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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Even though there is a delightful article on Reuters concerning a think tank report that shows that extremists of The Three Great Religions (The Triumph of Monotheism!) all have similar world views and values, I've decided to write a little more about that blog post that upscale God-defender, Stanley Fish, wrote about Christopher Hitchens and friends, hereinafter known as The Holy Warriors of Atheism.

While my thoughts yesterday were inspired by Professor Fish's citations of the Abrahamic myth of creation, today's is inspired by the following passage:

Hitchens asks, “Why, if God is the creator of all things, were we supposed to ‘praise’ him incessantly for doing what comes naturally?” The usual answer (again given by theologians and religious poets) is, what else could we do in the face of his omnipotence and omnipresence? God is the epitome of the rich relative who has everything; thanks and gratitude are the only coin we can tender.

Or can we? The poet George Herbert reasons (and that is the word) that if it is only by the infusion of grace that we do anything admirable, praising God is an action for which we cannot take credit; for even that act is His. “Who hath praise enough?”, he asks, but then immediately (in the same line) corrects himself: “Nay, who hath any?” (“Providence”) Even something so minimal as praising God becomes a sin if it is done pridefully . Where does that leave us, Herbert implicitly asks, a question more severe and daunting than any posed by the three atheists.

This time, I'm going to mix my mythology with a smidgen of history and try to put the whole notion of the praising of deities in the proper context and make the practice understandable without resorting to either rationalizations (such as the above) or attacks (such as those made by Mr Hitchens).

In order to do this, we have to go back in history, through the mists of time, and before the Triumph of Monotheism. Let's go back to neolithic Europe, the time and place made popular by Jean Auel's laughable novels, such as The Clan of the Cave Bear.

(N.B.: I owe a debt of gratitude for yesterday's post and today's to someone I never met: Joseph Campbell. There was a lot more to the old guy than "Follow Your Bliss," and in these matters of understanding ritual and myth he is a wonderful resource. Thanks, Joe, wherever you are.)

The remnants of altars to bear gods have been found in the mountain caves of Europe. The altar would center around the skull and some other bones of a bear. Rituals would be held in which freshly killed and cooked bear meat would be offered to the bear god in the hope of ensuring a continuing supply of bears in the future. And this is the basis of prayer and worship, neolithic peoples hoping to influence nature in order to ensure a continuing supply of bears or bison or corn or whatever their main staple was. Similar rituals and altars to the ones performed in the bear caves can be found in hunter-gatherer societies around the world.

As people started living in towns and villages and as each person's function in the care and feeding of that society became more specialized, the rituals evolved. In some cases, a family of gods sprang up in which each individual god was identified with particular natural phenomena, such as the Greek system. (This influence can still be seen in the Roman Catholic tradition of canonizing saints who are identified with particular groups.) In the Near East, several sheepherding tribes developed a fairly abstract notion of deities, the chief of whom was known as Yahweh. Over time, devotion to Yahweh eclipsed devotion to any of the other gods worshiped at the time. ("[Y]ou shall have no other gods before me.")

Since these were people who herded sheep for a living, they sacrificed sheep to their god. The echo of this is still heard in Christian ritual where Christ is The Lamb of God who was sacrificed in propitiation. The idea is still the same, and when Christian business men pray before a meeting for a successful negotiation, they are unknowingly echoing their neolithic forebears who were trying to make sense of life in the Alpine forests.

My thing is this: Neither the atheists nor the theists seem to have any true understanding of the subject they tire the rest of us out by discussing ad nauseum. Both are mired in abstractions and childish simplifications of very difficult and profound matters. Perhaps if more people took the time to consider the mythic and metaphorical implications of these matters, there would be less disagreement.

I'm not holding my breath, though.