There’s a certain kind of person who, when they find out about my borderline insane interest in other peoples’ religion, always wants to know what my personal beliefs are. And that question actually stumps me, because the question of whether whatever Sky Fairy actually exists just doesn’t cross my mind. To me, the answer is an obvious “no,” and then I go back to thinking about glossolalia.
One of Twisty’s latest posts has been knocking around in my brain for the last few days. In sum, she thinks it would make more sense if the nothingness of atheism were the default state of the world, and religion were considered an anomaly. Maybe it would, but we’re never going to know, because religion is the default state of human society. Sorry everybody.
The cause of religion is a moderately warm topic these days, and to anyone looking for answers I recommend Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy. Actually, I don’t recommend you read it so much as you read the Clif Notes or get someone to tell you about it, because while he may be an excellent sociological theorist, Berger’s a terrible writer. It’s one of the more obtuse books I’ve read in my life. What he says, though, is that people are social creatures, and religion is essentially human social structures imposed upon the unknown. It’s not at all outlandish to assume that, the way that a social grouping has control over certain things, another social grouping has control over you. Religion is making sense out of the cosmos–the things we don’t understand otherwise–in a way we can relate to. This New York Times Magazine article about evolution, neurology and religion is also pretty rad.
There aren’t any religion-less cultures that we know of. The official state religion of Russia was atheism for a while, but Russian Orthodoxy was still heavily practiced in secret. There are atheists today, for sure, but they’re isolated in a heavily religious society (and tend to be among the more privileged elements of society, but that’s another post). In the US, we take the separation of church and state for granted, as something that’s obviously how the government is supposed to be, but if you look at the whole of human history it’s a fucking radical idea. In fact, talking about “religion” in history (especially ancient history, which is my strong point) is almost impossible because it was so intertwined with everyday life; before you can start thinking about Greek or Roman religion, you have to define what’s religion and what’s something else, which is hard because the ancient people themselves didn’t do that. It’s anachronistic.
I’m straying from my point, which is that religion is the default of human society. My other favorite piece of evidence is this: a 70,000 year old carving of a python that seems to have been used in religious rituals. That’s pretty old, given that we learned about agriculture and domesticating animals about 10,000 years ago, and now I’m using a laptop and the magic of wireless internet to tell you about it. People have been organizing the world according to their social structures* since before they figured out how to cut the balls off of sheep.
That story got covered in a whole lot of religious contexts, most of which were something like, “See! Religion is THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE,” but apparently they didn’t read page two of the article. Behind the giant snake was a chamber, with an exit to the outside, from which someone could presumably speak as the snake god. That’s right: we have been both believing in crazy shit and faking that selfsame crazy shit, so that someone else will believe in it, for 70,000 years. How anyone could be anything but fascinated by it all is what I don’t understand.
The snake god, by the way, gets five stars.
*You may be thinking, “A big snake is not reflective of human order in the cosmos.” To which I say, what the hell does an actual snake want with arrowheads?**
**I also have a vague theory about the supernatural becoming more human as we get better at exerting control over our surroundings. Perhaps I will tell you about it sometime.