Category Archives: History

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.


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Hunting Primordial Spirits

If we were to sketch a genealogy of scholarship on animist worldviews, A. Irving Hallowell (1892-1974) might justly be listed as a founder. His classic paper on Ojibway ontology and world view (pdf) laid the foundations for the field. Less well known is Hallowell’s mentor, Frank Speck (1881-1950), whose Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (The Civilization of the American Indian Series) (1935) is perhaps the first full-scale monograph that describes animist worldviews. Speck and Hallowell, both of whom spent decades living with aboriginal hunters in Canada, were deeply impressed by these people and their cultures. Though their combined ethnographic work is impressive in terms of descriptive detail, neither was content with mere description: they wanted to penetrate these “primitive” cultures and treat these with the analytical seriousness accorded to “modern” cultures. The overall result was that Speck and Hallowell provided us with a cogent philosophy of aboriginal hunting societies.

From this foundation, scholarship on animist worldviews has burgeoned in several different directions, and Speck-Hallowell can count many intellectual descendants. One of the more famous, or infamous, is former Rutgers historian Calvin Luther Martin, whose book Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (1982) ignited a major debate about pre-contact Native American worldviews. Martin’s primary protagonist in this debate was Shepard Krech, an anthropologist deeply familiar with Native American hunting practices and history. Without putting too fine a point on things, Krech argued that Martin’s views were romantic, idealist, and without foundation in fact. Martin apparently harbored nostalgic longings for a pre-contact past that had never existed, and if it did, we have no evidence for it.

Krech published his larger views on this subject in The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), which is a rather sobering examination of American Indian hunting practices, land use, and “conservation” history. In Chapter Seven, simply titled “Beaver,” Krech presents what I presume to be his argument against Martin’s Keepers of the Game thesis, which was largely built on beaver hunting and the beaver trade. In the midst of this chapter, Krech touches on Frank Speck’s work:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white trap­pers, loggers, and others placed Northern Algonquian lands under increasingly relentless pressure. Like the Hudson Bay Company (“HBC”) earlier in the nine­teenth century, several outsiders demonstrated a heightened interest in helping relieve the pressure. Filling a similar role taken by HBC traders in the 1820s to 1830s was Frank Speck, an anthropologist. In 1908, Speck began three decades of ethnographic observations among the Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi, Ojibwa, and other Algonquian people. From the 1910s through the 1930s, he was the single most influential proponent of the primordial nature of conservation and hunting territories. An anthropologist-activist dedicated as much to helping native people articulate their political causes as to the analysis of culture, Speck helped native people develop strategies to protect themselves from outsiders who wanted their lands.

As Harvey Feit, an anthropologist, revealed, Speck, drawing liberally on a letter by Armand Tessier, an Indian Affairs governmental employee, claimed that Indians pos­sessed “instinctive” understandings of nature and that conservation was a “natural law” among them. In opposition — here was the rele­vant context for his remarks — hypocritical white intruders “often accused” native people “of being improvident as regards the killing of game,” and of being wasteful and thinking only about the present, and sought restrictions on Indian hunting and control over Indian lands.

Chief Aleck Paul of the Temagami Ojibwa confirmed this conservationist sentiment: “So these families would never think of damaging the abundance or the source of supply of the game, because that had come to them from their fathers and grandfathers and those behind them. . . . We would only kill the small beaver and leave the old ones to keep breeding. Then when they got too old they too would be killed, just as a farmer kills his pigs, preserving the stock for his supply of young.” In con­trast, Chief Paul noted, was the white man “who needs to be watched. He makes the forest fires, he goes through the woods and kills everything he can find, whether he needs the flesh or not, and then when all the animals in one section are killed he takes the train and goes to another where he can do the same.”

Except for the ending, the imagery and language were largely Speck’s (and Tessier’s). Chief Paul showed that he could co-opt the language and imagery of private property and conservation to score points against outsiders who threatened. To achieve their goal — control over the exploitation of resources — all three mounted an argument based on primordial possession of private property and conservation principles. The Cree and Montagnais co-opted a similar imagery (pp. 195-97).

Here we have essential historical context for what Speck and Hallowell often presented, in their writings, as ancient or timeless practices. Martin took this a step further and presented these Native American worldviews as “pristine” and inherently conservationist. But as Krech bluntly notes elsewhere in the chapter, we simply have no evidence of a “primordial pre-European time.”


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Corporate Nation Under God

In a recent poll, 57% of registered Republicans “support establishing Christianity as the national religion” and another 13% are not sure about it. Most such voters believe that the United States was, from its inception, a Christian nation, so formally establishing this “fact” seems a logical next step. But has the United States always been a Christian nation or was this idea manufactured and marketed by the industrial-business class? According to Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse, it’s the latter. In a recent NYT article which previews his forthcoming book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kruse genealogizes this relatively recent idea:

Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.

The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal…Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology’s appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.

In a shrewd decision, these executives made clergymen their spokesmen. As Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew noted, polls proved that ministers could mold public opinion more than any other profession. And so these businessmen worked to recruit clergy through private meetings and public appeals. 

The most important clergyman for Christian libertarianism…was the Rev. Billy Graham. In his initial ministry, in the early 1950s, Mr. Graham supported corporate interests so zealously that a London paper called him “the Big Business evangelist.” The Garden of Eden, he informed revival attendees, was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” In the same spirit, he denounced all “government restrictions” in economic affairs, which he invariably attacked as “socialism.”

With Graham’s fervent support, Americans elected Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide and the national annointing commenced:

The first week of February 1953 set the dizzying pace: On Sunday morning, Eisenhower was baptized; that night, he broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign; on Thursday, he appeared with [a corporate funded pastor] at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; on Friday, he instituted the first opening prayers at a cabinet meeting.

The rest of Washington consecrated itself, too. The Pentagon, State Department and other executive agencies quickly instituted prayer services of their own. In 1954, Congress added “under God” to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. It placed a similar slogan, “In God We Trust,” on postage that year and voted the following year to add it to paper money; in 1956, it became the nation’s official motto.

During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as “one nation under God.” They’ve believed it ever since.

Though Kruse does not mention it, the geopolitical context for this christening was the Cold War, which was ideologically framed in the United States as a righteous battle against godless Communism. Like all great and enduring myths, the origins of this one were soon shrouded by the mists of time, or selective forgetting, and the Christian nation story took on a life of its own. Despite the end of the Cold War, the campaign continued and today it appears that ~76 million Americans would like to establish Christianity as the national religion.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with one of these many millions. He had just published a book on George Washington, the purpose of which was to prove that this revered founding father had always conceived the new nation as Christian and that the Jeffersonian separation of church and state was an egregious error. When I asked how he had approached the project, he stated he had hired research assistants to selectively search Washington’s entire corpus of writings for references to “God” and/or “Providence.” He then arranged these cullings in chronological order, without regard for context and with no examination of what Washington understood by “God” or how he conceived of “Providence,” as proof that Washington had originally framed the United States as a Christian nation. Rather than question these research methods, or lack thereof, I decided on a calming glass of wine.

This, however, is the sort of thing that continues to nourish the myth. While I doubt that Kruse’s book will persuade the believers, and am sure it will be savaged by the free-market Christian patriots on Fox, I’m looking forward to its release. Though Kruse’s focus is slightly different, his book may serve as a nice companion piece to Jeremy Carrette’s classic, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (2004).


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Science of Good & Evil

Are the New Atheists “scared” and panicking? Are they “fervently vocal” because they realize that religion is not in retreat and is instead flourishing? I don’t have answers to these questions because I don’t know any New Atheists, don’t read their books, don’t listen to their podcasts, don’t attend their gatherings, and don’t pay them much mind. These don’ts derive from my assessment of New Atheism as a cultural or dialectical response to an historically particular form of western Christian religion. To combat this peculiar form and its Abrahamic relatives, New Atheists fight on a field of theist choosing. Because the parameters of this debate have been established by western theists, evangelical atheists counter with a series of conceptual inversions. Ironically, this forces a mirror substitution of one metaphysics for another. While this may be well and good within the confines of the cultural and philosophical gutter, where New Atheists and their Christian opponents do loud and dirty battle, it offers little to those of us not bound by the sterile binaries of belief/unbelief and theism/atheism.

My understanding of this localized (i.e., the US/Britain) and provincial (i.e., Christians/Atheists) phenomenon owes something to John Gray, who for several  years now has been scourging the New Atheists for their foibles and faults. With his latest crack of the whip over at the Guardian, Gray takes aim at Sam Harris and his dubious arguments for “scientific morality.” While Harris claims that morals can be derived from and founded on science, it seems odd that the morals he deduces match perfectly with liberal values. Surely this is no coincidence and Gray is justly skeptical. He notes that “science” (there is no such reified or unified thing) has historically been deployed on behalf of all manner of morals, many of them odious. Harris, a neuroscientist by training and polemicist by penchant, has not finally discovered the elusive philosopher’s stone which transmutes science into morals:

Following many earlier atheist ideologues, Harris wants a “scientific morality”; but whereas earlier exponents of this sort of atheism used science to prop up values everyone would now agree were illiberal, Harris takes for granted that what he calls a “science of good and evil” cannot be other than liberal in content.

Harris’s militancy in asserting these values seems to be largely a reaction to Islamist terrorism. For secular liberals of his generation, the shock of the 11 September attacks went beyond the atrocious loss of life they entailed. The effect of the attacks was to place a question mark over the belief that their values were spreading – slowly, and at times fitfully, but in the long run irresistibly – throughout the world. As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.

This progressive march of science and secularism, which was never more than a minority movement found mostly in Europe, has been rudely interrupted:

Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way. The rise of violent jihadism is only the most obvious example of a rejection of secular life…The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.

These are the facts, Gray asserts, which have thrown New Atheists into a panic and accounts for their quixotic quest to establish a “science of good and evil.” This is a phrase, coined by Harris, which immediately arouses suspicion for anyone well-versed in Nietzsche, whose Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Genealogy of Morals (1887) thoroughly historicized and deconstructed the contingent categories of “good” and “evil.” Alert to these issues, Gray brings them the fore:

How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him…It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure.

Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.

While this is not an entirely accurate, and certainly not complete, rendering of Nietzche’s genealogical project, it’s accurate and complete enough for Gray’s well-taken point. Science, sensu lato, has some enlightening things to say about morals, or what I would call talking primate ethics. History, in my estimation, has even more enlightening things to say about the development of morals. But I’m not sure that anything Sam Harris says about the so-called “science of good and evil” is enlightening; indeed, it may be darkening.


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All About ISIS

Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has posted an article on ISIS that is a tour de force of reportage, a near perfect melding of intellectual history and investigative journalism. It makes for gripping reading and left me yearning for more, though the more I want would require ethnographic fieldwork that is impossible for obvious reasons. At this point we can only imagine what life is like in ISIS controlled territory, but Wood’s article allows the imagination to run wild. I imagine a Camus-like atmosphere, an all too real yet surreal theater of the absurd. Blood, lots of blood, has this flowing quality: it spins back and flashes forth, galvanizing one moment and disorienting another. The closing scene of the latest ISIS video perfectly captures this quality, though stills can do no justice to this Coptic-killing choreography of waves:

Isis-Bloody-WaveISIS-Message-BloodWithin Wood’s article we find two lessons that deserve further emphasis, as both are major issues in religious studies. The first is about definitions and teaches us that “Islam” (like all modern religions) manifests in myriad ways, no one version of which can be singled out and normatively classed as “true, authentic, or legitimate.” There are many iterations of “Islam,” in other words, and saying that ISIS is un-Islamic gets us nowhere. The second is about motivations and teaches us that religious beliefs can directly and primarily impel action. While this claim may seem commonsensical to some, academics often explain, or explain away, religiously motivated action as a product of something else: economy, social structure, politics, power, colonialism, symbolism, etc. In the case of ISIS, religious beliefs are primary and direct spurs to action.

With these in mind, let’s look at some key article excerpts on the first lesson (definitions):

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition” (emphasis added for benefit of progressive ecumenical religionists, aka Huffington Post religion section readers).

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself [wrongly] claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”…I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi [i.e., ISIS] and non-Muslim chauvinists [i.e., Fox News producers/consumers] trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Now let’s look at some key article excerpts on the second lesson (motivations):

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation – that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

These excerpts, while extensive, are but a small part of Wood’s article, which I strongly recommend reading in full. It also repays re-reading, allowing the ethnographic imagination to run wild with morbid fascination.

— Cris

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Oral Tradition & Indigenous “Myth”

Over the past week I’ve been reading One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (History of the American West) (2003) by Dartmouth history professor Colin G. Calloway. It is a masterful work, perhaps the single best survey and synthesis of Native American ethnohistory that I have read. One of the outstanding features of Calloway’s writing is his serious treatment and use of oral traditions which in the past have been classified as “myths.”

Kiowas, for example, have oral traditions that distinctly recall major landmarks of their multi-century migration from the mountains of Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota to the plains of Oklahoma and Texas. Apache and Navajo Athapaskans who migrated from the far north into the deep southwest between 1000 and 1600 CE recount “myths” of emerging from cold places where even the days were dark. These well describe Canadian winters and may even hearken back to Beringia. On the Northwest Coast, supposedly mythical oral traditions recall earthquakes and tsunamis that have been archaeologically confirmed as having occurred thousands of years ago.

To this list of American examples, of which there are many more, we can now add Aboriginal stories which accurately recall lands that were flooded by rising sea levels after the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 18,000 years ago. Incredibly, some of these stories or “myths” may be 13,000 years old, with several others having time depths of 9,000 to 7,000 years. In a recent paper, linguist Nick Reid and geographer Patrick Nunn analyzed 18 Aboriginal stories which recall coastal flooding and matched these to geological events. Over at The Conversation, Reid and Nunn recount their remarkable discovery and suggest these Aboriginal stories may be unique for their deep fidelity:

The rise of sea level since the last ice age from 120 metres below present occurred not just around Australia but around the world, inundating significant parts of all continents.

We might expect to find comparable collections of sea-level rise stories from all parts of the globe, but we do not. Perhaps they exist, but have been dismissed on account of an improbable antiquity by scholars adhering to the more orthodox view that oral traditions rarely survive more than a millennium.

Another possibility is that Australia is genuinely unique in having such a canon of stories. That invites questions about why and how Australian Aboriginal cultures may have achieved transmission of information about real events from such deep time.

The isolation of Australia is likely to be part of the answer. But it could also be due to the practice and nature of contemporary Aboriginal storytelling. This is characterised by a conservative and explicit approach to “the law”, value given to preserving information, and kin-based systems for tracking knowledge accuracy.

This could have built the inter-generational scaffolding needed to transmit stories over vast periods, possibly making these stories unique in the world.

While I doubt that the Australian example is unique, I have no doubt that indigenous oral traditions are remarkable repositories of deep history and ancient knowledge. They are not just, and never were, “myths.”

Those interested in the Reid-Nunn paper should check the Daily Mail’s coverage, which has some nice graphics including this map:

Aboriginal-Stories-Flooded-Lands— Cris

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Renaissance Magic & Science

Few things could seem as far apart as magic and science, though if we consider the history of science, we find that the two were intimately twined. This was particularly true during the Renaissance run-up to the classical founding of science in the persons of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). While we might add Copernicus (1473-1543) and Kepler (1571-1630) to this list of founders, I will set them aside for the moment because their status as astronomer-mathematicians is especially pertinent to my later discussion.

It is of course well known that Newton was anything but a pure scientist, at least in the modernist sense of the word: he was steeped in Christian mysticism and believed he was discovering, or uncovering, God’s lawful work in nature. The Principia was, in Newton’s eyes, far more than a founding document of science: it was a tribute to the divine as manifest in matter and mathematics.

Considered in broader historical context, Newton’s mysticism was hardly novel. The Italian Renaissance was inspired in large part by the idea that the universe was a harmonious whole and the heavens emanated continuous influences over all things on earth. These harmonious influences could, moreover, be divined through number and manipulated by math. Those who concerned themselves with such matters were astronomers, astrologists, mystics, and mathematicians, often bound up in the single person of a Magus. Prominent among such persons were Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), both Renaissance humanists and magi without peer. Bruno is often remembered as a champion of the Copernican model who burned at the stake after being tried for heresy by the Inquisition. As such, he has become a martyr of science.

While there may be some truth to this, the matter is more complex, just as Bruno was complex. If one takes a Catholic view of such matters, there can be no doubt that Bruno was a theological heretic. He did, after all, declare that Jesus was not God but merely an “unusually skillful magician.” Had Bruno made this pronouncement (and others like them) as a skeptic, we might justly consider him an early scientist. It appears, however, that Bruno is better placed as a late magician, a Neoplatonic mystic steeped in Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Pantheism. Bruno’s deepest desire was to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and find the true religion, in these traditions. The key, he thought, was number. In Bruno we find a near perfect merger of magic, mysticism, and mathematics: the universe as seamless web and harmonious whole.

It is not hard, on one hand, to see how Bruno’s unorthodox views would have upset Catholic authorities and ultimately led to his fatal-fiery demise. It is not hard, on the other hand, to see how these views are consonant with modern cosmology and mathematics. So where to place or how to figure Bruno? This is the question asked and well answered by Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), a book that has been on my reading list for years but which I only recently bagged. Aside from its inherent interest for Bruno aficionados, it is an important work for the history of science. As part of her inquiry into Bruno, Yates asks why it was that scientific methods, particularly mathematical ones, appeared when they did. She is not satisfied with the standard, simplistic narrative in which science straightforwardly triumphs over superstition and religion. Here are some key excerpts which shed light on her answer:

The intense concentration on the complexities of universal harmony, which is one of the most characteristic aspects of Renaissance thought…so forcefully directed attention on number as the key to all nature that it may be said to have prepared the way for genuine mathematical thinking about the universe. As is well known, Kepler still saw his new astronomy in a context of harmonies, and he was well aware that the Pythagorean theory was also implicit in the Hermetic writings, of which he had made a careful study (151).

Copernicus introduces his [heliocentric] discovery to the reader as a kind of act of contemplation of the world as a revelation of God, or as what many philosophers have called the visible god. It is, in short, in the atmosphere of the religion of the world that the Copernican revolution is introduced (153).

Copernicus’ discovery came out with the blessing of Hermes Trismegistus upon its head, with a quotation from that famous work in which Hermes describes the sun-worship of the Egyptians in their magical religion (154-55). Bruno’s use of Copernicanism shows most strikingly how shifting and uncertain were the borders between genuine science and Hermeticism in the Renaissance. [This is] a theme which I believe may be of absolutely basic importance for the history of thought — namely, Renaissance magic as a factor in bringing about fundamental changes in the human outlook (155).

The mighty mathematician [Kepler] who discovered the elliptical orbits of the planets had, in his general outlook, by no means emerged from Renaissance influences. His heliocentricity had a mystical background; his great discovery about the planetary orbits was ecstatically welcomed by him as a confirmation of the music of the spheres; and there are survivals of animism in his theories (440).

Hence, it is now suggested, when “Hermes Trismegistus” and all that he stood for is rediscovered in the Renaissance, the return to the occult this time stimulates the genuine science. The emerging modern science is still clothed in what might be described as the Hermetic atmosphere (450).

Bruno was an out-and-out magician, an “Egyptian” and Hermetist of the deepest dye, for whom the Copernican heliocentricity heralded the return of magical religion…Through a Hermetic interpretation of Copernicus and Lucretius, Bruno arrives at his astonishing vision of an infinite extension of the divine as reflected in nature (451).

Drained of its animism, with the laws of inertia and gravity substituted for the psychic life of nature as the principle of movement, Bruno’s universe would turn into something like the mechanical universe of Isaac Newton, marvellously moving forever under its own laws placed in it by a God who is not a magician but a mechanic and a mathematician (451). It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics (452).

Yates concludes her book by astutely commenting on the ways in which all this affected Descartes, whose methodological dualism so fatefully separated mechanical or “inert” matter from animist or “spiritual” mind. This powerful legacy remains with us today, despite our alleged modernity and secularity.

I will conclude with two additional observations. First, Yates’ entire theme is proof in favor of Robin Horton’s continuity thesis, by which he argues that the links between traditional religion and modern science are deeper (both historically and structurally) than we frequently suppose. Second, there is irony in the fact that some modern cosmologists, particularly mathematical physicists, occasionally arrive at mystical or “spiritual” positions not so far removed from Bruno’s Hermetic universe. It’s magic, or math, as the case may ultimately be.

— Cris


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