On Discussing Religion

Goldberg described that, "on a personal level", many of the Christian nationalists she encountered along the way were "thoughtful and amiable"

As long as you believe, or do not obstruct, religious people in doing what they believe in

Even if it (their beliefs) are counter to your well being

On Culture, Priority, and Discourse

So, here's the fun part: Do all Jewish stories about God and religious faith have happy endings?

Oh. Right. Never mind.

Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, reflects on an important question: "Are Politicians Who Talk About God Crazy?"↱ The setup involves a speech, recorded on video and delivered to American rabbis as the ambassador was recalled to Israel in 2016, upon the death of Shimon Peres, and "remains indelibly ensconced on the internet as 'The Madness of Michael Oren'". The story, told for Tablet magazine, describes certain differences about how Americans and Israelis regard religion in public speech. It's one thing if "nothing could be more un-Jewish" than particular aspects of his seventeen-minute speech recorded in lieu of "Holiday sermons to Reform and Conservative synagogues", and while his "thesis was provocative", Oren explains, "it was not what got me lampooned".

That part makes for its own discussion, really. But it leads to a comparsion of how American and Israeli politicians discuss religion and faith, though this points back to a larger difference—these aren't mere matters of style:

Religion in America plays a fundamentally different role—institutionally and publicly—than it does in Israel. While rigorously separating church from state, the Founding Fathers assigned them different responsibilities. Government was in charge of the civic sphere, but religion managed the moral. The two, moreover, were co-dependent. "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle," George Washington declared, emphasizing that free government rested on religion. Alexis de Tocqueville went further by viewing religion as a necessary check on democracy's dangers—the tyranny of the majority, materialism, hyperindividualism—and should be considered "the first of America's political institutions."

God, in fact, permeates America. The name appears on the currency, in the Pledge of Allegiance, and (as the Creator) in the Declaration of Independence. Testifiers in American courts swear, "so help me God," as do judges, soldiers, and presidents. Politicians, especially, even the most secular among them, must repeatedly proclaim their faith. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his first inaugural address, mentioned it no less than 14 times; "God" was cited five times even in Donald Trump's. A president whom no one mistook for God-fearing nevertheless saw value in posing outside a Washington church holding a Bible. The same Barack Obama who once railed against those who "cling to guns and religion" defined himself at times as a born-again Christian. Each year of my ambassadorship, I watched him talk fervently about his faith to the thousands of attendees of the National Prayer Breakfast, and call the others on the dais—Republicans and Democrats alike—"my brothers in Christ."

None of this exists in Israel. There is no equivalent in Hatikvah to God Bless America, and in our Declaration of Independence, only a vague reference to the "Rock of Israel." Secular politicians do not speak about their spirituality, but neither do their ultra-Orthodox counterparts. Commandments, yes; the Almighty, no. Our current kippa-wearing prime minister has been photographed in tallit and tefillin but never once quoted on his beliefs. A country that hardly separates synagogue from state effectively excises God and faith from its public discourse.

Why? How is it that two nations with deep roots in the biblical traditions could harbor such different approaches to God and faith? And why must professions about them be lauded in one society but lambasted in another?

The simple answer is that America's God is a Christian God, a personal, loving God with whom millions of citizens are on a first-name basis. Israel's God, by contrast, is both collective and morally judgmental—the God of "Our father, our king," and "We transgressed. We sinned." His real name is unpronounceable and hidden by such euphemisms as "Hashem" and "haKadosh baruch hu." The God of America speaks to presidents like George W. Bush, but the God of Israel has not spoken to Jewish leaders since biblical times. Prophecy, the Talmud tells us, in the post-prophetic age, is reserved for fools and children. Those who claimed otherwise, from Jacob Frank to Sabbatai Zevi, wrought trauma. No wonder that Israelis would call any countryman who spoke with God a madman.

Originally, at least, the United States and Israel were similarly viewed as Promised Lands, justified by divine promises and Manifest Destiny. But while the Founders believed in God as well as in His pledges, most of the Zionist pioneers accepted the pledges but rejected the God. Unlike the American revolution, which fought for freedom of religion, the Zionists' was a European revolution of freedom from religion. Public professions of faith would, in the Israeli public sphere, seem reactionary. Not surprisingly, the lyrics to the Exodus song, "This land is mine, God gave this land to me," that we all sang in our American Jewish youth movements growing up, were penned by Pat Boone, an evangelical Christian.

So perhaps the responses to my neo-paganism speech were somewhat predictable—standing ovations in the United States, scorn in Israel ....

And what, really, counts for a happy ending; a year later, he brought a Knesset delegation to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, at which "MKs sat open-mouthed" while American politicians offered their testimonials of faith, and afterward, Oren writes, "my colleagues rushed to embrace me. 'Now we understand,' they assured me. 'And we thought you were merely insane.'"


There is a certain plethora: Where to begin; there are so many places to go.

Making the point about the term, "Judeo-Christian", might be a bit obscure at the moment. Neither unrelated nor inappropriate would be a question of how we discuss "theism" and "theists".

We can also seek useful consideration of how Oren views "neo-paganism", described as "the religion in which the God you worship is essentially yourself". And within that we might find a curious and complex context having to do with a contrast of Israel and Jewish roles in history compared to any Israeli Jew in the moment; Oren contrasts the platitudes of humility in American politics against "growling" Israeli candidates and state officials who "snarl" in portraits. "Unlike the American leaders who can afford to appear human," he explains, "the heads of the ever-endangered Jewish state must never show the slightest weakness." And if an obscure line from Huxley, a Cawnpore reflection on healthy unawareness of history while living much more in the present, occurs to mind, and if the politics of modern Israel suggest a striking coincidence of certain awareness of history with such extemporary concerns, we might consider Oren's concpetion of neo-paganism, and a subtext about his thought on declining church attendance in the U.S. and a rising "passionate Judaism" in Israel, including "new and vibrant synagogues … even in historically godless Tel Aviv". We might even wonder at the prospect of a new or modern cycle in Judaism, perhaps compared to something more solipsistic, like Oren's neo-paganism that can lead to the sort of prophetic claims that have, historically, wrought trauma.


And there is a certain political chauvinism woven into Oren's tale. He warns of neo-paganism threatening "not only organized religion but civilization as a whole", and it's one thing if Oren believes Israel has "a crucial role in 'reconnecting to the idea that human beings are created in God's image, and not vice-versa, to serve God's and not our agenda'”, but if we are to fear neo-paganism "fracturing … formerly universal beliefs and dissolving the unity necessary for defending them", it is easy enough to wonder at the scale of that universality and unity.

We need not wonder whether Jews have their own ahl al kitab; Gen. Rabbah 26 reminds that when God wipes away tears from faces (Is. 25.8), this means non-Jews as well as Jews. But there is a a posturing of Judaism and Islam that, hammered down to an essentialist politic about Palestine, defies any pretense of universality or unity. Toward that, it is important to remember that neither is Judaism the whole of Israel, nor Israel the whole of Judaism. And while this is often easily enough applied to the Israeli regard for Palestine and Palestinians, there is another dimension, one of American Christianism ranging into the genocidal. Dominionist notions of premillennial dispensation include a potential for two birds and one stone: To cleanse the Muslim presence from the Holy Land in order to restore Hebrew authority to Jerusalem, that Jesus should return to raise the earthly Kingdom of God and condemn all but a handful of biblical Jews.

Most curiously—or perhaps not—it is this very pretense of Christianity, laboring and praying and believing and struggling toward the end of the world and destruction of modern Israel, that His Excellency Mr. Oren pandered to. He is not wrong about the fervor he responded to, but the irony of the American philosemitism seems a uniquely naked beast slouching toward Megiddo to be born again.


Oren, Michael. "Are Politicians Who Talk About God Crazy?" Tablet. 12 October 2021. TabletMag.com. 18 January 2022. https://bit.ly/3oZzc6b
"Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle," George Washington declared,
Obvious wrong but was the prevailing thought / sentiment at the time ie different times

What We Talk About When We Talk About Religion

If Graeber and Wengrow open by observing, "Most of human history is irreparably lost to us", they are not wrong. Not only is it a true statement, it actually has narrative value:

This is of litte consequence to most people, since most people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history anyway. They don't have much reason to. Insofar as the question comes up at all, it's usually when reflecting on why the world seems to be in such a mess and why human beings so often treat each other badly—the reasons for war, greed, exploitation, systematic indifference to others' suffering. Were we always like that, or did something, at some point, go terribly wrong?

It is basically a theological debate. Essentially the question is: are humans innately good or innately evil. But if you think about it, the question, framed in these terms, makes very little sense. 'Good' and 'evil' are purely human concepts. It would never occur to anyone to argue about whether a fish, or a tree, were good or evil, because 'good' and 'evil' are concepts humans made up in order to compare themselves with one another. It follows that arguing about whether humans are fundamentally good or evil makes about as much sense as arguing about whether humans are fundamentally fat or thin.


As a matter of narrative form, they consider "the Christian answer" having to do with original sin, and then go on to frame a dualism juxtaposing Rousseau and Hobbes, and as a matter of documentable political history that really isn't so wrong. But as "accounts of the general course of human history", the authors remind, "they: 1) simply aren't true; 2) have dire political implications; 3) make the past needlessly dull."

Which brings us to the moment:

This book is an attempt to begin to tell another, more hopeful and more interesting story; one which, at the same time, takes better account of what the last few decades of research have taught us. Partly, this is a matter of bringing together evidence that has accumulated in archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines, evidence that points towards a completely new account of how human societies have developed over roughly the last 30,000 years. Almost all of this research goes against the familiar narrative, but too often the most remarkable discoveries remained confined to the work of specialists, or have to be teased out by reading between the lines of scientific publications.


What do we actually talk about when talking about religion? These notes set a tone for The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2021), an ambitious weight in paper intending to reconsider the shape and detail of human history.


Once upon a time not really so long ago, somebody pointed out to me that nobody seems much interested in discussing religion according to history, or art, and dismissed considerations of anthropology and psychology airily, because apparently someone else complains if we don't. And no, that doesn't need to mean much to anyone because it didn't mean much in its moment; it was just something to say in an otherwise empty moment moment. The actual discursive meaning of his words, if we try to take them at face value, is entirely its own, wholly contained in itself.

Still, one of the glittery contrasts that stands out has to do with a contextual implication of boasting the lowbrow. And it's true, sometimes when we're talking about religion we might troll the gutter; in a relativist framework, we need not wonder at what progress such discourse seeks, and neither would it be appropriate to juxtapose questions of progress against any iterated pretext of interest or concern. Satisfaction, after all, bears its own value.

It seems inevitable to wonder what we talk about when we talk about religion.


Graeber and Wengrow are not writing explicitly about religion; in their context, it is an inevitable consideration along the way. As an inquiry toward what is "basically a theological debate", it is important to observe that the question itself is fallacious: "Were we always like that, or did something, at some point, go terribly wrong?" The inquiry occurs within the narrative framework.

What stands out is a different sort of reflection on religion, an indictment in medias res, having to do with interpreting metaphors literally. And while the political implications are not invalid in an historical context, even the most sympathetic simplifications of interpreting metaphors literally must necessarily wonder whence come which metaphors. The figurative ideas and representations did not arise ex nihilo. If something, at some point, went terribly wrong, what is the idyllic comparison? Was there ever a time in antiquity or prehistory when people interpreted the metaphors properly?

And if the etymological and behavioral heart of religion has something to do with obligation, we might consider here the metaphors, the ideas and objects of focus, around which religion orbits. These metaphors emerged from the noise of human experience, and compared to the evolution of civilization and authority, we might wonder at the last thirty thousand years, but with evidence of ritual reaching back seventy thousand years, some degree of participation well prior to neocortical conformity in socialization might seem more a limbic experience. The perception of obligation might well precede the metaphors.

Is it history, or psychology, or the in-between ranges of anthropology? Behavioral econ marketing research? Testimony and evangelism? Maybe politics and critique? An easy joke, perhaps? There are many reasons, and many different things we talk about when we talk about religion.


But it is also worth noting that one need no explicit deity in order to consider Graeber and Wengrow's "theological debate"; the standard of good and evil is itself elevated to the ambit of the sacred when a godless prospect of just because or the way things are functions in lieu of a more religious declaration about what God says.

Consider the implication: The fallacy is not the fact of a discussion that is "basically a theological question"; the fallacy is in the false dichotomy of something going terribly wrong. There is a reason Graeber and Wengrow seek to tell a different story: A question of corruption versus catastrophe, inherence versus consequence, is a mythopoeic fragment describing a perspective from which human society is emerging. To describe our transition as a question in mythical terms of good and evil speculates according to the priorities of our ignorance; to consider the transitions of our evolution according to what science affords reserves the question of good and evil to an object of inquiry.


If the symbols emerge from the noise of experience affirmed, so also do we consider the prospect of a new history emerging from a predecessor that is itself a catalogue of symbols shaped and affirmed from testimonial noise.

And, yet, this is where things seem complex. Graeber and Wengrow consider egalitarianism in prehistory, information sources and narrative, and changing perceptions about human societal development. "But to begin making sense of the new information that's now before our eyes," they write, "it is not enough to compile and sift vast quantities of data. A conceptual shift is also required."

It is in seeking this shift we see hints of how old symbols emerged. To wit, in contrast to the "indigenous critique" and the importance of "taking seriously contributions to social thought that come from outside the European canon", especially "from those indigenous peoples whom Western philosophers tend to cast either in the role of history's angels or its devils", there is an obvious answer that runs through historical nexes and mythopoeic loci according to the axiom that winners write history. The traditional historical telling that emerged, which isn't true, has political implications, and seems needlessly and even extraordinarily dull is necessarily so; its symbols emerged from the noise, and were affirmed after the fact.


This question, what we talk about when we talk about religion, is one of purpose.

Semiotics, anthropology, psychology, history, literature, philosophy. We all have our reasons, and nothing says they will necessarily be sensible or not dysfunctional. Still, our reasons set our priorities, which in turn shapes what we talk about when we talk about religion.


Graeber, David and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, 2021.
Tiassa. I'm assuming you have a hard copy, or what passes for one, of this new book?

I'm interested in what they have to say about religion and how it helps us explain that humans are kind and loving, also savage and bloodthirsty. I'm leaning toward a thesis that goes something like: we didn't need places to worship gods because we did that as a matter of course for a long time, or a lot of humans did as some others spread around the globe.

We have to accept both aspects of human nature need to be explained, we need some groundrules.
I mean, that would be needed for any socially organised group, wandering around Australia 30,000 y.a. or the Asian steppes, if the ice sheets let you.

The savage stuff was "explained" by our need to hunt and kill animals. Even today killing an animal isn't a pretty sight, depending what you use. 30,000 y.a. "putting an animal out of its misery" probably wasn't easy, because killing it would not be pleasant. What did we do, or did we bother, if the kind, loving human part kicked in? Did we just monster it away?

A sheep farmer who found a sheep that was injured and in pain, would probably decide to kill it. Let's say he doesn't have his rifle with him, but he does have a sharp baling knife.

I guess my thesis could start off with: In the beginning, we lived with the gods.
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I guess my thesis could start off with: In the beginning, we lived with the gods.

And depending on what you mean, you would not necessarily be wrong. Jack Cady explained, over twenty years ago:

Let us consider a proposition that may not be as outrageous as it sounds.

Start with an illustration: At the end of the twentieth century, we all know that Oldsmobiles exist. We may like the fact, dislike the fact, or be completely indifferent, but, by the Lord Harry, we blamed well know that Oldsmobiles exist.

At the end of the seventeenth century, the Devil was every bit as real in Masschusetts as Oldsmobiles are in our world. Given that fact, and the further fact that creative energy is not restricted to individuals, it is fair to speculate that Salem created the Devil. If manifestations were hellish, it is no surprise.²

² The notion that creativity is limited to individuals has restricted the perspectives of psychologists, sociologists, and some historians. Yet, any jazz musician will attest to the creative ability of groups, as will dancers and actors. In Salem, where creativity was blocked by harsh conditions, the group created something ugly that reached beyond the simple explanation of mass hysteria.


And it is one thing if, as Cady suggests, American Calvinism was "the final, and perhaps highest development of the mind of the Middle Ages in the Western world" (42), but combined with an isolation that "was even greater than the isolation of peoples during medieval times", the early colonial experience produced uniquely American results. "The importance of the Salem witch trials", writes Cady, is not their literary spectacle per se, nor our modern fascination with a grim American Inquisition, but that "they are the end-mark of total power by the New England theocracy" (51). But a Puritan "crack-up came with the witch trials, the preachers grew even crazier", so the decentralization of crackpottery in the early colonial experience was not necessarily an explicitly happy turn.

To wit, Cotton Mather is an early influence, but also something of a notorious figure in American history, and if mayhaps "experience chastened him" after "his great learning caused him to display a variety of ignorant idealism", it seems to a certain degree that ignorant idealism, "one of the most dangerous forces in the world", is perhaps his chief contribution to subsequent American generations. "I caution myself to remember, though," Cady reflects, "that to Mather the Devil was real. Wiches were real. There was good reason for hysteria." And the note on hysteria (51-52) is that during the trials, "people turned nasty", "paying off old grudges" including through property forfeiture; what emerges, Cady observes, is "a picture of a group of authorities who suspected they were wrong", and "to justify their acts they pursued the course they were stuck with, and pursued it vigorously".

And in this episode we find an example easily related to a particular sort of reflection on religion, an indictment in medias res having to do with interpreting metaphors literally. It's one thing if Cotton Mather and other colonial preachers manipulated people into compliance, but there is also the point that some of them never really stood a chance from the outset. Cotton's father, Increase Mather, was at least as crazy as his son, and also had a reputation for a rather predatory sort of laying on of hands. By the time he reached preaching age, we might wonder whether Cotton, having stewed in the heat of his father's depraved frailty, feared more of the Devil or the Lord. The continent around was massive and daunting, and the family close feverish and obsessed while society at large strung out on sin. Cotton Mather might have been dangerously bonkers, but his station and influence in American history is derived from a society that could produce such a circumstance, and affects a society that can be so affected. Mather's result could only arise in an environment shaped just so, and only bear its effects according to what circumstance permits.


Think of a stillframe, an image representing some sort of statistical noise. It looks television static snow. But at various places, there are thicker collections of noise, larger blotches of stronger light or dark; there is extraordinarily more or less signal at that locus. If the plot is a range of signal across a given period, perhaps it will look like those loci occur in some sort of pattern.

We might also consider digital music files. Consumer digital files contain highly compressed versions of musical information, and a symptom many people wouldn't know to consider is that in zeroing extant but non-audible information, we eventually cancel audible results that occur when any number of otherwise subsonic frequencies synchronize in a manner that augments their collective magnitude.¹ Songs distributed at consumer bitrates can actually lack musical elements of of their original recording.

Indeed, the stillframe of statistical noise could be a representation of a song; certain nexes of signal will be systematic, and many of the patterns we might perceive really do exist.


One way to tell the story would be that the "savage stuff" is "explained" by circumstance, and in the moment it seems worth putting "savage stuff" in quotes because the idea of savage events and circumstances, while not at all inaccurate, is in its way the same sort of subjective assessment as good and evil. We classify violence because it is somehow relevant to us, but subjective relative values measure a bloodletting on the savannah more or less "savage" than a bolide event that kills and inflicts orders of magnitude beyond anything the apex predators might achieve. And that is not meant as mere semantic play.

If the symbols emerge from the noise of experience affirmed, that affirmation occurs after the fact.

In this telling, the savage stuff is just "stuff", and we learned over time to call it "savage". What is kind and loving emerged from the stuff, and this is evolutionary. A while back↗, we passed through Armstrong on the neocortex, and this is part of what I mentioned about how some degree of participation in ritual well prior to neocortical conformity in socialization might seem more a limbic experience. That is to say, thirty thousand years ago, as humanity struggled toward what would become a neocortical future, our brains were already building the social bonds that would recognize and favor species, kin groups, and other social affiliations, compared to others.

Additionally, we have in that discussion an answer in re putting the animal out of its misery:

Paleolithic men were proficient killers. Before the invention of agriculture, they were dependent on the slaughter of animals and used their big brains to develop a technology that enabled them to kill creatures much larger and more powerful than themselves. But their empathy may have made them uneasy. Or so we might conclude from modern hunting societies. Anthropologists observe that tribesmen feel acute anxiety about having to slay the beasts they consider their friends and patrons and try to assuage this distress by ritual purification. In the Kalahari Desert, where wood is scarce, bushmen are forced to rely on light weapons that can only graze the skin. So they anoint their arrows with a poison that kills the animal—only very slowly. Out of ineffable solidarity, the hunter stays with his dying victim, crying when it cries, and participating symbolically in its death throes. Other tribes don animal costumes or smear the kill's blood and excrement on cavern walls, ceremonially returning the creature to the underworld from which it came.

(Armstrong, 7-8)

It seems likely we did not just monster away our loving humanity; rather, it has persisted despite what might otherwise seem discouraging circumstances. It is easy enough to suggest the human conscience did not emerge and endure through natural selection arbitrarily, for no useful reason.

But what that conscience recognizes, and how it responds, are results of certain processess occurring within certain ranges that in turn coincide with living foci and priorities. Those foci emerge from experiences affirmed between people: How many times did Neanderthals and limbic Sapiens see their children die before they had an abstract emotional response? Observing primates, such emotion might precede Homo sapiens. Most assuredly, it precedes the last thirty thousand years.

The kind and loving aspect of humanity, under extraordinary duress of mundane stuff, might persist, but something also goes here about our creativity. Very much of how we respond seems irrational. Empathetic imitation is one thing, but making costumes and smearing blood and shit on the walls is, so to speak, some next-level stuff.


¹ There is a musical recording↗ easily recalled as an example, but it's still a long paragraph or three to explain per our application, so we'll pass for now.​

Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Cady, Jack. The American Writer: Shaping a Nation's Mind. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.


But as we see the focal priorities emerge from experience, and find affirmation from one individual to the next among cooperative populations, and can even find a sketch about behavioral subpopulation thresholds giving rise to custom², the prospect that "we didn't need places to worship gods because we did that as a matter of course for a long time" isn't explicitly wrong, but in this way the notion of gods takes a while to emerge from the noise. Hindsight suggests deitites, in their way, are an inevitable result of the patterns in which they occur, first a projected characterization that allowed people a means of relating to something so utterly unlike themselves as fire and rain, or, as the archaeology tells us, snakes.

We can suggest that fire, smoke, and noise might have been sufficient to drive the snakes away for a while, but no, I missed the detail about why the red arrowheads went in the fire. And between Botswana, seventy thousand years ago, and Anatolia about eleven thousand years ago, there was probably a lot going on, and if much of that history is irreparably lost to us, we can at least speculate that much happened over the period insofar as the architectural innovation associated with extraordinary cooperation among hunter gatherers coincided with an innovative skull cult reflective of symbolism within the architecture. That is, by the time they raised the T-pillar with its apparent anthropomorphism, of course they were stringing skulls to the ceiling. And while, sure, that makes a certain amount of sense, the complexities of the neocortical human mind present a significantly different context compared to wondering why the red arrowheads.

What makes Graeber and Wengrow's tome so tempting is that they start in a range of flaming obvious mysteries described by "evidence that has accumulated in archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines, evidence that points towards a completely new account of how human societies have developed over roughly the last 30,000 years". Reshaping the detail of how we tell human history is a heavy task, though, so there is a lot to work with:

I'm assuming you have a hard copy, or what passes for one, of this new book?

The accompaniment vignette is about the time someone suggested nobody seemed interested in discussing religion according to history or art, and dodged considerations of anthropology and psychology. It's never truly a next-thing-that-happened, but all of a month later someone handed me The Dawn of Everything, and it's true that associate occurred directly to mind when I read the passage about archaeology and anthropology; while I don't necessarily disagree with my associate about the state of discourse, I find the circumstance, as well as his take on the point, problematic. The arrival of so directly applicable a block of text was just one of those coincidental things that happens now and then.

I'm interested in what they have to say about religion and how it helps us explain that humans are kind and loving, also savage and bloodthirsty

That will require sussing out over time. It's a heavy book that seems well-written, and as such is going to take a little more effort to grasp its full context. More than religion itself, Graeber and Wengrow pursue a history of social inequality, but this is inextricably, even symbiotically, enmeshed in a larger question of how we tell the story.

Moreover, Armstrong (4) suggests↗ that at least since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, "our modern Western conception of 'religion' is idiosyncratic and eccentric"; the period coincides with Hobbes (1651) and Rousseau (1754), which in turn provide a starting point for Graeber and Wengrow, who juxtapose historical discourse according to narratives derived from Hobbes and Rousseau, and then remind those narratives "simply aren't true".

That is, your inquiry, its answer, and even Graeber and Wengrow's conception of what is "basically a theological debate" occur within an idiosyncratic and eccentric discursive framework that, per Armstrong, "no other cultural tradition has anything like", and even seems comparatively "reductive and alien" to its own premodern Christianist predecessors.

If as such, in the beginning we lived with the gods, it also seems we only noticed them when we had to.


² Something about monkeys washing fruit, which I mention from time to time yet somehow manage to never go back and look up, again.​

Graeber, David and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, 2021.

I was once given the task of killing a sheep with a knife. There were guns available but the rule of thumb was, you don't waste a bullet on a sheep which is dog tucker. The dog tucker sheep were usually culled from a mob because they were the runts, or had some kind of physical disability like two short front legs.

So this is how it is, out in the sticks on a sheep farm. Animal welfare is mediated by need and economy.

The rule when using a knife is, be quick and make it as painless as you can, but of course this isn't an available remedy, more an excuse. You have to drag the animal so its neck is exposed over one of your boots, pull the head back and saw through the neck until you reach the spinal cord. Then you break the neck and cut the spinal cord. Bingo, one dead bleeding animal, and a somewhat emotional human.

An experienced dog tuckerer can do this in two or three seconds.

I was surprised at how much grief and anxiety I felt about what I had to do. Those were the rules; the dogs needed food. It's a sheep farm.

These days I think it's the reason people are really only happy about meat and where we get it from, when they eat it.
If you visit an abbatoir or meat-processing plant, nobody looks happy.
I have been in a few and I have to say finding happy people wasn't on the radar, everyone knows they're working in a place where animals are killed.
Perhaps, subconsciously, they know the place of work is not a temple, animals are not being sacrificed in the name . . .

Perhaps it's really all about our long history of eating the meat of animals that we have to kill. We don't really enjoy doing this, even after 200,000 years. So the religious aspect might just be our way of dealing with why we feel bad about killing other animals. Maybe it goes to why we started killing each other.
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I've been itching to discuss the arc of Christianity. It started out as a practice that demanded privacy, secrecy. and was largely an underground organization. There was an extant religion--Judaism--but that was losing its place thanks to Roman conquest and suppression.

After a few centuries of persecution, Christianity was adopted wholesale by Constantine. History reveals that his conversion was genuine, he was pious and I guess tried to be magnanimous and so on, like a Pope. He was after all the declared head of the new religion, in keeping with Roman tradition, he built new temples (Christian churches), and made sure his legions were on the right side by changing their kit and using a Christian symbol on banners and shields. This has to be couched in Roman terms; a legionaire most likely believed their sword and shield were more than just chunks of steel. Legionaries were used to making offerings at various shrines, particularly Mars the god of war to ensure victory in battle.

So we need to temper the adoption of Christianity by a militaristic regime--the Roman Empire--to understand what it represents today, given what the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church have done to stay relevant since the fall of the Roman Empire. Did, for instance, the Catholic church just replace a Roman Emperor, with a new version?

The history of Christianity is littered with broken ambitions, and failed coup attempts.
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Introductory Notes: Imagination, Art, and Religion

A point of particular importance:

Lion Man's body is worn, as if he had been repeatedly stroked and caressed while worshippers told his story. He also shows that human beings were now able to think of something that does not exist. The person who crafted him had become fully human, since Homo sapiens is the only animal with the ability to envisage something that is not immediately apparent or has not yet come to be. Lion Man is, therefore, a product of the imagination, which Jean-Paul Sartre defined as the ability to think of what is not. Men and women at this time lived in a reality that transcended the empirical and the factual, and throughout their history human beings would go to great lengths to do this.

The imagination has been the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion. From a strictly rational perspective, Lion Man could be dismissed as a delusion. But neurologists tell us that in fact we have no direct contact with the world we inhabit. We have only perspectives that come to us through the intricate circuits of our nervous system, so that we all―scientists as well as mystics―know only representations of reality, not reality itself. We deal with the world as it appears to us, not as it intrinsically is, so some of our interpretations may be more accurate than others. This somewhat disturbing news means that the "objective truths" on which we rely are inherently illusive. The world is there; its energy and form exist. But our apprehension of it is only a mental projection. The world is outside our bodies, but not outside our minds. "We are this little universe," the Benedictine mystic Bede Griffiths (1906-93) explained, "a microcosm in which the macrocosm is present as a hologram." We are surrounded by a reality that transcends―or "goes beyond"―our conceptual grasp.

What we regard as truth, therefore, is inescapably bound up with a world that we construct for ourselves. As soon as the first humans learned to manipulate tools, they created works of art to make sense of the terror, wonder and mystery of their existence. From the very beginning, art was inextricably bound up with what we call "religion", which is itself an art form.

(Armstrong, 3-4)

Brief notes. 2017↗: "This is a literary criticism built from what scraps the historical record provides, and does function as an artistic critique reflecting the psychoanalytic meaning of history." It's the kind of thing that gets↗ repeated↗ , now↗ and then↗; it's durable, even if it doesn't catch on.

2010↗: "… religion itself is a complex expression of human psyches, both individual and collective. It is, by certain perspectives, a collective performance art project."

2009↗: It's to the point these days that I look at religion much as I do art. More specifically, it's a form of mass performance art."

Once upon a time, I had occasion to say↗, and, recently, to recall↗, these things I say are not not any pioneering work of my own, but something I learned from reading really smart people giving their best historical analyses to notions they personally didn't believe. It is, for instance, impossible that Armstrong's prior work wasn't already influencing my assessment and discussion of religion; that is, I'm never getting out ahead of her, but it does happen that the intersections of historical study occasionally affirm intuitive synthesis. That is to say, yes, sometimes it is possible to read the story and figure out a little bit of what happens, next.

Even still, it's one thing to perceive a general theme, but a bit more subtle to understand the detail.


Armstrong, Karen. The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.