When a fundamentally irreligious society takes up the comparative study of religion, it’s a safe bet that the results are going to be weird. Certainly my own encounters with the academic field of comparative religion, first in my university days and then in decades of reading since then, have left me scratching my head more often than not. The oddities aren’t accidental—far from it—and they have quite a bit to teach that’s of relevance to the project of this blog.
I’m thinking just now of a conversation I had just after a class session of my first comparative religions course at the University of Washington in Seattle. The teaching assistant who taught the course—real professors were already starting to think of themselves as above such things—spent most of an hour talking about theories that claimed to explain why people have religions. There were sociological theories, psychological theories, linguistic theories, and so on, all trying to explain why it was that people in so many different cultures and eras around the world had the curious habit of religious faith.
That got me a wide-eyed look of alarm, which I mistook for an expression of interest, and warmed to my subject. All the theories he’d discussed, I suggested, were like theories about why human beings go hunting that neglect the possibility that game animals might exist. Hunting includes phenomena that can be explained usefull in sociological, psychological, linguistic, and other terms, to be sure, but trying to explain all of hunting in those terms, without reference to the behavior and edibility of game animals, is going to miss some things that arguably ought to be taken into account.
The teaching assistant was not impressed by this line of reasoning. “That’s not a valid comparison,” he huffed, and then shook himself like a dog who’s been drenched in ditch water, and headed for the door.
That’s the kind of response that usually comes up when it’s suggested, by those few individuals willing to say something that shocking in public, that the fact that nearly all human cultures have religions might have something to do with the fact that a fairly large fraction of human beings—up to a third, according to some surveys—have had experiences that certainly look like contact with disembodied intelligent beings of various kinds. Contemporary industrial culture insists that such beings do not, cannot, and must not exist, and so has to explain away the fact that people just keep on seeing them, talking to them, and receiving certain noticeable benefits from those interactions.
The irony here is that the situation wasn’t actually that much better in much of the western world in the days before scientific materialism elbowed its way to its current position as the default option in industrial society. In the days when Christianity had that position, the difficult questions were not that different, all things considered. I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.
The difficulty here is that the evidence from religious experience, and from such related phenomena as answered prayers and miraculous healings, doesn’t support the claim that so vast a difference separates the Christian God from the world’s other deities. In point of fact, religions everywhere seem to have about the same per capita incidence of religious experiences, prophetic visions, sudden reformations of character, preposterous chains of coincidence that save worshippers from unwelcome fates, sudden remissions of serious diseases, and so on. These things happen in mighty religions with tens of millions of followers, and they also happen about as often in tiny little sects where a few dozen members gather around a single teacher in a living room somewhere.
They even occur in Druidry, which is well over toward the small, quiet, and quirkily intellectual end of the spectrum of world faiths. At a Druid communion ritual not long ago—yes, we have those—I was among those who witnessed an occurrence of the classic miracle of the Grail: the bread dipped in wine tasted, to each person present, exactly like one of his or her favorite foods. Mine tasted like a really first-rate imperial stout. I found this distinctly surprising, in that I’d used wine from the same bottle and bread from the same package repeatedly without any remotely similar result, and it was also noteworthy that the person to one side of me got the distinctive flavor of chocolate covered malted milk balls while the other got the equally definite flavor of wildflower honey. It was, to risk some degree of understatement, a remarkable evening.
Such occurrences, it should probably be mentioned, can’t be produced on request. They happen according to a logic of their own, which according to the philosophies and theologies of pretty much all known religious traditions, is the logic of the beings who make them happen. I’m quite aware that an atheist confronted with the curious events of the evening just mentioned would start talking about gustatory hallucinations, or what have you. What does that mean, though? Simply that those present each tasted something that had nothing to do with the chemical constituents of the bread and wine—a suggestion I would find entirely plausible, but irrelevant to the significance of the event. You could as well say that a poem is explained by saying that it consists of black marks on paper: a true statement, but one that misses most of what’s meaningful about the phenomenon.
The point of religious experience, like that of poetry, is communication: in this case, the kind of communication that sustains a relationship, a response from the invisible side of the relationship to overtures from the visible side. It’s not meant as a source of proof, any more than an affectionate letter from a lover is intended as proof that lovers are not imaginary beings. If disbelief in lovers were as common as disbelief in deities, those of us who had experienced sexual intercourse would no doubt face constant demands for proof from—what would they be? Anerotists, perhaps?—who insisted that all sex is masturbation because lovers don’t exist. The anerotist movement, like its atheist equivalent, would be populated by people who hadn’t had the experience in which they so loudly disbelieved, and a case could be made that this lack of experience was a sign that their attitudes and behavior toward potential lovers were not exactly well suited to encourage intimacies.
The point that I’d like to make here, though, is that communications of the sort under discussion—whether these are as simple as the occurrence at the Druid ceremony mentioned above, as spectacular as the sudden spontaneous remission of a lethal disease, or what have you—are common to all religious traditions. So are all the other dimensions of religious experience. Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions. Not all religions have this problem, though, since not all religions insist on the exclusive validity of their own teachings and the uniqueness of their own deity—a point I’ll be developing further in a bit.
It’s an interesting detail of history that serious practitioners of magic—even those who belong to faiths that uphold such claims of exclusive validity—very often reject such claims and display as much openness to the reality of other religions as the customs and legal penalties of the age permit. There’s a fascinating passage in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, for example, which discusses the role of religion in magic. As a good Christian, Agrippa draws a distinction between religion, by which he means Christianity, and superstition, by which he means all other religions.
He then goes on to explain that religion and superstition are the two things that rule every magical operation, and superstition isn’t all bad. Even though we shouldn’t believe in it, it’s better than atheism, and God does not wholly spurn the prayers of pagans, and after all, Agrippa’s just copying down things from the classic authors on the subject, so don’t blame him for any hint of theological heterodoxy that might have crept in there somewhere. All in all, it’s a fine example of the art of talking out of both sides of your mouth at the same time, which was much cultivated in those days. It was also effective; despite his continent-wide reputation as a mage, Agrippa managed to avoid being burnt at the stake in an era when that was an uncomfortably common occupational hazard in his line of work.
Mages of a later day, who didn’t have to deal with such dangers, tended to be even more forthright. I’m thinking here of Violet Firth Evans, much better known by her magical nom de plume Dion Fortune, who was simultaneously a devout Christian and an active participant in a variety of interactions with pagan gods. I’d encourage those of my readers who doubt this to read her Mystical Meditations on the Collects, a work of Anglican devotions—I don’t know if any of the papers she wrote for the Guild of the Master Jesus, the Christian wing of her magical order, are publicly accessible, or I’d recommend those—and then turn to such pagan essays of hers as “The Worship of Isis.” For that matter, Ross Nichols, among the 20th century’s most important Druid teachers, was a deacon in a Celtic Christian church as well as the head of a Druid order, and Gerald Gardner—yes, that Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca—was also an ordained priest in an alternative Christian church.
I’m aware that that sort of thing is practically unthinkable in today’s bitterly polarized religious scene, though we somehow get away with it in Druidry—there are quite a few Christian Druids in the order I head, for example. Still, it used to be common among mages, because the successful practice of magic requires theology to be tested against results. It’s a commonplace of old-fashioned occultism that personal devotion to one deity, or to a particular set of deities, need not exclude cordial relationships with the whole range of unseen powers in the cosmos, and that maintaining that wider range of relationships benefits the operative mage in ways that range from the spiritual to the pragmatic.
What makes this all the more interesting is that this same broad tolerance and mutual respect used to be universal, or nearly so, among religions. In classical times, to cite only one obvious example, there was no shortage of fervent religious devotion, but next to nobody thought that your devotion to your deity required you to be rude to mine. A Greek traveler who went to Phoenicia on business, say, would likely participate in the worship of Melkarth and Astarte while there, and then sail back home and sacrifice a bullock to Poseidon in gratitude for calm seas and favorable winds, without anybody, human or divine, taking offense. The same rule still applies in those countries that have retained the old way of doing things; in Japan, for example, most people go to Shinto shrines for one set of religious needs and Buddhist temples for another, without the least sense of incongruity or conflict.
These days, by contrast, most of the world’s popular religions claim exclusive ownership of the truth, and dual membership even in different denominations of the same religion is frowned on far more often than not. The transformation that made this the standard view, in place of the older take on things, is a historical process—one that I’ve discussed at length in my other blog, since that process also drove the rise of the western world’s current religious sensibility. It got under way in the sixth century BCE, and it marked one of the most drastic religious revolutions in human history: the abandonment, across most of the Old World and some parts of the New, of traditional religions that worshipped the gods of nature, and their replacement with prophetic religions that worship abstract entities separate from nature and direct much of their reverence to dead human beings.
Since this shift very often gets confused with the rise to global power of the Abrahamic religions, we’ll start outside that overfamiliar context, in a cave in the mountains of Sichuan Province in China at the beginning of the second century CE. That’s where Zhang Daoling, the founder of religious Daoism, had a vision in which he encountered the spirit of Lao Tsu. The sage told him that the traditional deities of Han-dynasty China were “dead energies,” and that he should prophesy the abolition of the old religion, the imminent arrival of the utopian kingdom of the Great Peace, and the worship of a new pantheon of abstract powers. As that tradition merged with the bubbling cauldron of Chinese folk religion, the Daoist pantheon got filled out with the spirits of the worthy or wrathful dead—it’s been traditional for millennia in China to cope with a vengeful ghost by offering it worship as a minor deity, and if it accepts the deal and starts granting blessings, promotion up the celestial hierarchy follows in due order.
Back in the sixth century CE, a prince turned mendicant named Siddhartha dismissed the old gods of India in even loftier terms than Zhang Daoling had, proclaiming that gods were of no concern for those who followed his newly founded religion, Buddhism. Mahavira, the founder of the Jain religion, lived around the same time and had similar thoughts about deities. As both religions matured, they evolved pantheons of enlightened beings—buddhas and bodhisattvas in the one case, tirthankaras and arihants in the other—to whom worship was offered. In Buddhism, the old gods of nature finally got a look in by way of the tantric sects, where they play a variety of mostly minor roles; in Jainism, there’s a thriving underground tradition of worshipping the gods and goddesses of nature for material benefits, which is sternly frowned on by the priesthood and the more virtuous laity.
Then, of course, there are the Abrahamic religions—Jewish monotheism, which dates from the end of the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE; Christianity, which emerged in the first century CE; Islam, which was founded in the seventh century CE; and an assortment of also-ran movements such as Manicheanism, which got stomped in the blood-soaked competition for religious supremacy in the late Roman and post-Roman world. In the more traditional forms of all these faiths, the one deity of the Abrahamic tradition reigns over a we-don’t-call-it-a-pantheon of the virtuous dead—saints, prophets, tzaddikim, shaykhs, or what have you—who fill much the same role in these religions as the legions of arihants and bodhisattvas do in faiths further east.
All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.
All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute. The exact nature of the substitute varies all the way from the concretely physical messianic kingdom of Jewish faith to the apophatic abstractions of the Buddhist Nirvana, with plenty of twists and turns in between, but the one thing you won’t find is the core outlook of the older religions: this is the way the gods made the world, and they’re pretty much happy with it, so you might want to consider being happy with it, too.
Then there’s the cult of relics. That’s a remarkably consistent habit of prophetic religions: the reverence devoted to dead people tends to focus on whatever’s left of their bodies. All over South Asia, you can find lavishly ornamented stupas that enshrine a tooth or finger bone of the Buddha; all over the Muslim world, the tombs of shaykhs and imams are holy places; all over the Christian world, except where the more violent phases of the Reformation left permanent marks, the relics of the saints are focal points of devotion. There’s a piece of a dead saint, or some relic of equivalent sanctity, inside the altar of every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church on the planet.
By contrast, in most of the old nature religions, bringing the remains of a dead person into a holy place rendered that place spiritually polluted. That’s why the sacrificial altar at a Greek temple was out in front, under the open sky, and what was offered inside the temple was incense, barley cakes, votive images and the like. That’s part of a broader polarity; nature religions tend to celebrate sex as the gate to incarnate life; prophetic religions prefer to celebrate death as the gate to discarnate life. Myself, I find the cult of relics creepy, but that’s a personal matter—as noted in last month’s post, the robustly biological features of H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled monster-gods don’t spook me at all, but I get a little squeamish around dead things. To each their own.
It’s important to realize that the distinction just drawn permits of not merely gray areas but a galaxy of different shades of color as well. The prophetic religions have tended to absorb a variety of elements from the older nature religions, and surviving nature religions have returned the courtesy and borrowed elements from prophetic religions. In today’s America, you can thus find plenty of people for whom Christ is a pale and wrathful lord of the dead eternally hostile to biological existence, but you can also find people who see the first chapter of the Gospel of John as a ringing proclamation of the presence of Christ throughout living nature, and who remember that Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Other faiths have equal diversity to show.
The distinction between natural and prophetic religions is thus something more like a spectrum than a hard and fast division. That said, these days, most of the popular religions in America and much of the rest of the world fall well over toward the prophetic end of the spectrum, and most atheists suffer from the conviction that what’s true of the prophetic end of the spectrum is true of religion as a whole. As we proceed with the project of this blog, it’s going to be necessary to keep both ends of the spectrum, not to mention the middle, firmly in mind.