I took the Spotted Opossum to the planetarium at the local university t’other day. They have two free shows every Saturday and the two-thirty show was One World, One Sky, featuring Big Bird, Elmo and a fuzzy, blue Chinese pig-like Muppet named Hu Hu Zhu. I was raised up in the seventies and Sesame Street was a huge part of it, so I’m partial to Big Bird, and the wee grrrl is of the Elmo era. The Chinese pig, of course, was there to further Sesame Street’s agenda of liberal indoctrination, which I fully support. After the Muppets went to the moon and back, there was the standard planetarium “star talk” during which we learned which planets and constellations are visible in our night sky and how to identify them. At “fthree-anna-hayeff”, the girl knows as well as can be expected that she lives on a ball of rock and dirt whirling in space around the fireball of a star, accompanied by seven other planets. She’s smart as a whip, that one. After the planetarium, it was home to play with her “babies”, a walk to the playground for some swinging and slides and then dinner on the front porch. Toward the end of every day, we talk about the things we’ve done and what that was like, so we were talking about the planetarium show and reviewing what we’d learned. I talked a bit about the stars and planets and then she launched into a mini-monologue about the Sun, during which she explained to me that the Sun gets up in the morning, walks across the sky and then goes to sleep underground at night.
“Yes”, I said. “That is what the Sun does.”
The origin of religion is unknown. Most atheists I’ve known have maintained that religion was concocted by a powerful elite as a means of imposing control on the masses, a theory so biased and ignorant that it isn’t worth refuting. Emil Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life attempted to clear it up by examining the beliefs of Australian Aborigines in the first decades of the twentieth century and extrapolating a first cause. I found The Elementary Forms… somewhat interesting and educational, but ultimately unconvincing and not as fun to read as I would’ve liked. Sigmund Freud came up with a fairly ridiculous story about some monobrowed, Neanderthal brothers who murdered and ate their overbearing father and then concocted some wild tale to explain their unseemly behavior and expiate their collective guilt. I think that’s in Totem and Taboo, but I am not going to go look for it because I don’t care that much. Ziggy Freud deserves big ups for inventing psychiatry and establishing a vocabulary, but most of his theories were hogwash and twaddle and the patricide/cannibalism-as-first-cause-of-religion theory is pretty goofy. And so on. Religion has been around for something like forty-thousand years longer than written language so it’s unlikely that a definite beginning of it will ever be established and, in my ‘umble opinion, it’s absurdly beyond the point to expend a huge amount of energy on it. A little, but not a huge amount.
Anthropology assumes a lot. It has to, because the overwhelming majority of human history took place in prehistory, which means, before written language. Stonehenge might not have been a sacred site, but everybody assumes it was because no one has, as of yet, come up with a plausible alternative. Another form of anthropological guesswork is the assumption that, everything else being relatively the same, the hunter/gatherer peoples of the modern era and the hunter/gatherers of the distant past are comparable. One would not assume that the belief systems of Arctic hunter/gatherers would be like those of tropical hunter/gatherers, no matter when they lived, because their environments would be so dissimilar, but tropical hunter/gatherers of today and tropical hunter/gatherers of 2,000 B.C.(E.), using the same tools and weapons, constructing and living in the same dwellings, eating the same food and carving or painting the same icons or images might very well have similar beliefs. It’s a reasonable assumption. Hunter/gatherers are animists. Animists live in a world of spirits. Every tree, rock, river, wind, plant, animal and even many inanimate objects are animated – they possess spirits, identities, personalities. They have feelings and rights. The world is densely populated with “people” of any and all kinds.
The Spotted Opossum lives in a world of beings. Everything around her is alive in some way and worthy of address. Her dolls are “babies” and, though she will acknowledge that they are not “real” in the same way she and I are, she can sometimes hear them crying from across town. She must then get to them as quickly as possible to minister to their needs. Dogs, kitties, trees, insects, clouds and stars are what they are and they’re people, too. That’s normal for small children. Anthropomorphicificating everything around them is natural for them.
The idea that hunter/gatherer, non-literate peoples are like children is loaded with potential danger. In the early days of anthropology, that idea was taken for granted and used to justify all kinds of grotesque and abusive behavior. Claude Levi-Strauss devoted a book, The Savage Mind, to dispelling the notion that “savages” were mentally inferior to “civilized” peoples and I read the whole thing, which was a bit of a chore. I want to be very clear here that I am not saying that my little blond-haired, blue-eyed Germanic sprat is on the same mental level as the best thinkers of the hunter/gatherer realm. She’s a bright girl, but not that smart. What she has in common with Geronimo and Black Elk is that she has not been subjected to formal, Western education. She has not been taught that the world around her is composed of things, not beings. She has not had it ground into her skull that everything she sees is an “it” to be used and exploited and then discarded, nor will she be, as long as I am the Daddy. I am goddamned determined that my little grrrl will grow up in a world of entities, of beings to be respected and appreciated. Of course, I want her to have a solid grasp of science – I wouldn’t take her to the planetarium if I didn’t – but I also want her to keep the wonder and connectedness she was born with, to see everything around her as a “thou”, not an “it”, to live in a living world. If you ask her where the world came from, she’ll tell you “God made the world”, because that’s what I told her. She will learn as she grows the processes God used to make the world: gravity, chemistry, evolution and so on, but for now, the simple answer suffices. I will teach her that God is a force, an energy, an unknown quotient, which/who can be approached and relied on, but never understood, and that “God” is a symbol of a Mystery. Fire is a chemical process which was stolen by a primeval ancestor and given to the human race. The Sun is a medium-sized yellow dwarf star, composed of hydrogen and helium, orbiting 24,000-26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way and it is also a person who gets up in the morning, walks across the sky from East to West and goes to bed underground at night. God made the world, which came into being as the result of gravitational forces, heated and cooled repeatedly over the course of billions of years, was struck by meteors carrying frozen amino acids and gave rise to single-celled organisms, which evolved into all living species, again, over the course of billions of years. These are not mutually exclusive concepts.
The mechanical model of the universe – the idea that things are just things – was concocted by some Greek. Aristotle or Euclid or one of those guys, I dunno. Ancient Greeks ain’t my thing. All of Western science and technology derives from the mechanical model and I’m not dissing that. I’m pecking away at a fuggin’ laptop for fug’s sake. Western science and technology have benefited humanity in countless ways which I appreciate very much, but science and technology are not all there is. I am not the only person who believes that we have developed our minds and neglected our souls. The idea that every rock and raccoon is a spiritually-endowed entity is hardly a logical one, but that doesn’t signify because religion isn’t about logic. It’s about being fully connected to the experience of being alive. 2+2=4 is logic; drinking espresso at midnight and staying up ‘til dawn fucking when ya gotta work the next day is not, but ain’t we all done it? If your answer is no, then get on it, punk – no one lives forever.
I submit that religion is a natural expression of homo-sapiens-sapiens; that the main thing that distinguishes us from the apes is our inclination to assign significance and identity to everything around us; that animism is not only the first religion of the human race, but the first inkling of religion of every individual member of the human race. All children are pagans. They have to be taught to be anything else and there are a bunch of us who never learn – just as there are a bunch of us who never stop scrawling colors on any surface that doesn’t run away or banging on pots and pans and calling it music. Left to our own devices, we’d all be running around naked in the woods, waving sticks and worshipping the Sun God, who gets up every morning, walks across the sky and goes to sleep underground at night. And what happens after we die? Well, I have it on good authority that the old, blind, deaf, spotted dog I buried in the woods a few months ago is food for trees and bugs and is also a Dalmatian puppy, “like one of the ones in that show with all those puppies”. My daughter has the same conception of death as those Paleolithicoids, from Tasmania to Germany, who buried their dead in fetal position, heads oriented to the rising sun, often with grave gear: the body decays, but the energy goes somewhere. She appears to believe in reincarnation and I’m not going to contradict her because I don’t know. People have been mulling this thing over for 50,000 years or so and have come up with a lot of theories, but the fact remains: the body decays and the energy goes somewhere.
Religion is a natural impulse .Some of us feel it more strongly than others, just as some of us feel the natural impulse to have sex more strongly than others. I have been told that some don’t feel it at all, but I’ve never met an atheist who wasn’t a disappointed theist, so you can’t prove it by me. From where I’m standing, atheism and monotheism are equally distortions of animism, though monotheists have contributed a Heaven of a lot of good to the world, while atheists have done little more than piss and moan.
The origin of religion is the expression of spirit(ed/ual) beings. Like all animists, I assume that the trees and mountains and bison and all the rest have their own spirits and, therefore, their own spiritualities. I don’t need to know what they do to worship their gods. It’s none of my beeswax. I am of the human race and have my own row to hoe. Sharing my insight is part of my spiritual work.
Next Saturday, we’re going to go to the woods and have a picnic with the “babies”.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.