And a Blessed New Year

A new year is always a time for predictions and prognostications. Although the religious basis for New Year’s Day is often deeply sublimated, the changing of the year is one of the oldest and most widespread holidays worldwide. Since every beginning is also an ending, experts look forward to see what might be coming. A story by Nadia Whitehead on NPR presents the opinion of Pew Research Center that over the coming years the growth rate of Islam will surpass that of atheists, based partly on procreation trends. At the same time Christianity will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than Islam. This sacred number crunching suggests that by mid-century Muslims will represent the largest world religion, surpassing Christianity for the first time. As the article states, this is merely a projection based on current trends, and new developments could completely change the dynamics. I’m sure this trend will distress some people, but popular understanding of Islam is biased through media tactics to glean more readers.

Equally troubling to some will be the suggestion that atheism, considered by many to be enlightened, simply won’t keep up. Even though the trend is growing, particularly in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, those who side with no-faith tend to have fewer children than those who do. Religions have often seen procreation as a divine mandate, leading to the kind of growth figures businesses envy. Large families with children taught the family faith from the cradle ensures rising numbers, all things being equal. Again, it comes down to the numbers. Since history of religions is not a growing field of study, many may not realize that major religions have peacefully coexisted for millennia. Globalization, however, brings differing value systems into swift and intimate contact.


In addition to organic growth rates, religions also grow through proselytization. Some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been phenomenally successful in their missionary efforts. Atheists often try to convert through reason or rhetoric. Religion tends to appeal more to the emotional needs that all people share, regardless of how deeply they are repressed. Reason, in the face of personal tragedy, is cold comfort. Not many people are willing to be steely about it, to “toughening up” when fate deals a cruel blow. Better to counterstrike with a caring deity or two. Religion is so basic to humanity that it is difficult to understand how major universities and centers of learning are trying to cut back on its study. And if it might be suggested that mine is a typical humanities-lover’s response, this time I can point to the numbers. Check with Pew; you don’t have to take my word for it.

And a Literate New Year

One of the most common criticisms of religion, among its detractors, is that it is “uninformed.” I suspect that this is intended to critique the education of those who adhere to religion. It is not too often, however, that you see those who disdain religion giving credit where credit is due. Reading, for example. Although reading has changed in its accidents and character over the millennium, it remains the case that texts—what would eventually evolve into books—were originally a religious creation. Once writing moved beyond keeping track of things like how many cattle a person owned, and grew into literature, that literature was based on religion. We recognize many of these stories as myths today, but that does not devalue them. They are our earliest stories. For many literate people throughout history, their initial reading material was the texts of their religion. One of the purposes behind public education was to teach children to read the Bible. Religion and reading naturally go together.

Now that a new year is upon us, many websites are offering reading challenges for the new year. Long ago I gave up on resolutions. I figured if I noticed something wrong in my life, I wouldn’t wait until January to fix it. Nevertheless, the start of something new is inspiring and full of hope. So it was when my wife showed me Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge, I gladly accepted. Like many reading challenges, the goals are based on about a book a month—twelve titles for the year. My personal goal is to get over one hundred books read this year, but I like the challenge to read particular kinds of books. On this particular challenge, for example, are books that intimidate you, or that you’ve previously abandoned. Books, such as many of us have, that we own but have never read. Although we may not know what it is yet, a book published this year.

Apart from being a kind of religious activity, promoting literacy is surely one of the best ways to address social ills. Those who read learn to consider the viewpoints of others. I disagree with a great deal of what I read, but I would not wish not to have read it. “Iron sharpens iron,” as one old book says. To put it in modern terms, the only stone hard enough to cut diamond is diamond. Reading material that engages critical faculties is like that. Even so, reading books that are simple or fun also offers bonuses. A guilty pleasure read is one of my favorite rewards. For our own sakes, for the sake of the world itself, I hope that everyone takes up a reading challenge, no matter how modest, as a way of celebrating a new year and, I truly believe, a better tomorrow.


Harpy New Year

A grueling early morning commute is seldom enhanced by complaining. I suspect most of us would rather not be here, crowded next to strangers on a barely adequate bus, going to jobs we may or may not find fulfilling. We put up with it, I think, because the ways of making a living have been effaced for those of the late boomer generation, but we’re a practical lot. Besides, it is a new year—why not start things off optimistically? Hanging around the Port Authority Bus Terminal as much as I do, you hear things. Our regular dispatcher and some drivers can be heard, sotto voce, saying that nobody wants to take my regular route. It’s a long route in heavy traffic, and I have the greatest respect and sympathy for the drivers. These are women and men with more fortitude than Job. Most of the time. I wonder why no one cares for an express run with so few stops?

The first day back after the holidays, however, the first commute of the new year: One of the regulars missed the bus and had to drive to a stop further along the route and berated the driver for being early. Given that some of us had been standing in the cold and were thankful for relief a few minutes ahead of schedule, and also for the opportunity to get to work a little early, the complaint seemed self-serving. Besides, this customer has made us all late for work before by complaining until a driver, like an exasperated parent, pulls the bus over. And once she starts complaining, she can’t stop. When a second customer joined in, I thought to myself, “Happy New Year.” Things were starting out well.

Yesterday, for the second morning commute of the year, our usual complainer noticed an unclaimed bag at the beginning of the route and, seeing something, said something. The driver radioed it in. Halfway to the city, she pulled the bus over, announcing she’d been instructed to wait for someone to come get the bag. We didn’t know, until he arrived, that he was from the bomb squad. Still, this didn’t stop the complaining sisters from starting on the driver again. When the bomb squad arrived, they looked on with interest as someone’s gym bag was opened with nothing more threatening than smelly socks inside. Then they started griping again. At that point I realized that New Year is indeed a religious holiday. Each new day is an unopened present. And some people will complain, even when left with an unexpected gift.



New Year’s Day seemed to me, as a child, an odd choice for a holiday. We’d just had Christmas a week before. Of course, at the time I did not realize that the date of New Year’s was a symbolic one for the Christian calendar, and the celebration seemed no more significant than getting to stay up until midnight. The systematic changing of the years felt just like the regular progression of numbers, and what was there to celebrate about that? Of course, time cures even itself, and I came to see New Year’s as a time of new beginnings. Resolutions never sat well with me, since improvements, I’ve always believed, should be implemented as soon as the problem is noticed. Waiting until the dead of winter hardly seemed like an inspiration to get things done. Unless the resolution was to get more sleep. Still, we can all use new beginnings.

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s, however, has taken on a more somber tone of late. As an adult, I often brood over the past year, and it seems that just when hope may be on the horizon, we find new ways to make the situation worse. Much of it comes down to politicians and the economy, two things that no resolutions ever seem to fix. Although I didn’t see the point of it all as a child, I did look to the future with optimism. It has gotten so bad now that science fiction writers have to make a case for trying to have a positive outlook. Dystopias are popular, I believe, because they are believable. Given the performance of politicians and church leaders (with the obvious and large exception of Pope Francis) we’ve seen little to suggest that our institutions have the will or the means to improve our lot. Even the Pope has made enemies by being a nice guy.

Already we’ve begun to hear that some apocalyptic groups have targeted 2015 as the year the world will end. We’re just getting over 2012. I think what is most disturbing is the sameness of it all. Another year means the continuation of a job that keeps food on the table, at least it is to be hoped. Beyond that, we will have more antics to watch that, were they not so fraught with consequences, might be thought funny. I haven’t lost my capacity to dream. Those who think me a pessimist don’t know me very well. Dreams are, however, futures that we have to take into our own hands. We can’t spend 2015 waiting for politicians and corporations to suddenly change for the better. In what sense is “business as usual” ever new?

Out with the Old

It’s become a time-honored tradition, as an old, secular year ends and a new one, brimming with potential commences, for various pundits to sum up the past twelve months for us. And since there hasn’t been a year without religion since Adam and Eve were created, it stands to reason that the religious year in review is yet another perspective to take on this mid-winter’s day. The New Jersey Star-Ledger, my state’s answer to the New York Times, ran a 2012 top stories in religion feature on Sunday, the one day that anyone might be tempted to pay attention to things spiritual. The list reflects the view of A. James Rudin and it features several stories, most of which tend to show the embarrassing side of belief. Rudin begins his list with an amorphous Islam as reflected at unrest in the Middle East. One of the misfortunes I often deal with in my editorial role is this association of Islam with violence. There are deep roots to the trouble in the Middle East, many of them planted and watered by Christians. Religious extremists, however, are the more sexy side of the story and they always abscond with the headlines.

I should take care with my word choice, however, because yet another of the stories—dominated as they are by Christians—concerns the Catholic Church’s continuing troubles with hiding away child molesters (number five). The number two story, also about Christians, is also about sex as well. That story highlights the chagrin of the Religious Right at the recognition, long overdue, of same-sex marriages in three states. Gender plays a role in story four, the succession of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, but also the related story of how the Church of England still refuses to recognize women as bishops. A deity who can’t see past genitalia should be troubling to any believer. Yet a full quarter of one commentator’s top religious stories are concerned with sex. That’s how the world sees the issue.

The remaining stories Rudin points out have to do with Jewish-Christian relations, aging pontiffs, and the growth of Nones in the US religious marketplace. Anyone who spends time reading contemporary accounts of religion will be familiar with the Nones—that increasing number of people who declare no religious affiliation. Ironically, those involved in such scandals as we often see in the headlines are troubled by the number of people opting out of traditional religions. I almost wrote “opting out of faith” there, but that’s not really the issue. The Nones I know, and there are many, don’t necessarily not have faith. They have lost confidence (if they ever had it) in religious institutions. Interestingly, Rudin concludes his list with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, along with the death of Sun Myung Moon and a few others. The Newtown tragedy remains the least and most religious event in the past year. And unless those of us who survive do something about it, these dead will have died in vain. Let’s hope 2013 has something better on offer.


A Summer Fright

Although primarily known for his science fiction, Dan Simmons has also strayed down the dark path of horror fiction as well. During the depths of winter I found Simmons’s A Winter Haunting a moody and appropriate concomitant to the season. Not realizing that it was a sequel, when I saw his Night of Summer while at a Borders going out of business sale, I wondered if the same effect might work in warmer times. Both books rely on Egyptian funerary cult to move the story along, although in Night of Summer it is difficult to determine if the real menace is Osiris or the Judeo-Christian devil. Simmons has characters refer to Osiris as the power behind a haunted bell, but the climax of the story bears little resemblance to Egypt and quite a bit to standard monster flick tropes. “The master” of the reanimated dead is not explicitly identified. The use of Anubis in A Winter Haunting is quite effective, but the infernal characters were intermixed a little too much for my liking in Night of Summer. Better the devil that you know…

Perhaps it is simply that summer represents a time of relative ease and recovery from the frenetic pace of the remaining three quarters of the year. Although the heat and high humidity often make the season feel unbearable, the blush of abundance is all around. It is not easy to be afraid. When the air begins to chill and nature seems prepared to shut down production in the autumn, we naturally turn towards the desolate and constant struggle that will see us through the winter. Ancient people needed reassurance that warmth and relative ease would return. New Year’s rituals frequently marked autumn or spring, sometimes both. The death or life of the crops symbolized things to come.

Osiris, the god of the dead, also served as a god overseeing the renewal of crops for the ancient Egyptians. Death and life were knotted so tightly together that to unravel them was to fray the essence of the divine world itself. Among the cultures of the ancient world the Egyptians boasted the most developed concept of an afterlife. Even Paleolithic human burials contain grave-goods, demonstrating a belief in some kind of continuity beyond death. Simmons plays on that primal fear by resurrecting the dead in his novel. Beliefs about death and what might come thereafter have been one of the constant identifiers of religion from antiquity to the present. When evil pollutes the process the genre shifts to horror: witness the current fascination with vampires, zombies, and other undead entities. Religion and death are inextricably bound. Although Night of Summer may not live up to its sequel, the correlation between religion and fear meets the expectations of the genre, even during the long days of relative ease.

The Selfish Meme

Although we may know deep down that one day is pretty much the same as another, people have always held profound reverence for the new year. Symbolic rather than empirical, hopes resonate around the concept that a good start presages better things ahead. That’s why tragedy early in the year sometimes possesses such solemnity; we had hoped that things might begin anew. The headlines today announce that a church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, started a new year of violence in the southwest corner of the cradle of civilization. Muslim extremists are suspected as there has been some tension between the Coptic Christians of the city and their Islamic compatriots. Although details are not clear, one matter remains in focus: the violence is based on religion.

One of the more savage legacies of monotheism is the absolute truth claims that follow in its train. If truth be truth, there be only one. So the meme goes. Multiple mutually exclusive truths cannot coexist in a religious universe. Scientists might well claim that in this non-empirical universe, no testing may reveal the actual answer. Belief takes over where knowledge fails. And belief in a religion, like it or not, follows the dictates of survival of the fittest. Memes, like genes, can be quite selfish. If one is to stake eternal, unchanging consequences on a religion, the proposition is all-or-nothing. Even purgatory is not forever. The coin falls one way or the other. Religions fight for the memes of truth, and those with the highest survival rate win.

Lighthouse of Alexandria before the bushel

Alexandria has suffered its share of violence in the past. Its famed library, the center of learning in the ancient world, traditionally underwent four destructions, the final two religiously motivated. The books surviving antiquity fell under the Christian ban of paganism in 391. Arabic sources note the destruction of the institution after the Islamic conquest in 642. The end result is the same – the irreparable loss of centuries of knowledge. The lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, might well stand as a symbol for the influence of rationality. Tradition states the light could be seen 29 miles away, but earthquakes and the need for building material saw the extinguishing of the light so that by 1480 the darkness settled for good. A fort was built from its remains. Given a choice of light or fortification, it is clear which way the selfish meme will go.

The Blessing/Curse of Janus

Janus wonders about January

As the world stumbles into another new year, my thoughts turn to Janus. The namesake deity of January (since the Romans gave us a winter New Year’s day), Janus is a poorly understood ancient deity. Since he is overseer of beginnings and endings of all sorts, he is often portrayed with two faces or heads — one facing forward and the other facing back. There are no attendant mythological stories to this god, although he appears to have been very important in early Roman religion. He comes to mind as I prepare to teach a course on mythology that I haven’t prepped for since Oshkosh; my brief holiday break has been spent reading classical mythology.

Not only to we face a new year, but the beginning (or ending, it matters not which to Janus) of a new decade. Looking back over the muck-up made of the first decade of the twenty-first century, often because of religious extremists, I wonder what Janus sees down the road. There are many who feel optimistic about our firm bridle on technology and its ability to make our lives easier. Some of us believe that society has lost its appreciation for the classical study of the humanities and that we have lost our way because simplistic religion has seized the reigns from sensible mythology. In an age of information clutter, there is no one able to synthesize reason out of any of it. Perhaps it is the human condition.

Janus likely originated in the Ancient Near East. Once he reached Rome he continued to evolve into a major deity until eclipsed by the Olympians (many of whom first appear in the Ancient Near East as well). Not ironically, religious tolerance and religious intolerance both seem to have derived from the Near East also: Cyrus the Great’s declaration of religious freedom emerged in the midst of theocidal demands on the part of jealous gods. Now as we stand on the brink of a new decade, Janus only knows which way the unfeeling pendulum will swing.

Happy Circumcision Style New Year!

2009 ended with a blue moon. Last night’s lunar display (for those who could see the satellite) was the second full moon in December, one of the accepted definitions of a blue moon being the second full moon in any one month. Apart from its cool beauty of mythological fame, the moon is a timepiece to rival any Rolex or even Timex. Many ancient peoples lived by lunar calendars since the 28-day units of lunar time were regular and much more obvious to the layperson than solstices or equinoxes. A full moon is hard to miss.

Last night's blue moon from Wikipedia Commons

The marking of time is a religious activity. The date of Easter is still set according to the full moon; Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Since Passover is a moveable feast and since we don’t know the year of Jesus’ death, Easter is a mathematical shot in the dark. It is regular because of the steady cycles of the moon. Time is a non-renewable resource, and since religions are generally concerned with what happens after death, time gains a sacred blush. Few holidays are truly secular in origin.

New Year’s is one of the most important holidays in the ancient world. There, the proper observance of seasons meant correct planting and harvesting times, and the possibility of survival. Living very close to the land, people required the assurance of the gods that their meager returns for labor led to enough food to survive. Keeping the gods happy as the new year began was essential. In the United States, New Year’s Day was observed on March 25 until 1752. It was observed on the supposed date of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary that Jesus would be born. If you want to understand the title of today’s post, you’ll need to take a look at the Full Essays page and read the New Year’s Day section from my as-yet unpublished book for teens on the holidays. It does have a religious basis, as does circumcision itself.