It always bends my thoughts a little sideways to hear my fellow unbelievers dismiss Christianity as primitive superstition, but it isn’t Christianity or Christians that I’m worried about (sorry). It’s the ‘primitives’ that concern me.
Having spent most of my career working with indigenous people, people who until recently might well have been dismissed as primitives, I can’t help but bristle a bit when the cultural heritage of my friends and coworkers (or their grandparents) is used as an insult for someone else. More to the point, I can’t help but feel the comparison is deeply misleading, not just as to the nature of ‘primitive’ people and their customs, but as to the whole shape of human history. In the end, references to primitives and/or superstition always strike me as a bit of self-indulgence, or even an ironic expression of faith.
The notion here is that Christianity (and most if not all of the world’s great religions (certainly the Abrahamic faiths) are essentially trying to explain the world about them much as preliterate peoples are presumed to have done in the remote past. Actually, “non-literate” would a better term, but for the present, I am taking the notion of things-primitive to refer to those who haven’t developed writing systems. That’s putting a rather complex topic into a simple formula, but of course this is a blog, not a book, so you are either with me or not at this point; we’ll see what happens. Anyway, the point is that folks comparing Christianity to primitives are essentially suggesting that Adam and Eve, are for example, erroneous attempts to explain human origins much as Australian Aborigines might explain local geography as the concrete result of events in Dreamtime narratives; just as Norseman might explain the shape of a salmon’s tail as a result of Thor’s powerful grip; …and so on. The idea, as I understand it, is to treat religious beliefs as a subset of erroneous explanations for the world around us, explanations that reflect the ignorance of those doing the explaining.
Take for example the following excerpt from Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design (2112):
Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life. There were gods of love and war; of the sun, earth, and sky; of the oceans and rivers; of rain and thunderstorms; even of earthquakes and volcanoes.
Hawking goes on to explain that the development of modern science has displaced such explanations, and as science progresses these sorts of beliefs should essentially fade by the wayside. Thus, we have the germs of a grand historical meta-narrative, one in which humanity tries various means of explaining the world only to commit numerous errors before settling on modern scientific methods.
So, what is the problem?
Let me start with an example. When I first headed into Navajo country in 1996, I hired on as a research assistant for a study of local youth gangs. I can’t say that the study yielded much of value, but we did manage to not get anyone killed (…I think). At any rate, one of the items we were supposed to investigate was the question of why gangs had appeared in Navajo country. In the days just before the study kicked up I recall asking an elder that very question. He looked right at me and said; “The separation of the sexes.”
So, what was he talking about?
It was a reference to a specific phase in the Navajo emergence narratives. The most thorough retelling that I’ve looked at would be the book; Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story by Paul G. Zolbrod. A portion of the narrative has been reproduced here on the website for the Twin Rocks Trading Post, and it’s definitely worth a read, but I’ll paste in a small stretch here. You could just as easily entitle this passage; “Where All The Trouble Began.”
Altse’ hastiin the First Man became a great hunter in the fourth world. So he was able to provide his wife Altse’ asdzaa’ the First Woman with plenty to eat. As a result, she grew very fat. Now one day he brought home a fine, fleshy deer. His wife boiled some of it, and together they had themselves a hearty meal. When she had finished eating, Altse asdzaa’ the First Woman wiped her greasy hands on her sheath.
She belched deeply. And she had this to say:
“Thank you shijoozh my vagina,” she said.
“Thank you for that delicious dinner.”
To which Altse’ hastiin the First Man replied this way:
“Why do you say that?” he replied.
“Why not thank me?
“Was it not I who killed the deer whose flesh you have just feasted on?
“Was it not I who carried it here for you to eat?
“Was it not I who skinned it?
“Who made it ready for you to boil?
“Is nijoozh your vagina the great hunter, that you should thank it and not me?”
To which Altse’ asdzaa’ offered this answer:
“As a matter of fact, she is,” offered she.
“In a manner of speaking it is joosh the vagina who hunts.
“Were it not for joosh you would not have killed that deer.
“Were it not for her you would not have carried it here.
“You would not have skinned it.
“You lazy men would do nothing around here were it not for joosh.
“In truth, joosh the vagina does all the work around here.”
To which Altse’ hastiin the First Man had this to say:
“Then perhaps you women think you can live without us men,” he said.
…and things get worse from there.
Ultimately, the fight between this Ur-couple will lead to the separation of all men and women from one another. The longing that each gender feels for the other will in turn lead them to unnatural sex acts, and these will in turn lead to the birth of monsters (really the story does get quite interesting).
So, what was the elder telling me? On the one hand, he was suggesting that the gangs were themselves the sort of monster that had its ultimate origins in the time of separation, just as had the giant and all the other beasts slain the by Hero Twins later in this same set of legends. On the other hand, he was suggesting something more subtle; he was calling attention to a high divorce rate on the Navajo Nation. In effect, that brief response served to point out not just one but two answers to my question, and to suggest some sort of relationship between them. Either way the separation of men and women from one another was, in this man’s view, the reason that gang violence had begun to appear in Navajo country.
The first of the two answers presented above could be classified as mythology. It is an attempt to explain a known fact by means of a reference to an old (and quite unverifiable) legend. The second approach treats the story in question as an allegory about the importance of marriage, and the elder’s answer becomes a direct social commentary on the relationship between changing family conditions and the rise of gang-related violence in the area. Right or wrong about the issues at hand, this interpretation would suggest the elder had been directing my attention to real world behavior. It would not have been difficult to measure that behavior, and even to formulate strategies for testing the causal connection he had asserted. But the most interesting thing about this whole fashion of speaking is really the interplay between the two forms of explanation. The elder did not choose which approach to communicate; in fact he chose language that suggested both lines of thinking to anyone familiar enough with the issues to know what he was talking about.
So what, right? Thus far, what I have presented is fairly comparable to untold other religious texts. What is the difference, you may ask?
Well, for a start, there is no catechism here. Neither is there any equivalent to the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed (or any other). Recourse to the emergence narratives presents no set doctrines about which one must agree, nor are there mechanisms for establishing what those would be. Until folks like the early anthropologists to make it into the southwest, these stories were not written down at all, and until Zolbrod one could find no single text to unite them all into a single Holy Text. In the old days, as they say, this story might well have been a complete performance in its own right, one told for reasons specific to those present, and adapted a little for that precise purpose. Folks would have understood how this little story related to a number of other stories, but no set canon could be found against which to measure each individual performance. In short, the meaning of the text above ought to be understood without recourse to any of the mechanisms by which mainstream religions streamline their message and create a uniform set of doctrines.
To understand the elder’s reference one needn’t start by assuming he literally believes in the events described in the narrative above, or even that such a belief is relevant to his answer. One need only recognize that he found the story to be a useful reference point, and that he chose to use that reference point as a means of communicating a sense of the current state of his community.
I think this is the sort of thing John R. Farella must have had in mind when he said in his book, The Main Stalk, that one ought not to assume all natives are fundamentalists. It isn’t even that such folks aren’t out there, but that we ought not to be too quick to assume that a literal interpretation of things drives every reference to native oral traditions. That is what people raised in the Abrahamic traditions (whether we have accepted those traditions or not) tend to do when encountering the oral traditions of various people around the world, or even when we read ancient texts (such as Genesis) with an eye towards understanding something about the oral traditions incorporated within them.
Understood in these terms, the literal value of mythic events loses a lot of ground to the other implications of the narrative. A god of lightning ceases to be an explanation for lightning, and the lightning becomes a convenient means of letting nature call the name of the god to your mind. References to actual geography in mythic narratives cease to be a means of explaining those geographic features and become a variety of social conventions from territorial claims to moral lessons. The oral traditions become less of an attempt at understanding nature and more of an attempt to use nature as a means of expressing principles of social organization.
And where does that leave us?
I think it leaves us without a coherent central theme for the grand meta-narrative. Absent the assumption that every story is supposed to contribute to a single coherent theory (much less the assumption that that theory is a truth the recognition of which all mankind is obligated to acknowledge), we lose any clear reason to treat such stories as pre-scientific explanations of the world around us.
No, this does not mean we must accept any and all religious assertions after first checking to make sure they are offered in a less than literal spirit. What it does mean is that we lose one religious tenant to which not-a-few atheists seem quite prone, namely belief in uni-lineal Progress with a capital P. We lose that tenant, both as a short-cut to understanding the past of humanity, and as a promise of future success.
This does not mean giving up reason as a value, just letting go of the illusion that this value is the axis mundi around which all of human history turns.
Hawking is perfectly right to insist on the superiority of scientific approaches to explaining the world; he is wrong to think that explanation is the key to all those other traditions now conveniently (if quite inaccurately) summarized as a god of this and a god of that.
If there is an explanatory feature to religious tradition, it is largely a function of the means by which religions derive actual doctrine from such narratives and demand that others acknowledge the truth of those doctrines. In this respect the Abrahamic traditions do not merely carry forward the problems of earlier, so-called primitive, traditions. Instead they bring with them a brand new sort of problem, an effort to realign all the creativity one finds in oral tradition with a single obligatory and highly inflexible paradigm. We ought not to be too quick to let the God of Abraham share the blame for this problem with the figures of oral tradition from around the rest of the world. Nor should we be too quick to assume the course of history has been driven first and foremost by the values of scientists and philosophers.