Tag Archives: Neil deGrasse Tyson

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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Haeckel’s Mystical Monism

A place for everything and everything in its place. This is not just a mantra for those with obsessive tendencies. It also describes the drive that some have toward a system: a unified theory of everything.

Before the Enlightenment, there was no need for such a theory. God served this purpose and everything was explained by the bible or theology. After the Enlightenment, philosophers began searching for the all-encompassing meta-theory. This search culminated in the gargantuan philosophical systems of Kant and Hegel.

Famously opaque, such systems betray a profound uneasiness with the messiness of the world and disorder of experience. Some people are comfortable with ambiguity, unintelligibility, and inexplicability. Others can’t tolerate contradictions, counterfactuals, and incompleteness. The latter, filled with insecurity, construct systems to compensate. It was this fact which caused Nietzsche to comment: “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.”

While philosophers have largely given up on the idea of unified system, physicists haven’t. They are tying themselves in knots over string theories and imagining new universes whenever the tautology of math demands it. Only Neil deGrasse Tyson seems comfortable with the idea that there is one theory for big things and another for little things. The theories aren’t compatible but each works in its spatial arena. Does it really matter if the twain shall never meet?

Physicists are not, however, alone in this quixotic quest. There are some who believe that everything can be explained as a matter of evolutionary theory. Although evolution sensu stricto is a biological theory, there are some who see it as much more: a unified theory of everything. In a recent post I noted that because cultures are not organisms, extending evolutionary theory to everything is dubious and amounts to “Darwinian monism.” While this monism may satisfy the impulse to a unified system, it doesn’t work (even if the equations which purport to describe it “prove” that it does).

The Wilsons, Edward Osborne and David Sloan (no relation), weren’t the first evolutionists to espouse monism. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), the famous German naturalist, preceded them. In “Ernst Haeckel’s Monistic Religion,” Niles Holt describes some familiar sounding aims:

Haeckel presented Monism as a scientific movement which was based on Darwinism and which aimed to free science from the bonds of “dualistic” Christianity, “metaphysics,” and all “irrationality.” Supplementing the antireligious tenor of much of Haeckel’s writings was his assertion that natural science encompassed the totality of valid knowledge, that, as he later phrased it, “scientific research captures gradually the entire province of human intellectual effort.” In Anthropogenie (1874), Haeckel argued that the new theory of evolution was a “most favorable development to the growth of scientific unity.”

Having ushered metaphysics and religion from the scientific room by way of the front door, Haeckel promptly let them in through the back. The inexorable logic of monism or a unified theory demanded it:

Haeckel asserted that the irritability found in all organic matter progressed through evolution into the consciousness and organization of the human nervous system, the brain. This argument was the basis of Haeckel’s “chain of unity of sensation”: evolutionary history had proceeded from the “cell-soul” through “intermediary steps” to the “rational” human soul. The “chain of unity of sensation” were viewed by Haeckel as demonstrating that “natural science and evolutionary theory” were not to be used to degrade nature into a “soulless mechanism” which would “bar all ideals from the real world and destroy poetry.”

Haeckel believed that Monism had established that the soul of man was a “purely mechanical activity.” Yet he wished to avoid, through pantheism, a “depressing materialism which reduced the universe to “dead matter.”

As he aged, Haeckel’s monistic ideas — always centered on the unifying logic of evolution — became increasingly elaborate and obscure. More than a few German intellectuals found the ideas attractive and sought to found a new “religion” on them. Although Haeckel disapproved of these efforts, which often involved ritual adornment and celebration of “unified scientific knowledge,” what had begun as strict monistic materialism grounded in evolution ended as another form of metaphysics or religion.

There is a lesson here for all systematizers.


Holt, Niles (1971). Ernst Haeckel’s Monistic Religion Journal of the History of Ideas, 32 (2), 265-280 DOI: 10.2307/2708280


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