Sabbath Sundries — Preparing for Ritual and Religion

As was the case last week, there are several reports and news items deserving notation and comment, so I will touch on a number of them today.  In any event, I want to clear the decks because during the coming week I will be analyzing a major thesis in religious studies: the relationship between ritual and religion.

Many scholars investigating the evolutionary origins of religion seem to think that ritual is religion.  Although this dogma of social science became firmly established with Emile Durkheim — who simply reduced religion to ritual — this erroneous conflation has deep roots and the idea can be found in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The anthropologist Roy Rappaport, who did some excellent work in the vein of cultural ecology, picked up on this idea later in his life and provided it with rather byzantine impetus.

The combined effects of these writers has led some group level selectionists and evolutionary psychologists into the trap of “just so” storytelling regarding the evolutionary origins of religion.  Without critical evaluation or historical support, they have simply accepted the idea that the essence of religion is ritual, and that when early humans began engaging in group rituals, they became more cohesive and religion was born.  It just is not so, but more on that this coming week.

In the meantime, and in keeping with yesterday’s post about how believers willfully ignore the histories of their preferred religions so as not to cause them to question the supernatural or miraculous origins of those faiths, University of Chicago historian Fred Donner has just published a new book titled Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam.  Over at, Thanassis Cambanis reports on the book and engaged in a Q&A with Donner:

The first followers of Christ didn’t consider themselves “Christians”; they were Jews who believed that a fellow Jew named Jesus Christ was the long-awaited messiah. It took centuries for Christianity to evolve and solidify as a distinct faith with its own doctrine and institutions.

In “Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam,” University of Chicago historian Fred M. Donner wants to provide a similar back story for Islam — a religion which, in the popular imagination, sprang wholly formed from the seventh-century sands of Arabia. Mohammed preached at the juncture of the Roman and Sassanian empires, winning support from Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and various deist polytheists. According to Donner, Mohammed built a movement of devout spiritualists from many faiths who shared a few core beliefs: God was one, the end of the world was near, and the truly religious had to live exemplary lives rather than merely pay lip service to God’s laws. It was only a century after Mohammed founded his “community of believers” and launched the great Islamic conquest that his followers started to define their beliefs as a distinct religious faith.

Devout Muslims — who model their lives directly on the mores of the Prophet and his companions — will be surprised to read that Mohammed welcomed Christians and Jews into his monotheistic movement. In fact, Donner suggests, the entire narrative of Islamic conquest misinterprets the ecumenical nature of the early believers. Mohammed, it appears, didn’t require his followers to renounce their religion; early Islam, in this read, was more a revival of existing faiths than a conversion.

There are several items here worthy of comment in what looks to be a splendid book by Donner.  First, I am guessing that most Christians are not aware of the fact that Christianity — as a distinct religion — took a long time to develop after Jesus’ death.  Second, I am guessing that most Muslims are not aware of the fact that Islam — as a distinct religion — took a long time to develop after Muhammad’s death.  As Cambanis notes, most believers prefer to imagine that these religions sprang forth, sui generis, during the lifetimes of Jesus and Muhammad.  This fantasy allows them to ignore the all too human origins of these religions following the deaths of Jesus and Muhammad.

Cambanis hits the nail right on the head with this comment and question: “There isn’t much public discussion of the historicity of Mohammed and the Koran in the Islamic world. To what extent is this a concern with embracing the ideas, and to what extent is it reluctance to engage in a public discussion?” There is not much public discussion of the historicity of Mohammed and the Koran, and this is not going to happen in the Islamic world for reasons I discussed yesterday.  Historicizing the faith is too destabilizing.  Donner answers the question by stating that Muslims who consider this history will keep their thoughts private — in the Islamic world, it simply is too dangerous (i.e., heretical) to consider a history at odds with dogma or the popular imagination.

As reported at PR Newswire, J.K. Fausnight has published a new book: Going Godless: Rediscovering Spirituality in a Material World.  The story lede contains some interesting contrasts, if not outright contradictions:

Bookshelves are filled with books on being true, good, right and spiritual through following God and deepening one’s faith through religion. But what about the non-believers? Is there a manual that guides the “spiritual” needs of the non-religious? How do atheists and agnostics find greater meaning, peace, solace in their lives?

J.K. Fausnight’s new book “Going Godless: Rediscovering Spirituality in a Material World” shows that yes, indeed, the growing number of godless or faithless today are seeking meaning, direction, and satisfaction in their lives, as they come to terms with a mortal life within the bounds of their beliefs. Through meditation, seeking balance and harmony with self and others, personal honesty and integrity, the godless can discover their own way to a more fulfilling life.

If one is an atheist or non-believer, it would not seem he or she would have “spiritual needs” that need to be fulfilled.  I fail to see how meaning, purpose, peace of mind, harmony with nature, or similar states of being are “spiritual.”  It seems entirely possible that these are simply aspects of mind and understanding the natural world.  No spirits necessary.

The Vatican, of course, disagrees and criticizes the delightful movie “Avatar” for promoting nature worship.  Sholto Byrnes over at the New Statesman comments:

The Holy See’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has called Avatar “bland” and “facile,” while its radio station claimed that the 3-D spectacular was “a wink towards the pseudo-doctrines which have made ecology the religion of the millennium.  Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.”

The comment comes just days after the Pope publicly criticised world leaders for failing to agree a treaty at the Copenhagen climate summit. “To cultivate peace, one must protect creation,” he said. But he has also warned before against “a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms”.

The universe, this world, and all forms of life in this world are connected in ways both known and unknown.  Acknowledging this mystery and being in awe of it hardly amounts to pantheism or neo-paganism.  If I were pope for a day, I would acknowledge this as one of the blessings of God’s creation.  It seems to me that a stance toward nature — and mystery — more in line with that of traditional Native American beliefs does a far better job of promoting “spirituality” than does rigid adherence to centuries old dogma or papal bulls.

Finally, we have Steven Hassan over at HuffPo Religion calling for an end to Scientology’s tax-exempt status as a “religion”:

For more than 25 years, the IRS denied tax-exemption to the Church of Scientology. The long-running policy flowed from an IRS determination in 1967 that Scientology was in fact a commercial entity operated solely for the benefit of founder L. Ron Hubbard.

In 1993, seven years after Hubbard’s death, the IRS made a puzzling and highly suspicious reversal. It settled its tax bill with Scientology for just $12.5 million and conferred on it the title of tax-exempt “religion.” Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times later broke important ground with respective reports on the secret meetings that led to the agreement, and details of Scientology’s harassment of IRS officials.

As I noted in a previous post, the historical origins of Scientology are a study in science fiction and it is hard to fathom how otherwise sane people could buy into it (which is exactly what they do — Scientology is expensive for believers).  Is it a “religion”?  In general terms, yes.  For academic purposes, a “religion” revolves around supernatural agents and forces (not simply rituals, as Durkheim would have it).  Xenu and Thetans certainly seem to fit this description.  Religion, however, must be defined differently for legal purposes.

While I was clerking for a federal court judge, we had an opportunity to determine whether a criminal defendant could avoid prosecution for possessing significant quantities of marijuana based on his claim that he belonged to the “Church of Marijuana” and smoking dope was his religion.  To decide the case, we first had to determine whether this “church” constituted a bona fide religion under US law.  You can find the court’s opinion and our criteria for identifying “religion” here: UnitedStates-v-Meyers.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, adopted the test, and several other courts have followed suit.  It seems likely that Scientology would pass as a “religion” under this legal test.

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