I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?
This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.
Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.
Traduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.
The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.
Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.
MSNBC ran a story yesterday concerning a little-known henge in Dartmoor, England. Images of these remote Dartmoor megaliths transported me back to my years in the British Isles when my wife and I spent every available tuppence traveling around to see antiquities so old that the Roman fortifications along Hadrian’s Wall seemed like throwbacks to the 1950s. With some English friends we met in Edinburgh we drove through the bleak moors of Dartmoor and Exeter, down into the forgotten curiosities of Cornwall, and back to Salisbury Plain to see Stonehenge. One year for my birthday we flew to the Orkneys (on a plane designed like a shoebox with wings) to explore the islands with the highest concentration of preserved prehistoric sites in Europe. Suffering from a killer head-cold, I accompanied my wife on hands and knees into tombs constructed thousands of years before William turned his conquering eye onto the British mainland. Colossal stone rings larger than Stonehenge, but less bulky and lacking capstones, stood out in the middle of a field where the locals barely threw a glance; such monuments had become part of the daily backdrop.
Archaeologists constantly attempt to discern the function of these silent remains. The MSNBC story suggests, based on the remains of porcine bones, that the Dartmoor site may have been associated with funerary rites. Carbon dated to 3500 BCE, they predate Noah’s putative ark (dated precisely to 1657, thank you Bishop Ussher) by more than a millennium. That they may have been associated with death is no surprise – the great feats and structures of humankind seem to be exactly that, efforts to cheat death. To leave reminders that we were here and we had something to say. What exactly they had to say, however, is muffled by the eons of lost communication.
A phenomenon I have noticed for many decades now is that when an unexplained structure or artifact is recovered, first recourse among many archaeologists is to attribute religious significance to it. Religion is the default fall-back when we can’t explain why people were expending tremendous resources to articulate a primal, deep concern in stone or clay. In many respects, the same is true today. Religious leaders still raise funds like no other class of professionals, simply by suggesting that death itself may be cheated of its due. All that money, however, can’t stop the inevitable. Instead of running away, I side with the archaeologists as I poke my head into some dank, dark space no other person has explored for many a month or year. Sitting quietly in an empty tomb left by an ancient society rendered completely mute by high antiquity, you are nevertheless in touch with what it means to be truly human.
After a distressing day of job-hunting yesterday, I turned to the Simpsons for solace. Often the most intelligent program on American television, as well as being the longest running series, the Simpsons frequently hits religion with a few good-natured and well deserved whacks. Last night I watched The Joy of Sect from season nine. It has been a few years since I’ve seen the episode, and I was pleasantly surprised how it correlates with the overall theme of this blog.
Although the episode ends with a normalcy returning to Springfield after the appearance of a cult called the Movementarians, the parallels between the cult and Rev. Lovejoy’s church are numerous and poignant. This perhaps hits too close to reality for many religious believers — what separates a “cult” from a “church” is more a matter of perspective than a matter of practice or accident.
Even early Christianity had considerable connection to and similarity with Gnosticism. When religions collide, they must emphasize their distinctiveness to survive. Like biological organisms, those that meet the needs of their societies (“the fittest”) survive, while others go extinct. It seems to me that the main cause of religious violence is the need to claim exclusive access to the truth. People are not comfortable believing a religion that might be proven wrong. Like the Simpsons they wish everything will return to normal at the end of the day.