Bunch of random thoughts about ancient & modern religions

March 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.

aztec god thingieAztec being of some kind, holding a heart in its claws

Or the ancient Mesopotamian or Egyptian beings…

1977_d0c8Anubis 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.

ghostNot Rintrah, but the “Ghost of a Flea” that Blake once “saw”

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



  1. “Religious apologists… blithely call everything from ancient cave paintings to modern theology “religion”,”

    I’m confused.y Are these the same people who claim the Earth is only 6000 years old? The paintings are up to 40,000 years old!

  2. Apologies — I should have defined my terms. By religious apologists I mean many theologians (eg., Paul Tillich), academics including atheists & agnostics who are sympathetic to religion (eg., Curtis White or Jonathon Kirsch who I’ve written about here before) and anyone who wants to give religion a free ride.

    A link in the text to a post by Jerry Coyne also gives an indication of the vague category I’m referring to —

    I exclude Young Earth Creationists and fundamentalists, who I’d label religious extremists rather than apologists.

    I’ll update the post to try and make it a bit clearer.

  3. “Young Earth Creationists and fundamentalists, who I’d label religious extremists rather than apologists.”

    Ah. I see the distinction.

  4. I wouldn’t put it past YECs and fundies to claim cave paintings in religion’s favor after shaving zeroes off their age.

    There’s one joke I’ve heard about biology and archaeology: If you have an animal feature with no known function, it’s a mating display. If you find an artifact with no clear purpose, it’s a ritual fetish.

  5. Hehe, I do love your rants, yakaru! But I have to say I disagree with a lot of what you’re saying here, if I’ve understood it. I feel personally challenged because it is not just ‘religious apologists’ who believe ‘that humans have “always had a need for religion” and […] trace “religion” back into the deepest mists of human history.’ That’s what I did in my ‘interesting article’. I’ve removed the ‘love to proclaim’ and ‘proudly’ from that quote, which are significant differences, of course. I’m not proud that humanity has always had (and yes, needed) religion (in my definition of all those terms), but I am awed by it, like I’m not proud that our ancestors almost certainly raped, murdered and pillaged their way across continents, but their victories in battle eventually led to my brain thinking about that. They needed to do that, too, for us to get here.

    You say ‘They [and I’m including myself again] use the modern words “religion” and “god” as if they refer just as accurately to ancient practices. I think they are wrong to do that, on several counts.’

    I’m usually in close agreement with you, but honestly I find no substance in any of the following supporting analysis (er, rant):-

    1. ‘First, “religion” as any Pope or Mufti practices it would be better described as politics.’

    I’m confused. You just said religion was a modern word that doesn’t apply to older practices. Now you say modern things we erroneously call religion are actually politics. Religion is political. It almost certainly was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. That’s a way of saying that we always ‘needed’ it. Being human, by my definition, involved that kind of politics and religion. We were pre-human apes bashing stones to make scrapers and bone-crushers; we became humans fashioning stone axe heads of increasing complexity, beauty, political clout and symbolic meaning. It might not have gone that way, theoretically, but religion developed and had a political value. Otherwise it would have disappeared.

    2. ‘Second, they [and I] blithely call everything from ancient cave paintings to modern theology “religion”, ignoring the enormous clefts and ruptures in the intervening terrain.’

    I can’t speak for ‘religious apologists’, but I imagine they’d be the first to say there was a gulf between their modern religion and the drug-crazed dancing, blood-letting and cannibalism of the past. So I guess it’s the archaeologists, anthropologists and historians you’re talking about. Anyway, I don’t see anything wrong with identifying a general trend of magical thinking, ritual and cosmic explanatory myth, mistaking visions as real or having conversations with nothings, and attaching the word ‘religion’. We don’t ignore clefts and ruptures in the intervening terrain just because we’re abstracting a commonality, just as we don’t ignore different phyla by defining life, or different styles by defining architecture.

    ‘In fact what the ancients practiced clearly has very little in common with modern religion or concepts of god.’ – Clearly? How do you know what the ancients practised? As a matter of fact, I didn’t mention it in my article, but David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce made EXACTLY the point you make next, but more tentatively, that ancients may not have separated the ideas of the spirit world and nature as we do. Personally, I am less convinced of this cleft, but it does probably get wider the more sophisticated the theology becomes.

    You single out for comparison a disbelieving Catholic merely in _allegiance_ to Catholicism, as representing modern, politically expedient, religion, and that may be more common in recent times. But it is not fair to use a non-believer to represent a modern religion so you can contrast him with the ancient human embedded in his spirit-nature-world! Incidentally, there’s a long history of the mythic noble savage we ought to beware of buying into as well.

    There are (and certainly have been in less analytical times) large numbers of Catholics who believe(d) unreservedly. Dawkins quotes one Catholic priest who writes (after struggling to believe in transubstantiation) of the enormous joy and priviledge he feels at last when he finds true belief, to be in such exquisite, passionate proximity to the body of Christ as he gazes upon the little wafers in his hand after they have been blessed. We who know they are still wafers are wrong to jump to the conclusion that the religious must be faking it, and I am not at all convinced that modern, genuine religious believers do indeed separate Spirit and Nature in any significant sense more than the ancients did. Obviously Catholicism in particular makes a great deal of the difference, but Jesus Christ actually symbolizes, as much as anything ever has, the union of the two. How that differs from the embedded ritual participation of an ancient hunter-gatherer or early farmer is a bit of a moot point, since he didn’t write anything down about his particular insanity for us to compare.

    3. You then list a few ancient, ‘honest and compelling’ gods, which you seem to prefer for being utterly incomprehensible. I’m not sure what to make of this at all. We have little to go on to judge whether they were more or less comprehensible or compelling at the time than Scientology or Mormonism or Catholicism are to some now. And frankly, I don’t see much difference between them and the God of the Old Testament. What’s not compelling (in that visceral sense you seem to imply) about that genocidal maniac?

    Of course, apologists use the argument “People have always needed religion” to suggest that it’s a good thing and we should keep on having one. It’s just bad logic. We needed an apendix.

  6. Hi Yakaru, hi lettersquash and hello to all.
    How did the ancient peoples see religion ?
    How did they practice it ?
    And perhaps most curious to me: how did they feel about it ?
    Much can be gained from the research into the first two questions.
    The artwork created by those peoples and the earliest forms of writing that referred to the matter. We see programs (i’m not sure if that’s the word) of ritual to be observed. Was there an early societal rift caused by a group on non-believers? If so, in what area, in all areas?
    As lettersquash has stated, the subject is open to so many areas, chapters and expanded or minimized beliefs that anything, and I mean anything, that we discuss among ourselves through whatever medium, will be thoughts we have worded on the (how did people feel) subject and nothing more. If research has shown us facts, terrific, I love that stuff, but inner human feelings?
    Were there young tribesmen, who, quietly preparing for a trip down to the river noticed a number of older tribesmen walking past nearby on their way to perform the time-honored barbaric dawn ritual?. Did several young tribesmen lower to faces to look up at the others sarcastically with a hint of a smile before heading to the river and their favorite fishing spot? We just don’t know.
    Ahhh, interesting question and wonderful material for those who write stories that are set in an ancient time.
    Both posts, Yakaru’s and lettersquash’s, got me thinking about this, something is missing. As much as we have discovered about what various beliefs were and how they seemed to be presented to the populace, we can’t know general feelings among people who are no longer with us and who didn’t have (or didn’t know they have) the means to record their feelings for our later consideration.

    The grouping of beliefs, religions and such causes problems simply because it creates ‘groups’. Like astrology, labeling people into groups seems to grate against the growing attitude of individuality and hate of discrimination.
    I would lump none of the people I ‘meet’ here on such blogs into this group or that (assuming that their entire mental process is described by the group). For a start we are here discussing it, learning from each other and adding to the subject, a practice not included in the description of many such groups.
    I am a skeptic and would not be opposed to the label but from all I have heard and read, their are so many definitions of skeptic in use that I may well object to being lumped in with certain of those definitions.

    I enjoyed both of your posts and will definitely be back for more !

  7. @gophergold,
    I’ve added a bit of text to make it clearer who it is that I’m vaguely referring to!

    @Bronze Dog,
    Yeh, I wouldn’t put it past YECs either.

    All valid points & criticisms.

    I could have drawn a few distinctions more clearly. I would agree much that people do privately for themselves could be seen as “religion as a natural phenomen”, (i.e., a form of behavior with deep roots in human nature); likewise, power politics grows naturally out of having a religious function in a social hierarchy. Certainly many parallels to be drawn across ages.

    What I was trying to focus on in my post was the apologetics for religion — trying to identify “relgion” as a natural part of human nature, which should therefore be above criticism, in the same way that love or kindness should be seen as of intrinsic value. Kirsch, who I mentioned in the first comment (and should have mentioned in the post) does exactly this. The behaviors and psychology of the ancients is trivialized and priestly self interest is protected.

    I guess I should have made it clearer that my ranting had little to do with your article, which covers quite different territory, with a totally different attitde to that.

    I was also mixing up rationality with personal responses in the article. Yeh, I personally find that Aztec guy with the claws more definite and compelling than the trinity (He is Three in One, etc), even though I’m happier my neighbors believe in the latter.

    I just wish people would have more the attitude which you seem to express in your article, along the lines of “Wow, WTF???” rather than rushing to say “Ah, yes, the divine impulse…”

    It is a fascinating area… It’s quite stunning to see how much modern society is still ritualized, and it does seem necessary for healthy functioning. Even atheists give each other little trophies and have ceremonies. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve capitulated to some “religious impulse”. It means they’re human, and we all have psychological needs. The religious, and their apologists park themselves on top of those needs and claim them as their own domain.

  8. @lettersquash,

    I didn’t realize this post could look like a challenge to your article, so I changed the intro wording to try and make it clearer that the above post was just blabbing about tangential topics.

  9. Hi y’all.

    @gophergold – yeah, I think God created the impression there are paintings 40000 years old with the miracle of carbon dating to test our faith, like he put ‘fossils’ in the rocks that appear to be hundreds of millions of years old. ;)

    @Woody – I’m glad you enjoyed my post. You’re right, of course, we can’t know the feelings people had about their lives, or even the thoughts, before any records were written. But I think we can make educated guesses, informed by comparing the hard evidence that has remained of various practices with those of our own times. I was struck when I visited Orkney by how little of substance has changed over millennia. Skara Brae is a neolithic site there that is older than the Pyramids, with domestic dwellings that have furniture almost identical in design to what you find in cottages on the islands – dressers with shelves, beds, hearths, etc. – only made of slabs of stone instead of wood. We might even say they had their food-processor (the quern for milling grain) and fridge (an enclosure thought to be a little fishpond within the house to keep seafood alive, and therefore fresh).

    @Yakaru – yeah, I know your rant wasn’t directed at me, and I understand (better now) the kind of attitude you were criticising. It was just kind of interesting that so much of what you wrote fitted me, apart from the conclusions drawn from it (the …therefore religion is good). I also see that you were expressing a lot of feeling in this piece, and as you say, maybe didn’t separate out the rational and emotional response. I was strangely analytical about it, since obviously you’re allowed to be less than 100% reasonable when you’re ranting. I genuinely do love your rants, and didn’t really feel my comments were criticisms, just me puzzling about the words if I were to take them at face value.

    I think part of it was that I’m in a weirdly calm place about religion, and genuinely find it difficult to empathise with that frustration you express. You seem so flabbergasted that Christians think God’s a trinity. I find it funny anyone would get wound up about that. Indoctrinating children with it, yes. The belief itself I find as arbitrary as any other, like the quite possibly complex beliefs Aztecs may have held about the dude with the claws and a taste for hearts. He only seems “definite” because nobody is going on about how he hibernates inside hollow reeds by the lake that’s deep underground, and has two mothers, one an eagle, the other a mystical yellow cloud. I made that up, but it seems that kind of nonsense is pretty ubiquitous in religions.

    Very interesting point you make about rituals among us all, atheists included.

    I don’t think you should ever worry about cluttering up my comments section. :)

  10. shaman.hamderser

    accept the love of god
    live for god
    spread the love

    and if not believing in god, accept the love

    if we try to disprove others all the time we lose to our own ego

    so disproving is not needed really, only thing needed is seeking what we find interesting

    being better than others is never important, thats an ego thing

    so skepticism isnt possible

    skepticism is only if you think you know something

    but any one with knowledge in their science field knows they know nothing, everything they know could be wrong, just a model


    keep open mind and heart, never judge, never be overly skeptic that creates pessimistic mindset

  11. Dear Advertiser,

    Your comment is extremely negative, judgmental, poorly thought out, lacking in substance, full of self-promotion (which is why I have deleted the links to your product) and was needlessly spread over two comments (which is why I have placed the text into one comment).

    You accuse me of not “accepting love”, although you don’t know anything about me at all beyond one post which you don’t even seem to have bothered to have read — you have not commented on any of the points I raised.

    You also accuse me of trying to disprove others “all the time”, which I don’t do. I do it sometimes, just like you. However, unlike you I’m not hypocritical about it.

    You seem to be oblivious of how hypocritical and stupid it is to leave a negative and judgmental comment admonishing others not to be negative and judgmental, and even judging people for supposed personal failings which you can not possibly know about.

    As for lecturing people about keeping an open mind, you might have looked less narrow minded yourself if you had attempted to contribute something to the topic being discussed here.

    If you wish to leave a third comment here, please reflect about the topic, formulate your thoughts, and check to see if half a dozen people have already written exactly the same thing as you. Then, if you think it’s still worth sharing, by all means write it.

    But don’t repeat yourself and don’t lecture people, and please stop acting like an ignorant, nasty-minded money grubbing hypocrite. Okay?

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