A Religious Studies Take on the “Evolution of Religions Infographic”

timeline-myth-religionThis infographic has been making its rounds on Facebook today. It portrays the “evolution of religions” as a sprawling family tree stemming out of a primordial religion dubbed “Animism.”

I must admit that I think the infographic is cool. It tries so hard to encompass every religious tradition, and it even gives a nod to some more obscure traditions (shout out to Mithraism!).

However, the religious studies scholar in me can’t help but point out all its inaccuracies and methodological errors.

1) First of all, the infographic makes some odd choices. Why is Mithraism stemming out of Canaanite religion instead of Persian Iranian religions? Why is Gnosticism its own religion with no connection to Christianity or Judaism? Why is quantum mechanics (of all things) labelled as a religion?? The culmination of mistakes makes the whole tree somewhat of a mess.

2) Animism as the primordial religion? Sounds a lot like early 20th century anthropologists. These guys were obsessed with discovering “the most primitive religion,” and they viewed animism as the closest example to that holy grail. Unfortunately, the whole endeavor was hopelessly intertwined with racist and imperialist motivations as anthropologists compared the “primitive” animism of West Africans and Australian aborigines to what they viewed as the moral perfection of Christianity. Scholars have largely abandoned these theories in favor of more fruitful (and less racist) lines of inquiry.

3) I also take issue with the term “evolution” when describing the development of religious traditions. The term works just fine for biologists. DNA makes categorizing animal species a somewhat more concrete endeavor than categorizing religions. Biologists can clearly differentiate between two separate species not simply because of superficial appearances but because of fundamental differences in their composition.

“Religion,” on the other hand, is a far more subjective category. Oftentimes, the differences between religions are borders enforced by scholars rather than real differences on the ground. Many Christians in the first few centuries, for example, happily attended synagogues, practiced Jewish dietary laws, and were circumcised. What do we call these people? Jewish Christians? Christian Jews? Their actions confound our tidy religious categories. Still others in Late Antiquity worshipped the Roman Emperor and regularly attended sacrifices at the Greek temples. Do we call these Christians “pseudo-pagans” or “half-converted Christians?”

When you claim that one religion evolved out of another, you are claiming that each religion has a perfect “essence” with which to compare to other religions. An essential Hinduism. An essential Islam. An essential Christianity. But “on the ground,” we seldom find people that fit these perfect archetypes, especially in antiquity before our modern obsession with codifying and categorizing existed.


Religious Literacy, Ted Cruz, and Being Booed Off Stage

1381498024000-tedcruz-vaRealizing every liberal democrat’s dream, Ted Cruz was recently booed off stage speaking at a ritzy gala in DC.

On September 10th, 2014, one day before the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas and presidential hopeful, stood before a crowd of Middle Eastern Christians to offer some remarks on the persecution of Christians at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS.

Apparently, he was unprepared for a strong backlash when he called for the unilateral support of the Israeli government and its policies. The crowd erupted into two factions, with a chorus of boos attempting to drown out the smattered applause at his statement: “Those who hate Israel hate America.”

News outlets and blogs have already roundly criticized Cruz for his alleged insensitivity and inflammatory remarks, so I don’t want to heap more vitriol upon the guy. However, I do want to call attention to what I see as a missed opportunity for religious empathy.

As I said in my last post, our culture, peer group, and privilege shapes our religious experience. This means that two Christians, despite holding to ostensibly similar doctrine and practice, can have vastly different opinions on key issues that we take for granted.

Ted Cruz assumed his Christian worldview as normative. As a white American Evangelical, he is accustomed to fellow white American Evangelicals agreeing with him on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Afterall, most Americans in this particular demographic strongly support the Israeli government.

However, he made a fundamental attribution error when he equated his own worldview with all Christians and assumed he was speaking to a sympathetic audience simply because they were all Christians.

This exemplifies the vital importance of literacy in your own religion. Simple knowledge about your own religion will go far in fostering dialogue and empathy.

Indeed, the most difficult type of religious dialogue is between closely related traditions. As the “proximate Other,” our narcissism leads us to flog the Other over small differences rather than enjoy the similarity. This is why you see such vitriolic arguments between the Evangelical Left and Right in the blogosphere rather than Evangelicals debating Hindus.

On the spectrum of religious traditions, Cruz’s tradition did not differ drastically from his audience’s in terms of doctrine; yet, he allowed a political difference to destabilize an opportunity for dialogue. Perhaps if he reflected on the life experience of a Middle Eastern Christian, even just for a moment, something edifying would have come from his speech rather than a flurry of gleeful rebuttals from the pundits.