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.


Video Blogging Religious Studies

Video_blogAfter nearly a year of development (mostly me being bogged down by other responsibilities), I have finally released the first Religion for Breakfast video blog episode on YouTube: Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Episodes that soon will follow include: How did the New Testament Form? What are Demons? Why do we believe in God/gods? Are Religions Inherently Violent? Who Invented Magic Wands?

I will tend toward my own expertise on ancient Greco-Roman religions, but I hope to include as many topics that broadly fall under Religious Studies.

I see this as the culmination of what I wanted Religion for Breakfast to be…an educational outlet that bridges the gap between the academic study of religion and the public. Religious Studies is one of the most provocative fields within the humanities. Few fields elicit such excitement, vitriol, and passion as religion…so why hide the greatest advancements of religious studies within jargon-laced academic journals with an audience that never exceeds a few thousand readers? Reaching a broader audience should take greater precedence in academia than it currently does.

Because religion evokes such passion, though, misinformation abounds in visual media. Inflammatory documentaries, silly movies, and pro/anti-religion screeds populate the airwaves. Moreover, YouTube is devoid of accessible educational videos that engage the most basic topics of religion (particularly my own sub-field of Ancient Christianity). I don’t want to presume that my videos will be accessible, educational, or even enjoyable…but this is my goal, because, seriously, this is important.

As I’ve been saying all over this blog, studying religion taps into the deepest concerns of humanity. Whether you are religious or not, we all wrestle with the questions religion seeks to answer. Studying the cultural, sociological, and philosophical concepts of religion not only fosters a deeper understanding of ourselves but ultimately humanizes others who are different.

On a less grandiose note…religion is just freaking awesome. Do you need a reason to watch a video on the Dead Sea Scrolls? On invisibility rituals? On sacred space? No…I didn’t think so.

So, I hope you enjoy the videos…and please subscribe!


Why I Study Ancient Christian Magic (and so should you) Pt. 1 of 3

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

A drawing of an angel, possibly Gabriel, from a Gnostic Christian magical papyrus.

I study ancient Christian magic. No, not [simply] because I aspire to be Harry Potter…but the reasons are as complicated as they are personal, and it is about time that I address them.

Some may think I derive perverse glee in exposing the inconsistencies in ancient Christians’ piety—that somehow their reliance on love spells, Jesus amulets, and curse tablets invalidates their legitimacy as moral actors in history. “Why,” the critic may ask, “would Christians—whose own religion denounces magic—rely on bizarre, disgusting, and often shamefully misogynistic strategies to navigate their daily lives?”

As important as it is to recognize how ancient and modern Christians differ, castigating the ancients smacks of desperate axe-grinding from a recovering fundamentalist and not serious scholarship. Not only is it unproductive but it also breaks a cardinal rule of historians: foisting modern morality onto ancient sensibilities. As the scholar Robert Orsi says, “Religious studies is not a moralizing discipline.” We refrain from condoning, defending, or passing judgment on our subjects of study in favor of exploring how religion functions in specific geographical and chronological contexts.

This, however, does not relegate religious studies to mere “knowledge production.” In my own work, I strive to highlight the relevancy of research even as arcane as “ancient Christian magic”—how, through studying the rituals and habits of  ancient Christians, we can promote empathy, exercise humility, and tear down walls of misunderstanding in the present.

My first reason for studying ancient Christian magic is that it explores the 99% of Antiquity.

“Church history” brings to mind big names like Ignatius, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome. Introductory classes often focus on major events like Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge or social changes like the rise of monasticism. However, although the Church fathers, bishops, monks, and emperors constitute the bulk of research in my field, they ironically reflect the vast minority of the ancient Christian population—the 1%, as it were.

The major heroes of ancient Christianity were, in general, wealthy politicians, statesmen (men…not women), lawyers, and scholars. Their own prestige afforded a certain level of fame to their writings even during their life time, enabling them to be copied again and again to our present age. Archaeology likewise favors the 1% as massive basilicas tend to survive 15 centuries far better than mud-brick houses in the Mediterranean countryside.

This is not because of any latent bias in academia…this simply is the nature of our evidence in a field so far removed from its subject. However, focusing on the 1% of ancient Christianity skews our understanding of how Christians thought, worshipped, and related to each other and the divine in antiquity.

It is difficult to describe just how privileged characters like Augustine and Ambrose were. Living in villas fit for kings, they had the time to wax eloquent on the nature of the Trinity that others spent on subsistence farming. Life for the masses was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Barely 15-20% of the population had any level of literacy. Archaeology moreover reveals to us a world characterized by high birth mortality rate, rampant parasites, and a near-complete lack of public health initiatives.

It is within this world we must imagine early Christian magic. Studying magic, more than any theological text, brings us face to face with the average ancient Christian and how they practiced their faith “on the ground.”

When I focus my camera on an apotropaic menorah inscribed on the threshold of an ancient house in Priene, the power that the symbol held for the original homeowner is almost palpable. When I study curse tablets found in situ, I encounter the angst and anxiety of the last person who had touched the object.

Here there is immediacy to ancient ritual far removed from the rarefied rhetoric of Paul or Pausanias. 

In short, everyone practiced magic in antiquity….not everyone (in fact, very few) wrote sweeping theological tracts or eloquent sermons. Focusing on the former is my way of exploring the nature of ancient Christianity, a field so often dominated by “big name/big event” histories.


Animal Sacrifice, the Other, and the Day I Almost Fainted in Class

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112When you research ancient magic, you acclimate to a world of weird, unorthodox, and downright gruesome rituals. Harvesting body parts for a spell? Graphic descriptions of ritual mutilation? Smearing animal dung on yourself for invisibility powers? Meh. I’ve read it all. So for all intents and purposes I’m impervious to being rattled by strange and disturbing rituals…right?

Well…apparently not…since I almost fainted in class after watching the beheading of a baby goat.

Seldom does Greco-Roman religion capture the attention of a class full of undergraduates, so what better way to rouse interest in Roman cult than showing an actual sacrifice? My professor pulled up this video—the sacrifice of a little goat in the West Bengal town of Tarapith in 2011.

She assured us that although she “could have found videos a lot worse than this,” anyone could close their eyes if it proved too much to handle. Of course, I wasn’t going to do such a thing. I, like any self-respecting expert in ritual, would watch with rapt attention and a scholarly eye to detail.

I watched as the priest flicked the goat with water, prayed over it, and stroked the weapon that would soon end its life. The video then reached a fevered pitch. With the drums pounding in the background, the priests carried the goat to the stake, pulled its legs back, and stretched its neck out as it bleated piteously. The sound was truly disturbing and shocked me out of my detached objectivity.

The priest then chopped its head off. No fanfare. No incantation or prayer. Just a hefty blow to the neck.

This didn’t disgust me. I felt more a sense of macabre fascination as the priests tossed the twitching body aside as if nothing happened. But as I ruminated over what I just saw (“wow, things really do twitch after decapitation!”), I started feeling lightheaded. First just simple dizziness. But then the voice of the professor became strangely distant, and I recognized the onset of a vasovagal syncope.

Somehow in the midst of my stupor, I had the mental wherewithal to feign taking notes on my iPad. Anything to save face as the only graduate student in the room right? I wouldn’t ever live it down.

Thankfully I recovered quickly enough. Shaken and sweaty, I sat back in my chair and brooded. What just happened? I’ve been raised in the Christian sub-culture. I’ve been reading about animal sacrifices since 1st grade Sunday school. Heck, I’ve been reading about human sacrifice since childhood if you count the episode with Abraham and Isaac. Am I really so shocked to see this for the first time? And even then, in a blurry YouTube video?

I decided the reaction stemmed from the radical “otherness” of the spectacle. For a modern churchgoer accustomed to well-tuned organs and dainty sippy-cups of grape juice as his idea of worship, beheading a goat is insurmountably weird or “other.“

This brings me back to a topic covered in an earlier post: how to exercise empathy in religious dialogue. One strategy to converse with “the Other” is to recognize the weirdness of your own religious practices in order to avoid creating a caricature. However, this recent episode illustrates how difficult this is. How can we honestly and openly dialogue between religions when sometimes the chasm of difference is so vast?

I have no easy answer. In fact, I’m apparently too ensconced in my own Western Protestant bias to even provide an answer. The true irony here is that animal sacrifice was the primary vehicle for relating to God for all the biblical heroes in the Hebrew Bible and a daily fact of life for many in the New Testament. Christianity’s modern iterations, in many (most?) respects, would be completely unrecognizable even to St. Paul. Like the sacrifice in West Bengal, the origins of my own faith are distant and foreign, and even though Christians like to cozy up with friendly characters like Moses or David, it takes a heavy dose of humility to acknowledge the difference in their religious experience.

As the British novelist L.P. Hartley quipped, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” This is the central challenge of the scholar and the layperson alike. We must excavate meaning from a culture that not only is foreign but is separated by millennia. Sometimes the differences appear insurmountable, but this should not discourage us from building bridges to the Other.

Why Empathy Trumps Sympathy in Religious Dialogue

Shinto_PriestWhile flipping through a photo album from my brother’s trip to Japan, an Evangelical friend of mine paused on the image of a Shinto priest bowing before an altar. Dressed in traditional vestments, the priest was fulfilling one of his primary duties to offer food and clothing to a kami—a local Japanese spirit or deity.

With genuine pity my friend said, “Its so sad to see that, I wish they could know the hope we have in Jesus.”

From a western Evangelical perspective, a Shinto shrine certainly is as “other” as you can get. Even in the midst of my graduate studies in religion, I know nothing about Shintoism except for the vaguest caricatures of its beliefs. However, the sympathy that she expressed does more to hinder than help our interactions with other religions. What we need is true empathetic understanding to foster connection.

Last week the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts released this viral video that pinpoints four attributes of empathy as opposed to sympathy:

1. The ability to take another’s perspective and recognize that perspective as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgement.

3. Recognizing emotion in others.

4. Communicating that recognition effectively.

Sympathy, on the other hand, involves trying to comfort the individual, find a silver lining in the situation, or offer advice on how to alleviate the other’s pain. Genuine or otherwise, sympathy lacks the key element of sharing the other’s perspective.

In short, “empathy fuels connection” while “sympathy drives disconnection.”

Much of our inter-religious interactions (and indeed inter-denominational interactions within Christianity) falls into the latter category. We are so assured of our own religion’s truth that we pity others for their ignorance or obstinate refusal to accept our truth. This expresses itself when we judge others for beliefs we deem wrong or objectify others as potential converts, offering our own religious convictions as a stronger panacea for their brokenness.

Although our expression of sympathy may stem from genuine concern for the other, it belies a deeper failure to empathize with the other. To create true connections, we must set aside our preconceptions and try to understand the other’s truth and why they believe it.

Ways we can exercise religious empathy:

1. Avoid creating simple caricatures of other religions.

The mainstream Evangelical critique of Mormonism is a prime example. I was taught growing up that Mormonism was a “cult” and that they held all sorts of strange beliefs (“Did you know Mormons believe you become gods in the afterlife?”). I never bothered to meet any Mormons or even “research” the religion on Wikipedia. I simply accepted the caricature painted for me. All religions though are far more nuanced than what our preconceived notions tell us. Empathetic religious dialogue requires that we resist stereotypes and attempt to understand others’ beliefs. Only after that occurs can we raise any meaningful disagreements.

2. Recognize your own beliefs as weird.

We tend to view our own rituals and beliefs as normative. Baptism and the Eucharist are familiar, and therefore, “normal.” Offering food to a kami, though, is “weird.” Ironically, Christian belief and rituals—corporate singing, dipping bread into wine, reenacting ancient Jewish cleansing rites—are just as weird for the outsiders looking in. In fact, the ancient Romans thought “eating the body of Christ” was so odd, they accused the early Christians of cannibalism. Exoticizing each other’s rituals does nothing but solidify difference and entrench us in an “us vs. them” dichotomy.

3. Stay out of judgment

When in the midst of suffering, the last thing we want to hear is judgment (the biblical story of Job and his three friends immediately comes to mind). Likewise, in religious dialogue, we might judge others for what we perceive as shortcomings in their worldview. However, when we make these value judgments, we view other worldviews as inherently inferior to our own, invariably driving disconnection.

Empathy in religious dialogue means making yourself vulnerable. It means reaching deep inside yourself and recognizing that we are all broken and that our religion does not equip us with all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. So when someone cries out, “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,” you can respond with, “I know how you feel,” instead of with pity.