Consider the following exchange from an advice column, and pay special notice to its account of "the most religious people on earth":
Dear Bird Bone: I'd like to have used your question as a sounding board to address weightier questions, such as "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable barrier," or "could God create a rock so large that he couldn't move it?" Unfortunately, I'm familiar with the bird you're talking about, and there's no real paradox here. The Valdostian vulture you refer to indeed swallows whole the bones of large animals. However, its stomach digests the skin and cartilage attached to the bones, and the bones themselves pass right through the bird, completely intact. As the bird flies around, a stream of bones drops from its hinter region. The most interesting part of this phenomenon, though, is the reaction from the villagers below who get pelted by the falling bones. The vultures have their greatest feast during the dry season when famine drives large animals into starvation. It is also during such droughts that villagers beseech their gods for rain. So, a long time ago, villagers prayed for rain and, from their perspectives, the gods showered them with bones. Thinking that their communication to the gods somehow got scrambled, they developed increasingly more complex prayer rituals with the aim of adding greater precision to their petitions. Dances, trances, chants, and sacrifices were tossed into the mix. Of course, the gods' response remained the same: more bones. Eventually the villagers' ceremonies became so elaborate that proper performance lasted all day, every day of the year. Anthropologist now see them as the most religious people on earth. In my opinion, we should import some of these birds, let them drop a few bones on us and perhaps restore some family values to this country!
Any analysis of religion, though, involves an orientation or perspective. Even a basic definition of the term "religion" reveals much about the definerís orientation. Recently I heard a television evangelist define "religion" as "Our attempt to know God." Although the brevity of this definition has merits, it nevertheless assumes that (a) a "God" exists, and (b) Godís existence is central to religion. Both of these assumptions present problems. Concerning the assumption that God exists, social scientists believe that only our human behavior and attitudes are relevant to the study of religion, and not the truth of a religious reality behind oneís beliefs. Concerning the assumption that Godís existence is central to religion, some religions, such as Confucianism and Buddhism, do not always include the notion of a God. Now consider a dictionary-type definition of religion:
Thus, we may initially divide approaches to religion into two groups which we will call the personal and the impersonal. The personal approach is from the perspective of the believer of a given religion and often aims at devotional understanding. The impersonal approach is from the perspective of an outsider who explains religious phenomenon without assuming the truth of a spiritual reality. This is the orientation which Mr. Angst takes in his analysis of the villageís beliefs. Almost by definition, this impersonal orientation involves the study of other peopleís religions, and not the study of oneís own intimate faith experience. And even if we wish to examine our own Christian religion, for example, along with other religions, to do it properly we must view it from the perspective of an impartial outsider. This approach is sometimes called "scientific," "scholarly," "academic," or "objective," and contributors to this approach typically come from the academic disciplines of sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology and philosophy. Associated with these various academic disciplines are methodologies or procedures of analysis. Scientific methodologies often describe formal rules of collecting data and statistically analyzing that information. Methodologies in other disciplines are often less formal and instead offer a specific perspective or slant to the subject under investigation. In this chapter we will examine some of more influential methodologies for studying religion.
It is important to say from the outset that all of the methodologies and explanations presented below fail in some major respect. There are three main reasons for such failure. First, some offer oversimplified explanations which ignore the complex array of phenomenon involved in religion. For example, Mr. Angstís explanation above is too simplistic since it focuses only on externally observable religious rituals, completely overlooking the beliefs and religious experiences of the practitioners. Second, some methodologies fail for being overly reductionistic. That is, they assume that the phenomenon of religion is completely explained by some second set of facts which the methodologist uncovers. Mr. Angstís explanation is also overly reductionistic since it reduced the villageís religious attitudes to a misunderstanding about the source of falling bones. But even if this misunderstanding is the cause of the villageís religious beliefs, this doesnít necessarily discredit their beliefs in the gods. For all we know, the gods work in mysterious ways, such as through misunderstandings about falling bones. Finally, many methodologies fail for being unverifiable speculations which are neither backed by evidence nor even allow for the possibility of proof. Suppose I say that aliens from another star system cause human religious beliefs by firing a psychological ray gun at us which our earthly scientific equipment cannot detect. No possible test can confirm this armchair speculation since our scientific equipment canít help us. Thus, this theory fails for being unverifiable. Although Mr. Angstís explanation of the villageís religious views is simplistic and reductionistic, nevertheless, his theory is at least verifiable. Mr. Angst implies that the progressively complex religious views of the villagers is a matter of historical documentation. He also implies that a similar increase in religious activity might occur in another society if it too were bombarded by bones. In theory, this hypothesis could be tested experimentally.
Whether the methodologies below are too simplistic, reductionistic, or unverifiable, it is easy to spot their failures. However, just because we note in advance that these theories fail, we should not be discouraged from examining them. In fact, by setting aside a vain hope of discovering a complete and final analysis of religion, we can look more productively for the smaller truths within the theories offered by these creative thinkers.
EARLY THEORIES OF RELIGION. The impersonal or "scientific" study of religion is an invention of Western civilization. Western civilization, in turn, is based on two separate cultural foundations: the Greco-Roman tradition, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Accordingly, we find different approaches to the study of religion in these two traditions.
Greco-Roman Theories. Greco-Roman theories of religious belief were "scientific" in the way that ancient Greek science itself was "scientific." Early Greek scientists looked for a nonmythological and purely natural explanation of the physical world which didnít appeal to the realm of the gods. Similarly, Greek religious critics sought for nonmythological and purely natural explanations for belief in the gods themselves. One of the earliest critical analyses of religion was offered by the Greek Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes (570-475 BCE.). Xenophanes was a social reformer who believed that for society to improve it must rid itself of religious fables. He attacks the Greek mythologists Homer and Hesiod who described the gods as having human characteristics. According to Xenophanes, "Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are shameful and disgraceful to mortals, including theft, adultery and deception of one another." The problem for Xenophanes is not simply that they gave the godís bad human qualities, but that they gave the gods any human qualities at all, such as having human-like bodies, voices, emotions and desires. The term anthropomorphism designates this tendency to ascribe human qualities to nonhuman things. Religious anthropomorphism, for Xenophanes, is most evident when we see how different ethnic groups depict their deities: "The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair." He satirically has us imagine what would happen if oxen, horses or lions had hands and with them could produce works of art as people do. He concludes that "horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen." Once weíve stripped our notion of the gods of their human trappings, Xenophanes believes that we will see that God is essentially the same thing as the universe.
Xenophanes is correct that we can scarcely consider any world religion without observing a tendency to anthropomorphize deities. Paintings and sculptures give us visual representations of the gods in human forms, and religious narratives describe the gods as having human emotions. Although Xenophanes saw this as a bad tendency, he did not considered that we may be psychologically incapable of considering the notions of divine activity without conjuring up human-like images which are familiar to us. Judaism and Islam condemned visual representations of God fearing that it would devalue Godís greatness and lead to idolatry. Nevertheless, their narratives draw on human qualities as when they metaphorically describe Godís love, forgiveness, anger, revenge, or wisdom.
Another early explanation of religion was given by Euhemeros (330-260 BCE) who in his Sacred History argued that the Greek gods were originally heroic humans who became deified after death. The origin of Euhemerosís theory is almost as interesting as the theory itself. He relates that, when on an voyage commissioned by the king of Macedon, he came upon an island called Panchaia. In a temple in the islandís capital city, he discovered a column upon which was written the birth and death dates of many gods, including Uranus, Pan, Saturn, Jupiter, Juno and Neptune. Inspired by this discovery, in the Sacred History Euhemeros reconstructs the events of these peopleís lives and shows that, after their deaths, they were given a divine status because of the heroic deeds they performed when alive. Euhemerosís work survives only in fragments, and we cannot scrutinize the details of his account. Scholars suspect that his story of the island temple is a fabrication, or at best a rhetorical device, and it is questionable that the Greek gods really do trace back to human heroes. Nevertheless, his theory is suggestive, and our language honors him with the term Euhemerism in reference to the view that some gods were deified human heroes. Although Euhemeros probably was mistaken about the origin of the Greek gods, in some religions we see clear signs of Euhemerism. In ancient China, through a process of ancestor worship, heroic forefathers were over time elevated to a divine status. To an extent we see similar tendencies in how religious groups treat the founders of the great religions. Believers see Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad as anything from a divinely appointed messenger to God himself. In these cases, though, we have before us the records of history which continually remind us that these revered figures were also human, whatever else they may have been.
According to the Roman Epicurian philosopher Lucretius (98-55 BCE.), religion initially resulted from fear of natural calamity. In his On the Nature of Things Lucretius speculates that early humans observed the forces of nature and failed to find the causes of these events. Thus, they "sought refuge by handing everything over to the gods, supposing that everything was guided by the nods of their heads." Lucretius explains that nature often frightens us by bombarding us with meteors, winds, lightening, thunder, and hail. Early humans saw these as signs of the godsí anger, and for that reason tried to appease the gods through prayers and rituals. Lucretius asks: When winds toss about the waves of the sea, doesnít a shipís captain pray to the gods with fear? Of all the Greek explanations of religion, Lucretiusí account is the one most often adopted by later theorists. It is also easy to find illustrations of his point. A tornado recently ripped through my home town, and victims were interviewed in the news. One woman whose house was crushed reflected that "God has a purpose behind this disaster, and I just thank God that he saw fit to spare our lives." More scientifically minded observers such as Lucretius would say that God had nothing to do with the tornado and that a proper understanding of natural forces is the only explanation we need. What Lucretiusís solution fails to address is that our initial fear remains, and scientific knowledge does little alleviate that fear. Perhaps our fear forces us to look for personal explanations even when none are immediately available. If that is so, then the more positive lesson we learn from Lucretius is that our emotional vulnerability makes us naturally suited to the personal consolations of religious belief. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the alternative attitude is to be emotionally unaffected by tragedy.
Classic Judeo-Christian Theory. Xenophanes, Euhemeros and Lucretius were either religious nonbelievers or at least unconventional in their religious beliefs. As such, their theories were meant as attacks on the traditional religious views of the time. Although they represent early "scientific" explanations of religion, their critical zeal made them less objective than they could have been. By contrast, Jewish and Christian writers on religion were conservative monotheistic believers within their tradition and show an opposite zeal by attacking polytheistic beliefs outside their tradition. The earliest account of the Judeo-Christian position is seen in Chapters 13 and 14 "Wisdom of Solomon" from the Old Testament Apocrypha:
Today, in more globally sensitive times, we find these judgments inappropriate. But from the perspective of medieval science, the Judeo-Christian account of other religions was indeed "scientific." For medieval theologians, Biblical faith and rational science were compatible and even symbiotic. They believed that from the Bible we know that a single God exists; through scientific reasoning and rational proof we can also confirm Godís existence. They also saw that the Bible harshly condemns idolatry; reason too can declare the absurdity of idolatry since it goes against rationally established monotheistic proofs. Since the middle ages we have driven a wedge between Biblical faith and scientific reason and believe that science should be objective and independent of religious influence. We largely follow Galileoís observation that the principal function of Biblical faith is "to convince people of those truths which are necessary for their salvation" and that it is not in the power of any religious authority to make the facts of science either true or false. Nevertheless, in defense of the Medieval view, we should see scholarly objectivity as a luxury and not an assumed right of any society. When the survival of a country or civilization is at stake, political, religious and academic authorities may have no choice but to unify their respective domains. Totalitarian countries in our century take this approach. This is not beyond the realm of possibility even in the United States today. Just a few decades ago, at the height of the cold war with the Soviet Union, fear of communist influence resulted in the blacklisting of communist sympathizers in academia and the entertainment industry. A different ideological threat to the U.S. could conceivably remove our ability to examine religions independent from a Judeo-Christian context.
ENLIGHTENMENT THEORIES OF RELIGION. With a new understanding of science, culminating in Isaac Newtonís rigidly mechanistic view of the universe, attitudes changed about the scientific study of human culture, including religion. In time the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion as represented in the "Wisdom of Solomon" was overturned.
Deism. A small step in this direction was a philosophical and religious movement of the 17th and 18th centuries known as deism. The basic idea of deism is that an all powerful, all knowing, all good God created the world, but after creation no longer intervened in the operations of the world such as through miracles or prophecies. In addition to being the creator, God is also the supreme judge of our moral offenses and will punish us either in this life or the next. Deists agreed with tradition that the natural design of the world establishes clearly that a single God exists. They also agreed that humans were originally monotheistic and that polytheism was a deviation of that. Nevertheless, they believed that non-Christian religions might still contain the essential elements of true religion. The founder of deism was Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), who in his De Veritate (1645) offered five principles essential to religion: (1) A supreme God exists, (2) God should be worshipped, (3) People should be moral, (4) We should repent for our evil, and (5) God rewards good and punishes evil. Herbert acknowledged that these principles could be found in other religions, such as Islam and ancient Greek religion.
Followers of Herbert accepted his five principles and his sympathetic attitude about other religions. However, they viewed non-Christian religions as legitimate only to the extent that such religions followed reason and deduced the above essential elements of religion from nature. In his essay on "The Origin of Idolatry" (in Letters to Serena, 1704) John Toland (1670-1722) argues that all primitive religions started simply and rationally, but quickly degenerated into superstition. Toland writes,
Tales made it mystery, offerings made it gain;
Sacrifices and shows were at length prepared,
The priests ate roast-meat, and the people stared.
Hume. David Hume (1711-1776) gave the boldest reaction to the traditional Judeo-Christian view of religion by objecting to virtually every part of the theory, starting with notion of original monotheism. In his Natural History of Religion (1757), Hume argues that primitive humans could not deduce the existence of a single creator God by merely contemplating natural design. Instead Hume maintains that polytheism was the original religion of humans, and monotheism was a later development. Returning to the Greco-Roman theories of religion, Hume maps out the progression of religious beliefs and at each step describes the psychological causes which inclined early humans to formulate a particular religious view. Following Lucretius, Hume argues that the progression of religious views began with the fear early humans experienced when presented with natural suffering, such as floods and famines. Following Xenophanes, Hume argues that the next step was that humans attributed human qualities to the unknown causes of these natural evils. Since early humans experienced several kinds of natural evil, then they postulated several divine causes with various functions, such as the god of war, or the god of floods. The result at this stage was a primitive form of polytheism.
For Hume, this polytheism then became more complex when early humans used allegories to embellished the various attributes of these gods; for example, the god of war was thought to be cruel. Next, following Euhemeros, Hume argues that hero worship and artistsí renderings made these gods even more human-like and produced a highly developed polytheism, such as that of the Greeks. Hume notes further that humans have an instinct to praise excessively, and this prompts us continually give greater qualities to our favorite god. Eventually we have monotheism, according to which a single God has infinitely great qualities. However, for Hume, the development does not stop here. Once monotheism is arrived at, believers invariably formulate servants, angels, or demi-gods for the highest God. A new polytheism again emerges, and the cycle between polytheism and monotheism, then, continually repeats.
Although the deists were sympathetic to non-Christian religions in their pure monotheistic form, Hume goes considerably further arguing that monotheism is not morally superior to polytheism. At its worst, polytheism is merely silly. However, at its worst, monotheism is cruel, intolerant, and internally contradictory. This shift in attitude is also evident in an important change in terminology. As noted, the common term for non-monotheistic religions was "idolatry"; instead, Hume was the first writer to consistently use the less biased term "polytheism." Like the deists, Hume paid a political price for his harsh rejection of traditional Judeo-Christian views. He was forced to remove controversial passages from his text under threat of prosecution and he gained a reputation as a dangerous atheist. Nevertheless, Humeís developmental account of religion set the stage for similar theories in the next century.
19TH CENTURY THEORIES OF PROGRESS. The 19th century was an intellectually fertile period and a theme which dominated many of its contributions was that of progress. As history unfolds, we become less barbaric and more civilized. Over time, political systems become less oppressive, and more equal. Throughout the geological eras, biological organisms develop from the less complex to the more complex. Theorists also applied the notion of progress to religious phenomena and saw religion as one link in the larger sequential chain of cultural development. Among these theories, those of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx are particularly important.
Religion and Natural Selection. British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) offered a nonreligious, purely mechanistic account of how animal species evolve over time through natural selection. Using the theory of biological evolution as a point of departure, both Darwin and his followers maintained that social customs and beliefs Ė including religious ones Ė also evolve through a process of selection. Darwin presents his theory of evolution his The Origin Of The Species (1859), a work which he wrote over a 20 year period. There are three elements to Darwinís account. The first is that biological organisms go through random variations or mutations which in turn become hereditary. The second is that there is a scarcity of food in proportion to the number of propagated organisms which need food to survive. The third and most important is that animals with the most beneficial variations are the ones which will be best suited for survival; this feature Darwin calls natural selection. To illustrate, suppose that an animal was born with a random mutation involving longer claws than those of its siblings. Food is scarce, and the animal with longer claws can now catch food better than its siblings. Thus, the siblings die of starvation while the longer-clawed animal survives, propagates, and passes the feature of longer claws onto its offspring. Over time, all shorter-clawed animals of the original species starve since they canít compete for the limited supply of food.
Although the Origin of the Species argued only that animals evolved from lower forms, since at least 1837, as indicated in his personal notebook, Darwin believed that humans must be included with other animals. In 1871 he made is case for this in the Descent of Man (1871) in which he also argued that human religious beliefs and moral feelings developed as a means of survival. According to Darwin, we have no natural monotheistic instinct, although we do have several inclinations which make humans universally believe in spiritual agencies. Monotheistic belief, then, evolved from these more elementary forms of religious belief over time, although we also perpetuated superstitious belief:
Religion as an Opium. German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) championed the view that religion is the opium of the masses. This well-known phrase must be seen in the context of Marxís political theory. Unlike idealist philosophers of his time who believed that everything in the world was composed of spirit, Marx took the opposite view that the world was made up of only material stuff. This view has two important consequences. First, there is no divine spiritual being, since everything is made of matter. Second, the world operates and unfolds according to observable laws. History, in particular, is mechanically determined by technological and economic forces and history mechanically unfolds in a sequence of conflicts. According to Marx, initially there was a conflict between masters and slaves, which was ultimately resolved with establishment of freedmen. Next was a conflict between nobles and serfs, which similarly was resolved with the establishment of the middle class. In his own day, Marx saw a looming class conflict between capitalists who owned industries, and the workers who were virtual slaves to these industries. As mere cogs in the larger industrial machinery, workers were stripped of their humanity by not seeing the fruits of their labor. Marx predicted that this conflict too would ultimately be resolved through a revolution which would create a communistic society in which major resources were owned in common.
As an atheist, Marx believed that religion was a hoax. However, religion is such an ingrained hoax, that it cannot easily be eliminated. He writes that "a religion that brought the Roman world empire into subjection and dominated by far the larger part of civilized humanity for 1800 years cannot be disposed of merely by declaring it to be nonsense gleaned together by frauds." For Marx, religion is a symptom of a larger problem, which is capitalism, and we must first get rid of capitalism (the cause) before we can get rid of religion (the effect). Religion is a tool of the ruling class of capitalists which is used to justify the frustration experienced by the subordinate class of workers. The message of religion is that workers should prefer spiritual blessings of lasting value instead of mere earthly wealth. The suffering of the workers is justified both by original sin and as a series of trials which God imposes on his children. Workers should submit to the authority of the capitialists, since all authority is ordained by God and, thus, attempting to rise above their conditions is wrong since it goes against God. Workers should be passive, nonresistant, and adopt the moral virtues of suffering and hope. Accordingly, religion is the opium of the people:
There are several problems with Marxís theory. It is an overstatement to construe religious movements only as class phenomenon which the rich use to oppress the poor. Many religions such as Buddhism began as grass roots movements in opposition to the culture of the ruling class. We also find that in some countries, established religion serves to overthrow the prevailing hierarchical system. For better or worse, the Iranian Islamic revolution of the late 1970ís turned a liberal and secular society into a highly conservative Muslim society. On a less grand scale, limited revolutionary forces often emerge from within religious institutions, such as the black civil rights movement in the U.S. which drew much of its leadership from black churches. Nevertheless, there is an element of Marxís critique of religion which at least occasionally rings true to the brutal reality of social oppression. We find a vivid illustration of this in U.S. history when slave owners would use religion as a tool of oppression against black slaves:
"When the white preacher come he preach and pick up his Bible and claim he getting the text right out from the Good Book and he preach: The Lord say, don't you Negroes steal chickens from your misses. Don't you steal your master's hogs. That would be all he preach."
" I recall that Dr. Hoyt used to pray that the Lord would drive the Yankees back. He said that Negroes were born to be slaves. My mother said that all the time he was praying out loud like that, she was praying to herself: Oh Lord, please send the Yankees on and let them set us free."
Other forms of social oppression can also be found in religions, such as those which teach that women have roles subordinate to men, that some races or castes are superior to others, and that homosexual orientation is inherently evil. In these cases the oppressed are often molded into happily accepting their assigned inferior status, or when thatís not possible, they are taught to at least suffer in silence. To the extent that class struggle is an integral part of human society, it is reasonable to expect that religions will frequently assist in upholding the values of the dominant class. The sad lesson we learn from Marx is that, whatever goods religion gives us, religion is also capable of perpetuating great social evils, thereby becoming an instrument of harm.
ANTROPOLOGY AND RELIGION. The methodology of social science was founded by French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Like Darwin and Marx, Comte too viewed society in developmental and evolutionary terms. He postulated three stages of intellectual development. First, in the theological stage, physical nature is explained in reference to the action of divinities or spirits. Second, in the metaphysical stage, abstract principles are regarded as the operative agencies of nature, such as absolute laws of nature. Third, in the positive stage, explanations of nature are matters of exact description of phenomena, without recourse to an unobservable influencing principle. For Comte, the physical sciences have already entered this positivist stage, and he contends that the time is ripe for studies of social behavior to enter this final stage as well. It took some time for the social sciences to actually achieve Comteís goal of explaining human behavior without inventing secret laws. The first official anthropologists of the late 19th century believed that all society evolved according to a fairly fixed succession steps. This is particularly so in their explanations of religious beliefs. For these scholars, the meaning of religion is found in its evolutionary history and origin; once its history is traced, religion is fully explained.
Evolutionary Anthropology of Religion. The seminal evolutionary theory of religion was presented by Edward Tylor (1832-1917), the founder of anthropology in Great Britain. In his Primitive Culture (1871) Tylor argues that the essence of primitive religion is animism, that is, the view that the natural world is animated by spirits. According to Tylor, dreams, visions, and hallucinations led primitive people to erroneously postulate a soul distinct from the body which survives death. Primitive people continued their error by further speculating that since the objects in the external world move and seem to act, they too must have souls. Tylor argued further that animism is the origin of all religion and that religious beliefs within any given culture evolve from this. In time, animism develops into naturism which involves worshipping the helpful phases of the natural environment, such as rain, and fearing the harmful ones such as floods. This in turn develops into polytheism in which various gods have dominion over natural forces, such as the god of rain. From this monotheism emerges according to which a single God is in control of all natural events. For Tylor, each successive stage is more rational and complex than the previous ones and eventually beliefs evolve beyond monotheism into metaphysics which explains all things in terms of science and ethics. Although this sequence of steps is generally fixed, Tylor believed that a culture could skip some steps by learning from other societies.
Other anthropologists offered alternative evolutionary accounts of the earliest religious practice. Four will be briefly noted here. In his Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873), Max Müller (1823-1900) argued that religion began with the human perception of overpowering natural phenomena and that the gods were originally names for natural phenomena. This view he called "nature mythology." In time the gods were falsely personified into distinct beings through a what Müller called a "disease of language." Müller also argued that the principle gods were solar metaphors, such as Helios, the Greek god of the sun. He dubbed this "solar mythology." Another theory was offered by Herbert Spencer (1820-1904) the great popularizer of Darwinian evolution. In his First Principles Spencer proposed the theory that religion arose from the deification of dead heroes: "The aboriginal god is the dead chief." Though similar to the view of Euhemeros, Spencer maintained that this was the fundamental explanation of all religions, not just specific gods. For James Frazer (1854-1941), in his Golden Bough (1890), religion is the attempt to appease superior powers which control nature and human life. He argued that human societies developed through stages called "modes of thought" and that magic was the first of these. Frazer describes in detail how primitive humans used sacred formula to try to bend the operations of nature. When magic failed to control nature, this lead to coaxing through prayer. Lastly, in his essay "Preanimistic Religion" (1900), R.R. Marett (1866-1943), argued that there is an even more primitive element of religion, namely, that nature is ruled by impersonal forces (mana) which can be related to through various rights. He called this stage preanimism and argued that it successively leads to animism, polytheism, monotheism, then atheism.
Later Theories of Anthropology. The death blow to the above evolutionary speculations about religion was dealt by later anthropologists who questioned some aspect of their methodology. In Myth, Ritual, and Religion (1887), Andrew Lang (1844-1912) noted a serious oversight with Tylor's evolutionary animism in particular. The belief in dominant ruler gods, such as Zeus, was not a later development in the evolution of religion as Tylor theorized since belief in such deities is found in all primitive cultures. Similarly, an early 20th school of anthropology called diffusionism attacked the above evolutionary assumptions and argued instead that a few core cultures, such as that of Egypt, influenced the religious views of all later societies. For example, in The Origin of the Idea of God German diffusionist and Catholic priest Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) draws attention to the fact that monotheism is the religion of many present hunter-gathers. Since hunter-gatherers represent the oldest form of humanity then monotheism must be the oldest religion. Further, Schmidt argues, since these various monotheisms have many detailed points of agreement, then they must have a single origin. Schmidt believes that the ultimate source was a divine revelation to a primitive culture.
Both evolutionary and diffusionist approaches to anthropology came under the gun by functionalist anthropologists, specifically Polish-born Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942). According to Malinowski, the historical origins of specific features of a culture are irrelevant. Instead, the only thing that matters is the exact time slice under investigation and how all the component parts interrelate, such as myths, rituals, and life-cycle rites of cultures. For functionalists such as Malinowski, we need to see religion in terms of how it functions to fulfill certain needs at a given point in society. Another attack came from the structuralist approach to religious anthropology which attempts to explain the unconscious foundation which underlies religious beliefs and practices. French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1902) argued that there is usually a pair of opposite concepts which underpins an observed religious phenomenon. For example, the underlying structure of the entire Hindu Caste system involves the opposed concepts of purity and impurity.
All of the above anthropologists had and continue to have a considerable impact on the study of religion. The mountain of facts they uncovered and the terminology they introduced are now permanent fixtures of the study of religion. Most of the anthropological studies of religion done today are free from armchair speculations about underlying patterns of evolution, diffusion, interrelation or opposition. In a word, they are more true to Comteís positivism by simply providing exact descriptions of phenomena, without speculating about unobservable influencing principles. Anthropologists today also do not restrict themselves to the religious practices of exotic cultures. Even contemporary American religious life is a worthy object of study. Although the "exact descriptions" of religion provided by anthropologists are important contributions, they are not the only observations of religion we should make. To illustrate, a potted plant is directly in front of me now as I write this. I can report various descriptive facts about the plant such as its species, its height, or its health. I can even report the fact that I personally enjoy seeing the plant and other humans enjoy seeing similar potted plants. But these pure descriptions do not capture the complete story. We create poetry, music and art with plants as the subject. We bring plants inside our homes to experience natural life more generally and to feel a much needed connection with nature. These things are more difficult to describe objectively. By analogy, we can see that the factual accounts of religious phenomena provided by anthropologists only go so far. There is a straining within us that explodes into an array of religious activity. Understanding this internal straining is as important as cataloging the various expressions and psychologists and philosophers have focused on this aspect.
PROJECTION THEORY AND PSYCHOANALYSIS. In the field of psychology, the term "projection" refers to the act of ascribing oneís own attitudes and thoughts to someone or something else. For example, if I am by nature a hostile person, I may project my own hostility onto you by assuming that you will automatically be hostile to me. Several social scientists, particularly in the field of psychology, see religion as a projection of our internal human condition. The first projection theory of religion was offered by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) in his book The Essence of Christianity (1841). For Feuerbach, the Virgin Mary represents the feminine, approachable side of humanity. The divine incarnation of Jesus is a reflection of our human dream to be immortal. We take important elements of our humanity such as these, project them on something outside of us, and then, paradoxically, compare ourselves to this projected ideal image. Feuerbach writes,
Another early projection theory of religion was offered by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), founder of modern day sociology. Central to Durkheimís theory is the notion of a societyís collective consciousness. When we examine a society of people, we can see different prevailing attitudes or group spirits which loom over the individuals in that society. A graphic example would be the racist collective consciousness exhibited by the lynching of Blacks Americans, or the Nazi extermination of their Jewish citizens. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) Durkhem contends that religion is an expression of the collective consciousness of what we think our society should be. It is a group-inspired sentiment which is projected outside and objectified. Because religion is a projection of collective society, Durkheim contends that religion cannot be studied apart from collective life; since religion is a social phenomenon, then the study of religion is simply a study of society. The best known projection theory of religion, though, is that offered by Sigmund Freud.
Freud. Throughout his writings, Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) offered several accounts of the psychological origin of religion, not all of which are consistent with each other. In The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud argues that religion is based on "the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind," namely, the desire to be protected. As small children we felt protected by our human fathers who seemed all powerful to us. As we grew older we realized that our fathers were not as powerful as we first thought. In our adult lives, we experience great anxiety when faced with natural pain and suffering; regressing back to our childhood stage of human development, we then project the image of an all powerful father figure onto the heavens and seek protection from an all powerful God. For Freud, this gives us immediate psychological relief, but we sacrifice our adulthood in the process and become infantile again. We try to influence God through worship, just as we tried as children to influence our earthly fathers. Freud concludes that religious belief is an illusion which we should abandon so that we can reclaim our adulthood. By the "illusion" Freud means that one has beliefs which are motivated by powerful wishes or desires. They are not necessarily false beliefs, but they are harmful.
Freud continues that other aspects of religion are emerge from what he calls the Oedipal Complex, that is, a specific psychological disorder when adults become fixated or frozen at the Oedipal stage of child development. The Oedipal stage of child development is a period of time when a child wishes for an intimate relation with the parent of the opposite sex and feels a hostile rivalry toward the parent of the same sex. Thus, sons wish to have a relation with their mothers and hate their fathers, whereas daughters wish to have a relation with their fathers and hate their mothers. In explaining features of the Christian religion, Freud speculates that Christ sacrificed himself to atone for his Oedipal desire to murder his father. Thus, by absolving the original sin of the Oedipal complex, other sons are also reconciled with the father. In Christian theology, Christ sits at the right hand of God, symbolizing our desire to replace the father. For women, who want to do away with their mothers, a similar identification develops with Eve, Ruth, Naomi, the Virgin Mary.
In Totem and Taboo (1913) Freud develops a complicated history of religion which traces back to repressed stages of child development, again, specifically the Oedipal Complex. For Freud, the initial stage of religion stem from totemism which involves people transferring to specific animals the fear or awe they have of their parents. The second stage of religion traces back to sons who rebel against their tribal father, kill him, eat his body, and later feel guilty. A taboo is then established against killing a totem animal which is associated with oneís father. For Freud, all religion is founded on the guilt of this primal murder which is unconsciously carried down through the ages. Again, we find short term relief in these practices, but this gives us long term psychological problems. In Moses and Monotheism (1939) Freud expands this account to include Jewish monotheism. Monotheistic belief in a single God represents a return of repressed memories of the one great primal father who was murdered by his sons. Though faded from conscious memories, it was stored in our ancestorsí unconscious and carried on down through time. Christianity provides an extension of this insofar as only the death of Christ the son could compensate for the murder of the primal father.
Freudís theories contain much that we might consider groundless speculation, such as the Oedipal complex. Even the notion of "projection" simplistically depicts us as throwing an internally produced image outside of us in the way that a movie projector casts an image on a screen. We are not movie projectors, or even emotion projectors. However, if we set aside these aspects of Freud, one feature is compelling: the parallels between our childhood images of our earthly father and our adult images of our heavenly father. A common notion in theology is that God cannot be described directly, and we must therefore rely on metaphors, analogies and other literary devices which give us indirect descriptions of Godís nature. Parental images of God -- both male and female Ė are among the most popular in virtually all religions. A Hindu hymn to Agni, the god of fire, states "Be easy for us to reach, like a father to his son." In Taoism, the Tao (or ultimate religious reality) is called "the mother of all things." The Lordís Prayer in the New Testament asks the heavenly father for daily bread, forgiveness and guidance. These parental metaphors paint God as our creator, nurturer, provider, comforter, and even disciplinarian. Of all religious metaphors for God, why are parental ones so successful? It is not simply because we understand the parent-child relationship from our various life experiences. Instead, these parental images strike a personal chord because in many ways we are children in adult bodies and stand in need of a relationship left void when we moved beyond our earthly parents. If we donít like the idea of being grownup children, then, like Freud, we will find fault with these parental images. If, on the other hand, we see at least some of our childlike mannerisms as either endearing or inevitable qualities, then we should likewise see parental religious images as either endearing or inevitable descriptions of God. We find a more constructive depiction of our childlike approach to religion in the writings of Erik Erikson.
Erikson. German born psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902-1994) criticized Freudís views on religion on several points. Erikson agrees with Freud that we are influenced by our unconscious minds, but he charges that Freud ignores many more conscious human capacities which contribute to the formation of religious beliefs. These include creativity, inventiveness, ingenuity and resourcefulness. Similarly, Erikson contends that religious symbols such as divine love, justice and the final judgment are too complex to be merely products of unconscious thinking. We are not, then, pushed from behind by unknown causal processes but are more actively involved in our conduct and beliefs. Erikson argues that Freud also errs by reducing religion to a single father-figure illusion. Instead, there are a wide variety of causal factors involved in religious belief including cultural beliefs, values, institutional patterns, interpersonal dialogue, cognitive judgments, existential dilemmas, and creative innovations. Most importantly, Erikson attacks Freud's contention that religious belief is dysfunctional. Instead, Erikson believes that religion endorses adult personality traits such as mature love and personal integrity. Ultimately, Erikson argues, all adults need some sort of religion, whether conventional or humanistic.
Like Freud, however, Erikson traces religious belief to stages of child development. The most important of these is the first stage of development during which time we develop trusting relationships with our mothers. We can see a basic sense of trust exhibited when a mother simply holds her child. Paradoxically, mature religious faith is trusting and childlike in this sense and involves the almost naive ability to surrender to God and religious symbols in the face of universally shared threats. The most universal of these shared threats is our awareness of our potential deaths. Fortunately, religious faith helps reduce the anxiety this causes in us. Religion, then, involves a childlike sense of appeal to a provider, and this becomes the foundation of a total world-life view of things which we adopt. For Erikson, the anxiety we experience from fear of death is just one spark which ignites our childlike trust in God. According to religious existentialists, this anxiety of death is the driving force behind religious attitudes.
RELIGIOUS EXISTENTIALISM. The existentialist approach to religion was inspired by the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In his greatest work Being and Time (1927), Heidegger offers an unusual analysis of human nature. Traditional philosophers such as Aristotle believed that human nature was fundamentally rational, and that our reason distinguished us most clearly from the animals. For Heidegger, however, human existence is dominated by a care or concern with things; sometimes our concerns are with petty issues such as what we wear, and other times they are more important concerns, such as the role we play in the community. Breaking this notion of "concern" down further, Heidegger believes that there are three features which, working together, generate our obsessive concern: facticity, existentiality, and fallenness. By "facticity" Heidegger means that we are simply thrown into existence as a brute matter of fact. We didnít ask to be born, and certainly were not in control of who are parents were, what country we were born in and other facts of our past. This is the initial baggage of our past history which we all carry around. By "existentiality" Heidegger means that, in spite of our past baggage, we are free and undetermined, and in fact have the responsibility to transform our lives right now in the present. By "fallenness" Heidegger refers to the tendency we have to become a mere object in the world, failing to make the most of our possibilities. In Heideggerís terminology, we live inauthentically by being concerned with gossip and trivial curiosities. As fallen creatures we become preoccupied with the inevitable fact that we will die, and the anxiety this creates is overwhelming. The cure for this state of anxiety is for us to live authentically and affirm existence in spite of death and guilt. We should make our choices with the whole of our being, take responsibility for ourselves, liberate ourselves from the past and open ourselves to the future. In short, Heidegger describes a disease, namely fallenness and anxiety, and then offers a cure, namely, authentic and free living. It is this disease/cure theme which is picked up by two existentialist theologians, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich.
Bultmann. German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) faced the crude reality that traditional Christian belief is based on a series of myths which cannot be accepted by modern people with scientific backgrounds. The New Testament picture of the world itself is that of a mythological, three-storied universe (heaven, earth, hell) in which God in heaven intervenes on earth with supernatural powers. Satan and his army of demons cause all evil, sin and disease. Central to the teachings of Jesus is the mythic theme that in the future God will establish a heavenly kingdom to replace the present earthly succession of affairs. All of these myths run counter to what we know about physics, history, and the course of natural events. Should we believe that these myths are true in spite of how they go against reason? Should we forget the supernatural parts and focus only on Christianityís ethical teachings? The solution for Bultmann is to demythologize these supernatural elements and search for the underlying existential themes of these mythical stories. For Bultmann, we take our cue from Heidegger as to the kinds of existential questions with which the writers of the myths were wrestling.
Take, for example, the theme of Satan as ruler over the world. Demythologized, we should see that the writers of this myth felt that evil forms a spiritual tradition (above its particular instances) which overwhelms everyone. Take the story of Godís creation of Adam. For Bultmann, this expresses our human sense of finiteness and that our whole lives are limited both in time and in power. The creation story also has us affirm that we are not just another thing in the world. Original sin signifies an inauthentic life. Life in Christ signifies an authentic life. The cross signifies that we die to sin, and we lose our natural dread of suffering. Although Bultmann was principally concerned with Christian theology and de-mythologizing Biblical stories, the notion of "demythologizing" has moved beyond its Christian origins and is seen as a tool by which we can understand the mythological themes in any religion. In this more global sense, the heart of religion is its struggle with fundamental questions of human existence such as asserting oneís identity in the face of a cold, impersonal universe. Consider, for example, a story from the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. The hero, Gilgamesh, is on a quest for a plant which when eaten will bring immortality. He finds the plant, but, exhausted from his journey, decides to cool off in a spring before eating it.
Tillich. Like Bultmann, German born theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) offered an existential approach to Christian theology. However, unlike Bultmann, Tillich took his theology in a more global direction by harshly rejecting the exclusivism common to Christianity and other Western religions. Following Heidegger, Tillich believes that we have a profound anxiety and despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. This anxiety is a somewhat permanent feature of human existence, just as the tendency to acquire language is common to us all. One reason for this sense of meaninglessness is that, as finite creatures, we all face the discomforting fact that we will some day die and we see this as a continual threat. Another reason for this meaninglessness is that, at various stages in life, we reflect on our accomplishments, such as jobs, relationships, and hobbies, and find that most of our lifeís projects and values prove useless. This anxiety disrupts our lives and prompts us to search for the an absolute power that has no limitations. Traditionally this "absolute power" is identified as God, although Tillich resists using this title because of its limited connotations. In Tillichís terms, we are ultimately concerned to make contact with the absolute power of being or ground of being which can overcome the threat to our existence. Unfortunately, we cannot directly see, access, or experience the ground of being, and as frustrated people we clutch desperately at almost anything hoping that it will alleviate our anxiety. We immerse ourselves in special activities such as our careers, and treat them with infinite importance. Most of these, though, are not worthy of the ultimate concern we show them. We must try to find an appropriate symbol with best reflects the power being, such as Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna. When we finally experience the power of being through this symbol, we gain the courage to be or the strength to continue to exist, and this resolves our initial anxiety of finitude which prompted our quest.
We can thank Heidegger, Butlmann and Tillich for vocalizing their observations about our human fear of death and the anxiety it generates. But their treatment might be overkill. Perhaps some writers as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh and as recently as Woody Allen make this a focus of concern. Most of us, though, are not preoccupied with this on a daily basis and instead we behave as though we are immortal. We thoughtlessly speed down highways, have unprotected sex, swim while drunk, pay little attention to our fat intake and engage in other potentially deadly practices. Perhaps nature has designed us to hit a happy medium by which we have quick survival reflexes which resist death, yet when not facing an obvious danger we act as though we will be around forever. Other aspects of religious existentialism, though, more accurately depict human concerns, particularly our quest for lifeís meaning. Recently a young college graduate committed suicide and the events surrounding his tragic act underscore Tillichís point about finding an object truly worthy of our ultimate concern. The graduate was provisionally teaching in a high school pending his teaching certification and, having already failed the state certification test twice, he was waiting notification on his third and last allowable attempt. In the middle of one school day, the news came that he failed this time too, and the school administration had no choice but to let him go. They sent him home early and as he entered his house, he found his fiancee in bed with another man. He then shot himself. What is so startling about this case is that one moment everything seemed fine, and the next moment his life was no longer bearable. Of all things in life, our jobs and our loved ones are commonly objects of ultimate concern. However, they are inappropriate objects and, for Tillich, religion provides us with a more secure focus.
PHENOMENOLOGY OF RELIGION. The term "phenomenology of religion" is used in several ways by both religious studies scholars and philosophers which occasionally causes confusion. A particular methodological school going by this name has dominated the field of religious studies for the past few decades. It emerged in reaction against many of the above methodologies which dissect religion into a collection of mere facts thereby failing to provide a proper understanding of it. Two concepts are key to the phenomenology of religion. The first is that of the sacred which is an ultimate religious reality, or a God in a very broad. The second is that of religious symbols which are the media by which we experience the sacred. Like Tillich, phenomenologists of religion contend that we cannot directly perceive the sacred, so specially designated objects, actions, and events symbolically represent the sacred. The job of religious studies is to discover the wide variety of religious symbols which constitute religious life for people around the world. By analyzing these symbols we can indirectly learn about sacred reality. In The Sacred Quest (1991) Lawrence Cunningham and his co-authors note four features of "the sacred": it is beyond or set apart from everything else in the world; it is to some extent independent of human coaxing; it guides and judges human actions; and it prescribes that we should live in a certain way. Early writers in the phenomenology of religion are Gerardus vad der Leeuw (1890-1950), Friedrich Heiler (1892-1967), and C. Jouco Bleeker (?). Today, though, the phenomenology of religion is most associated with Mircea Eliade.
Eliade. Perhaps the leading religious studies scholar of recent years is Mircea Eliade (?) who, among his other accomplishments, edited the ? volume Encyclopedia of Religion found in the reference room of virtually every public and university library. In his History of Religious Ideas (1978) Eliade writes that "Every rite, every myth, every belief or divine figure reflects the experience of the sacred and implies the notions of being, of meaning, and of truth." The sacred, then, is the referent of all religious symbols. Eliade sees an underlying unity of all religious phenomena and in that sense all religions Ė Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and dozens of others -- are on equal footing. In his most popular work, The Sacred and the Profane (?), Eliade explains that the notion of sacred first emerged as being distinct from the profane. Certain buildings, objects, days or events were set apart from ordinary or "profane" things. The distinct domains of the sacred and profane came to represent two different ways of existing in the world. For primitive people, acts such as work, sex and eating food and all are sacred acts. Although the specially selected things vary in different cultures and throughout time, according to Eliade they are all manifestations of the sacred.
From stones to Buddha or Christ, Eliade explains, the history of religions can be seen as a series of manifestations of the sacred, or hierophanies. Paradoxically of every hierophany becomes something else by virtue of its sacred symbolism, yet it continues to remain itself. For example, a sacred dance might be a means by which the dancer mystically experiences the sacred, yet at the same time it remains a series of choreographed bodily movements. Eliade argues that primitive people see the sacred is equivalent to the reality and power of the world in general. Modern people, though, have stripped the universe of its sacredness and Eliade writes that we find it "increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies." In examining the sacred symbols of human experience, we should focus on the unifying characteristics of religious experience, citing examples and recurring themes. However, we do not want to make the same mistakes as Tylor and Frazer and assume that humans react uniformly to natural phenomena.
The phenomenology of religion is both a great advance to the study of religion and at the same time a great hindrance. It is an advance since it embraces the religious data supplied by anthropologists without ignoring the believerís intimate experiences. It does not reduce the believers practices to mere steps in an evolutionary sequences, the result of oppression, psychological projections, or internal anxiety. Religious practices are seen as positive and valuable. However, the phenomenological approach to religion creates a certain hindrance by assuming a universal, sacred reality behind all religious phenomena. Whether such a reality exists is a question of personal faith, and not one which can be demonstrated by any methodological proof. The phenomenologist thus views the data of religion from his faith perspective, much the way medieval Christians made pronouncements about idolotry from their perspective. The phenomenologists, though, are much friendlier in their interpretation than were medieval Christians. But they may be too friendly. The phenomenology of religion may be seen as the religion of political correctness insofar as it legitimizes all religious beliefs and practices and sees them equally as expressions of the sacred. Perhaps the sacred is not that ecumenical. Perhaps much of the religious phenomena it sees as reflective of the sacred is actually reflective of evil. Perhaps the sacred does not even exist!
THE VALUE OF METHODOLOGIES. We opened this chapter noting that all of the discussed methodologies fail for being either too simplistic, reductionistic, or unverifiable. In addition to these flaws, most of the methodologies approach religion from an unjustified position of superiority. Accounts offered by traditional monotheistic believers ridicule the absurdity of polytheistic belief. Accounts offered by religious skeptics insult the gullibility of believers. Even accounts offered in the name of science frequently carry a tone of intellectual superiority. As late as the 1950ís "scientific" discussions of primal and polytheistic religions referred to such practices as "barbarism," "paganism," "superstition" and other terms which imply cultural snobbery. In spite of their failures, there are three benefits to looking at these various methodologies and analyses. First, as noted at the outset, methodologies can teach us small truths about religion which might otherwise escape us. For example, the ancient Greek theories tell us how anthropomorphism, hero worship, and fear of nature invariably shape our religious views. The medieval Christian endorsement of the "Wisdom of Solomon" theory teaches us that an "objective" approach to religion is not always possible. Second, the various conflicting methodologies remind us that the data of religion can be organized in a variety of different ways. This might help us recognize our own efforts as only temporary contributions to an ongoing struggle to assimilate a perplexing array of religious phenomena. Finally, the methodologies themselves are often a kind of religious phenomenon and reflect the theoristís own religious attitude. Most writers on religion are drawn to the subject because of their own personal religious convictions, and it is reasonable to expect their convictions to surface in their theories.
Nevertheless, it should not surprise us that all analyses of religion fail in some major respect. If we try to approach the subject of religion impersonally or objectively, then we fail to capture the believerís personal experiences. If we go even further and try to make our study of religion fit a scientific methodology, then we adopt a model which was initially devised for hard sciences such as physics, and which may not be appropriate for understanding religion. Besides, even in the study of the physical sciences we might never arrive at a fixed methodology or perspective from which to understand that subject. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) contemporary philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (b. 1922) argues that new revolutions in thinking occur which cast a completely new perspective oneís field of scientific inquiry. What is worse, when we have to choose between to different perspectives (such as medieval physics and Newtonian physics), there is no value-free way of making the choice. If Kuhn is right and in physics we will not have a fixed and value-free methodology of the subject, then we should not expect anything better in our search for a methodology in religious studies.
Discovering Religious Mindsets. In spite of their limitations, methodologies are needed in the physical sciences to present data and to judge scientistsí contributions to their fields. Social sciences such as anthropology also need methodologies to assist in providing descriptions of phenomena, without speculating about (as Comte would say) unobservable influencing principles. However, insofar as religious studies is a separate academic discipline apart from anthropology, psychology, linguistics, or philosophy, the quest for a perfect methodology should be abandoned. The canons of academic scholarship ask us to approach the subject of religion with objectivity and rigor, but that does not require us to mimic the sciences. The study of religion should be an investigation into the mindset of religious practitioners. It should attempt to discover the intentions and dispositions of believers within their unique Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim religious contexts. Perhaps the major fault of the above systematic studies of religion is their judgment that although the religious practitioner thinks he is acting, believing, or experiencing X, he is really acting, believing, or experiencing Y. For example, although the believer thinks he is worshipping the Christian God, he is really projecting the need for a father figure, or wrestling with his fear of death, or symbolically reflecting the sacred. Far from explaining the believerís mindset, these accounts only explain how religious phenomena appear from a psychoanalytic, existentialist, or phenomenological mindset.
Ideally, the descriptions we give of a personís religious mindset should be ones with which the religious practitioner himself would agree. This simply follows what logicians call the principle of charity, which maintains that we charitably interpret someone elseís views for purposes of criticism, debate, or elucidation. If we follow the principle of charity consistently, we will have to focus more on the content of individual believerís mindsets, rather than on generalized religious themes or patterns which may not represent the views of any single person. When looking into the mindset of individual believers, we should not expect clear or unified pictures of some phenomena. There is an expression, "two Jews, three views" which members of the Jewish community themselves use to express their diversity of opinion on religious subjects. However, it is impractical to focus only on the practices of individual believers unless one is prepared to compile nothing but a series of case studies and anecdotes. Some generalization is thus needed along with accounts of specific believers.
But the principle of charity also needs to be balanced against the principle of objectivity insofar as we are examining other peopleís beliefs and not our own. Suppose that a Muslim mystic told me that I could only understand his religion by experiencing God directly. It is not reasonable or even possible for me to attempt to experience God as the Muslim mystic does, and then perhaps tomorrow attempt to experience God as a Hindu mystic does when my subject of inquiry changes. In remaining objective, my descriptions other peopleís beliefs will not require me to go through the experience myself. Further, my descriptions should not even presume the existence of a God, spiritual realm, or sacred entity behind the practitioner's actions, beliefs, and experiences.
In short, in our study of religion, our descriptions of a believerís mindset should be ones which the believer agrees with, yet at the same time are ones which the outsider also agrees with. Is it possible to appease both sides? A friend from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once told me that he knew he was doing his job correctly when the industry lobbyists and the environmental lobbyists were both angry with him. Perhaps that should be our ideal.
Some religions are followed by only a handful of believers, and others have members numbering in the billions. Is there anything we can conclude from this? Mr. Angst thinks so:
Dear 90-Percent: Iíll spare you the statistical calculations, but if only 10% of US population passes the salvation test, then this projects to less than 2.5% of world population (given that less than ¼ of the world is nominally Christian). Thatís a pretty exclusive club, and we are left to conclude that God must think that smaller is better. But even 2.5% of the worldís population is still pretty large since it includes a whopping 175 million people. If God prefers smaller numbers, then perhaps the true plan of salvation is that offered by Zoroastrianism which comes in at a mere 70 thousand current members. Even better, perhaps Godís select few are restricted to the Heavenís Gate cult which now numbers at less than a dozen. Better still, perhaps God has restricted membership to a single person who, like God himself, prefers solitude above the company of people -- and that single memberís name is Mr. Angst. Best of all, perhaps an infinitely great God prefers a group of followers which is infinitely small and includes zero members! As a corollary, I guess that means we are all members of an infinitely large class of losers.
Maybe as many as 150 billion humans so far have lived since the first days of Homo erectus. About 60 percent all 150 billion humans were hunter-gatherers who principally followed migrating herds for food. An agricultural revolution took place around 10,000 BCE which gave rise to fixed dwellings, cities and domestic animals. About 35 percent of all humans lived (and still live) by small scale agriculture spawned by the agricultural revolution. Our industrial and technological societies of the past few hundred years are the children of those early agricultural cities. And only most recently 5 percent are found in industrial societies. The major world religions are comparatively recent inventions of agricultural cities and stretch back at most 3,000 years. Within these past three millennia, perhaps less than half of those humans were even nominally associate with a major world religion -- either a living religion such as Judaism, or a dead religion such those of Mesopotamia. Ultimately, a single world religion such as Christianity can claim only a very small slice of the total world religion pie.
The religions of humanity, then, are dominated by the practices of hunter-gatherer people and most small scale agricultural people. Although it is a mistake to see this "religion" as an organized system of beliefs and practices, let us assume for the moment that there are sufficient core religious practices that tie these people together. What do we call their religion? Past theologians outside those traditions inaccurately and offensively called them savage, superstitious, heathen, and pagan. Early anthropologists have done only slightly better by calling them primitive, tribal, animistic, pre-literate, traditional, ethnic, and oral. Most of these conjure up cartoon-like images of tiny, half naked people with spears in hand, dancing frantically and babbling mumbo jumbo. Today two terms are used which display more sensitivity to the practitioners. One is primal and reflects the view that such religions are historically and culturally prior to the major world religions. It also designates that they are primary, insofar as they have basic features which belong to all religions. The other term of choice is indigenous which designates that they are tied to small geographical areas and reflect the lifestyles of those people in relation to their land. Although neither of these completely escapes stereotype, we will use both of these terms interchangeably.
HOW TO EXAMINE INDIGENOUS RELIGIONS. We face two distinct problems when trying to describe indigenous religious practices. First, we might impose a single, orderly sequence of events on the phenomenon we see, ignoring the fact that the practices and corresponding beliefs of different indigenous groups undoubtedly differed. Second, we might clump prehistoric and modern indigenous religions together ignoring tens of thousands of years of change. To address these problems, let us assume that each indigenous tribe religion throughout the world and throughout time is unique and that we lose distinctive features of their religions by grouping them together. Let us also assume that each person within an indigenous tribe has a unique religious experience which is lost when we consider him or her as a mere token of a larger tribal religious type. We can nevertheless note what philosophers call family resemblances between the unique beliefs of individuals or between unique beliefs of tribes. To use a simple illustration, my three brothers and I look a bit different from each other. Nevertheless, I have the same hair as two of them, the same eyes as one of them, and the same height as all three of them. The four of us exhibit a visual family resemblance because we each have perhaps five features on a top ten list of visual family features. Similarly, we may provisionally group together the unique indigenous religious practices of individuals and tribes because of family resemblances between them. A good test of this is whether an individual believer from one tribe could recognize the similarities with the religious practices of other tribes; perhaps, if required, she could even meaningfully participate in their religious practices. When ancient Greek historians such as Plutarch examined the polytheistic beliefs of surrounding countries, they concluded that many of the foreign gods were the same as theirs, although the names of the gods differed. It is this family feeling which justifies grouping together various indigenous religions in spite of the problems associated with such generalizations.
Examining Prehistoric Indigenous Religions. Most practitioners of indigenous religions were from prehistoric times. This creates a special problem when examining them since there are no written records, and few remaining artifacts. Archeologists describe their task of unearthing artifacts as searching through garbage dumps of the past. Most of what they find are broken or discarded remains of items which lost their original use. Imagine searching through a modern garbage dump and from that trying to draw conclusions about modern life. At best we will only arrive at an incomplete picture of modern human activities and interests. Archeologists face the same limitations. Let's look at some of the artifacts. Following Homo erectus, Homo sapiens proper ó the knowledgeable one ó appeared on the scene about 250,000 years ago. Impressive grave sites of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, our dead end cousins from about 125,000 to about 40,000 years ago, hint at possible early religious beliefs and practices. Burial sights at the mouths of caves sometimes contained food offerings, flint instruments, and flowers, with bodies in a crouched fetus position. A special reverence was shown for cave bear skulls which were placed on shelves. Human skulls were also found lined up and opened at the base, suggesting that the brains were eaten. Around 40,000 BCE truly modern humans, the Cro-Magnons, suddenly appeared and again left burial sights are similar to the Neanderthals in style and artifacts found, but also contain shell bracelets and hair circlets. They poured red coloring over the bodies or the bones when the body decayed, perhaps signifying a kind of rejuvenation. Some bones were charred, suggesting that they may have been ceremonially eaten. They also produced cave paintings, mostly of animals in hunts. The most famous of these is the painting known as Shaman of Les Trois Feres found on the cave wall in southern France. The shaman (or medicine man) wears a costume made out of reindeer antlers, the ears of a stag, eyes of an owl, beard of a man, paws of a bear, tail of a horse, a patchwork of animal skins, the feet of humans.
What do these remains tell us about the religious attitudes of the practitioners? Some scholars believe the artifacts tell us nothing, and that any speculations are groundless. Others, though, are more optimistic while at the same time they concede the risks in speculation. Religious studies scholar Ninian Smart (b. ?) recommends that we base our speculations on the events of daily prehistoric life. Important experiences include earthly and human cycles, dependence on nature, natural disasters, birth, sickness, death, etiquette, art and music. Central to those experiences are rituals. Hunting rituals keep groups organized and together. Burial rites aim at ensuring safe passage into the next world. Story and dream telling also played an important role. Hunter-gatherers had lots of leisure, especially in the evenings, and this led to imaginative and symbolic yarns involving cosmology, causal explanations of natural events, death, dreams, and visions.
Without the efforts of anthropologists, we would know nothing about the religious lives of our prehistoric ancestors. Unfortunately, the raw facts they uncover make it difficult to visualize what prehistoric religious life was like. Building on the contributions of anthropologists, several of novels have recently appeared which give us more imaginative descriptions, such as Jean Auelís Clan of the Cave Bear, and Piers Anthonyís Isle of Woman. In this fictional vein, imagine what we would see if we could directly witness a day in the life of a hunter-gatherer Homo erectus family.
A Day in the Life. 19 year old Meeshu woke up one morning to the muted sound of chanting. She and the 30 members of her clan were stretched out on a small clearing slightly elevated above a parched plane which extended for miles in all directions. The early morning light cast an orange tint on the face of her 24 year old mate, Kaw, the father of her two surviving children. Kaw, whose leg was injured the previous week on a hunt, was still asleep. Running along side a herd gazelle, he lunged at an animal, grabbed its antlers, and wrestled it to the ground. The animal suddenly twisted and impaled his thigh to the bone. He covered the wound with his hand, and his fellow hunters carried him back to the camp several miles away by. A week later, his leg was swollen from infection, and he was delirious from fever. Meeshu sat up and looked at Kaw. The clanspeople placed carved shells and bones around him, hoping that these precious heirlooms would pass their forces onto Kaw. On the other side of him sat the clan's forty year old healer woman, chanting and rocking with her eyes closed. Her hair was matted and her body was draped with necklaces and bracelets. Next to her was an animal skin bag containing herbs from which she made potions to place on Kaw's wound and to feed him. Slowly, the rest of the clan members awoke and started their morning activities. Some went down to the watering hole to fill up empty gourd containers. The dry season had started and the lakes fed by the spring rains shrank to a fraction of their original size. Meeshu's friends and sisters stopped by to check on Kaw's progress. They brought with them mashed roots for Meeshu and the healer woman to eat.
An hour later a clan lookout announced, "The hunters are back, and it doesn't look like they have anything." Sighs of disappointment resounded around the camp, and Meeshu became more nervous. The four hunters entered the camp, people gathered around them, and one hunter explained what everyone already knew. The herds moved too far from the watering hole and were outside the range of their camp. The clan should have moved on to follow the herd several days ago, but they lingered instead hoping for Kaw's recovery. He was a beloved kinsman to them all, and the loss of a 24 year old would weaken the clan's strength. The elders quietly discussed their options, and Meeshu became more nervous as they approached her. The principal elder sympathetically announced to her that it was time for the clan to go. Tears welled in her eyes as she asked if they could stay a little longer and scavenge from the carcasses of the dead animals near the water hole. The elders explained that each delay would put more distance between them and the migrating herds; they needed to leave after the noon sun died down. She ran from them crying.
After a few minutes she and her two children went to Kaw's side. He was awake and temporarily lucid, although in much pain. He saw his clanspeople organizing their belongings and knew what was happening. Meeshu tried to be cheerful as she talked with him. "I think I'm going to have another child," Meeshu said, almost believing that it was true.
"That is good news," he replied. "You need to give it my name so my soul can live in him and I can be with you again." She resisted the implication that he would die and insisted that he would get better. In succession, other members of the clan came over. They relayed stories about hunts and memories of deceased clanspeople. They complemented the strength of Kaw's two children and predicted that they would live to be elders of the clan. Exhausted and delirious, Kaw soon fell unconscious. Two of his hunting partners carried him down the hill and hoisted him up into a shaded tree which would shelter him from the direct sun and protect him from predatory animals. Next to him they placed his spear, a gourd of water, and some food. An elder added to this a feathered figurine of bird representing the clanís guardian. Meeshu screamed as her friends dragged her from the tree side to join the others on their journey.
Examining Modern Indigenous Religions. When we turn from prehistoric to modern times, the features of indigenous religion practices become more prominent. For a little over a hundred years anthropologists and religious studies scholars have analyzed religious beliefs and practices of a variety of cultures around the world. Sometimes they look for and analyze features which can be found in primal religions around the world, such as animal worship or ancestor worship. Other times they focus on features of religious practices within a limited geographical area. Weíve attempted to follow both of these approaches in the sections below, first with a discussion of the more widespread beliefs and practices, and, second, with a synopsis of traditional religious practices of Africa.
TYPES OF SPIRITUAL FORCES AND WORSHIP PRACTICES. As scholars note similarities in religious practices from culture to culture, theyíve applied special terms to designate these frequently found features. The categories and subcategories of various practices are almost endless and often rest on specialized studies which are outside the scope of an introductory text. Only the more important and more interesting ones are discussed below.
Mana. Practitioners of indigenous religions commonly believe in a force which scholars call mana. It is an impersonal power running through everything, but which accumulates in special objects, such as statues, or special human skills, such as stone cutting. The impersonal and mechanical character of mana distinguishes it from spirits or souls. Although mana isn't always restricted to religious objects, it nevertheless evokes caution, and sometimes danger, similar to the caution we show around high-voltage power lines. The term originally came from a widespread Polynesian belief and was introduced to the West by anthropologist R. H. Codrington's study The Melanesians (1891). Codrington explains,
Related to mana is the practice of fetishism, which is the attempt to tap the power in inanimate things. As Mana involves the actual power within an object, fetishism involves the physical objects themselves and the acts we perform with those objects. This may involve touching, worshipping, praying to, coaxing, and perhaps even whipping the objects. The term fetish was originally applied to medieval Christian religious practices which involved rituals surrounding relics of saints, rosaries, and religious images. 15th century Portuguese explorers noted similar practices in African religion involving wooden and stone figures. Like the term "mana", though, the term "fetishism" now is used more generally in reference to practices of other cultures. Even in our own culture we see endless examples of fetish practices and belief and in mana which, more than most other practices, show our own ties with primal religions. Supermarket tabloids abound with advertisements for water from the Jordan river, religious amulets, pieces of cloth, fragments from Jesusí cross, and even vials of sweat from Elvis. Most of the ads come with testimonials which describe how these items benefited particular users. The most in vogue expression of mana and fetishism today is the widespread use of crystals, made popular by the new age religious movement. A new age friend of mine told me she has about 100 crystals that she keeps in her home, in her car and on her person. She said explained that, "there many are hidden spiritual forces in the world. In fact, pretty much everything has some kind of power although itís usually beyond our reach. Crystals, though, are like windows of access which move this power from the hidden world to the visible world."
Animism. Animism is the view that the natural world is animated or moved by spirits. For many practitioners of indigenous religions, where there is any motion there is a spirit behind it. The flowing river before us is animated by a spirit. The blowing wind is animated by a spirit. Trees and plants which grow and seasonally change are animated by a spirits. The spirit may either be localized to a small part within a natural object, such as the trunk of a tree, or it may pervade the entire thing. It may also be identified as the thingís breath, blood, shadow, or name. The term "animism" was coined by Edward Tylor in his ground breaking book Primitive Culture (1871). Tylor believed that animism was the essential feature of all indigenous religions and, following Tylor, for decades anthropologists and religious studies scholars used the term "animism" as a title designating indigenous religions as a whole. However, it is now evident that animistic belief is only one aspect, and perhaps not even the dominant aspect, of indigenous practices.
When Tylor first proposed his theory, critics argued he blurred an important distinction between spirits which cause motion, and life which causes motion. For example, if I see a frog hop in front of me, I can give two explanations for why it moves. First, I can say that it moves because it is alive insofar as movement is prompted by ordinary life forces. Second, I can say that the frog moves because it has a spirit which controls its movement. The first explanation is more physical and the second is more metaphysical. Anthropologist R.R. Marett thought that this difference between "life" and "spirit" was significant; he argued that more primitive religions (both historically and culturally) only had the view that things move because they are alive. This view he dubbed "animatism." Further, he argued that it was left to more developed primal religions to make the intellectual leap that things move because they have spirits. This he called "animism" proper. In one respect Marettís critique is on target: the two explanations do differ, and we should not read a spirit-based explanation into someoneís belief when they only mean to say something about life. However, we should reject Marett's more sweeping claim that primitive societies could not form a notion of "spirit." Not only does this position display cultural arrogance, but he exaggerates the level of sophistication needed to form a concept of "spirit." We may grant that when a cat sees a frog move and is ready to pounce on it, the cat presumes only that the frog is alive, and not that the frog has a soul. But the story is different with humans. Even young children show fear of wispy ghosts and invisible monsters which lurk in their closets or beneath their beds.
Like Marett, it is easy for us to view animism with an attitude of cultural superiority and ridicule those who think that spirits are responsible for movement in the natural world. Far from being irrational, though, the link between motion and soul is central to Western thinking. Plato and Aristotle both believed that one of the principal functions of the soul was to move something. This is particularly so with animals, such as when a frog hops. In fact, the very term "animal" comes from the Greek word anima, meaning breath or soul. Aristotle argued further that other movements in the natural world, such as wind and rain, could be traced back to the soul of God which is the prime mover of all things. This notion of the soul was adopted by medieval theologians and in turn was passed on to thinkers of the Enlightenment period. For example, in his Search After Truth (1674), French theologian Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715) writes that "since the idea we have of all bodies shows us that they cannot move themselves, it must be concluded that they are moved by spirits only." Although Malebranche sees the soul of God as the immediate cause of all motion, he concedes that it makes perfect sense to believe that spirits are behind natural events, such as the various motions produced by the sun:
Animal Spirits. In addition to the spirits that animate nature, spirits of animals play an important role in primal religious belief. The range of animal worship practices is voluminous and extends from simply revering the bones of dead animals to seeing an animal as the embodiment of a superior god. There are several reasons for the importance which primal religions place on animals. For many hunter-gatherer societies, human survival depends on eating animals. The animals themselves are skilled in surviving, so the challenge of hunting generates a respect for their abilities. The power and ferocity of predatory animals must also be reckoned with as animals view humans as their next meal. In some ways animals appear more knowledgeable than humans. Their seasonal migratory patterns operate with clock-like precision. As humans lack this instinctive feature, we learn from the animals and in a sense are their followers. From these causes, certain species of animals are singled out as objects of worship. A species which is commonly hunted may gain a religious status. A dangerous animal species may be worshipped as manner of appeasement. The worshipped animal may be revered in its own right, or as the incarnation of an ancestor or god. Most animals have been or are the object of worship in some religious community. The leopard finds prominence in West Africa. Lizards are revered in Madagascar. The reverence which people of India show for the cow is well known. In Siberian tribes it is the bear and in Napal it is the tiger. Tribes of Peru worshipped snakes. North American Algonquin tribes saw their principal god as the great hare. The god of Thebes in ancient Egypt had a ram's head.
One of the most well-known types of animal worship is totemism, which is belief that particular animals or plants have a special relationship with a tribal group, and act as its guardians. The term originated from a native American word meaning "relative." Sometimes the totem is ritually eaten, other times there is a taboo against killing it. According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1902), the totem animal provides an important link between the natural and social world. Animal veneration is far less prominent in many of the larger world religions such as Christianity, principally because of changes in lifestyle. Hunting animals is not a means of survival in industrialized societies and we simply lack the kinds of encounters with animals which are common to indigenous people. Our most intimate acquaintances with animals are with our pets and the religions of industrialized societies. A religious studies professor I know routinely surveys his classes to better understand their religious attitudes concerning animals. He explained, "Once as a joke I asked students in my class how many of them believed in doggy heaven. I considered it to be a childhood belief, such as belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, which no adult would hold. I was stunned to see how many raised their hands. These were all college students, many of them older nontraditional ones, and most of which were raised in typical Protestant churches which frowned on such notions. I then worked up an informal survey form on the subject which I now pass out to my various classes. Roughly one third of my students believe in some kind of afterlife for higher animals such as dogs, cats, dolphins and chimpanzees. Another one third are not sure, and only the remaining third are convinced that there was no afterlife for such animals." Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate the primal practices of animal veneration is to examine our own religious attitudes about animals and recognize that, for many of us, animals do have a special religious status.
Spirits of the Ancestors. Another class of spiritual beings central to indigenous religions is those of the tribes ancestors. The practice of ancestor veneration involves the ritual tribute and appeasement of the spirits of the dead by their living descendants. Not all ancestors are worthy of veneration and the spirits of the ancestors fall into status hierarchy as the ancestors themselves did when alive. The ancestors who were influential, skilled or important when alive are more worthy of veneration than those who were troublesome or insignificant. Many religions believe that ancestors depend on our attention for their continued existence, and are angered when they don't receive it. Veneration involves offering food, drinks, or other favored objects at family shrines or during ceremonies. Since spirits donít have bodies and donít need these items per se; it is the symbolism of these offerings upon which the ancestors thrive. Often ancestor veneration includes the practice of spiritism, which is the communication with the dead through a medium. By this means one can monitor the ancestorís moods and wishes. Ancestor worship sometimes servers an economic function. Someone who inherits farming land or a herd of animals may appeal to the ancestorís wishes to justify his ownership of that property.
Practitioners in many indigenous religions believe that ancestral spirits return to earth and dwell among us; they are considered the living dead. The term "living dead" gained some notoriety in George Romeroís classic horror film "Night of the Living Dead" in which human corpses come alive and devour the living. However, in its more technical sense, the "living dead" refer to the disembodied spirits of ancestors. The spirits of the living dead are not always friendly, and sometimes wander around, somewhat stripped of their original personalities, and cause some discomfort to their living descendants. Once when visiting a small town in southern Thailand, I noticed that outside many homes there were miniature spirit houses Ė almost like bird houses -- perched on six foot high pole or attached to trees. They contained small burned candles, incense sticks and flowers. A Thai friend explained that they were the dwellings their family ancestors. "We believe that when our ancestors died, their spirits returned to the family home. We donít want them inside, though, since they knock things over, break things, and make noises. To keep them from haunting us, we put up these houses which lure them outside."
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of ancestor worship is how it often serves as the backbone of a communityís social values. Believers routinely ask whether their behavior dishonors the ancestors. This appeal to ancestral approval may be thought of as their golden rule of morality insofar as it provides a convenient litmus test for determining morally proper conduct. It is also an effective source of moral motivation which will prompt believers to uphold the social values of which the ancestors approve. However, the success of this appeal to ancestral approval rests them seeing their ancestorsí identities as intimately connected to their own identities. An isolated person, such as the infamous serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, may not view himself as connect with anyone outside of himself and may thus not have any moral qualm with murdering and cannibalizing someone. If, on the other hand, we feel connected to a larger community of people, our behavior will more likely take into account the well-being of others. Ancestor veneration pushes this one step further and involves a connection with both living and dead community members. Our wise ancestors of the past may even expect more from us than our living friends and relatives. How does one internalize the lofty ideals of the ancestors? It is easier to keep alive the memories of ancestors in indigenous cultures than it is in our own. Hunter gatherer and small scale farming communities see little change as the generations go by. If I am a member of this kind of community, then I would assume that the life experiences of my ancestors were similar to my own. and someone can visualize their ancestorís lives were virtually identical with their own. On the other hand, as member of industrialized societies which change rapidly, we can scarcely relate to the lifestyles, occupations and hobbies of our grandparents in their younger years, much less those of our great grandparents. The black and white photographs we he have of them are images of strangers and they almost seem as foreign as someone from an Amazon hill tribe. The larger sense of community we have, the better humans we become. To that extent, our present inability to connect with our ancestors is a loss.
The Gods. Within indigenous religions, there is a range of spiritual forces beginning with mana, extending through different kinds of spirits, and culminating with the gods. The lines of distinction between these spiritual forces is often blurry, and this is particularly so with the gods, many of which are only more powerful nature, animal or ancestral spirits. Similar to the wide range of spirits which serve different functions, there is a correspondingly wide range of gods which serve different functions. The term tutelary god refers to spiritual powers which rule over some area of human life, such as hunting, farming, fighting, or metal-working. The belief in a variety of tutelary gods is a feature of indigenous religions which is also shared by many of the great religions of the world, such as Hinduism and the religion of the ancient Greeks. The diversity of divine specializations is well illustrated in the almost 30,000 gods in Greek mythology. In The City of God (6:9), St. Augustine (354-430 CE) ridicules this diversity: "Suppose that a parent uses two nurses for his infant, one of whom gives only food, and the other only beverage. They will make use of two goddesses for this purpose, Educa and Potina." Augustine also lampoons the number of gods needed in the act of sexual intercourse. One oversees the emission of the maleís sperm, another is responsible for the femaleís seed, another brings on lust, and yet another produces excitement. After continuing the list, Augustine exclaims, "Why is the bed-chamber filled with a crowd of deities, even after the husband leaves?"
Our Western monotheistic tradition, of which Augustine is a part, contends that the belief in a variety of tutelary gods is not only false, but illogical and harmful. A recent text in world religions has gone so far as to say that "It is a fact of history that polytheism has always weakened a nation, whereas monotheism invigorates and unifies" (World Religions, Grand Rapids: 1982, p. 33). However, if we set aside our monotheistic biases, the logic of tutelary gods will may appear more clear. Divine beings function at least in part as explanations of the events of the world. They explain how we got here, why we suffer, what makes us happy, and what happens when we die. Monotheistic religions try to answer all of these questions with a single explanation, namely, the divine guidance of a single God. Tutelary gods, however, offer a different explanation: for each unique problem, there is a unique divine being or spiritual force which explains that problem. A compelling reason for adopting the second explanation is that events of the world do not appear to be orchestrated by a single force. In fact, many events seem conflicting. After a long drought, we may be saved from famine because of a rainfall; however, a typhoon hits us and our crops are destroyed. Several years ago a veteran returned unharmed from the Gulf War; within days of his return, he was murdered by a family member in a domestic dispute. An appeal to tutelary gods explains such cases of situational irony. In the first case, weíve appeased the god of rain, but have angered the good of storm. In the second case, we are in favor of with the god of war, but have offended the god of love. Monotheistic theologians, such as Augustine, have alternative single-God explanations of such suffering. As will be discussed in a later chapter, many involve appeals to the free choice of humans or the fact that such tragedies serve a greater good. When we push the logic of these explanations, though, theologians typically declare that such paradoxes are mysteries, and we canít fully know the mind of God. By contrast, an explanation which appeals to tutelary gods involves less mystery.
In addition to the various tutelary gods, many indigenous religions also have a high god who is a supreme being in the sky and creator of all. Typically the high god is distant and removed from much human activity. The following narrative from of a high god from the Nigerian Isoko religion explains this.
Encountering the Spiritual World. In addition to the wide range of spiritual forces in indigenous religions, there is an equally wide of range techniques to communicate with the spiritual world. One of the most dramatic is the practice of Shamanism. A shaman is a priests who enters a trance, leaves his or her body and visits the spirit world. The term "shaman" originally applied to priests of the Tungu people of Siberia, but more recently has gained broader use. To facilitate the journey, the shaman calls on specific tutelary gods or animal spirits which protect the tribe. The shaman is then unites with, or is transformed into that god or animals and in this transformed state moves around the spirit world. In the following narrative, a Siberian shaman describes the experience of being overtaken by his tutelary spirit (ayami):
Divination, or augury, is the practice of telling the future by reading signs (omens). The signs read by the diviner can be either natural or human made. Natural signs can be found in the weather, stars, flight of birds, the arrangement of an animalís internal organs (exta, or hauruspex), and even the excrement of humans or animals. One of the oldest and even today most popular forms of divining natural signs is astrology which focuses on celestial signs. Genethliacal astrology involves charting the nativity of a person by the position of constellations at the moment of birth. Judicial astrology involves influence of the stars on human destiny. Emperors of the past would often consult astrologers before going to battle, hopefully to determine ahead of time the success of their efforts. In contrast to natural signs of divination, there are also human made signs often involve the manipulation of objects, such as sticks, stones, bones, or cards. Among the most popular of these are tarot cards and the Chinese I Ching. A distinction is sometimes drawn between wisdom divination and possession divination. With wisdom divination, the diviner draws on a body of accumulated knowledge which allows him to decipher the hidden meaning of signs. With possession divination, the diviner is controlled by a spiritual being or force, and serves more as a conduit.
AFRICAN RELIGION. Africa is a large and culturally diverse continent which makes it difficult to generalize about its religious practices. About one-third of the African people following traditional African religion, and the remaining two thirds are Muslim or Christian. Traditional African religions are restricted to specific tribal regions; there are as many as 700 languages in Africa, and each represents a different cultural group and religion. The various traditional religions are unique insofar as they developed from within their respective cultures, and no attempt was made to send out missionaries or convert people of other tribal religions to their own. Nevertheless, these tribal religions have some shared features. First, many African religions hold a common belief in a high god. However, since the high god is remote, religious rituals often focus on specialized tutelary gods, ancestral spirits, and animal spirits. Second, African religions have dramatic rituals involving ecstatic dances, chants, the wearing of masks and the uses of other fetish objects. So prominent are these visual worship practices in African religion that, for some time, the term "fetishism" designated African religion in general. Third, although African religions have some belief in the afterlife, their primary concern is with living well in this life. In African Religions and Philosophy (1969), John Mbiti describes the African religious focus on events in the physical world:
Regional African Religious Practices. For more distinct features of African religions, we must look to regional tribal practices. For simplicity, we can divide the African continent into four geographical regions which designate distinct cultural and religious practices. One region is the northern portion which is dominated by the Sahara desert. This area saw much Christian and Muslim missionary activity, especially along the well traveled trade routes; thus, when scholars speak of traditional African religion, they typically refer to the remaining three sub-Saharan areas.
A second geographical area is east Africa which contains 200 distinct tribal societies. The religious practices of the Nuer tribe in particular have gained special attention through a detailed study by anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his book, Nuer Religion (1957). The Nuer are a tribe of herds-people from the grasslands and swamps of southern Sudan. They believe that the creator lives in that sky above everything, and is like the wind insofar as he is everywhere. He is responsible for giving the Nuer cattle, millet, and fish which sustain them. They also see God as the creator of social customs, such as marriage. He ordains political events, such as the Nuerís entitlement to raid their neighboring tribe (the Dinka) and that the Europeans should conquer the Nuer. Differences between people, such as strength, speed, and ritual power, are due to Godís decisions. This is so too for differences of black and white skin. One account describes that an ancestor of white people committed incest with his mother, and Godís punishment for this was white skin. The Nuer also believe in a variety of Tutelary spirits, although these are best understood as more accessible manifestations of the creator God. Sacrifice is an important component to Nuer religious life, which is usually a family activity. Sacrifices are not performed with the hopes of bending the powers of nature, such as brining on rain. They resign themselves to the courses of nature and, instead, perform sacrifices for ethical and social reasons. One Nuer story describes how a young girl prayed for a delay in the sunset so she could finish her work in daylight hours; she subsequently died. For more universal concerns, such as atonement for sins and intervention in major catastrophes, sacrifices are made to the creator God. For more specific requests, such as success in battle, sacrifices are offered to tutelary spirits, such as the tribal totem spirit. The best type of sacrifice for the Nuer is an ox; the life of the animal is given to God, and the carcass of the animal is left to the family to divide and eat.
A third area is central and Southern Africa, which is marked off by its regionally shared language group called Bantu. The Baluba people of southern Zaire are typical of tribes within the Bantu region. Like the Nuer, Baluba believe in a high god, and also have a greater concern for human social life, rather than with controlling natural events or entering a supernatural realm. Several Baluba myths display the reoccurring theme that death as unnatural: God originally intended humans to live forever, but there was some misunderstanding which prevented this. In the myth of lizard and chameleon, God assigned the message of immortality to a slow moving chameleon, but later sent a message of death to a fast moving lizard. Unfortunately, the lizard arrived first and the message of death was delivered first. In the myth of the sleepers, our ancestors were supposed to stay awake and wait for God to return from a trip and declare that we are immortal. Unfortunately, again, they fell asleep. The souls of the dead fall into two categories. First, those who had children and were properly buried become ancestors, and are considered friendly spirits. Ancestral spirits continue to live on earth in a variety of ways. They may be contacted at grave sites, they may live in spirit houses outside family dwellings, and they may be among the various spirits which are passed onto the soul of a newborn. Second, those who had no children or were improperly buried become living dead and, as such, linger around and haunt the tribe.
A fourth and final area is West Africa, which accounts for half of Africaís total population. The Yoruba tribe in south Nigeria is typical of this region. Especially noteworthy is an annual Yoruba religious festival called Gelede which honors the female power displayed among the gods and among humans. The festival recognizes both the constructive aspects of female power involving reproduction, and the more destructive aspects of female power which are associated with female witchcraft. Dancers in the Gelede ritual wear elaborate masks and perform dances which recreate mythic journeys into the realm of the mothers. The Yoruba are also reputed to have the most highly developed system of divination in West Africa known as the Ifa system. The diviner manipulates special divining objects, usually palm nuts or shells, which reveal 256 possible patterns. In a given session he records the combination of patterns and notes the interpretations associated with them. The Yoruba consult the Ifa system for all important occasions of life.
Religion of the American Slaves. American slaves came principally from West Africa and took with them West African religious beliefs. Prior to 1800 few American slaves converted to Christianity and scholars believe that some African religion was practiced in the early days of American slavery, although there are no detailed records. To protect themselves from possible uprisings, slave owners stripped the slaves of their African identity by prohibiting them from speaking African languages and engaging in African religious practices. Eventually the slaves were Christianized, although they often saw Christianity as the religion of the masters and preferred their own religious meetings which faintly carried over some elements of African religion. A primary source for understanding the religion of the American slaves is recorded slave testimonials. The largest record of slave testimonials was made during the Great Depression, when the U.S. government hired unemployed writers to interview surviving black slaves throughout the south for the purpose of preserving first hand accounts of their experiences. Although the project was conducted between 1936 and 1938, the transcripts of more than 2,000 interviews with ex-slaves remained unpublished for almost 40 years. Throughout the 26 volume narrative collection, we see glimpses of various aspects of slave religious life. George Rawick, editor of the collection, suggests two possible elements of African influenced slave religion, one of which involved the use of pots. In American slave religion, slaves believed that they were protected by pots and wash kettles as illustrated in the following literally transcribed slave testimonials:
"When the Negroes wanted prayer meeting they turned a pot down in the middle of the floor and sang and shouted and the white folks couldn't hear them. Of course, sometimes they might happen to slip up on them on suspicion."
"Some of the Negroes want to have their own meetings, but lord chile, them Negroes get happy and get to shouting all over the meadow.... Master John quick put a stop to that. He say, If you going to preach and sing you must turn the wash pot bottom up; meaning no shouting."
A second possible element of African religion for American slaves is the belief in a little man who mediates between humans and God.
"I was killed dead by the power of God one evening about four o'clock.... Like a flash I saw my soul in the form of an angel, leap from my old body which was lying at the greedy jaws of hell. When I was this, I prayed again to the Lord to have mercy. Then there appeared before me a little man dressed up in white linen and with golden locks hanging over his shoulders and parted in the middle. He said: Follow me and I will lead you to the father."
"I got very faint and started to praying. Then I died and I was my body lying on the edge of a deep gap. A little man came up and said, arise and go. I said, Lord, I can't get up or move else I will fall. He reached out his hand, anointed my head and said, arise and follow me for I am the way, the truth and the light."
"I don't believe in all that what the people say about having to see a little white man. That is all fogieism. What was it for them to see? Always a little white man."
INDIGENOUS PRACTICES IN TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETIES. The various elements of indigenous religions described above are not restricted to remote tribal groups. We can find parallel practices in the religious lives followers of the great world religions. I wrote a friend who is a Catholic priest and asked if he could spot some of these extraneous religious practices in his parish. He replied, "I have to constantly Ė although delicately -- fight superstitions of all kinds. People ask me to bless some particular object, like a cross or a Bible; they must see me as a conduit of spiritual power which I can funnel into physical objects for their benefit. Others are convinced that the souls of their dead parents or spouses watch over them and sometimes leave them signs. I know that many people read their astrological charts more than they do their Bible. We also have older members who fear black cats, broken mirrors, and walking under ladders." What this priest refers to "superstitions" are probably better described as primal religious practices. Although his particular Christian denomination has no place for them, the undercurrent of these popular beliefs is no less real in the minds of his church members. Sociologists of religion distinguish between the main stream beliefs of a religion, and the popular beliefs of that religionís subculture. Although an appropriately informed observer might succeed in identifying specific beliefs as belonging to a "subculture" as opposed to the man stream, the individual practitioner most likely does not make such a distinction. Indeed, practitioners may find that some of these beliefs comprise the most important elements of their religious lives.
In several ways we can see indigenous religious practices as the mother of all religions. It appears to be by far the oldest type of religious belief. Further, in its more pure forms, primal practices have been followed by the majority of humans who have ever lived. Finally, for many subculture practitioners in the great religions, primal practices are intermixed with mainstream practices. The extent to which we should remain sympathetic to primal beliefs or "superstitions" within technological societies is problematic. Such beliefs and practices emerge naturally in hunter gatherer and small agrarian societies which live intimately with nature, uninfluenced by purely material and mechanistic views about the physical universe. Members of technological societies implicitly or explicitly adopt a number of attitudes about nature which run counter to indigenous attitudes. We hold to the consistency of physical laws, the ability to uncover the mysteries of nature through scientific methodology, and that what we used to call spirits or souls we now see as predictable physical or biological mechanisms. To the extent that we adopt such modern or technological attitudes, holding to some types of indigenous practices is out of place. Mr. Angst finds this particularly so with astrological techniques which purportedly reveal our fated personality type:
Dear Consuela: I suppose your interest in when I was born has nothing to do with sending me a birthday card. You want to know my "sign", don't you. How quaint! Perhaps you think that the alignment of the planets against the backdrop of specific constellations may tell you what kind of person I am or what the gods have in store for me. I am baffled by the fascination folks have with sneaky astrological tests that purportedly reveal the "true" nature of one's personality. Even the Meyers-Briggs test, a standard instrument in determining psychological temperament, is just a modern-day horoscope. If you want to know what kind of person someone is, why not just ask him? Are you a disgruntled person? Yes! Do you like to be around other people? No! Would the world be a better place without human beings? Yes! It's as though the inquirer assumes we are incapable of articulating our own preferences. Long before there was a discipline called "psychology", long before humans charted the constellations, people investigated the inner human psyche by reading excrement. The firmness, texture, color, and odor were all signs of that person's inner thoughts, aspirations, fears, and fate. So, if you insist on uncovering my hidden self, and historical precedence is any indicator of truth, I will happily send you a stool sample.
Today there are perhaps 12 great world religions which stand in sharp contrast to the multitude of smaller indigenous religions. In the Western tradition we have Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahaíi; in the Eastern tradition we have Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto. Suppose that you wanted to start your own major world religion. How would you go about doing it? Mr. Angst has a formula:
Dear Turk: Sorry, but I run a one man show here. If youíre tired of your hum drum job and want a new and exciting career, then why not found your own religion? By following these easy steps, you too can be a tycoon in the salvation industry. Step one: steal your first batch of followers from another religion. Start by becoming a Sunday school teacher at a large church in an area of the country where unemployment is high and morale is low. Teach your class that you alone hold the secret to earthly success and heavenly salvation. When you have their attention, badmouth the Church pastor for being out of touch and uncaring. The church will split, and you can indignantly march out with your followers on your heals. Step two: create a salvation pyramid scheme. Inform your followers that they will receive a heavenly reward for each person they convert, and a percentage of a heavenly reward for everyone converted by their converts. Give your more successful followers titles such as Regional Salvation Coordinator. Step three: form denominations. To reach the Fortune 500 of world religions, you must diversify. Secretly inform one follower that salvation is open to everyone, but tell another that salvation is only for a select few. Then, from the top of your pyramid empire, sit back and watch the splinter groups take on lives of their own. Step four: plan for early retirement. Register your religionís name and logo as a trademark, with royalties going to a private trust foundation in your name. With your future secure, you can stage your final "ascension into heaven," or should I say entrance into fat city!
SCRIPTURES AND SACRED TEXTS. Perhaps the biggest single factor which distinguishes the great religions from primal religions is writing. Without writing, their are limits to the degree of theological speculation that can be preserved over time. Even the greatest thinkers in primal religions are at the mercy of their successors must be counted on to perpetuate ideas. However, these successors might have their own interests or perhaps limited abilities which prevent a predecessorís ideas from staying alive. Ideas put in writing become more permanent and might survive generations of neglect. As somewhat permanent fixtures, they can become the basis of commentaries and other written discussions, thereby taking their meaning to deeper levels. Also, without writing there are limits to the amount of unity which a large religious community can have. Remote tribes scattered across large land areas will invariably develop differences in their orally communicated traditions. However, when religious doctrines, hymns, and incantations are put in writing and distributed to scattered communities, standardization results. The unchanging text becomes the teacher of religious tradition, and not a living, changing community. It is no surprise that believers usually consider their religious writings as the highest authority within their religion, and even see them as containing divinely inspired truths. Of the worldís great religions, few collections of sacred texts were initially created in written form. Most started as spoken discourses or oral traditions, and only later were put in writing. A major exception to this rule are the scriptures of the Bahaíi Faith; the three principal founders of the religion spent much of their lives in prison, and could only communicate through writing.
Recording Oral Traditions. Many of the older scriptures of the great religions began as oral traditions and were only later committed to writing. There are two principal reasons why they originally took oral form as opposed to written form. First, many religions began in areas and times when writing ability was scarce. In these cases, a community either committed oral traditions to memory, or the traditions ultimately died out. Such oral traditions include myths of creation, genealogies, historical narratives, laws, incantations, collected wisdom, songs. Each of the various literary genres of oral traditions follows patterns intended as mnemonic devices, that is memory aids, when they were transmitted orally. For example, many of the wise sayings in the Old Testament book of Proverbs initially describe the behavior of a righteous person and then shift to a corresponding description of a foolish person:
Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked. The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.
The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin.
The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out. [Proverbs, 10:5-9]
[King Milinda:] Is the hair of the Nagasena?
[Nagasena:] No, truly, your Majesty.
[King Milinda:] Is the hair of the body Nagasena?
[Nagasena:] No, truly, your Majesty.
[King Milinda:] Are the nails in the hand Nagasena?
[Nagasena:] No, truly, your Majesty.
[King Milinda:] Are the teeth in your mouth?
[Nagasena:] No, truly, your Majesty.
The dialog continues with the King asking about 30 similar questions concerning different body parts. Some information, such as genealogies and laws, the precise wording was important, and special people with good memories might be assigned the task of remembering detailed lists. Other kinds of information, such as myths and histories, required less precision, and were conveyed with some amount of storytellerís license. The overall point and message of the story is preserved, but the specific words of the characters in the dialog may be embellished.
A second reason why many religious texts were first transmitted orally is that when religious founders first emerged, such as Confucius, Buddha, or Jesus, there was no apparent need to write down verbatim the exact words of the new teacher. Decades or centuries later, when the new religion took hold, the need became more apparent, but by then it was too late, and all that remained was the oral tradition of the founderís words. These oral traditions included wise sayings, prophetic warnings, sermons, debates, metaphors and parables. A recent group of New Testament scholars known as the Jesus Seminar formulated four rules of oral evidence in their attempt to uncover the true words of Jesus as they became clouded by they words of the compilers of the various gospels:
(2) The most frequently recorded words of Jesus in the surviving gospels take the form of aphorisms and parables.
(3) The earliest layer of the gospel tradition is made up of single aphorisms and parables that circulated by word of mouth prior to the written gospels
(4) Jesusí disciples remembered the core of gist of his sayings and parables, not his precise words, except in rare cases.
The Muslim Koran is a rare exception to the problem which most world religions face when getting at the original words of their founder. Muhammad made a deliberate effort at preserving the precise wording of each new prophetic revelation he had. He encouraged his followers to memorize and recite his revelations as they occurred and near the end of his life he had compiled the complete Koran, virtually in the form we have it today. Not only was it important to preserve the precise wording, but preserving the tonal or vocal character of the recited passage was also important. The following passage from the Muslim Hadith, Islamís second most sacred collection of texts (also orally transmitted) describes a dispute between two official reciters of the Koran.
Canons. As the great religions acquired more and more religious texts, the most important ones become part of their canons. The term "canon" means norm, or measure and designates that the texts rise to a level of officially proclaimed authority. Some religious canons are "open" in the sense that more sacred texts can be added as time goes on. However, most canons of the great religions are "closed" indicating that no more texts will be officially recognized by the prevailing religious authorities. The size of religious canons differ dramatically. For example, the Koran, Islamís principal sacred text, is about 400 pages. By contrast, Taoism has over 1,000 sacred texts to their canon. Within a religionís canon, some texts are seen as more central, and others are considered more peripheral. Early Christian theologians distinguished between protocanonical books of the Bible which have a primary status, and deuterocanonical books which have a secondary importance. In time, the scriptural canons of the great religions typically became among the most sacred objects within those religions. Ė both the words of the scriptures and the physical books themselves.
Care was taken to produce accurate copies; religious authorities were aware that if mistakes were made in the copying process, over time these would accumulate, and the original words would be lost. To guard against errors, scribes producing new copies would read them against the original several times, checking for errors, and even count the number of letters in the entire composition to assure no mistakes crept in. Sometimes the work was copied twice, appearing side by side in columns; thus, the accuracy of the first copy could be immediately confirmed by second copy. For example a portion of the Buddhist Pali Canon was engraved on silver plates (now residing in the British Museum), with each sentence written twice to prevent mistakes. Sometimes monastic groups or families often assumed responsibility in their production, and their editions were considered definitive. In spite of these conscious efforts at accuracy, errors frequently did creep in. Consequently, a field of scholarship emerged called lower or textual criticism, which involves the comparison of the earliest existing manuscripts which aid in the creation of standardized editions of a religious text. For example, the New Testament book of John contains a frequently repeated story about an adulterous woman who is about to be stoned. In response, Jesus says to the crowd, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone". Within the past century, scholars have discovered that the earliest surviving copies of John do not contain this story and, accordingly, these passages are removed from modern editions of the New Testament.
Translations of Scriptures. Once a canon is established and accurate editions are made available, yet another challenge is presented in preparing translations. Almost every scripture of a major world religion is in a language other than English. The most notable exception is the Book of Mormon, which, although written in 19th century America in English, copies the style of the 17th century King James Bible, as indicated in the following quote:
Is not the Eternal Way.
Eternal truths cannot be told
In what men write or say.
ming ming wu tsang ming.
word word not true (or eternal) word
By and large, both Jewish and Christian religious authorities in the U.S. are comfortable with such reliance on translations of scriptures. The religion of Islam, however, views the matter differently. For them, the true Koran was revealed in Arabic and must be read in Arabic. Thus, English language translations are not considered true "translations" of the original, but only interpretations. In accord with this Muslim view, a few modern English translation of the Koran go by the following titles: Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur'an in the English Language; The Koran Interpreted; The Meaning of the Glorious Koran.
FOUNDERS OF RELIGIONS. Each of the great living religions have some person associated with the founding of that religion. In most cases the founder was a reformer reacting against the empty rituals or religious hierarchy of the local religion. The founders are frequently political, social, religious, or monastic leaders and their success in these arenas bolsters their efforts to found a new tradition. The personal magnetism or charisma of the leader is undoubtedly a factor as to the founderís lasting success. The impact of the founder's religious experience on his followers is another important factor. As the new religion takes hold, both the oral and written traditions surrounding founder become authoritative. The founder retains his status as the central figure of the tradition, until he is eclipsed by new reformers within the tradition, or by a founder of a completely new religion. The specific divine status which the founder has varies considerably in different traditions. Krishna and Jesus are deities themselves; Zoroaster, Moses, Muhammad, and Bahaíuíllah are depicted as God's chosen messengers or law givers. Confucius is seen as wiser than other people. They are also mediators insofar as they are humans with limitations, yet represent a bridge the human and divine realms. Jesus and Buddha may be considered primary mediators in the sense that their lives create such a bridge. Moses and Muhammad may be seen as secondary mediators insofar as their message creates the necessary bridge. They are also deliverers insofar as they present a new way living which frees us from the human predicament. In this sense they themselves become exemplary models and radiate a new image of humanity and events in the founders' lives serve as models for the believer's relation to God.
Historical Accuracy of Foundersí Lives. Religious traditions have detailed descriptions of their founderís lives, although the historical reliability of that information varies greatly. We can note three such levels of historical reliability. At the top of the list are founders whose actual lives coincide with the role assigned by tradition. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, and Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Bahaíi faith, are among the few that fall into this category. As noted above, Muhammad established an elaborate network of followers who would memorize the passages from the Koran. In addition to the Koran, though, they also memorized many of his other utterances and details of his private life. Bahaíuíllah lived only in the last century and, in addition to his own vast quantity of writings, he was surrounded by family and friends who chronicled events of his life. At the second level of historical reliability are founders whose lives can be reconstructed only in bare outline. The more detailed descriptions of them are later developments within their religious tradition. Into this category falls Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster (the founder of Zoroastrianism), Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), and Nanak (the founder of Sikhism). With the exception of Buddha, most of these founders did not achieve large followings within their own lives, and thus no network was created to chronicle their life events in detail. Their immediate followers passed down information about key events in their lives, which centered on memorable episodes, and were not organized in a chronological sequence. Second or third generation followers embellished these events with more details, specifically in ways which highlighted different aspects of the founderís significance. For example, to highlight the founderís role in the salvation process, they developed stories of miraculous events in the founderís life. Other embellishments often followed what is called the "Great Man" model of narratives, which typically include royal genealogies, predictions of their births, miraculous birth stories, select people recognizing them as saviors in their youth, and, later in life, demons recognizing their divine roles.
For example, the absence of information in the New Testament Gospels about the early life of Jesus prompted second century Christians to write infancy Gospels of Jesus, some of which describe the young Jesus making living birds out of clay, and striking playmates dead who cross his path. Although these stories had great popular appeal, they were not taken seriously by early church theologians. Since the mid 19th century, historically-oriented theologians have questioned the reliability of even the New Testament accounts of Jesusí adult life and see these too as embellishments. For German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, we simply cannot discover the historical Jesus from the Gospel stories, and all we can know is the early Church's views on the matter. A common distinction is now drawn between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. As scholars scrutinize the traditional accounts of other religious founders, similar distinctions are also drawn between the Buddha of faith and the Buddha of history, and so on. Questioning the historicity of traditional accounts of religious founders often strikes a sensitive nerve with believers. I recently wrote a short introduction to Zoroastrianism in which I noted that "virtually none of the life events traditionally ascribed to Zarathustra can be substantiated." I sent the piece to a Zoroastrian friend for his comments, and in reaction to the above sentence he replied,
The issue becomes even more sensitive when turning to the third level of historical reliability in which it is historically questionable whether the alleged founder even existed. Into this category fall Moses, the lawgiver in the Old Testament, Lao Tzu, the ascribed author of the Tao Te Ching, and Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Krishna. Concerning Moses, our only knowledge of a character by that name comes from the first five books of the Old Testament, and the issue then becomes the reliability of those texts. As noted, scholars believe that these five books are themselves woven together from early source material, which represent divergent traditions, which are frequently inconsistent with each other. For example, some of these traditions suggest that events surrounding Moses life occurred around 1500 BCE, and others imply a later date of 1200 BCE. Also, one of the earliest surviving Hebrew hymns which recounts the Exodus makes no mention of Moses. One of the more famous hypotheses isolates four distinct traditions surrounding the Moses character: (1) the exodus from Egypt, (2) the revelation at Sinai, (3) the wandering in the wilderness, and (4) the entrance into the promised land. On this hypothesis, as an historian, it is unreasonable to suppose that a single figure dominated these events Ė if they even happened. Thus, such scholars view the figure of Moses as a literary creation which connects together several themes surrounding the origin of the Hebrew nation.
Concerning Lao Tzu, the traditional understanding of him is that he was an older contemporary of Confucius from the 6th century BCE, and that he is the author of the Tao Te Ching. The principal evidence for this position derives from one of Chinaís earliest historical works, the Records of the Historian (cf. 100 BCE). There are several internal problems with this account, though, one of which is that it puts Lao Tzuís age at well over 100 years. Another problem arises from an examination of the literary structure of the Tao Te Ching itself which scholars now believe is a collection of wise sayings compiled around 300 BCE. Thus, some argue that the figure of Lao Tzu was literary invention, perhaps created to be a rival of the famed Confucius. Finally, concerning Krishna, the most widely worshipped divine figure in Hinduism, tradition sees him as the human incarnation of the god Vishnu, often depicted with blue skin. When attempting to uncover the human component of Krishna, two completely distinct traditions emerge: that of a warrior prince (Vasudeva-Krishna) and that of a mischievous young cowherder (Krishna Govinda). Although Hindu texts interweave elements from both tradition, historians have difficulties connecting either tradition with a nonmythological person.