Bunch of random thoughts about ancient & modern religionsMarch 15, 2014
“Lettersquash” has just posted an interesting article on his blog about the origins of religion. While reading it I found myself making a few notes and ranting to myself a bit about a few (mostly tangential) ideas, which I will post here rather than clutter up lettersquash’s comments section with my irrelevant musings….
Religious apologists, from theologians to religion-friendly academics, love proclaiming that humans have “always had a need for religion” and proudly trace “religion” back into the deepest mists of human history. They wish to claim all the wonders of the ancients and the scientific or artistic works of people who were by chance or by default religious, as triumphs of “religion”. It’s too much. The category is too large and undifferentiated. They use the modern words “religion” and “god” as if they refer just as accurately to ancient practices as to modern ones. I think they are wrong to do that, on several counts.
First, “religion” as any Pope or Mufti practices it would be better described as politics. In fact, in my opinion, as soon as one opens ones mouth in public about one’s religion it ceases to be religion and starts immediately to be politics and should be treated as such.
Second, they blithely call everything from ancient cave paintings to modern theology “religion”, ignoring the enormous clefts and ruptures in the intervening terrain. In fact what the ancients practiced clearly has very little in common with modern religion or concepts of god. The ancient Mesopotamian spring festival re-enacted the descent of Marduk into the Underworld and his eventual victory over the god of chaos, leading to spring. By acting out the story, they probably saw themselves participating in the coming of spring in a way that didn’t distinguish between “the divine” and the “natural in the way that modern religion does. In fact modern religion seems to positively thrive on distinguishing itself from nature and declaring miracles to be the very opposite of science and naturalness.
Religious apologists are also wrong to project modern “belief” onto the ancients. No one “believed” in the god of the north wind, or whatever. They just knew there was a wind that blows in from the north. They had no need to “believe” in some separate being blowing it.
In fact it’s probably wrong even to project belief onto modern people too. Do Catholics really believe that their pope is really appointed by Yahweh/Jesus/Ghost-thingie? Do they really think he is the only person who this strange conglomerate of beings speaks through on earth — except for the brief period after one has died (or retired!!!), during which period Yahweh et al communicates with a committee?
I know no Catholic who would seriously claim to believe that. A better word for it is allegiance. But the religious don’t want to call it that because it would make it clearer that their “belief” is not amenable to evidence, and therefore not really a belief at all.
The modern god of the theologians– some kind of Ground of Being — is a recent and extremely boring invention, no matter how much they talk it up with fancy philosophizing. I’ve always found the ancient gods much more bold, definite and compelling, even if we don’t know what the fuck they were all about.
Or the ancient Mesopotamian or Egyptian beings…
Anubis weighing the heart of a deceased human against a feather
…Or even the incredible 18th Century visions of William Blake.
Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air.
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.
Who the hell is Rintrah? Blake scholars hypothesize this and that, but it’s perfectly clear who Rintrah is: he’s a being who roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air. And if you can’t already see him and don’t know to get the heck out of his way, then you shouldn’t be reading poetry.
Another lesson from Blake — have the courage to admit utter, overwhelming mystification when you encounter it. He wrote the poem Tyger after seeing a tiger that had been brought back from Africa and put on public display in London. Blake often used lions and tigers in his poems to symbolize various things, but upon seeing a real one face to face, his view of a peaceful and loving Creator was turned upside down. Notice the question he asks at the end of the well known first verse:
Tyger, tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The question is left unanswered throughout:
Did he laugh, his work to see;
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
And is even sharpened at the end:
What immortal hand or eye
Dare form thy fearful symmetry?
That final question mark is the most honest question mark in the history of poetry.
Posted by Yakaru