Rodney Stark's Discovering God is wide ranging work that attempts to explain the emergence of "revealed" and/or "moralistic" religions beginning in th...moreRodney Stark's Discovering God is wide ranging work that attempts to explain the emergence of "revealed" and/or "moralistic" religions beginning in the Axial Age of the 6th and 7th centuries BC, when many of the great religious figures and movements arose.
I really enjoyed his earlier book, On the Rise of Christianity, where he applied sociological techniques to explain the appeal and success of Christianity. Above and beyond that, his description of life in an ancient city (in this case Antioch) was breathtaking and horrifying. It's amazing the conditions in which human beings will consent to live.
Lately, alas, his books have tended to be Christian apologias that detract from the force of his objective arguments regarding why religions appeal to people and how they effect conversion, diluting the power of his insights.
This is true of the last third or so of Discovering God. The first two-thirds, where he deals with non-Christian/non-Islamic religions, argues persuasively for his theory that a "free market" of religious ideas creates a population that is more intensely religious and committed to "discovering God," however that concept may be defined since many East Asian traditions can dispense with god figures entirely, and that such situations occurred during the Axial Age, under Roman rule before Constantine, and in America. The last hundred pages of the book, focusing on Christ and Mohammad, clearly show his pro-Christian bias and are the weakest part of the book. In the conclusion, he drops all pretense of neutrality and asserts that what he's been chronicling is a "discovery" of God, not an "evolution" of the concept of deity. He even has the gall to dismiss all East Asian religions because they don't "reveal" god, and Islam is inferior because it's a regression from the Christian advances made in understanding God.
I'm with Stark when he argues that the concepts of "sin" and "salvation" successfully helped instill a superior form of social control during a violent era in world history (Karen Armstrong makes much the same argument in The Great Transformation, highly recommended) . I also agree that these concepts arose on the peripheries of the ancient civilizations (Egypt and Sumer) because all transformative movements start at the margins, in relatively "chaotic" environments. He makes the point nicely when he writes: "[b]ecause these once-great civilizations [Egypt and Sumer] took no part in this historical turning point, `we are infinitely closer [culturally and religiously] to the Chinese and Indians' than to Egyptians and Mesopotamian..." (p. 389)
On the other hand, Stark's cavalier dismissal of the Buddha's, Laozi's and Confucius' spiritual insights two pages later is insulting and uncalled for. Simply because Gautama, the Old Master and Master Kung may have dismissed the questions Stark considers important and appropriate doesn't render them irrelevant.
In the introduction, Stark says that his argument can be used by believers and nonbelievers alike since it "works" whether God actually exists and humans are simply discovering his nature or whether the idea of "God" is a human attempt to make sense of our world. This pretense is dropped when he argues that only a religion that can claim to be "inspired" has any claim to legitimacy. Thus, "truer" religions must satisfy three criteria: 1. They must be revelations 2. They must be logically compatible 3. They must be progressively complex
As to the first, there is no need for a conscious divinity to construct a morality. It appears to help immensely in getting people to accept it (after all, it's easier to believe "God" has more insight into what constitutes moral behavior than Joe Schmo, your neighbor) but from my perspective that's about all it does. My attraction to the more intellectually rigorous forms of Buddhism (i.e., Zen) arises from that severance of dependence upon an external source to enforce "right action."
The second criterion simply baffles me. If religions arise in response to perceived spiritual needs that are not being satisfied (which is what Stark argues for earlier in the book), then whether God or gods is invoked is irrelevant. Monotheism may ultimately be the most logical/rational explanation of any divine existence/plan for the universe but why is the "golden rule" any less legitimate if promulgated by an Olympian Council, Taoist Immortals, the Son of God or Islamic mullahs?
The third criterion also seems nonsensical. Islam may have begun as a relatively uncomplex revelation geared to the understanding of Bedouin tribesmen but many, many imams and philosophers have elaborated upon it in the interim. And the same is true of Christianity. The early Church Fathers turned somersaults developing Christian theology from the sketchy sayings of the Jewish carpenter. The first three centuries of the Christian era were a "Wild West" of competing and increasingly complex theologies. Even after it became Rome's state religion, the educated elites continued to dispute (viz., the controversy over "homoousias" vs. "homoiousias").
And, let's face it, only a small minority of any religious faith really get deeply involved in such disputes (at least on their merits, plenty can be convinced to spill blood if their leaders tell them to). Which is not to detract from the worth of nonacademic/nonelite spirituality -- just that it's not as well thought out and coherent as your typical Jesuit's or imam's or lama's. (Actually, one of Stark's strengths is his insistence that humans have always been intensely spiritual; it's just that, for much of history, that religious fervor has been private and unrecorded.)
Stark goes off the deep end starting on p. 394, where he asserts, with no proof (of course, since it's a matter of faith) that "Christianity epitomizes revealed religion and offers a substantially more complex and nuanced vision of God...." He condemns Islam for its support of theocracies, repression of innovation, and belief in an ultimately irrational and unpredictable God. Examples with which Christianity also abounds. But the faults he lays at Islam's feet seem to be endemic to the "human condition." Anytime a faith, or a polity or a corporation gets a monopoly or near-monopoly it then goes about stifling the competition. Democracy developed in the West despite Christianity, not because of it; we have the utterly pagan Athenians to thank for the seeds that eventually grew into the Western democracies.
As an afterthought (or so it seems to this reader), Stark tacks on a final argument for the existence of God by invoking the specious arguments of the Intelligent Design movement, whose theories about the irreducible complexity of organisms like the eye or wings have been demolished time after time in the scientific literature.
In sum, Dr. Stark reaches some very convincing insights in the development and propagation of religious ideas but his otherwise worthy effort is undermined by his obvious bias toward Christianity as the definitive answer to man's search for meaning in the universe.(less)
I enjoyed this book largely because Ehrman has come to the same conclusion regarding God (at least as he's conceived in the West) as I have, though by...moreI enjoyed this book largely because Ehrman has come to the same conclusion regarding God (at least as he's conceived in the West) as I have, though by a far different route. He began life in a fairly religious family and actually became "born again" at one point. My home life was quite the opposite, and my flirtation with the Catholic priesthood at the age of 8 rested primarily on the fact that they got to wear these cool robes (that and the whole celibacy thing...)
But we both believe that if there is a Supreme Being it's far beyond human comprehension and it's pointless to pretend that anyone has received the final revelation. Whatever we pray to is a being conceived in our own image, with all the positive and negative attributes that that may imply.(less)
Messrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book th...moreMessrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book that takes a look at Neolithic art/architecture and its sources. Thankfully, unlike those who haunt shows like "Coast to Coast AM" or write books like Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization (Paperback) or construct New Age druidism, they don't claim to know what Neolithic faiths entailed but they do argue that common themes and symbols can be reconstructed based on both physical remains and (what is new) on neurological studies that reveal the common basis of human cognition.
They choose to focus on the opposite ends of the Neolithic period (both geographically and temporally). They explore the extraordinary megalithic complexes found at Catalhoyuk and elsewhere in the Middle East, built by pre- and/or very early agriculturists c. 10,000-8,000 BC, and burials and ritual sites of the European Atlantic seaboard, built c. 4,000-2,500 BC. The authors argue that common symbols and architectural features bespeak a common, human neurological origin.
One of the more startling and concept-shaking assertions Lewis-Wallace/Pearce make is that major changes in modes of thought preceded changes in subsistence. An example of this is their contention that domestication stemmed from religious motives. The traditional view holds that domestication proceeded from a need to increase production and security of food supplies. Yet, this is a view based on hindsight; how could early Neolithic hunters conceive, evaluate and carry out such a program? Animals were corralled and domesticated because they represented human control/influence over the environment and they ensured a steady supply of sacrifices. The more wide-reaching social and economic implications of herding grew out of and were capitalized upon by ruling elites but not purposed by them (explicitly stated, pp. 40-1, but implicit throughout their arguments).
In the first part of the book, the authors broadly define what they mean by "religion," and show the evidence for a common, neurological basis for religious experience and symbolism. As to "religion": They define it as three interacting dimensions. At its base is "experience," which leads to "belief" and "practice." Once established, the latter two dimensions act on experience, which further influences belief and practice in a never-ending dance. (Thus, Christians see Christ or a saint in visions while shamans see their totem animal, for example.)
Belief and practice are dependent on cultural milieux and change over time and space (the authors cite intriguing but speculative evidence for possible religious strife based on archaeological evidence). Experience, however, appears broadly similar. Visions common to altered states of consciousness or out-of-body experiences (OBEs) include:
- seeing bright, geometric patterns (spirals, vortices, dots) (see also pp. 261-2) - floating/flying - passage through something (tunnels, caves, birth canals) - transformations (human to bird) - ability to "see" hidden things or underlying patterns (p. 45)
Agriculture and pottery were not so much the revolutionary aspects of the Neolithic Revolution as was the insight that humans could actively construct their cosmos. Paleo- and Mesolithic societies were passive participants in nature but "Neolithic people eliminated the variable labyrinth and replaced it with more predictable and simpler structures of their own design. In doing so they gained greater control over their cosmos and were able to `adjust' beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs" (p. 85) and "[t]herein lies the real, innovative essence of the Neolithic; expression of religious cosmological concepts in material structures as well as in myths, rather than the passive acceptance of natural phenomena (such as caves), opened up new ways of constructing an intrinsically dynamic society." (p. 167) Which, if true, would help explain the accelerated pace of technical and social change that characterizes sedentary/agricultural societies vs. hunter/gatherers. If you can conceive of building your cosmos, you can conceive a better blueprint. As evidence of this, they point out that the dwellings at Catalhoyuk imitate caves (pp. 103ff)
Lewis-Wallace/Pearce also introduce the idea of two forms of shamanism that can broadly characterize the difference between Paleo- and Neolithic faith:
1. Horizontal shamanism: characterized by an individualized religious experience, undeveloped beliefs and practices, and a more "democratic" outlook.
2. Vertical shamanism: characterized by hierarchy (priests) and defined knowledge based on belief and practice. (pp. 86-7)
The cosmos conceived by the human brain is tiered - it moves from an underworld to our world to one above. Often, death is not the end of life but the beginning of another stage in life. Seers, shamans, however you name them, are intermediaries between worlds and hold both religious and political power in this world based on that relationship. The iconography and architecture of Neolithic complexes all reflect this and are evidence of a rich, sophisticated and probably contentious religious/political life whose details are lost (though that loss provides fodder for endless historical novels, happily).
The rest of the book is devoted by the authors to an admirable marshalling of the evidence. I'm not going to attempt to recapitulate that argument here; if you're interested in this topic, this is a must-read whether or not you're sympathetic to the authors' point of view. If you're not interested - why have you read this far?
No matter, I enjoyed reading this book. Lewis-Wallace/Pearce present a measured argument against accepting the impossibility of knowing how ancient humans perceived their universe, and offer plausible interpretations of that Weltanshauung (apologies: I get to use this word so little). I have far too many volumes on my To-Read and Wish lists as it is, but should I stumble upon their prequel about Paleolithic art and religion, The Mind in the Cave, I will not disdain to pick it up.
One of my favorite books is Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, where the author writes a panoramic narrative of humanity's billion+ years of life fr...moreOne of my favorite books is Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, where the author writes a panoramic narrative of humanity's billion+ years of life from its First Men (us) to its Last (our far distant ancestors on Neptune). A factor in the First Men's downfall was their tragic inability to perceive the true nature of reality except in the most limited and distorted ways, and (even perceiving it) unable to act upon it.
I was reminded of this reading Armstrong' very sympathetic portrayal of Muhammad in so far as a major part of her book charts the Prophet's evolving concept of Islam. Unlike Christianity, whose emphasis tends to be on the Kingdom to Come, Armstrong argues that Islam is solidly rooted in creating a just society in the here and now, and that the very concept of "separation of church and state" is inconceivable.
Actually, that's just one of the themes Armstrong deals with. For all its brevity, this is a book solidly packed with ideas such as the transition from nomadic tribes to urban capitalists that tore Mecca (and all of Arabia) apart in this period.
I'll confess to not being able to easily digest Armstrong when she accepts that Mohammad received a revelation from "God." The cynical atheist in me wonders what caused those episodes that resulted in the suras of the Quran. Was it a brain tumor? Epilepsy? Some other neurological disorder? The headaches the Prophet complained of before his death suggest to me (admittedly not an MD) some easily diagnosed (if we could get an MRI) physical problem. Yet he did found (or reveal) a faith that speaks to billions even today so wherever his inspiration came from it encompassed great insights. But, like Stapledon's First Men, so few of us are able to actualize them.
I'd recommend this to anyone (non-Muslim, anyway) who is interested in learning about Mohammad from a sympathetic, though not entirely uncritical, historian and the origins of the third Abrahamic religion (in order of historical advent, not necessarily importance).(less)
I picked this book from the New Books shelf at one of my libraries because I was intrigued by the title and because they had chapters on Ursula le Gui...moreI picked this book from the New Books shelf at one of my libraries because I was intrigued by the title and because they had chapters on Ursula le Guin and Philip Pullman (whose Golden Compass books I had just finished reading). It wasn't until I started reading that I realized the authors were evangelical Christian apologists (not a "bad" thing in and of itself).
As Christians, the authors have little use for myth that doesn't conform to their notion of usefulness; and part of that usefulness is the struggle between objective, transcendent Good and Evil. Thus, their chief objection to Le Guin is her rejection of that world view in favor of a more East Asian-flavored one of balance and karma. The authors dismiss Le Guin because she doesn't subscribe to a notion of good and evil that transcends a particular context. For Le Guin, a "good" action is one that maintains the "balance"; an "evil" action is one that disrupts it. Now, admittedly, what Le Guin might mean by "balance" can be a bit fuzzy (she's an author telling a story, not a philosopher, after all) but the context is a fantasy, where long, didactic passages are to be avoided. Particularly in her latest work, however, I think Le Guin has shown how her morality works out in practice. As she has written about her Earthsea novels, she would have written parts very differently.
The authors don't believe in Le Guin's basis for moral acts, and are in the habit of dismissing her justifications as "unsatisfying" or "evasive" -- which, of course, they would be to someone who believes Good and Evil are defined by a transcendent Superior Being (God, Allah or Iluvatar, as the case may be). The authors are great fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis because both base their mythologies on essentially Abrahamic foundations.
What really galls me is that Dickerson and O'Hara think it's a failing that Le Guin's morality "places a burden on people without giving them any means to lift that burden." (p. 185) They believe it's better to do something because it is ordained by God, who bears the responsibility for its consequences, than to do something because one has weighed the consequences and has consciously chosen to bear them. It's all well and good to let God "bear the burden" but in the real world it's real men and women who wind up bearing it. Le Guin's notion of a constant struggle between actions that are not wholly right or wrong is far closer to reality than a bold hero, confidentally choosing Good over Evil. A struggle, ironically enough, Tolkien clearly recognized. The example the authors employ to illustrate their point -- Aragorn's decision to follow Merry and Pippin instead of Frodo and Sam or go directly to Gondor -- undermines their argument. Aragorn's dilemma is precisely that he doesn't know what the Good is and must rely on what he believes will result for the best, knowing that the consequences will fall entirely upon him and his fellows. In the context of Earthsea, the authors are upset that Le Guin's resolutions tend to be "ambiguous, and the problem winds up being skirted by unfounded dogmatic assertions." (p. 186)
They also complain that in Le Guin's moral universe, the best choice is often to do nothing as the more power one can wield, the wider the consequences. But this is exactly the conundrum that faces the Valar and Gandalf and Aragorn and Frodo, all in their own ways. Gandalf, potentially as powerful as Sauron, his fellow Maia, cannot exert his power without risking his "integrity" (or "soul," if you will) and becoming Sauron (a trap Saruman doesn't escape). Of course, there are times to act -- Radagast is an example of falling into the opposite hole that snared Saruman, doing nothing regardless -- but the choice is fraught with perils and it's not easy to know when it's necessary, i.e., it's AMBIGUOUS!
I think the authors are right, however, in their distinction between Tolkienesque worldviews and Le Guin's ("leguinian"?) -- Tolkien sees a permanent, eternal life beyond this one; Le Guin sees a transient flame that burns briefly and then is gone, making it just that more precious. They dismiss Le Guin's views as "unfounded dogmatism" but Tolkien's are just as baseless. It's a matter of how one chooses to understand their place in the world.
Despite my "one star" rating, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues raised by the authors; I just profoundly disagree with their conclusions.(less)
I remember going to see the Willem Defoe version of Kazantzakis' novel when it first came out.
I have never quite understood why a certain strain of Ch...moreI remember going to see the Willem Defoe version of Kazantzakis' novel when it first came out.
I have never quite understood why a certain strain of Christian condemns this book. In the end, the author affirms Christ's divinity and messianic mission.
I'm not a Christian myself (though raised Catholic and wanted to be a priest when I was 8 :-) but I enjoyed this book, and found it an intelligent consideration of what it means to be both God and Man.(less)
When I watch our pundits pontificate on affairs in the Middle East, I usually wind up pounding my forehead on the table: Things can't possibly be as s...moreWhen I watch our pundits pontificate on affairs in the Middle East, I usually wind up pounding my forehead on the table: Things can't possibly be as simple as all that, and this "short history" of Islam proves that.
As usual, Armstrong packs a lot of information into a small package. This is a high altitude flight over 1,500 years of Islamic history so the reader shouldn't expect to become an expert in sufism (for example) but it drives home several points:
1. Islam is a far more complex phenomenon than a bunch of savage fanatics waving their swords and swearing "death to the Great Satan. Obvious with even a minimum of reflection but always a good corrective considering the "crap" the media bombards us with.
Just to mention one tradition that has a direct bearing on Western development: Faylasuf (philosophy). Without the efforts of men like Avicenna and Averroes (and other, less well known lights) it's unlikely the West could have recovered as much of its Greek heritage as it has. Not to mention those traditions that have no direct Western parallel such as Shariah and sufism.
2. Until c. 1750, Western Europe was a backwater in human history, and the Crusades were a brushfire war on the periphery of Islam. The richest, most advanced, most innovative civilizations of the world were either Islamic, Chinese or Indian.
3. Islam today wrestles with the same problems that plagued the West in the transition from the agrarian paradigm that had ruled human destiny since 10,000 BC to the modern one.
Armstrong goes to great length to show that Islam is no more prone to violent extremism than any other creed, religious our secular. In fact, Islam's emphasis on creating a just society here on Earth was several centuries ahead of the West's concerns about social welfare and human rights.
Unfortunately, knowing human history, it's the reactionaries and fundamentalists who write the agendas. The moderate voices on all sides are drowned by the fear-stricken shouts of the bigots (just witness the hysteria over Iran).
As with Muhammad, the earlier bio I reviewed this week, this is a good introduction to a complex subject for any non-Muslim wanting to escape the simplistic BS that passes for analysis in the mainstream press.(less)
I may not agree with the man's theology but anyone interested in early Christian thought and the revolution in mental attitudes Augustine represents n...moreI may not agree with the man's theology but anyone interested in early Christian thought and the revolution in mental attitudes Augustine represents needs to read him.(less)