The initial foray of the wolf in sheep’s clothing was made a long long time ago. It happened when the first monotheisms hit the stage, and then it was only done — if the Jewish scriptures are anything to go by — in a cautious, let’s see how this goes, sort of way. There is a good deal of evidence in the Jewish scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) that it happened like this, not quite sure whether they were saying that there was only one god, or whether they were saying, instead, that there was only one special god who had chosen them, as a people, for a particularly important mission, although there were other gods for other people. Religious scholars call that henotheism, belief in one’s own special god, while not denying the existence of other gods, the gods of other people.
But the specialness of the Israelite god, amongst the religions of the time in the Mesopotamian world, was a unique departure from the religions that were dominant at that time and in that place. Religions were, at the time, as Jan Assmann says in his book The Price of Monotheism, intertranslatable. Until Akhnaten in Egypt, and the possibly derivative belief in Palestine amongst the Hebrews, who had been led there, so the story goes, by a man with the suspiciously Egyptian sounding name of Moses, there had been a convention regarding the interchangeability and intertranslatability of gods, so that the religion of one cultural group could be seen to be consistent with the religion of another cultural group, and religious relationships between the two could be maintained on this basis. They could even conclude agreements, treaties and covenants with each other, based on this assumption.
In other words, before the eruption of monotheism onto the religious scene, there was a great deal of religious tolerance and intermingling. The names of gods weren’t all that important, since the convention of intertranslatability reflected the notion that, whatever the forces behind nature were, they did not change from one place to another, and that, if people squabbled or even went to war over other matters, at least they weren’t fighting about their gods, or trying to impose their god on other people, though, of course, like Christians and Muslims today, they still prayed to their gods for aid in battle. Other people had their own gods, but, the world being one and uniform in a fairly obvious way, another people’s gods were the same as one’s own, saving that they had different names. So Jupiter and Zeus, for example, or Aphrodite and Venus, were not different gods, but the same gods by different names.
It’s not quite clear when and where the situation changed. Akhnaten may have been able, for a time, because he was the Pharoah, to enforce his own religious beliefs upon his people, and suppress belief in and worship of many gods, but it was only a temporary glitch in the more prevalent idea that the difference between gods was primarily a semiotic one, having to do with the meanings of words, not the existence of separate realities.
Although Assman never says, the real shift seems to have been a movement from a world in which the world itself, and everything in it, was instinct with the divine, to a world in which the one god, thenceforward held to be the only true god, was thought of as, at least in a primary sense, independent of the world altogether. Although the one god may be thought of as the creator and sustainer of the world, his (and monotheistic gods have (almost always) been masculine) primary relationship was a contractual one with a particular people or nation. In return for promised benefits, the people covenanted with this god, who was henceforth known as their own peculiar god, to remain faithful and to worship and serve him alone.
For the most part, the relationship between the people and their god was a decidedly unstable one. They were always tempted to go ”whoring” after other gods. Indeed, the sexualisation of religious devotion probably had its source just here, in the idea that religious unfaithfulness was comparable to sexual infidelity. It is not surprising, in the light of this, that religious experience, even the religious experience of men, should be described largely in terms of female sexuality, and that men, even celibate men, as Don Cupitt points out in a number of places, know a lot more about the phenomenology of female sexual response than they should. The whole of the book of the prophet Hosea is an elaborate play on the idea of Israel as whore, playing the wanton with other gods, and bringing down God’s just judgement upon “her” head. At other times Israel is depicted as the wife of Yahweh in need of comfort and solace, and promised forgiveness if she will only return from her faithless ways and be faithful only unto him.
You may wonder what all this has to do with religion today, and especially with religion and the right to die. Well, clearly, I am about to tell you. Two different threads, to pick up the figure from my last post about John Polkinghorne — which was a kind of way station on the way to this one — may help you to understand why I think these points about the original, enduring monotheism are important. Two different threads, two different indicators of religion’s transformation from a cultural artifact into the pretension to have knowledge of an entirely separate, divine realm.
John Polkinghorne put his finger on the problem in the short review of Pascal Boyer’s book which I considered in my last post. There, as I pointed out, Polkinghorne takes Boyer to task for bracketing out the possibility that there is some transcendent truth that is known through religious experience. That was the first limitation that Boyer imposed on his reductionist programme, as Polkinghorne considers it. The second is this:
The second limitation is that the many examples of religious beliefs and practices discussed in the book are almost exclusively drawn from what one might call tribal religion. The world’s great faith traditions (such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism) are only very occasionally referred to, and then in simplistic and tendentious terms. This approach is the equivalent of seeking to explain science by reference only to accounts of the early alchemists — a topic not without interest, but scarcely the whole story. As far as this book is concerned, the typical religious figure is the shaman. Those significant religious figures, the prophet and the mystic, are conspicuous by their absence.
Notice what Polkinghorne is doing here. He is doing precisely what the ancient Hebrews did over a period of hundreds of years, moving away from what Assmann calls “primary religion” to the more sophisticated (both in its mythology and in its claims) “secondary religion” of monotheism. And primary religion and secondary religion, Polkinghorne assumes, are not only unrelated phenomena, but are totally different projects. Whereas primary religion (in Assmann’s sense) is cultural and unreflective, secondary religion is massively specialised and theological. To inspect one is not, Polkinghorne wants to say, to explore the other. Primary religion, like the religion of the tribes of the Amazon basin, or the religion of the Australian Aborigines, is organic, and related to the context of the people who are religious in these ways, much as their diet and their cooking are. It is, you might say, biological and adaptational. Secondary religion, on the other hand, makes claims to theoretical understanding and knowledge of the truth.
There is an interesting discussion in Thompson’s and Aukofer’s book, Why we believe in God(s), about what they call the “one real religion.” I think it is worthwhile quoting this part of their argument at length. They are discussing the way in which religious rituals “arouse intense personal experiences and give rise to feelings as diverse as self-esteem, pleasure, fear, motivation, pain relief, and attachment,” all in the context of group experience.
The group nature of ritual [they continue] takes individual minds already primed for belief and throws them into a continuous loop of mutual reinforcement, creating a volatile congregation of conscious and unconscious forces.
In a sense there is only one real religion, created by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the original Homo sapiens in Africa, some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Our window into deep time, when these rituals were created, comes from three surviving populations of hunter-gatherers.
First are the Kung San of Africa, who until recently lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Second is a tribe that lived isolated from the world until the twentieth century in the Bay of Bengal’s Andaman Islands; its members are thought to be descended from the original band of humans who left Africa, travelled south around the Arabian Peninsula, then around India, and ultimately to Indonesia and Australia. Third are the Australian aborigines, who, according to genetic evidence, came from Africa in one wave.
All three of these tribes have religions that are striking in their similarity. They are all based on song, dance, and trance? Why?
The reason, Thompson and Aukofer believe, is because these are activities that
… harness some of our most powerful brain chemicals, the ones that influence pleasure, fear, love, trust, self-esteem, and attachment. So powerful was the religion our ancestors discovered that if you look closely, you still see echoes of this first religion in all the faiths on the planet today.
In short, primary religion provides the religious motor, even for the more cerebral of the religions today. In fact, to the extent that the more cerebral, theoretical religions fail to educe those latent, primary features of religion, the more likely they are to be seen as of little religious significance and value. That’s why liberal Christianity is largely a failure — as religion. It can hold onto small groups of people for whom religion as a humanist project – expressing compassion, seeking justice, binding up the wounds of discrimination and hatred – is central to the religious project, but it cannot provide the kinds of deep religious experience that are still provided by song, dance and trance.
However, there’s a serious problem with cerebral religions, secondary religions, providing primary types of religious experience. In the original context of primary religions there was no danger — at least no danger of religious violence — that would result from indulgence in the rituals and experiences of religion. Since primary religions were fairly smoothly translatable into the cults of neighbouring tribes and peoples, there was no reason for alarm. I can recall now, as a teenager, camping, with my father and his assistants, near a small river in central India (Madhya Pradesh). The river was dammed, there was a flat area near the river that was nicely treed and scenic and it provided an excellent place to set up camp for my father who, like English DCs (District Commissioners) of yore, was on tour through his district, visiting the faithful, and spreading the gospel to local “pagans”. There was also a small Hindu shrine at the spot, near the camp, and one night — and it lasted the whole night – there was singing and dancing and the sacrificing of chickens at the shrine, which was covered with fresh blood the next morning. We were left undisturbed, except for the noise of religious celebrations.
Another scene in another place. A professor at a local college invited my father and the family to dinner. He was a Hindu, and a very gracious and thoughtful man. When we arrived at his house, and all the formalities of greeting were over, the professor handed my father a flower garland — a common way to welcome a guest. But the professor wanted my father to place a garland round a picture of Jesus which he had set up in a prominent place in the room where we were to eat. To honour my father was to recognise and honour his god. My father, having been brought up a strict Presbyterian, refused, and tried to explain to the Hindu gentleman why he could not do so, but anything that he said could only have been understood as a rejection of the Hindu gentleman and his religion, because it amounted to a denial of the man’s faith and his gods, which were represented in images literally everywhere you looked in an Indian city, especially the holy city of Ujjain, on the banks of the Sipra river. The professor was visibly shaken by my father’s refusal of so kind a gesture, but like the true gentleman he was, and my father had failed to be, we carried on with the meal notwithstanding.
In each case, what might be called primary religion came face to face with secondary religion, and the tension, if not expressed in open violence or direct insult, was palpable. Christians in India might represent a cerebral god, a god of theology allied with the science and the true search for knowledge which provided the magic technology with which missionaries (even in the forties and fifties of last century) could astound the peasants in villages which could trace their history back thousands of years, but they could never, unless they were willing to provide the song, dance and trance of primary religion, even begin to understand the religion of those they sought to convert.
But convert to what? That should have been the question. India already had its share of religious division and violence. A younger monotheism than the Christian one had already made sure of that, since the Muslim invaders of India had set up great Indian empires long before the British ever came to India, with their mercantile interests, and their religion, which they interpreted as higher and better and more truthful, just as they were more powerful. But in what way was the graciousness of the Indian professor, or the song, dance and trance of the worshippers by that riverside shrine, which could afford to ignore the religious imperialism of the Christians parked next door, less worthy expressions of religion than the more analytical Christianity of my father, with his concerns about idolatry and narrow faithfulness to his god? Was he not, really, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Pretending to bring to the people who, in his own way of understanding things, were walking in darkness, the light of Christianity, would the Christianity of narrow-mindedness really have been of value to people who, if converted, could only have expressed the same narrow-mindedness towards their neighbours, and accused them of idolatry and unfaithfulness to the one true god they had come to know?
It is obvious, to me, anyhow, how all this relates to the dispute over assisted dying. The religious simply know. Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to be able to speak in terms of “natural law”, which is valid for all people, and based on purely rational consideration of the nature of being human, Roman Catholics are simply extending their religious prescriptions into areas where they have no special insight and no legitimate authority. Like all monotheisms, Christianity and Islam are imperial. Judaism has, in a sense, suppressed its inherently imperialistic tendencies, by making a claim to be the one true religion which they must bear as a trust and a burden until the Messiah comes, and then, of course, all Isaiah’s imperialism will find its appropriate dénouement. But all of this, this moral earnestness and intrusiveness, the unjustified claims to know, the relentless drive to impose its will on other people, is the product of a religious adventure which vaults beyond the primal religious experiences of song, dance and trance, into a realm where the truth about another order of being altogether is believed to be accessible to those with the discernment and judgement to understand it, which, its devotees claim, has a rightful claim to the allegiance and fidelity of all people. They come to us with their hands outstretched in gestures of peace and goodwill, but underneath, as has been said in another connexion, they are ravening wolves. They may not eat you up like wolves, but they will, like taxidermists, certainly stuff you with unfounded beliefs and display you as yet one more exhibit of Homo religiosus.