Tag Archives: Christianity

From Alcindor to Abdul-Jabbar

As we approach the April finale of March Madness, we should pause to consider one of the all-time greats, Lew Alcindor, who won three consecutive national championships (1967-1969) with UCLA and was three-time MVP of the NCAA tournament. Over at Aljazeera, he explains why he converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a powerful essay that touches on issues of race, identity, and politics. His conversion was in part a protest against the majority religion which he saw as a culprit:

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing Malcolm did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and supporting the racism that permeated society. His family was attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan, and his home was burned by the KKK splinter group the Black Legion.

Inspired by Malcom, Abdul-Jabbar began studying the Koran and eventually converted to Islam. Contrary to popular belief then and now, Abdul-Jabbar did not join the inaptly named “Nation of Islam.” Regardless, his decision vexed both his parents and white America:

The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag…My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew, of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., “Dum Diversas” and “Romanus Pontifex”) condoned enslaving native people and stealing their lands. 

And while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight slavery [bless John Brown’s soul] and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

The irony in all this is that Abdul-Jabbar chose a religion which would which in some ways supplant race as the next great bogeyman for large segments of white-Christian America. So having jumped out of the racial frying pan, Abdul-Jabbar now finds himself in the religious fire:

Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes about major religious groups, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims — slightly less than it has for atheists — even though Islam is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about my religion, not to convert them but to co-exist with them through mutual respect, support and peace. One world does not have to mean one religion, just one belief in living in peace.

While there is a hint of naivete in this conclusion, I’m not going to complain or critique. More power to Abdul-Jabbar and I hope he keeps writing.


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Abrahamic Interviews

Some of you may have been following the interview series on religion being conducted by Gary Gutting for the New York Times philosophy blog, “The Stone.” The series began in February of 2014 when Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, interviewed Alvin Plantinga, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. Because the Notre Dame philosophy department is more or less an extension of the theology department, it quickly became apparent that the interview topic — “Is Atheism Irrational?” — was just a rhetorical question for these two theologians philosophers. The back-slapping interview was about as enlightening, or obscurantist, as a course in Thomist philosophy. I couldn’t help but think that things would have gone better if Gutting had interviewed Willis Domingo, whose NSFW (and potentially offensive) take-down of Plantinga is a thing of logical beauty.

The second interview, with UMass-Amherst philosophy professor Louise Antony, was fairer game. Gutting asked a series of (Abrahamic) questions and got some sensible (atheist) answers. As the interview progressed, an increasingly exasperated and apparently incredulous Gutting stated: “That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.” In a fitting end to the interview, Antony coolly answered:

Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?

Antony’s answer, or rather her counter-question, reminds me of this famous passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

It is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”

As the interview series has unfolded (the eighth installment was published yesterday), Gutting has asked so many God-centric and God-insistent questions that I have wished someone would just say: “Gary, why is belief in God necessary?” Alternatively, albeit more impertinently and personally, someone might ask: “Gary, why do you find it necessary to believe in God?” If Gutting could give a psychologically honest answer to this question, I suspect it would be the most enlightening aspect of the entire series.

I will, however, give Gutting credit for not deviating from his Abrahamic course and consistently asking Christian questions that, if I did not know better, seem perversely designed to illustrate the weakness of his case. In the seventh installment, NYU philosopher-physicist Tim Maudlin did these favors. In the sixth, it was Columbia’s Philip Kitcher. In the fifth, Gutting ventured outside his comfort zone by discussing Buddhism with Jay Garfield. The interview began with this auspicious exchange:

Gutting: Philosophy of religion [especially at Notre Dame] typically focuses on questions and disputes about the ideas and doctrines of monotheistic religions, with Christianity the primary model. How does the discussion change if we add Buddhism, which is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, as a primary model of a religion?

Garfield: What gets called “philosophy of religion” in most philosophy departments and journals is really the philosophy of Abrahamic religion: basically, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of the questions addressed in those discussions are simply irrelevant to most of the world’s other religious traditions. Philosophers look at other religious traditions with the presumption that they are more or less the same, at least in outline, as the Abrahamic religions, and even fight about whether other traditions count as religions at all based upon their sharing certain features of the Abrahamic religions. That is a serious ethnocentrism that can really blind us to important phenomena.

Garfield could not have given a better answer to an interviewer who frames most of his questions in Abrahamic terms.


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Wine as Ritual Blood

Since at least the 8th millennium BCE, wine has been considered a sacred elixir and has been bound up with all manner of religious rituals. Several weeks ago, Aeon editor Ross Andersen posted a wonderful piece on the subject. Andersen’s vinous peregrinations touch on Rudolf Steiner and the theosophy of grape-growing. Because Steiner’s “biodynamic” ideas are thought to have deep pagan roots, Andersen considers this history and its relationship to Christianity:

Communion is usually thought of as a Christian rite, but there are versions of it that predate the last supper, the meal at which Christ pressed the grail to his lips, saying ‘This is my blood, poured out for you.’ Some historians of religion hear, in those words, an echo of Euripides, who wrote, of the Greek wine god Dionysus: ‘When we pour libations out, it is the god himself we pour out, and by this bring blessings on mankind.’

Euripides penned that sentence in the 5th century BC, at a time when Athenian elites participated in banquets of fellowship and philosophy called symposia. The ‘libations’ were the most sacred ritual at these banquets, and they were performed in honour of Dionysus, the god who ‘turned the grape into a flowing draft and proffered it to mortals’, so they could experience ecstasy. The parallels between Christ and Dionysus are striking. Both were the sons of a supreme deity and a mortal woman. Both were supposed to have been born in late December, just after the winter solstice. Both returned from the dead at the dawning of the earth’s springtime regeneration. And both inspired wine rituals.

By the time the New Testament was written, the Romans had renamed Dionysus, calling him Bacchus instead. But the myths written about him – the solstice birth, the mortal mother, the Easter resurrection – remained the same. No one can be sure if, and to what degree, these myths influenced early Christians, but we know they were in the air during Christianity’s early evolution, when communion, its most sacred ritual, was developed.

Is there a genealogical line of descent from Dionysus to Bacchus to Christ? I’m not sure, but as was the case with the idea of evolution in Darwin’s time, red wine as bloody sacrament was indeed in the liminal air between the old millenia and new. For those interested in the old millenia and precursor or seminal deity, I recommend Dan Stanislawski’s “Dionysus Westward: Early Religion and the Economic Geography of Wine” (1975) (see Resources tab above for pdf). Stanislawski fruitfully approaches the subject through the lens of historical geography and concludes:

The cult of Dionysus may have been the earliest of proselytizing cults. Greeks exported wine to some peoples who had not known it previously but who after knowing it would not relinquish it. Was eighth century B.C. Dionysus an early precursor of that combination which Tawney described under the title “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”?

The advantages of the combination of wine and religion include exaltation for the mystic; a sense of unity with the whole and of belonging for the disinherited; courage for the timid; peace for the troubled spirit; nepenthe for the tortured soul; aphrodisiac for the lover; surcease for the pain-wracked; anesthetic for use in surgery; gaity for the depressed. In addition to its mystical or personal appeal, wine offered pecuniary advantages: vines produce a crop with an ever-ready market. They produce a crop of relatively high value on a wide variety of surfaces and soils: on slopes so steep that almost no other crop can be cultivated and on virtually sterile rocks; thence through a gamut of soils to alluvium; and in a wide variety of climates. They yield a product that has international appeal and international markets (even in early times). The beverage produced is not only attractive but also healthy in lands of little and often polluted water. It is a persuasive beverage that makes lasting friendships. Once it is known, a permanent and probably increasing market is virtually guaranteed.

Few forces in the affairs of men are more effective than profit in the odor of sanctity, especially when the major commercial product is as gustable as wine.

Stanislawski’s incisive last sentence always sparks stimulating discussions among my students, some of whom wonder whether Constantine’s conversion of the empire to Christianity was sanctimonious or profitable.


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Physics and Metaphysics

In a near perfect follow to my recent post on animist and quantum worldviews, Margaret Wertheim explains why physics — supposedly the most “hard” of all sciences — is bedeviled by difficulties. It is a lucid, patient, and brilliant piece of writing on a subject that is, for most of us, difficult. Despite the difficulty, Wertheim hits on all the key issues, beginning with her observation that physics is essentially Platonic:

Most physicists are Platonists. They believe that the mathematical relationships they discover in the world about us represent some kind of transcendent truth existing independently from, and perhaps a priori to, the physical world. In this way of seeing, the universe came into being according to a mathematical plan, what the British physicist Paul Davies has called ‘a cosmic blueprint’. Discovering this ‘plan’ is a goal for many theoretical physicists and the schism in the foundation of their framework is thus intensely frustrating. It’s as if the cosmic architect has designed a fiendish puzzle in which two apparently incompatible parts must be fitted together.

Equating physics with Plato may seem, at first blush, a bit odd. Plato is usually associated with the non-physical (or imaginary) world of ideal forms. According to Plato, these perfect or essential forms — which cannot be perceived — constitute the real or actual world and everything else, including all perceptions, is an imperfect reflection or facsimile of the forms. This is a quintessentially metaphysical viewpoint that lends itself especially well to religious thinking. Recognizing this, early Christian intellectuals imported Plato nearly wholesale into that tradition, a fact which prompted Nietzsche to quip that “Christianity is Platonism for the people.”

But if we reverse this common understanding of Plato, we can also see him as establishing a framework within which science could operate. As philosopher Scott Berman explains, we can also see Plato as a naturalist:

Plato took himself to be arguing that unless his view is right, science is not possible. The fact that we do have science now is confirmation that Plato was right, or so I think anyway. He thought that unless there exist things that can never change, there can’t be objects that are stable enough for knowledge, i.e., science. And so, he argued against Nominalism, that is, the idea that all that exists are spatiotemporal things, and Constructivism, that is, the idea that the measures or criteria of what things are can change. He argued that if there exist non-spatiotemporal things, then such things could be the objects of science and hence that science is possible. Laws of natures, for example, would be non-spatiotemporal things according to Plato and so aren’t located anywhere (because they are non-spatial) and can’t change (because they are non-temporal). If there truly is a science of some subject matter, then there has to be a non-spatiotemporal thing which is the measure of that subject matter.

With this, we can better understand why Wertheim contends that most physicists are Platonists. This is somewhat ironic, given that physics is usually considered the “hardest” or most real-material of sciences. Yet there is a tension here because physics starts with an assumption (i.e., that mathematics does not simply describe or approximate reality but actually constitutes it) which is thoroughly metaphysical. While modern physicists have attempted to separate their science from theology, these foundational assumptions may always lead them back to metaphysics. As Wertheim explains, this is partly a matter of history (it’s also partly a matter of method):

In its modern incarnation, physics is grounded in the language of mathematics. It is a so-called ‘hard’ science, a term meant to imply that physics is unfuzzy — unlike, say, biology whose classification systems have always been disputed. Based in mathematics, the classifications of physicists are supposed to have a rigour that other sciences lack, and a good deal of the near-mystical discourse that surrounds the subject hinges on ideas about where the mathematics ‘comes from’.

According to Galileo Galilei and other instigators of what came to be known as the Scientific Revolution, nature was ‘a book’ that had been written by God, who had used the language of mathematics because it was seen to be Platonically transcendent and timeless. While modern physics is no longer formally tied to Christian faith, its long association with religion lingers in the many references that physicists continue to make about ‘the mind of God’, and many contemporary proponents of a ‘theory of everything’ remain Platonists at heart.

Having kicked metaphysics and theology out the front door, physicists often bring them right back in through the rear. If you’ve ever wondered why theoretical physicists talk in ways that sound religious or mystical, this is the explanation.

This also explains why I have asserted a similarity between animist and quantum worldviews. At these ultimate or foundational levels, theoretical physicists talk in ways and describe things that may or may not be true, correct, or real. We don’t know and they don’t either.

But these descriptions are not at all unlike, and indeed are quite similar to, animist descriptions of the way things work. I am not asserting these worldviews are ultimately correct, only that they are — despite different idioms — structurally and functionally similar. By this conception, it is difficult to describe (or marginalize) animist worldviews as the product of “primitive” minds or cultures.

All this aside, be sure to read Wertheim’s piece. She deploys Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) in a particularly fruitful way. Despite having read Purity and Danger, I didn’t much care for it. Wertheim’s use of Douglas suggests that I may need to revisit it.


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Adaptive Mormon Revelations

One of my favorite books on Mormon history, much despised by Mormons, is Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. Brodie writes with considerable panache about things Mormons would like to forget. Despite Smith’s many foibles and  frauds, he comes off surprisingly well: it’s hard not to admire his audacious exuberance and resilience in the face of disasters. I couldn’t help but think that Smith would have been a fine drinking buddy, if only he drank.

Another thing I couldn’t help but think was that some of his ideas, subsequently enshrined as Mormon doctrine, were patently ludicrous. For instance, the megalomaniacal notion that prophets abound and routinely channel God through ongoing revelations. To an outsider, this seems absurd and it’s easy to ridicule. But I just read something in The Economist that makes sense of it:

In the early days of Mormonism, the pioneer evangelists of the young faith saw considerable successes arguing the absurdity of the idea that for millenia God used prophet after prophet to make plain his will to man and then, suddenly, became mute, abandoning his favoured creatures to tease out with our meagre minds the meanings of the old prophecies and their application to present circumstances. That there is another scripture, that prophets roam among us still, should surprise only those ready to accept the outrageous notion that a once demanding and garrulous God has retreated from his children in silence, having nothing more to say.

The idea of an ongoing prophetic relationship to God has not only proven an effective selling point for proselytising Mormons, it has built into Mormonism a potent adaptive flexibility. In the face of potentially ruinous religious persecution from Congress, church president (and putative prophet) Wilford Woodruff in 1890 disavowed plural marriage in “The Manifesto”, which has been canonised and is believed by mainstream Mormons to reflect divine revelation. In 1978, after decades of pressure from the civil-rights movement, and facing the problem of expanding the church’s membership in countries with large mixed-race populations, church president (and putative prophet) Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation making blacks eligible for the Mormon priesthood.

If you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, the first point is a good one: Why was God so busy revealing himself to prophets only between 1800 BCE (Abraham) and 630 CE (Muhammad)? If God is active in the world and speaks through prophets, an ancient burst of activity followed by doctrinal fixing and stasis is more than a bit puzzling. I’m down with the Mormon idea that (if such a God existed), there should be prophets every generation and ongoing revelations. It not only makes sense but sounds like more fun.

Why only in the past -- Why not now?

The second point is equally good: If you are going to create a religion in an age of skeptical inquiry, mass communication, and majority prejudice, the ability to pivot doctrine on a dime is essential. When things go badly or change is needed, prophets simply issue adaptive revelations. This aspect of Mormonism, which I had previously considered disingenuous and amusing, now seems less absurd.

There is a rationality (living prophets) and pragmatism (convenient revelations) here which I hadn’t previously considered. No wonder Mormonism is giving the hoary Abrahamic religions a run for their money.

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Universal Shamanism: The Japanese Context

In religious studies and popular usage, the term “universal” is used to describe religions which are open to all and transcend ethnic, geographic, political, and cultural boundaries. Three religions are usually cited as universal: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Some newer religions, such as Mormonism and Bahá’í, would also qualify. But if we take a longer and broader view of religious history, it is more accurate to say that shamanism is the universal religion. It is the oldest and most widespread.

When fully modern humans left Africa around 75,000 years ago, they almost certainly carried some form of shamanism with them. It is even possible that humans they encountered along the way — those whose ancestors had left Africa during earlier migrations (such as Neanderthals and Denisovans) — were shamanic. We know that some of these encounters involved genetic mixing; they also probably involved ritual mixing. Indeed, having sex with different looking and sounding strangers may have been richly imbued with ritual.

Whatever the case, one thing is certain: wherever humans went, so too did shamanism. It is found throughout Africa, Near East, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Australia, Arctic, and Americas. If you look at any map which shows migration routes from Africa and colonization of the world, the map shows not just the movement of people over tens of thousands of years: it also shows the spread of shamanisms.

All humans were hunter-gatherers and shamanic until the advent of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. But wherever agriculture takes hold in any kind of intensive way, shamanism is transformed into something that looks more like what we today call “religion.” It becomes, in other words, more organized, systematic, and doctrinal. The primacy of individual supernaturalism, a hallmark of shamanism, gives way to collective supernaturalism or formal religions.

In isolated areas where foraging and small-scale horticulture persisted for longer periods of time, so too did shamanism. Traditional shamanism exists today primarily in small-scale societies such as those found in the Amazon and New Guinea. As an ancient practice which many deem to be closer to the “primordial supernatural source,” it is hardly surprising that it has been appropriated and commodified for global use. Commercial neo-shamanism thrives in places like New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

Traditional shamanism was not, however, wholly replaced by Neolithic religions created to meet the needs of agricultural and large-scale societies. As Robert Bellah frequently observes when discussing the history of religions: “nothing is ever lost.” There is in other words a bit of shamanism in all religions today. Ideas about souls, spirits, gods, other-worlds, after-lives, possession, prophecy, and divination were all developed within shamanism and existed for many thousands of years before the earliest religions formalized and systematized them.

This process of incorporation and domestication did not completely subsume shamanism. Strands of shamanism persisted in more traditional forms, especially in rural areas, and elements of it continued to be practiced at the margins under different names: oracles, mediums, healers, diviners, psychics, seers, clairvoyants, sorcerers, and witches. Within more established religions, people who privileged and cultivated the shamanic substrates of those traditions are known as mystics, sages, gurus, prophets, and saints. Shamanism runs as deep as it does wide, and a splendid book on the shamanic aspects of Christianity is begging to be written.

While waiting for this genealogy of shamanic Christianity, it may be less threatening to trace the transformational course of shamanic practice in Japan, where supernatural syncretism has long been the norm. Where syncretism prevails, it is easier to acknowledge borrowings and debts.

In 1975 Carmen Blacker published The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan and highlighted the prevalence of Japanese “folk” beliefs that run alongside and mix with official Shinto and temple Buddhism. In “Witch Animals” (open), Blacker examines belief in animals who have spirits that can be cultivated as household guardians. This is a common idea among hunter-gatherers in general and Amerindians in particular; the latter famously sought visions to identify an animal whose spirit would become a lifelong companion and protector. In “Exorcism” (open), Blacker examines the belief that physical-mental illnesses are caused by spirit maleficence or possession, the cure for which is exorcism. Similar beliefs are found in nearly all shamanic societies, with the cure being a ritualized extraction or casting out.

Blacker is aware of these shamanic connections and suggests in early chapters (open) that Japanese “folk” practices are rooted in an ancient hunting and gathering past. That such practices have persisted is remarkable in light of Meiji period (1868-1912) efforts to modernize Japan, one programmatic aspect of which was to root out shamanic “superstitions” and create a national tradition which conformed to the Western concept and category of “religion.”

Although such superstitions were by the time of the Meiji period identified mostly with Buddhism, this had not always been the case. When Buddhists first arrived in Japan around 550 CE, they encountered an intensely spiritualized landscape that was deeply informed by indigenous Japanese shamanism. This shamanism arose in conjunction with the Jomon peoples, who hunted and gathered in Japan from 14,000-300 BCE, a spectacularly long run during which they built permanent settlements, made pottery, and developed rituals.

As Buddhism developed in Japan it did so not by displacing traditional beliefs developed over 14,000 years, but rather by incorporating and accepting them. This meant that over the centuries Japanese Buddhism developed into a distinctive amalgam described here by Jason A. Josephson:

During the Tokugawa period [1603-1868] the vast majority of interaction between priests and parishioners was for the purpose of practical, this-worldly benefits (genze riyaku 現世利益) or memorial rituals for the dead (kuyō 供養). The day-to-day life of Buddhist priests of all sects was filled with the performance of exorcisms, funerals, distributing healing charms, and spells for rain.

Many of these rituals were intended for apotropaic purposes, banishing monsters, limiting their negative effects, or transforming the curses of ancestors and kami into blessings. Hungry ghosts (gaki 餓鬼) and demons (oni 鬼 or ma 魔) were an integral part of the worldview promoted by the Buddhist establishment; and one of the main benefits of seemingly unconnected activities such as lay ordination rituals, for instance, was to manage these sorts of supernatural entities. Despite later revisionism, both demons and this-worldly magic were fundamental to Buddhism—in canonical texts and in daily practices.

While Buddhist priests were performing these ancient (shamanic) rites during the medieval Tokugawa period (1603-1868), this had not always been the case. For centuries prior, Buddhist priests had been learning this craft from female shamans known as miko. In a recent article on spirit mediums or miko in pre-Tokugawa Japan, Lori Meeks observes that miko were often ensconced in or around temples where they performed a variety of services that were much in demand but were not on official Buddhist offer:

[W]e can find many examples of miko who engaged in a variety of closely linked spiritual services, such as the transmission of oracles from gods and bodhisattvas, which was thought to occur through divine trance; channeling spirits of the dead; divine petition, which sometimes involved exorcism; fortune-telling; rituals and blessings for romantic relationships and childbirth; and physical healing.

Both shrine miko and arukimiko also developed extensive repertoires of spiritual services meant to meet the needs of individual patrons: the conjuring of dead spirits, divination, love rites, and physical healing.

Although miko were tolerated, accommodated, and sometimes celebrated in medieval Japan, they were often viewed with suspicion by government officials attempting to impose control and maintain order in collaboration with more placid and malleable temple Buddhists. Miko were recognized as shamanic atavists and may have served as reminders of an unruly populace or anarchic past. The fact that miko carried drums and danced connects them directly to shamans, as does the fact they were healers.

When it comes to shamans or those who carry on aspects of shamanic tradition within larger-scale societies, the usual course is for shamanic functions to be co-opted by mainstream religious traditions or relegated to the periphery where they are denigrated as “superstition.” The latter epithet is euphemism for “supernatural beliefs not fitted within recognized religions or traditional doctrines.” From the priest to the palmist, all supernatural practitioners are indebted to the universal shaman.


Meeks, Lori (2011). The Disappearing Medium: Reassessing the Place of Miko in the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan
History of Religions, 50 (3), 208-260 DOI: 10.1086/656611

Josephson, Jason A. (2006). When Buddhism Became a “Religion”: Religion and Superstition in the Writings of Inoue Enryō Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 33 (1), 143-168

Habu, Junko (2008). Growth and decline in complex hunter-gatherer societies: a case study from the Jomon period Sannai Maruyama site, Japan Antiquity, 82, 571-584


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“God” Debate Straitjacketed by Myopia

Over at Salon the MIT physicist and novelist Alan Lightman recently asked whether God exists, a question he poses in the service of reconciling science with religion and lambasting Richard Dawkins. Although he is an atheist, Lightman’s accomodationist query prompted a predictable response from Daniel Dennett, to which Lightman has responded.

It is a thoughtful exchange but contains nothing new. Similar debates have been ongoing for well over a century without advance or resolution. Science and religion debates which take “God” as a starting point are myopic. They begin with the false assumption that humans throughout history have been preoccupied with the idea of God, and that the monotheistic concept of God is the starting point for this kind of inquiry. Such assumptions are usually embedded in a Whiggish or progressive religious history with “God” being the apotheosis of supernatural thinking.

The kind of “God” that Lightman discusses is a relatively recent idea, limited in time and space, that ignores religious history and diversity. We can see this in the definitions Lightman proposes:

For the purposes of this discussion, and in agreement with almost all religions, God is a being not restricted by the laws that govern matter and energy in the physical universe. In other words, God exists outside matter and energy. In most religions, this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical laws (i.e., performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion and omniscience.

We can categorize religious beliefs according to the degree to which God acts in the world….Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, subscribe to an interventionist view of God.

This is just wrong. It is not true that “almost all religions” have this particular conception of “God.” Nor is it true that “most religions” subscribe to an interventionist view of “God.”

Humans have believed in the supernatural for at least 45,000 years and perhaps longer. The anthropomorphic and interventionist kind of God to which Lightman refers is perhaps 3,000 years old. This particular conception of God is limited in time and space. It is a modern God that derives primarily from the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). It is not a majority God and never has been.

Because Lightman frames his entire science/religion discussion around the God debates that take place within his own high culture salon, his definitions are not a problem so long as they are limited to that tiny arena. But they are not generalizable.

While Western intellectuals may arrive at resolutions or accommodations they find satisfying, these say little or nothing about debates that haven’t existed throughout most of human history and which huge numbers of modern people without God would never even consider.

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