form of Christianity.  New religions never cease to emerge, but the nineteenth century was a hotbed of new faith explorations.  The Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Shakers (started a little earlier, now extinct), Christian Science—these traditions hold fascinating beliefs and even though some are thriving (Mormons), others seem to be slowly dying out (Christian Science).  

While in Boston as a student I made a point of visiting the Mother Church of Christian Science.  The campus is impressive and architecturally pleasing.  I took a tour and I still remember the vast and impressive map room.  The denomination is having difficulty because, I suppose, of lawsuits against parents refusing medical treatment for children.  This puts their theology at odds with the larger society’s understanding of children’s rights.  Indeed, if you look for books on Christian Science the most prominent are those from people who’ve left the religion.  Many NRMs have become extremely secretive and some have tried to make leaving difficult.  The same, however, could be said for mainstream Christianity.  We tend to think moderate Christianity benign, if benighted.  But all religions possess the power to abuse.

Religious beliefs make people behave in unconventional ways.  I think of how politics in this country is dominated by a biblicist agenda.  It doesn’t matter which party is in power, it’s the material with which we have to work.  The beliefs, from any quasi-objective point of view are strange.  The Bible, for example, says nothing of abortion.  Life in the biblical world began with the first breath.  Their concept of conception didn’t involve eggs and sperm.  In other words, it’d be ill-advised to take your biology lessons from the Good Book.  But this single issue drives many thousands of voters to one particular party.  I don’t know about you, but I would think that few topics deserve more thorough consideration than religion.  It’s what motivates people.  Instead, we live in a fascinating array of beliefs, often merging official teaching and personal experience and when we try to investigate we find a dearth of interest.


In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.


Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?


The Cargo of Cults

Among religious studies scholars “cult,” in the popular sense, is a swear word. Professionals in the field don’t use it because it implies that a belief system—usually modern—is somehow less important than an established religious tradition. Instead, we’ve been taught to call these “New Religious Movements,” or NRM for short. Looking around it seems that political correctness is now gone and open advocacy of white power is the new norm. After all, the minority of the American electorate voted for it so we can change the rules on that basis. Even before the election, however, Rebecca Nelson wrote an important article on GQ about the cult of Trump. As a person, what’s there not to dislike? A long history of shady business deals, lawsuits, and sexual harassment (we just couldn’t get beyond Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky just a couple of decades ago, but all that’s water over the dam) such a man couldn’t have been elected even in the W era. Well, cult thinking explains that.

Nelson cites the work of Rick Alan Ross, an expert (back from in the days when we still had those) on cults. The rise of Trump followed exactly the pattern of how cults work. A single man (nobody voted for Pence) who is able to fix this great broken machine called America. He can do it by referring to a black box that nobody may open to examine, but yes, believe me, the solution’s in there. Stir the muck and tell people things are awful when life expectancy is better than it’s ever been, everybody has health care, and the economy’s finally starting to stabilize, and you’ve got yourself a cult leader. As Nelson insinuates, the Kool-Aid is in the future.

We learned a sum of zero from Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite. We wrote them off as weirdos getting off on a power trip. Swept away by the mere fact of being followed. Mentally unstable with delusions of grandeur. Narcissistic to a fault. Wait, what? We ignored them so well that we’ve elected a candidate who took not just a page from their playbook, but an entire chapter. Back in the days of political correctness, when there was still such a thing as experts, I sensed that things were pretty good. As horror movies should’ve taught me, too good. Caligula insisted that his statue be set up in the Jerusalem temple next to where Yahweh resided. The temple may be gone, but the desire to be worshiped will always be with us.

Wait, that's not the Washington Monument is it?

Wait, that’s not the Washington Monument is it?


The Wicked Man

I confess, it was a moment of weakness. Or I could say that it was dedication to research. In either case, I subjected myself to watching the remake of the 1973 classic, The Wicker Man. The reviews that I’ve read over the past decade since its release had warned me not to subject myself to it. Not only did I, but I had my wife gamely watch it with me. If you plan to watch the flick but haven’t, I’ll first of all beg you to save your time and secondly warn you of spoiler alerts. So here goes.

By Source, Fair use, Link

By Source, Fair use, Link

In a movie that may be either pro-feminist or misogynistic, depending on which way you look at it, this version of The Wicker Man takes place in the United States. We’ve got all kinds of New Religious Movements in this country, so that much is believable. The film has a group of women who mute, deafen, and enslave their males moving from Salem, Massachusetts, across the country to Puget Sound where they can find an island to be left alone with their rituals. Superfluously adding an “s” to the original’s Summerisle, they come up with the sloppy-sounding Summersisle where they can raise bees. They worship the great mother-goddess, which is cool enough, but their religion appears to be cobbled together in a way that suggests those responsible for the movie didn’t do their homework. Although Sister Summersisle (five “s”es—count ‘em!) claims this to be a Celtic religion there are merely the weakest echoes of such.

To make matters worse, Edward Malus goes around beating up women when they get in his way. Yes, he is the unwitting victim—we’ve seen the original and know how this plays out—but it makes the viewer uncomfortable watching this unsympathetic protagonist punching, kicking, and even bicycle-jacking with a gun, the women of the island. A man comes ashore and the first thing he does is try to take over. Were there evidence of a deeper plot here it might suggest that this was intentionally written into it. As it turns out, however, as we enter a fearful era of the rich white man’s revenge, such scenes only suggest that Mr. Malus had it coming. Perhaps the movie is prophetic after all.

I really don’t recommend spending your time on the remake of what has become a horror classic. If you’ve seen the excellent original, you already know how it ends. And despite his brusque manner Neil Howie didn’t shout invectives at women or punch them in the face. In short, he took his fate in what might be a way that is also prophetic.


Sects These Days

fisherreligionNew Religious Movements (NRMs) have long fascinated me. As a natural historian, looking back over where we’ve been has been my usual source of orientation. The idea that a new religious truth could emerge used to strike me as unlikely, especially in the western hemisphere. All major religions of ancient times have come from Asia. (I’m using “major” here only in terms of numbers, not importance.) I wasn’t sure if Mary Pat Fisher’s Religion in the Twenty-first Century was going to be about those traditional religions or NRMs. Both, it turns out. This little book, spun off of a bigger book, looks at very brief histories and contemporary expressions of traditional religions as well as some newer expressions of the spiritual quest. As such, it really doesn’t strive to reveal too much that’s new, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

To begin with Fisher reveals a bit of her own spiritual journey. This may be the first time I’ve ever read of a major textbook author (her larger world religions books are bestsellers) admit to having had a near death experience (NDE, as long as we’re using abbreviations). I know for a fact that Fisher is not the only academic to have experienced such, but trying to get anyone to admit as much requires, well, the confidence of a bestselling textbook, I guess. The fact is, human beings have a spiritual sense. Even academics. It can be effaced, sublimated, buried, or neglected, but it is there. There’s no other way to explain the persistence of religion. Even Nones, to update the discussion a little, often list themselves as spiritual, but not religious. It is part of the human condition, and it is well worth trying to understand.

This little spin-off text, at seventeen years old, does look a bit dated. Some of the predictions for the then coming new millennium were a touch optimistic. I suppose that’s the danger of any description of contemporary developments. Interfaith dialogues and initiatives, I suspect, still continue although we hear little of them. We continue to use religions as a way to divide between insiders and outsiders. Although our common yearning for spirituality has great potential to bring people together, historically it has wrenched them apart. I’m not sure that this particular book by Fisher is still available any more. Or it may have been updated. As one who tends to look back over history, however, I find the optimism refreshing. Perhaps as we continue to struggle with what it means to be human we will come to realize that religion is about what is inside, not out.


My Fellow Americans

It’s important to keep the old gods happy. By now everyone probably knows that Stephen King composed a tweet suggesting that Donald Trump was Cthulhu. In response an angry tweet came from Cthulhu himself, since, as we know, he declared his intention to take over the world long before Trump. Cthulhu is no stranger to this blog, being the brainchild of H. P. Lovecraft. As I’ve suggested before, however, it is really the internet that gave life to the ancient one. His name is instantly recognizable to thousands, perhaps millions, who’ve never read Lovecraft or his disciples. In parody or in seriousness, the worship of Cthulhu is here to stay.

I’ve often wondered if the internet might participate in the birth of New Religious Movements. In an era when a completely unqualified plutocrat can run for president just because he has other people’s cash to burn, anything must be possible. Cthulhu, as we all know, lies dead but dreaming beneath the sea. His coming means doom for humankind, or, at the very least insanity. It seems that Stephen King might be right on this one. I’m getting old enough to recognize the signs; after all John F. Kennedy was president when I was born. I’ve seen the most powerful office in the world devolve into a dog-and-pony show where lack of any guiding principle besides accrual of personal wealth can lead a guy to the White House. At Cthulhu’s tweet indicates, reported on the Huffington Post, at least he’s honest. Unlike some political candidates, many people believe in Cthulhu.

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Perhaps the interest in Cthulhu is just a sophisticated joke. Long ago I suggested to a friend of mine in Edinburgh that perhaps the Ugaritians were writing funny stories (i.e., jokes) on their clay tablets, imagining what future generations would say when the myths were uncovered. Like Cthulhu, they were the old gods too. Like Cthulhu, there are people today who’ve reinstituted the cult of Baal and the other deities that would’ve led to a good, old-fashioned stoning back in biblical days. New Religious Movements are a sign that we’re still grasping for something. Our less tame, or perhaps too tame, deity who watches passively while charlatans and mountebanks dole out lucre for power must be dreaming as well. Of course, Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, was famously an atheist. Belief is, after all, what one makes it out to be. At least Stephen King’s father reinvented his surname with some transparency. And those who make up gods may have the last laugh when the votes are all in.


Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!


Nature of Religion

HerHiddenChAutumn is a moody time of year. Dolorous gray skies hang low one day, and the next a sky of such incredible blue stretches unbroken out into space itself. Nights are definitely longer now; I climb onto the bus in the dark in the morning and get off in the dark in the evening. And thinking about nature’s cycles leads me to thinking about nature religions. Wicca has often been presented as a nature religion, but it is somewhat more complex than that. Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America, by Chas S. Clifton provides a rare academic look at various pagan religions from the inside. Analysts of New Religious Movements have long classified religious witchcraft as a modern religion. Although Gerald Gardener made claims of being initiated into an ancient British coven when he began what was to become Wicca, it is recognized that this claim was unsubstantiated and that Gardener, in true prophetic form, was inventing a new religion.

I’ve read quite a bit about witches over the years, but I’ve always found contemporary paganism somewhat confusing. As Clifton points out, there are many branches of this relatively small religion, and there is no single leader or head of the movement. In fact, various groups, just like Christian groups, seem to splinter fairly easily. Many revival religions exist, also claiming the name pagan. You can join those who worship Egyptian gods or Norse deities. Or those who find nature itself divine. Pantheism, panetheism, or just plain paganism. Religions come in endless varieties. In a world committed to allowing individuals to follow their own religious conscience, there are bound to be varieties of religious experiences.

Clifton offers a brief history of these fairly recent groups. Paganism began to reassert itself only last century. There had been a social stigma with lying outside the territory claimed by church, synagogue or mosque. Many Americans only learned that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism existed at the very end of the nineteenth century. What most people don’t realize even today is that a large, and increasingly expanding, variety of religious options exist for the seeker. Not all Wiccans see themselves as believers in a nature religion. Not all pagans call themselves Wiccans. Although Clifton makes no claims to an exhaustive tome, which would have to be far larger, he is a helpful guide through many of the groups that have existed over the past decades and some of which continue to this day. By learning about them we learn some basic truths about the very human urge to connect with something larger than ourselves.


New Faiths

Scientology is never far from controversy. In the light of the new HBO documentary on Scientology by Alex Gibney (with New Jersey roots) the Star-Ledger ran a Sunday piece about the Jersey origins of the religion. L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics while living in the state. The article, by Vicki Hyman, points out that the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, grew up in the Garden State. John Travolta and Tom Cruise are also New Jersey sons. Living in a religiously diverse state has tempered my perspective on New Religious Movements somewhat. That applies to Scientology as well.

L._Ron_Hubbard_in_1950

Many critics claim that Scientology began as a scam. There are those who claim that it still is. It seems clear, however, that there are many people who believe in it with all sincerity. No religion is free from episodes of abuse or poor judgment. Thus it is with human institutions. No universally accepted definition of religion exists, making categorizations difficult. What members of Scientology do, in as far as this is known, sounds very much like what other religions ask of their members. Oddness of belief is hardly unique to any religion. All ask for contributions from their members. Religions offer a community for those who belong, and many are strongly hierarchical. Even should a founder have had less than pure motives, that doesn’t translate to any less verisimilitude on the part of the faithful. Some viable religions have been based on known fictions.

Ironically, a common response to religions is anger on the part of unbelievers. (If we are believers of one religion we are, by default, unbelievers of others.) A friend of mine recently mentioned Heaven’s Gate on his blog. Although the outcome was tragic, can we say that those who followed Marshall Applewhite appear to have been true believers. Fear of Scientology may largely be based on the horrific outcomes of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the People’s Temple in Jonestown. Religions can lead to people doing strange things. And those of us who live in New Jersey know that is indeed saying something.


Trans-Human

“Rapture of the Nerds,” an article in this week’s Time magazine by Jessica Roy, has me scratching my head. Or it would if I had a head. That is, if I were an uploaded consciousness in a machine. A transhuman. The idea that consciousness is transferable to hardware has been gaining momentum over the last several years during which humans have evolved into illogical machines. Roy’s article about Terasem, which is being called a new religion, explores what the leaders of the movement teach about human consciousness. You write down your thoughts in most intimate detail, download, and viola, send them out to the cosmos. Your soul has been saved. If only we knew what a soul was. Transhumanism has been promising an attenuated kind of immortality for its adherents, but as I sit down to write out my thoughts, I’m aware that there’s always a lot more going on in my brain than the simple ideas I can scrawl down before they evaporate. There’s quick wisps of thoughts about my loved ones, my schedule (what do I have to do today?), what I ate for supper last night, how I feel—all of this while I’m putatively thinking about writing a blog post. Schizophrenia of the soul?

Faith

So much of thought is having a biological body. From early days I have been aware that this body will die. I was taught that the soul would live on, but this thing I call consciousness seems pretty closely tied with this thing I call life. And once the biological input ends, that part will be over. I think. In other words, my thoughts are tied to my biological existence. How can I even begin to write a minute fraction of them down accurately? I used to toy with an idea called meta-thinking. It was something I came up with as a plot element in a science fiction story. The idea was that those who can think two thoughts at once would eventually take over from those of us with lesser mentalities. Those who have two minds in one brain are, it seems, a step closer to the divine.

I use technology on a daily basis, but I am a disingenuous advocate. Some of the most transcendent moments I’ve experienced have been outdoors with technology left behind, under a sunny sky with an ocean breeze blowing in my face and those I love walking beside me. I think I’ve already broadcast that out into the universe by simply being a part of it. I don’t need circuits and motherboards to make me more of what I am. Technology is the follower. It is consciousness that will always remain in the lead. And we still really don’t even have an idea of what consciousness actually is. It’s certainly not this computer that’s sitting on my lap. And I do have to wonder, once my consciousness becomes a robot, what it will do with this strange, primate urge I have, when I’m puzzled, to scratch my head.


Alien Bears

“And if there’s life on other planets, I’m sure that he must know, and has been there once already, and died to save their souls.” Larry Norman, one of the original Jesus Freaks, may not have been the deepest theologian, but his words come to mind as I see scientists reluctantly admitting that maybe life on earth is not so unique after all. It’s been in the news that Kepler Space Telescope’s data have been indicating that other planets like earth may be quite common. It has always amazed me that people have been so reluctant to let go of the notion that we are the only spark of intelligence in this vast, vast, cold, and dark universe. We seem to need to think we’re special. Religions generally indicate that the gods made us for some purpose or another, some love us, some are indifferent, others may be hostile. But generally, we’re unique. The Mormons have for years taught that there is life out there, but mainstream Christianity has generally been agin it, mainly owing to the crucifixion. Larry Norman, the original Christian rock artist, speculated that cosmic history repeated itself: if Jesus died for us, well then, he must’ve done the favor for them too.

Once Edwin Hubble stepped away from the telescope, stuck his famous pipe in his mouth, and said “huh,” I would’ve thought other scientists might’ve considered, like H. G. Wells, that “they” were out there looking back at us. Why this reluctance to suppose that we’re not alone? The story in the Washington Post cites the typical reason: the Goldilocks effect. Scientists, perhaps unwittingly influenced by the anthropic principle, have supposed other planets, if they existed, were either too hot or too cold to support life. We, like Goldilocks, happened to inhabit the only planet among the billions of galaxies of billions of stars, that got it just right. More like God-ilocks. The idea derives from Genesis where, it is strongly implied, we are the only ones. Religion influences culture, whether materialists want to admit it or not. The earth-only bias is inherently religious.

Who's looking back at Hubble?

Who’s looking back at Hubble?

Astronomers will gradually come around to the idea that there are other planets like ours. It will likely take decades, perhaps centuries, before they will commonly admit that life forms like ours are out there walking around. Eventually they may decide that there’s something to UFOs after all. Meanwhile, various New Religious Movements have already hitched rides on those flying saucers and they will be laughing once the rest of us catch up. We tend, under the influence of those who claim religion is always Bronze Age drivel, to forget that religion often leads the way to new territory. When the little green men and women land, we’ll find that many religions have beat science to the punchline. I’m not so sure, however, that the aliens will know who Jesus is. After all, this chair’s too hard, and this one’s too soft.


Final Frontier?

Stay away from the dark side. That’s generally good advice. Ironically, new religious movements (NRMs, in the biz) have come up in my conversations quite a bit lately. Some of my friends have suggested that I start a new religion—job security would no longer be an issue. I’ve been studying religions my whole life, and at times I’m sorely, sorely tempted. Meanwhile a friend pointed me to a story on Details.com about Jediism. Yes, there is a religion based on Star Wars—actually, I shouldn’t be too hasty here. There is at least one religion based on Star Wars; likely there are many. The question that is indubitably raised is okay, so do these people actually believe this stuff? Don’t they know Star Wars was written by George Lucas? How can it be a religion? I can only respond with: Have you ever heard of Scientology? Religions do not have to be believable to be believed in. History has shown that time and again.

StarWars

Jediism is based on the teachings of saints like Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. What they are teaching is straight Joseph Campbell. Served neat. Good versus evil. A sense that a cosmic force surrounds us. The hero’s journey. The same thing can be found in the Bible. Wrap it up in a Jedi cloak or in a Galilean robe and the end result isn’t much different. I’ve seen bumper stickers suggesting that Obi Wan died for my sins. Just as long as good wins out in the end, who’s to complain? Does it really matter if it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or just away in a manger?

The problem with religion is that we lack a proper definition. Christianity clearly uses the word to describe itself. When looking at those who thought differently (adherents of Judaism, Roman paganism, the great goddess of Syria) early Christians had to call them something. If Christianity is a religion, so must they all be. Some religions, however, are not based on belief, but practice. To be is to do. Some religions are based on historical people, some on fictional people. Some are very serious while others are difficult to tell. Some religions are ancient, but looking at the state of the world it’s hard to say that they’ve been terribly successful. So when a bunch of sci-fi fans think they’ve discovered the truth in the mind of George Lucas, who’s to argue? And I really do mean that about keeping away from the dark side.


Bonnie the Brave

As a preemptive warning to my regular readers (am I’m sure you both know who you are), I am off today for a stint in my old haunt of Scotland. Before you get out your congratulations, be advised that this trip is for work. The Society of Biblical Literature, in addition to the big meeting about which I sometimes post, holds an international meeting every year. Since my employers frequently want me out of the office, I am being sent to the fair city of St Andrews in the kingdom of Fife for a week. Although I studied across the Firth of Forth in the wondrous town of Edinburgh, I ventured to St Andrews a time or two during my postgraduate days. By that time anyone in tune with popular culture had seen Chariots of Fire, and it was almost a requirement of credibility to visit the famous beach on the North Sea where the actors iconically ran as the movie began. And as in Chariots of Fire, I’m not sure that wifi access will be readily available. Should I find access, I shall gladly update my blog with my customary observations. If I fall silent, you’ll know why.

Scotland had a tremendous draw for me as I was contemplating where to complete my studies of religion (as if one ever can). Not that I was Presbyterian, and not that I have Scottish ancestry (although Celtic is represented in the Irish stowaway on my father’s side a few generations back)—it was the antiquity that drew me. One of the mysteries, to me, of new religious movements, is how people can believe in a religion that recently began. Should there be a supernatural, I’ve always supposed, and should that supernatural be concerned that humans have the truth, why wait so late in the story to start? It was such thinking that drew me from Methodism to its estranged parent, the Episcopal Church. Among the Episcopalians are many who argue for a continuity with the Catholic tradition, separated, literally, only by a matter of divorce. And Catholics go back to Jesus himself, a member of a religion so old that even the Romans grudgingly respected it (Judaism). I guess I’m guilty of old-school bias.

Kim Traynor's Edinburgh, from Wikicommons

Kim Traynor’s Edinburgh, from Wikicommons

So it was that I came to spend some years among the Presbyterians at Edinburgh University. The Ph.D. that I earned there translated to an unfortunately brief career doing what I’m best at—teaching. My tenure at Nashotah House never offered the opportunity to travel back to Scotland, or even England with its Anglicans. And as I prepare to board a plane across the Atlantic, although strictly for work, I can’t help but to reflect on those years of intensive learning, hoping to do my Scottish alma mater proud. And returning to the States to have my career shipwrecked on the rocks of unforgiving religious dogma. It may be that once I’m back among the heather and thistles, I may cast my laptop aside and try to claim religious asylum in a past that I can only see through rose-coloured glasses.