Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Peter and the Red Giant

Now that my book has been sent off to the publisher, I’m working on the next project. This one has me delving back into the Greek of the New Testament. It may be, some would say, that I’m no longer an expert in such things. Coming to Koiné Greek, however, after lingering among languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian, feels like coming home. It’s Indo-European, after all. One of the books I’ve come back to is 2 Peter. This is a curiosity among the canonical books. All but the most conservatively predisposed of scholars note that this little letter didn’t actually come from the Peter. The idea of using someone famous as a literary pseudonym was a well known and widely accepted practice in ancient times. In fact, the prefix “Pseudo-“ on classical writers is so common that I feel just a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, 2 Peter contains fascinating ideas.

The Bible was influenced, of course, by many outside sources. One of those sources was Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. This came to mind because 2 Peter is the only book in the Bible that describes the end of the world as burning and melting. These ideas are tied to the purifying fire of Zoroastrianism. In that religion an evil deity, Angra Mainyu, corrupted this world. Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is holy. At the end of time, when the blessed ascend to a heavenly mountain, a river of fire will pour down, burning and purifying the polluted earth left behind. The idea is powerful and evocative, and obviously some early Christian writers cottoned onto it. Including 2 Peter.

The idea, in the Bible, stands isolated in this one single book. The real concern of the epistle is false prophets, though. Still, the worldly should take note. The universe in biblical times consisted only of this relatively flat planet—which wasn’t even a planet then—with a starry dome overhead and a fiery Hell beneath. Ironically, 2 Peter’s end is similar to that predicted by modern astronomers. A star the size our sun will likely bloom out into a red giant, parboiling the earth in its death throes. Seems the Zoroastrians, and Peter, may have been correct after all. The thing is they both had an escape hatch that will only come with interplanetary migration, according to science. But then, all of this assumes there will be a world left after the Trump administration. And speaking of false prophets, I wonder what 2 Peter would’ve had to say about that?

Infinite but Expanding

What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.

The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.

Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.


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

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Opposites Distract

In the current political climate—and not just in the United States, as Brexit reminds us—opposites seem to be the order of the day. The middle ground seems to have fallen out as those frantic for turning back the clock to a day that never really ever existed make their voices louder and more strident. After seven millennia of progress, the apogee of mankind—and let’s be explicit that we mean rule by white men—was reached in “the greatest generation” and the happy days that followed in the 1950s. Those of us born to protest for an even greater idealism have, by our very nature, disrupted the smooth calm that fictitiously prevailed through the first half of the last century. In a new millennium the ghosts of the last century dictate policy. Would I have felt safer then?

The more I ponder this stark dualism, the more it seems that the origin is religious. In its most recent iteration that religion is branded as Christianity, but in actual fact the dualism goes much deeper than that. The adjective “Manichaean” has become popular with writers who discern a certain black and whiteness to our outlook. Mani wasn’t the first dualist in history. In fact, he was somewhat late to the game. We don’t know much about Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as the Greeks called him, but we do know that he set out to devise a new religion. His outlook was one that saw the world as opposites. For every good god there had to be a bad god. There was a struggle that would result in either going to a heaven or a hell. Just about every religion that has developed ever since has shared his conflicted outlook.


As political pundits bellow more like hippopotami than elephants, trumpeting that those who are different are not to be trusted, we’ve come once again into a dualistic world. Pluralism and globalization are not without their critics. Technology, however, has ensured that they will continue apace. Some governments have tried to “switch off” the internet. Those on the other side of the Berlin Wall didn’t want the truth of what was happening on the other side to be known. They had invented a dualism that was protected with rifles and threats. The problem is things aren’t as simple as the Manichaeans would have us believe. Ours is a world of beautiful, glorious complexity. It takes religion, it seems, to make such a wonderful chaos into something far too simple to match reality.

Popular Eternity

EntertainingJudgmentPopular culture, it seems to me, mediates reality. The media of various descriptions teach us what to think, and even if there is a religiously “orthodox” answer to questions, we will weigh it in the scales against what larger society says. This becomes clear in Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Garrett, a scholar of religion and popular culture, turns his attention to death in this book. More precisely, what happens after death. The usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and zombies are here, but also the realms of Heaven, Hell, and for the Catholics in the house, Purgatory. All of these are seen through the various lenses of movies, television, song, comic books, regular books, and games. It’s fair to say that we’re a culture obsessed with death. But then again, what culture isn’t? It may be just that it comes across more charming when there’s a buck to be made at it.

What I found interesting is that although the Bible has little to say about Heaven or Hell (and nothing at all about Purgatory), each of these realms has developed a canonical script. Hell is hot and fiery, Heaven is cool and cloudy. Purgatory is gloomy, but beyond that comes in mild, medium, and hot varieties. We know these things from various teachings of our respective religions. In popular media, however, the script has been changing. We now have mild unpleasantness passing for Hell, if it lasts forever. Nobody needs to get burned. Heaven, meanwhile, can be just okay. It’s certainly better than the other place. Or the other two. We’ve overused our superlatives and have been left feeling like we’re on antidepressants.

Polls continue to tell us that many, if not most, Americans believe in literal Heavens and Hells. A point Garrett raises, however, is they may not mean by that what their clergy assert to be the case. Since near death experiences are controversial, nobody can say that they’ve actually been to either place, or the third. The exception to this rule is those who work in fiction—in whatever form. Since we can see their visions of the afterlife so clearly they have become the arbiters of eternity, with or without any religious training. In this day of marketplace religion and nones, Heaven and Hell seem to have become secular. The church may have introduced the ideas (actually, they seem to go back to the Zoroastrians, but I’m thinking of American culture) but the media have taken them over. We may be secular, but we still die. Entertaining Judgment might give you an idea of what to expect, depending on whose vision you buy.