Thursday, August 18, 2011

Where Does Religion Come From?

Pharaoh Seti and his Queen making an offering to Horus, from a chapel in Seti's temple at Abydos in Egypt, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty.

There is a fascinating interview in The Atlantic with Robert N. Bellah, the sociologist most famous for his 1964 essay, American Civil Religion. He has just come out with a new book speculating on the origins of religion from the Paleolithic Period to the "Axial Age," that long period from about the 13th century BC to the 7th century AD when the world's current religions and philosophies were formed.

He points out that almost all of the conversation about religion in the USA is shaped by Protestant Christianity, a very exceptional form of religion, and of Christianity. He argues that this is true even for secularists who share the cultural formation of their fellow citizens, if not their religious beliefs. Bellah says that we automatically assume that religion is about God and the afterlife when most of the world's religions, now and in the past, are about neither. I certainly agree. The concept of "God" as a universal all powerful personal deity who actively intervenes in history is comparatively recent, and unique to the 3 abrahamic faiths (which is not necessarily an argument against His existence). The Bible is full of evidence to suggest that the arrival at this conclusion was only after a very long and turbulent process, a long journey from Israel's god to God. There is nothing quite like this in other religions past and present. The Brahman of the Hindus is nothing like the abrahamic God. The gods of the ancient world were all local deities limited in their powers and dominions, and as fickle and temperamental as the mortal rulers of ancient societies. None of them were universal, all powerful, or perfectly good.

We assume that religion is about the afterlife when a lot of religions in the ancient world, and a few today, are indifferent to the whole question. Early Judaism was largely indifferent to the question. Most of the ancient Mediterranean world didn't believe in an afterlife at all. There are no Minoan tomb monuments. Burial monuments in Helladic Greece and much of Mesopotamia were confined exclusively to rulers. The earliest literature from the Homeric epics to the Epic of Gilgamesh describes the realm of the dead as a place of shadows where everyone goes regardless of their vice or virtue, success or failure. Ancient India regarded death as but a phase in the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In India, the whole point of salvation is not resurrection or paradise, but transcending this cycle. There were no tomb monuments in India apart from the stupas containing relics of the Buddha until the arrival of Islam. Ancient Egypt's preoccupation with the afterlife was exceptional, and not at all typical of the rest of the ancient world. The same could be said for ancient China.

Bellah suggests that perhaps our religious impulses are related to our impulse to play, to act out ideas and imagination. He says that it is no accident that in so much of the world, dramatic theater began as part of religious ritual. Today, we are able to compartmentalize our experience of the theater. No matter how powerful and cathartic our experience of what happened on the stage (or screen), we tell ourselves that it is only a play, only a movie. Bellah says that in places like ancient Greece, there was no such compartmentalization, that theater was integral to the rites of Dionysos, and as Nietzche suggested, the chorus in the play was really the citizens of the polis, the audience, participating in the drama. The cursed House of Atreus really did come alive again to live out their tragedies every time Sophocles' work was performed, as far as the ancient audience was concerned.

Bellah agrees with Martin Buber that religion begins with an inability, or refusal, to see the world abstractly. Like Martin Buber, he says religion begins by thinking of our relation to the rest of the world in terms of I-You rather than I - It. He gives the example of the Shinto belief in kami, which we usually translate as "spirits." Trees, rocks, the sun, wind, rain, clouds, mountains, even certain scenic spots in Japan are not just beautiful and full of resonances, they are literally alive and we can talk to them as beings. We see something similar in ancient American beliefs ascribing life and agency to everything in nature. That, Bellah argues, is the origin of religion.

Bellah provocatively proposes that the real measure of the development of human intelligence is not in our tools and technology, but in our ability to interact with other people. He points out that negotiating the tangled and complex demands of any human society of any size --how do we get along with people we like and how do we live with people we can't stand -- is far more demanding than chipping tools out of flint. I would argue that tool making leaves behind physical evidence for the scholar while social life leaves behind little clear physical evidence until the invention of writing.

Our conversations about religion in this country are not only willfully ignorant, but worse still, they are impoverished and sterile. Fundamentalists and "professional atheists" battle it out on teevee while the rest of us watch the spectacle as if the two combatants were scorpions battling it out in a jar. No matter who "wins," we learn absolutely nothing about either belief or non-belief.

This is where I really miss Göran. He would have so much to say about this that would be really instructive.


MarkBrunson said...

Where does religion come from?

Well, when a Daddy god loves a Mommy god very, very much . . .


JCF said...

Actually, Mark, that's not a bad explanation! ;-)

"Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans": monkeys will stare, raptly, at waterfalls . . . and we're just Upright Monkeys.

[I, too, miss Goran's take.]