Monday, March 29, 2010

Religion Versus the Gods

If one hopes to generate more light than heat in any discussion of religion, I believe that a critical distinction between religion and theology needs to be made. The Latin root of ‘religion’ is ligare which means ‘to tie’ or ‘bind’ and re which means ‘back’. Thus religare means in some sense to ‘tie back’, ‘to restrain’, ‘to support,’ or ‘to commit’. I can remember swearing an oath as a lad, after the family dentist showed me photos of gruesome gums and teeth in advanced stages of periodontal disease, that I would ‘floss religiously before going to bed every night’. This religiosity, or religious commitment has carried over into adulthood for in addition to flossing I now religiously pay my property and incomes taxes on time, and religiously observe our wedding anniversary. I do all of these things without evoking the gods, although, I suspect that the wrath, if not of the gods, then the IRS might descend upon my head if I did not pay my income tax.

Unfortunately, in the minds of believers, I think it is ‘theology’ that is often intended when they think of ‘religion’. The or theo means ’god or gods’ and logy as in ‘biology, geology, psychology’ means theories of, study of the laws/logic of ‘bio, geo, psyche’, etc. When one equates religion with theology, one may then and especially then religiously practice violent, racist, dogmatic brands of theology---particularly against those who would suggest one’s religiously practiced brand of violent theology is not ‘religion’. Xenophanes in the 6th Century BCE seemed to have had theology in mind when he suggested that “If oxen or lions had hands which enabled them to draw and paint pictures as men do, they would portray their gods as having bodies like their own: horses would portray them as horse, and oxen as oxen.”[1] As an observant observer who religiously observed, Xenophanes also noted that “Aethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair, Thracians have gods with gray eyes and red hair.”.[2] Xenophanes insights are echoed 600 years later in the Nag Hammadi texts in the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip II, 3 :“God created man. [But now men] create God. That is the way it is in the world---men make gods and worship their creation. It would be fitting for the gods to worship men![3]

I would offer two suggestions to those who study and write about ‘civilizations and religions’. First: I would suggest that theological systems should be clearly defined and distinguished when one uses the word ‘religion. Second: I would suggest that in view of the biological and anthropological researches over the last hundred years, there is a common reference point for both theology and religion, and a common source of both which in part explains why we confuse them. This common source is empathy.

En or em means to put into or onto, e.g. ‘enact’ (put into action). Path or pathos, pathy…means feelings and emotions When em is combined as a prefix with path… or pathy, one has empathy which means the unconscious projection of one’s feelings into or onto the ‘other. This ‘other’ can be an animal, another human being, a flower, the environment. The important point here is that the feeling is unconscious – though it can be developed and consciously acted upon. A good example would be unconsciously ‘yawning’ or ‘smiling when someone else smiles or yawns.

The Dutch Primatologist, Frans Waal suggests that “We can’t feel anything that happens outside ourselves, but by unconsciously merging self and other, the other’s experiences echo within us. We feel them as if they’re our own. Such identification…cannot be reduced to any other capacities, such as learning, association, or reasoning. Empathy offers a direct access to the ‘foreign self.’”[4] The German Neurobiologist, Gerald Hüther, like Frans Waal ,would extend a basic capacity for empathy to all creatures who possess a brain. Hüther sees empathy as an innate neuronal phenomenon.

The language of feelings is generally understood by all other members of a given species and especially well by members of the same family or clan. It is the most important instrument of intra-species communication, and there it is especially highly developed in those species whose survival is most particularly dependent on skills like recognizing threats very quickly so they can be warded off through group action or making known newly discovered shareable resources so they can be secured through group action. The ability to communicate feelings, not so much through odors but mainly through gestures, mimes, and uttered sounds must have played a key role during the phase of transition to the human level. The gift of being able to express certain feelings is thus still laid by us in the cradle at the time of birth in the form of a certain genetically programmed neuronal circuits in our brains.”[5] .

Of course, as he suggests, what happens to innate empathy as the individual develops will vary from individual to individual and in humans from group to group.

Once one has experienced and understands empathy, whether it is with an animal, another human, or the old oak tree in the park that is to be razed to make way for a new shopping mall, one is ready to return to the distinction between religion and theology. Empathy, and religion as the experiencing of empathy, has both positive and negative aspects. It is positive in enabling the group whether rats or humans to survive---but for that very reason it can set the members of a group against ‘outsiders’. For example, in any war it is necessary to stress empathy toward an ‘our side’ as opposed to discouraging empathy for the enemy or ‘their side’ in order to facilitate killing them---even killing, as the Hebrew Book of Numbers proposed, in addition to enemy combatants, the other’s women and children.[6] We substitute negative images and invent special names for the foe in order to negate any empathy which might block the ‘sacred slaughter’. In this respect, one need go no further in the modern world than to examine any major political or military conflict, the US public health insurance debate, the issues of abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, spouse abuse, etc. Thus where religion can mean innate and even unconscious ‘empathy’ theology and theological systems can be called upon to emphasize empathy within the group while de-emphasizing-empathy with the outsiders.

Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of what happens when theology gets its hands on religion as empathy is found in the first two creation stories in Genesis – where in the first an androgynous and empathetic deity creates humans male and female in his/her image and tells them to multiply their kind. However, the theologians in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and all of their sub-sets tend to ignore Genesis 1 for Genesis 2, where the deity uses a male rib to make a companion for the first male. And as the witch-hunters of the 16th Century, Kramer and Sprenger pointed out, a rib is a ‘bent bone’ and so the woman was defective from the beginning.[7] No wonder that St. Paul doesn’t want ‘females teaching’ and Islam wraps them up in personal tents. A similar situation prevails in civilizations around the world when the theologians get to work on negating empathy. In India it occurs in the Laws of Manu and in the Hymn to Visvakarman which outlines the divine origins of the castes. The Buddhists suggest in the Jataka thatThe nature of the woman is hard to know. Tis like the ways in water of the fish. Lies are to them as truth, and truth as lie… She bandits are they, cruel and malign, and hard and fickle.”[8].

Is there another approach to equating religion with theology? I think so. Just as theology needs constantly to be re-examined, so to does empathy/religion,, which can use theology to attack the ‘other’ need to be re-examined. In short – as in a ‘secular state’ the ‘people’ need to be educated, understanding, and alert – so must this education, understanding and critical alertness carry over to the connection of theology with religion! The US Constitutional Fathers made an attempt at this possibility when they tried to separate ‘religion’ and ‘government’. But the cure is, I think, even more radical---I suggest that civilizations and nations must remove theology and the theologians from the justification business. Civilizationists, in turn, need to clearly distinguish the one from the other and their inter-relationships. The secular state, imperfect as it is, must work out its laws without theological justifications which enable suicide bombers, territorial rapists, religious haters of races, ethnic groups, genders and gender orientations to proclaim that whatever happens, good or bad, it is a reward or punishment of the gods. Of course, in theological systems which rely heavily upon proceeds from real estate sales on the other side, this may hurt financially.

[1] Philip Wheelwright: The Presocratics, Macmillan, N.Y. 1985, p.33

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Nag Hammadi Libary, James M. Robinson, General Editor, Harper & Row. NY 1977, p. 143

[4] Frans de Waal: The Agen of Empathy, Harmony Books, NY, 2009 p 65

[5] Geral Hüther, The Compassionate Brain (Michael H. Kohn trans), Harmony books, London, 2006, p. 112-3

[6] Numbers 31:17

[7] Heinrich Kramer & James Sprenger: The Malleus Maleficarum (Rev. Montague Summers trans), Dover, NY 1971

[8] Stories of the Buddha. Being Selections from the Jataka (Caroline A.F. Rhys Davis trans) NY, Dover Publications 1989, p. 67

Walter Benesch, Dept of Philosophy U. of Alaska

Friday, March 26, 2010

Was There an Original Human Religion?

Who would have thought as recently as the 1970s that we would be paying attention to an institution as old as religion—and for the modern world, one that was obsolete? But here we are in 2010 with religious issues—some of them deadly—in the daily news.

The Faith Instinct—How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, by Nicholas Wade, makes a case that religion not only has an evolutionary (survival) basis, but also all of today’s religions have evolved out of predecessors, going back to the first one 50,000 years ago.

This is a new way to look at religion indeed. Wade even addresses today’s secularists—like myself—who, although not a believer, practice the best civilizing rules that have come down to us through religion. We do things because they seem right—not because we fear divine punishment—but what seems right comes from ancient religion.

Each new religion as it forms attempts to wipe out its predecessor. The monotheists (such as Abraham and his descendants) attack polytheism; religions based on ethnicity (Judaism) becomes an international religion under its daughter religion, Christianity; and Islam tries to wipe out the religions of the people they conquered, as well as their own previous religion. All of these failed to wipe out the remnants of their prior faiths. One of the most illustrative of this is in Iran, where although almost all the original practitioners of Zoroastrianism were either converted, persecuted, or driven out, today—despite Islam—defiantly celebrate one of their oldest and most beloved Zoroastrian holidays—Nowruz (New Day, or New Year).

Islam does not take kindly to competition, but Iranians and all the many people under their cultural sway (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghans, Bahrain, Dubai, Georgia, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) celebrate the New Year on the day of the Vernal Equinox as they have for many thousand years. This primeval celebration was shaped by Zoroastrianism—and bears its mark even today. Its celebrates
equal day and night, the return to light from darkness, springtime, fertility, new life, and joy. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini at his most ferocious could not stamp out this Iranian celebration.

After reading Wade’s book, I started to see the primeval connections between not only Nowruz, but to Chinese New Year, Passover, and Easter. All of these celebrate Spring; extend at least a week or more (Nowruz is 13 days long; Chinese New Year almost so; Passover is one week; and the Easter season extends from Lent to Easter, 40 days). And all celebrate resurrection from death—which fertility addresses. All involve foods and family celebration, wishes for good fortune and prosperity, and all deal with hope.

Food plays a major role. Iranians assemble a special table of symbolic items —mostly foods but also including coins (like the Chinese). Jews also have a special assemblage of symbolic items on the Passover table—with emphasis on history and fertility; the Chinese feature round-shaped foods that represent wholeness and the Moon; and Easter has Lamb and colored eggs, as do all the others, representing new life and fertility (and the return of eating meat after Lent).

The Iranian holiday has maintained some elements so old that most people cannot explain them. On the Wednesday before the New Year, people build little bonfires that every household member must jump over (an ancestor of Mardi Gras?). On the 13th day of the New Year, wheat sprouted in a dish is several inches tall. People desert all the cities for the wilderness where they cast these greens (representing last year’s bad luck) into running streams. Luck is also a major fixation during the Chinese New Year, which ends with a dragon dance—a symbol of fire, power, and luck.

We all think we are so removed from the past—but it is not so. We still depend upon each other for survival, warmth, and love. We still have remnants of our most ancient ancestors dwelling among us in our dreams and celebrations. And nobody—and nothing—can blot that out. We are, like it or not, descendants of our most ancient religions.

By Laina Farhat-Holzman