I’ve been wanting to write this one for a few months now…and I’m hoping the few other posts I have in the queue might get done in the coming weeks as well. This one seemed an easy-enough one to begin with, so let’s have at it! 😉
Many people in the modern world–Christian, pagan, atheist, or otherwise–have as a fundamental religious assumption what is known as the “evolutionary view of religion.” This exists, unquestioned, in many history and religious studies textbooks, and is promulgated deliberately and unselfconsciously by the likes of Huston Smith and many others–I single him out here not because hs is particularly “villainous” (!?!) in this regard, but because his book on world religions is often used in college classrooms, and he is a well-known scholar of religious studies, despite his obvious Christian (and monotheist) bias which doubtlessly stems from his own background, experience, and upbringing. What might seem “obvious” to him and to many people like him is the way in which these mindsets unknowingly inculcate a kind of triumphalism in those who hold such viewpoints–and this applies as well to Christians and Muslims as it does to atheists…and in fairness to the latter, it must be said that the Christian (or other monotheist) formulation of this evolutionary view assumes that religious linear-historical development stops with monotheism rather than with atheism, not unlike many monotheists (who also often reject the theory of evolution biologically!) assume that humans are the summit of biological development which shall never be surpassed. (That matter and its critique, however, is for discussion at another time!)
In these sorts of views, animism and polytheism–not surprisingly–fare rather poorly. It is assumed, for example, that the “heights of reason” attained in recent centuries in scientific advancement are either due to the prevailing religion that existed while these were made (i.e. creedal monotheisms) in the case of Christianity, or that because the “Enlightenment” allowed for the questioning and eventual separation of religiosity from intellectual inquiry, that therefore proto-atheism is the reason that science worked. These are needless tautologies, since several ideas later proven to be correct were introduced and theorized–though not fully proven–under polytheism in antiquity, including atomic theory and heliocentrism, and which with time could have been demonstrated experimentally as well.
To return to animism or polytheism, therefore, suggests a romanticized “noble savage” notion at best, atavism, or even a rejection of all things modern, technological, and thus “beneficial” at worst to those who have this evolutionary view, whether they can articulate it in those terms or not. To them, a revived polytheism, animism, or a combination of either is at very best a “religion of re-heated leftovers,” and such is considered distasteful to many people.
They obviously haven’t been to the restaurants I have.
Back in about 2008 or 2009, when I was living with my good friend, colleague, and co-religionist Erynn Laure, we went to an Indian place in Lynnwood, WA near the place we went shopping one day. We’d never been to that particular one before, but would both consider ourselves aficionados of Indian cuisine. We went in and immediately enjoyed the surroundings and atmosphere of the place, the decor and the background music and the hospitality of the owner who was both maitre’d and waiter on that occasion. We had brought books in with us to read while waiting (one on Hanuman and Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the Zen teachings of Lin Chi…guess which of us was reading which!), and the owner was intrigued by the book on Hanuman, as well as the title of the other book. We ordered our food and began to read, and soon enough, our food arrived, and it was some of the best Indian food that I’ve had in the region.
When it came time to get our checks and to depart, the owner came over and asked if either of us wanted to take home what was left–mostly sauce–to eat later. I said yes, because it was so good, whereas Erynn said no, and the owner, while not offended, tried to talk her out of it. “Are you sure? It’s homemade, not from the tin, and is even better the day after!” Despite my rather vivid memory of the situation, I can’t quite recall if those words of his convinced her or not, and thus what the fate of her leftover sauce happened to be. For my part, I know that the tikka masala sauce on rice heated up in the microwave the following day was just as tasty–if not more so–than it had been in the restaurant.
Eddie Izzard talks in one of his comedy routines about how the idea of taking things home in a “doggy bag” (as we used to call them) is kind of disgusting, at least to some British people. I suspect the same is true of a lot of Americans. Unfortunately, the United States is one of the worst culprits worldwide of throwing out huge amounts of perfectly good food for all kinds of foolish reasons, up to and including that it just “doesn’t look right” (e.g. the attempt in recent years to rehabilitate “ugly fruit” that gets weeded out from ever seeing the shelves of major grocery stores). Our culture, on the whole, is a “throwaway” culture, and not only conspicuous consumption but also built-in obsolescence (which I’ve written about before) and any number of other ideas that are so prevalent today as to be unquestioned still reigns supreme in the American consciousness that the ways in which something that is even a day old can be just as nice as something fresh and new is entirely discounted certainly spills over into our approach to religion.
“If it was so great, why did people abandon it so easily?”
Well, first of all, they often didn’t, and second, it’s not just a matter of people seeing two options and buying Brand X instead of the old one–blind taste tests and such were the province of soft drink ads in the 1970s and ’80s, not of choosing one’s religion in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. People standing over others with swords, torches, and fire, and laws with harsh penalties being written against those who practice other religions, have an ability that is (unfortunately) very effective in making people change their minds on certain issues, even ones as important as religion.
And, the religions that carried out such purges of other religions of which they did not approve, to this day, fear what might happen if other religious options become open to people, whether they are entirely new religions or are resurgences of older religions. It is exactly this which causes certain Islamic terrorist groups to bomb the remains of Palmyra and other great cities and the ruins of past polytheistic cultures, for fear that someone might just think back to the past and think it worthy of reconsideration. Best, instead, to throw it all away, rather than to keep it even in a reduced state in a container in the refrigerator for a day or two, or weeks or months, lest the possibility that it still tastes as good–or even better with the ensuing age–become available as an option to those who still live and can choose to add the heat back to what had gone cold, not through neglect or deliberate abandonment, but instead had been reduced purposefully by a fearful and insecure insistence on only having a single way religiously.
And to answer a frequent critique of the entire reconstructionist project: no, all the trappings of the old world and polytheistic cultures of the past (e.g. slavery, etc.) don’t need to go along with the revived religion in order for it to work, or to have great flavor and savor for those who practice it now…Just like with our Indian food adventure, there may not be beautiful music and lavish decor and so forth when I enjoy those reheated morsels in my own meal at home, but I can still enjoy the meal and have it nourish me as much as I could have when I was in the restaurant. Sure, it might be nicer to have it in the restaurant and not on the silly plates and boring table I have at home (if, indeed, I have a table at all–currently, I don’t!), but there is no need to lament over such things’ absence when there is a meal to be made and a hunger to be satiated.
This conceit is being pushed to the point of rupture, I suspect, so perhaps it is best to leave it off there for the moment. 😉
But, I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts on the matter in the comments below.