Above Us Only Sky

I may be wrong about this, but I think there is a theological issue that, when we consider the whole sweep of human history, troubled a far higher proportion of the human population from far earlier and for far longer than any single other question. It’s not a question we ask today.

It’s not ‘does God exist?’ – there have always been people who haven’t believed in the gods, but until extremely recently, the vast majority of people have taken it completely for granted that there was at least one god around at some point. It’s not ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ – if you believe in more than one god, it’s because those gods are warring; if you believe in one god it’s because that god wills it; if you don’t believe in gods, it’s a foolish question.

I don’t know this for certain, because we have to look back a long way to see when it was first asked – we have to rely on interpretations of Neolithic art (at least twelve thousand years old), we have to depend on reconstructions of the Copper Age (seven thousand years ago), we have to look at paleolinguistics, the study of how ancient languages spread and developed. It was an idea that it seems was carved into stone seven thousand years before the Ten Commandments were. We know it was a question that was still being seriously considered by at least one major culture until about five hundred years ago. The symbolism survives today, in both Western and Eastern religious belief.

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun. It was understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism.

This idea spread with ancient man across the Middle East, India, into Europe. It was a belief – in some form – held simultaneously in Scandinavia, Indonesia and pre-Columbian America. From the late Stone Age, well into the Iron Age, surviving into late Roman, Aztec and, in vestigal form, modern Hindu and Christian belief there was consensus. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s a very exciting sequence where Gilgamesh finds the tunnel the Sun goes down into at night and races along it, with the setting Sun barrelling after him like that giant rock at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This was a religious outlook held for far longer and by a far higher proportion of the human race then living than has ever believed ‘there is only one god’, ‘the god I worship created the universe’ or ‘God’s a paragon of virtue’. It’s a religious belief that can rightfully be said to have been ‘universal’, in the parochial sense human beings use the word. For thousands of years, it appears that all human beings believed it.

The vestiges of this belief still pervade our language, our image of God and to some extent our thought. One of the ways we can see how pervasive the idea was is that it survives in our languages. There are many processes by which languages diverge, but we can see one in action when we ask why Americans call cars ‘automobiles’ and lifts ‘elevators’ … it’s because those are things invented after the split with Britain, so they came up with their own words. Paleolinguistics looks at the similarities and differences between languages and can be used (with due caution) to infer when things are invented – we can see by collating what different languages call them, for example, that ‘wheel’ far predates ‘spokes’, that ‘equine’ predates ‘saddle’ and far predates ‘stirrups’. Some scholars believe we can pinpoint when different types of sword and spear were invented by looking at what different peoples called them. There are some words that are truly ancient – the words for ‘I’, ‘two’ and so on. 

Seven thousand years ago, in what we now call the Proto-Indo-European culture of the Middle East, the God that pulled the Sun through the sky was called something like Dyeusphaeter. It’s a name older than the Sanskrit language, which later rendered it as Dyaus Pita. It’s the origin of the names Jupiter and Zeus, and many other Sun gods in many other cultures – Dyaus of early Indian mythology, Ahura Mazda in Persia (the first monotheistic God), Astwatz, Dispater. In German it was Deiwos, that became Tiwaz – which is where we get the word ‘Tuesday’. The Latin word ‘deus’ – which is the ancestor of the English word ‘deity’ – derives from it, but this isn’t some word English borrowed from Latin, it massively predates that, so that two almost completely unrelated languages, Welsh and Persian, have similar words for God: ‘Duw’ and ‘Deva’. The first half of the name became the English word ‘divine’ (and possibly ‘day’, although that’s disputed), and ‘Phaeter’ became ‘father’, so modern English would render the name as ‘day-father’, which is sometimes personified as ‘Father Sky’.

Many of the gods people worship today share memes with Dyeusphaeter. One of the trendiest religions in first century Rome was the cult of Sol Invictus, ‘the undefeated Sun’, and the main feast day was to celebrate the end of winter, which was also the birthday of the God – December 25th (he was born of a virgin). Sol Invictus had a golden crown, a halo, and it’s possible to track the early Christian iconography and writings as they starting those elements into their own beliefs. It’s not because of Sol Invictus that Christians go to church on Sunday – that was taken from another rival cult, that of Mithras (and the day of the sabbath was the source of much dispute among Christians until the Council of Laodicea in 364).

Traditional images of the Christian God and Jesus himself owe a lot to Father Sky. Day-father was the God of the day, clearly one of the most important and powerful (although by no means the only god or the most powerful), and was associated with all the benefits the Sun brings. But half the time, at night, he wasn’t there. And in many places in the world the days were much shorter in the winter and longer in the summer. This was profoundly troubling – how could the influence of such a self-evidently powerful God ebb and flow like that?

Instinctively, now, we know that it’s always day somewhere on Earth. We’re so used to seeing, say, live TV pictures from the other side of the planet and if it’s night where we are, it’s day there. I don’t think we need empirical evidence of that, as such, it’s almost instinctive. Just something we know. We must all have acquired the information, but at such an early age it essentially counts as innate. We also know that it’s not ‘the Sun on the other side of the world’, as such, that’s how it appears from Earth. We orbit the Sun, not vice versa. Were people really so stupid in the olden days that they couldn’t work any of that out? We all know that everyone used to think the world is flat. We’re all wrong, as it happens. We all know that the Catholic church were dumb and so blinded by ignorance that they refused to believe the Earth went round the Sun even when Galileo heroically confronted them with science and declared otherwise. Coming to understand why we’re wrong about that, too, why it’s almost exactly the opposite, is pretty exciting and I’m sure I’ll talk about that at some point.

So here’s an interesting question: when did the human race discover that the Sun was simply on the other side of the world at night? And more to the point, when was that discovery widely accepted? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I think, bottom line, the person who deduces it first is Hipparchus, in around 135BC. I can’t even begin to work out when it was generally known, or intuitive. Clearly, some remnants of Solar Chariot religions survived beyond that, and clearly earlier astronomical theories dispense with the idea of the Sun crashing into the sea or slotting into a tunnel every night. I can’t answer the question ‘when was the latest someone could suggest a god moves the Sun across the sky without everyone just laughing at them?’. In the West … well … here’s Bill O’Reilly, United States of America, 2011, and he’s not saying exactly the same thing … but he’s not saying something that’s all that different, either. Whether he knows it or not, he believes in Dyeusphaeter’s Solar Chariot, via Aristotle, via the Catholic Church. 

Before we get too smug, none of us have quite escaped the myth. There’s a famous science fiction story that has a character on the Moon, looking at the Earth wistfully noting ‘just to think, it’s Spring back on Earth right now’. It takes most people at least a few moments to see the problem with that sentence – it’s an astronaut literally viewing the whole world, but unable to escape the old, limited worldview.

We know where the Sun goes at night. It’s settled law, now. There will be people who say it doesn’t count as a theological question. But understanding that it was a theological question – for at least three, possibly five, times longer than we’ve had any Christian theology – is important to bear in mind. It’s easy to dismiss the Solar Chariot as primitive superstition borne from ignorance, and to say that it doesn’t need to be studied in any great depth … well, yes. But isn’t that what the Courtier’s Reply says about modern theology? I admire the people who came up with the story of the Sun Chariot. They were trying to explain the world, and their explanation made sense of the empirical evidence. They were extrapolating what they knew and saw. These were not stupid people, they were extremely smart people tackling huge, huge problem. It’s amazing they even worked out where they might begin to try answering. I don’t hesitate to call them wrong, I don’t take the view that they were right in their own way, but they were wrong for the right reasons. They were thinking in what we’d arrogantly call a ‘modern’ way – looking at the evidence. They were wrong.

I admire the people who dismantled the Sun Chariot more. They had the courage to continue asking the questions, and to ask new and reframed questions. It took many thousands of years, but we got to what we now see is inarguably ‘the right answer’. We know that the answer operates on a scale far larger and far smaller than the human, but which human beings could readily understand by observing and deducing a few common, simple processes. That, ultimately, the answer was actually rather straightforward.

And it’s an answer you can use. It leads to further discoveries, to practical inventions. Frankly, the heavens are much more enticing without divine traffic whizzing around like space debris. And we’ve been there now, sent up our own space chariots. We use them every day to see around the world, and to explore a universe that’s a far larger, richer, grander, older and stranger place than the old religions had us believe.

Both groups of thinkers shared the same impulse: they wanted an explanation. Modern theology often seems abstract to the point of distraction, about things completely beyond the human capacity to understand, not just beyond science, but beyond the limits of human thought. ‘Life’ and ‘the divine purpose’ and ‘the greater good’ are so big and seem so confusing and inherently paradoxical that it’s impossible even to expect we might ever understand them. But we have to understand right from the outset that theologians in the past told us the same things about disease, harvests and the weather – equally vast, immensely important parts of our experience (and also all things attributed, for most of human history, solely to the capricious nature of the gods).

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. I don’t see this changing – one of the vibrant issues across a number of academic disciplines, including theology, is the very broad area of ‘consciousness’. I very strongly suspect we’ll see key breakthroughs in my lifetime, a real shift of understanding about what constitutes awareness, consciousness, intelligence, how these things can originate, how to define them and so on – but these breakthroughs will almost certainly come from the computer science departments, from the evolutionary biologists. It’s hard to see how they might even come from a theology department.

As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’. Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer, I think it’s instructive to remind ourselves that we solved the biggest problem of them all: where the Sun’s hiding at night.

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36 responses to “Above Us Only Sky

  1. Lovely post–but one quibble: you twice mention the earth orbiting the sun, but never the rotation of the earth (as if the topic were the explanation of the length of the year, not the explanation of the apparent motion of the sun during a day.)

  2. Hmmmm … fair comment.

  3. Thanks for a fascinating journey into ancient mythologies. I must take issue with the claims in the final few paragraphs, however. Pre-modern thinkers were not attempting to ‘explain’ natural phenomena in anything like the way modern science does. This isn’t just because their methods were more primitive, but because their concepts and interests were entirely other than ours. For one thing, they had no concept of ‘nature’ separate from ‘culture.’ Such a dichotomy is part of our much more recently constructed modern mythos. It wasn’t a mechanism they were after, but the meaning of the celestial events they witnessed and the most appropriate way of participating in those events so as to maintain the order of society.

    it’s vitally important that we not project our modern idiosyncrasies back upon our ancestors. they related to the cosmos in a participatory and mythic way all but lost to us today. Calling their beliefs ‘literal’ is just as misguided as calling them merely ‘symbolic.’ Both of these are modern concepts that would have had little meaning for people living prior to 2-3,000 years ago.

  4. Dude, careful with the linguistics. Your overall point is an extremely good one, but it just undermines you when are sloppy with the evidence. For instance: “phaeter” is way wrong as a modern rendering of the reconstructed IE root for “father” – the h2 is a vowel in that context, not a consonant, so it’s better written ə or ə2 if you want something pronounceable; “Ahura Mazda” is not linguistically related to Indo-European Dyēus-pətēr; and there’s no evidence that Dyēus-pətēr was the Sun-charioteer particularly rather than just an overall sky-god, just as in later pantheons Jupiter, Zeus, Dyaus etc. were sky-and-lightning gods not sun-gods (you imply they were sun-gods, but they weren’t).

    Basically, the etymology of *dyēus is irrelevant to the case you are making about the ubiquity of the sun-charioteer myth – indeed, your case is *more* convincing if you focus on instances of this myth from non-IE cultures as it demonstrates this is not just one culture’s mythology.

  5. The ancient Greek astronomers knew the earth and sun were spheres and apparent day caused by their relative location centuries before Hipparchus.

  6. This is a great, thought-provoking post!

    Now, I wonder if it’s correct to say that the ancients thought things like, for example, disease were beyond human comprehension. Demons seem like a very simple explanation, and lead to a consistent model of sickness and how to prevent and cure it. In fact, if you allow for the capriciousness of evil spirits, it suggests a belief in a universe of rational cause and effect which it is possible for the human mind to grasp and control. Ancient Egyptian medical texts are a mixture of magical goofiness and genuine medicine, which to me suggests that, much as chemistry arose from the experiments of alchemy, real cures may have arisen from the experiments of exorcists.

  7. David Marjanović

    Calling their beliefs ‘literal’ is just as misguided as calling them merely ‘symbolic.’ Both of these are modern concepts that would have had little meaning for people living prior to 2-3,000 years ago.

    Evidence, please.

    the h2 is a vowel in that context, not a consonant, so it’s better written ə or ə2 if you want something pronounceable

    No, it’s a consonant, in particular [x], [χ], [ħ] or possibly [h]. However, “phaeter” is still wrong even then. I’d accept “ph2ter” (which is pronounceable if h2 was [x], [χ] or [ħ]), “peh2ter”, “pah2ter” and “pater” – h2 turned adjacent /e/ into [a] and then disappeared.

    And the 2 should be subscript, but that’s probably not allowed in WordPress comments, is it?

    there’s no evidence that Dyēus-pətēr was the Sun-charioteer particularly rather than just an overall sky-god, just as in later pantheons Jupiter, Zeus, Dyaus etc. were sky-and-lightning gods not sun-gods (you imply they were sun-gods, but they weren’t)

    Seconded. This decoupling of daylight and sun is shared with the Bible, BTW. After all, the sky becomes fairly bright before the sun rises.

    The Indo-European languages and religions are rather unusual in a global context in not paying much attention to sun and moon and just worshipping the empty day sky. That’s why the sun is grammatically masculine and the moon feminine in Latin and its descendants, the sun is feminine and the moon masculine in German, and the sun neuter and the moon masculine in most Slavic languages – people simply didn’t pay much attention to sun and moon and didn’t think much about them.

    The Greek sun-chariot myth is borrowed from somewhere east.

    Basically, the etymology of *dyēus is irrelevant to the case you are making about the ubiquity of the sun-charioteer myth – indeed, your case is *more* convincing if you focus on instances of this myth from non-IE cultures as it demonstrates this is not just one culture’s mythology.

    Also seconded.

  8. The knowledge that the Earth was spherical precedes Hipparchus by several thousand years, though not everyone understood this. The Bible refers to the 4 corners of the Earth, a flat earth reference, in the Old Testament. The point is that some people understood where the sun went at night – around the Earth. The real hang-up in developing heliocentric solar system was the idea that orbits ought to be circular. The orbits of planets clearly were not and the Greeks corrected for that with epicycles. Copernicus was famous for heliocentrism, but it took Kepler to correct Copernicus’s mistake (circular orbits) with the right answer (eliptical orbits). Hipparchus knew where the sun went but ultimately seems to have rejected heliocentrism because of the orbital problem. The problem for Hipparchus and others is that they didn’t know what was on the other side of the Earth. I recognize that thrust of your post is that the average person might have thought that the sun “rested” at night. But at least some people (and likely long before Hipparchus) understood where the sun went, even if they thought it was a flaming chariot.
    A final point is that it took Galileo to resolve some of the final objections to the Earth moving, that is why don’t we feel it? Galileo established the principles of relativity – that is, the laws of motion and so forth would be the same whether the Earth moved or not.
    I did enjoy your post, but I think the real underlying lesson is how far back at least some people had figured out that a basic claim that their religion made about the observable universe could be disproven.

  9. Matt … I thought I was being careful with my phrasing, but clearly not. Obviously there are many different distinctions between a modern, scientific sensibility and those of the Middle Ages, let alone the Iron Age, Bronze Age and so on.

    As a broad point, though, the people who came up with the Sun Chariot were attempting to explain what they saw. Yes, there was a mythic/ritual aspect to reality, and one that informed and inflected the way ‘people’ thought about things, but at least at some level, the Sun Chariot was a not metaphor or poetry or whatever, but meant as a literal description. An *explanation*. There have always been sceptics, there have always been people who’ve applied reason. Glycon, the subject of my previous post, is another great case in point: people looked for rational explanations in the classical period.

    I’ve just read an academic essay by Steven Justice ‘Did the Middle Ages Believe In Their Miracles’ that demonstrates that even very devout and senior Christians, for example, were not superstitious, credulous people inclined to believe in every miracle that came along. That even, say, a Bishop would go to the mundane explanation first.

    You’re right to make the distinction clear. I’m not saying that there’s always been the modern scientific method or that the lines around reality have always been drawn in the same place.

  10. Kate: “I wonder if it’s correct to say that the ancients thought things like, for example, disease were beyond human comprehension.”

    Oh, I think humans comprehended them as the actions of gods or the supernatural. That there was what I called a ‘theological explanation’. I guess that Christianity still says that – that ‘virus’ is the ‘how’, but ‘the devil’ or whatever is the ‘why’. On Catholic discussion boards the idea that mental illnesses like depression are ‘spiritual attacks’ (ie: the devil in action) is pretty prevalent.

    My only real point in the article is that ‘where does the Sun go at night’ was once considered a God question, whereas I doubt any modern Christian would see it as anything but a mechanical one.

    But I think it was a ‘god explanation’, if you like. That it wasn’t an appeal to mystery by saying gods did it, it was an attempt to solve the mystery.

    • Perhaps the difference between the ancients and modern science is that both explain events in terms of bigger-than-human cosmic forces, but science doesn’t anthropomorphise them – evolution has no intentions, gravity bears no malice. (Anthropomorphisms do slip in – messenger RNA, reproductive strategy, rogue star – but only as metaphors).

  11. AJH – thanks. Consider me schooled!

  12. David – again, thanks. If either of you can point me at some good books about this, please do.

  13. “The point is that some people understood where the sun went at night – around the Earth.”

    Yes, I think you’re right to say that the real problem is ‘what’s underneath the Earth’ rather than whether it’s a heliocentric model. It would be possible to live on a flat disc and have a sun go under it at night, of course. Hmmm … actually, you could have a moving Earth and a stationary sun and have the ‘sun goes into a tunnel’ model, if the Sun is smaller than the Earth.

  14. I would have added Phaeton (and the fiery steeds), son of Apollo, with the Zeus/Jupiter reference with regard to the sun moving through the skies.

  15. Thanks for the post. I’m always looking for insights into the ancient mind.

  16. Thanks for the essay — this was thought-provoking.

    I just want to quibble at the margin, however. I was with you until the end, when I hit this wrinkle: “Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer…” I’d be more persuaded if I saw somewhat more charity, in the philosophical sense, from you here.

    First of all, restricting myself to the ivory tower, I have a hard time seeing why the “physics” of various religions is even something worth considering. People aren’t religious because they have a burning desire to know how the world was created and how it will end, and creationism gives them this. Roughly speaking, they’re religious because the community and ethical component of their religion helps them navigate their lives. The rest is atavism. Religion will be truly obsolete not when cosmologists and biologists convince believers of the Big Bang and evolution, but when moral philosophers, economists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists render humanity fully intelligible.

    With that in mind, your last paragraph neglects to consider that some questions, even if not too large to answer, may in fact be too large to answer *right now*, or too large to answer *by any one person*, and yet people need to take action and navigate their world. Religious traditions can provide people with narratives that are useful toward this end—just as, say, reading Jane Austen can provide such utility—both by embodying a kind of intuition pump and condensation of experience to be tested against one’s reason, and by providing justificatory narratives for one’s action.

    Looking out beyond the ivory tower…yes, of course, this is not the way religion is typically practiced, and this is the extent to which I appreciate Dawkins’s work. But if thinking, as many US American Christians seem to, that God the Almighty is your bro is profoundly hubristic and socially destructive, so too is thinking that because we as a species have the potential to know the world, I as an individual am omniscient here and now.

  17. Very interesting post. I can’t say I agree with the claim that the belief about the sun being controlled by gods (or any ‘myth’ for that matter) was “understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism”. The idea of literal truth is actually a modern Western concept. Traditional or non-Western people had a better since of their intellectual limitations. They told stories and myths to make sense of things they could not completely understand, in order to revel some deeper meaning. Ancient civilizations that pre-date the Greeks had more knowledge of astronomy then we often give them credit for. I could recommend a couple of good books; One entitled _Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age_ by Richard Rudgley and _The Great Transformations_ by Karen Armstrong for the meaning and role of religion and mythology in understanding the natural world.

  18. Conservation of momentum was a big sticking point, inertia. It’s hard to imagine the earth rotating and flying through space at thousands of miles an hour if you assume we’d all fall off it as it did, along with the winds.
    Not to mention the edge of the universe, that big sheet the fixed stars sat on just beyond the orbit of Saturn, and what might lie beyond it.

    So yeh, people figured the sun went around our big ball of a world for nearly a couple thousand years, just a long time after the PIE language split. Curved shadow on the moon during lunar eclipses, eh, and differential mid-summer mid-day shadow length by latitude. Observation and science solving ancient mysteries, just like Lance says.

  19. Jake:
    “I have a hard time seeing why the “physics” of various religions is even something worth considering. People aren’t religious because they have a burning desire to know how the world was created and how it will end, and creationism gives them this.”

    I think one of the big mistakes we can do when it comes to belief, especially religious belief, is talk about ‘people’. People now, people then. The reality is always that there’s a spectrum of belief even within one congregation of one church of one denomination. There are always people who fall in line, people who challenge and people with no particular active relationship with a given belief, and individuals change their minds or level of concern at different times. This, I think, has always been the way. It’s almost impossible to explain in what sense a given modern Christian ‘believes’ that Eve ate an apple, say, particularly when what they tell us might not be what they think, or might be the first articulation of their opinion, or might be a provisional opinion.

    For the matter in hand … I think that the Sun Chariot was meant as explanation. Perhaps not ‘literal’, ‘scientific’ explanation in the modern sense, but certainly in those terms for the period. There are clearly forces that explain the behaviour of the observed world. We know the forces are gravity, magnetism and so on. They thought ‘gods’ were doing the work. They thought that there was, effectively, ‘gods’ were a rational explanation for natural phenomenon. Did every study this? No, any more than most of us know what gravity is beyond apples falling on Newton’s head and something to do with Einstein and rubber sheets being weighed down with heavy objects.

    Hmmm … I may have to write a follow up post to set out what I’m saying better.

    “With that in mind, your last paragraph neglects to consider that some questions, even if not too large to answer, may in fact be too large to answer *right now*, or too large to answer *by any one person*, and yet people need to take action and navigate their world.”

    Yes. I’m making two points, I think: (1) ‘where does the Sun go at night?’ is incredibly hard to work out starting from one guy in the stone age staring up at the sky. The answer only looks easy (and as other commentators have noted, the complete model and empirical proof are extremely recent). It must have been very easy to say ‘there are some things we’ll never know’. (2) Is the issue of ‘god questions’. A lot of the big problems have always been treated as theology, if you like, or as issues for the magisterium of the gods. But so many of these things, like the weather, earthquakes, the origin of man and so have been solved by the realisation that you can get a perfectly accurate working model without putting a god in that model. More to the point, it’s precisely when you take god out of the equation that the equation starts to work. God may exist, he doesn’t make earthquakes.

    “Religious traditions can provide people with narratives that are useful toward this end—just as, say, reading Jane Austen can provide such utility”

    Right. Now this, I think is a subject for another new post from me. Briefly: I think you’re right, but no. There *is* a difference between religion, instructive fiction and fictional role models. There is a difference between a Christian’s belief in Jesus and my belief that Superman’s awfully nice. It’s a complex one to navigate, definitely. The Bible is written as a series of stories, it has characters telling stories within that. It takes the form of stories, but the expected relationship is very different. One of those differences is that religion claims special status. No Christian leader says ‘there’s utility in reading Jesus and Jane Austen and Superman comics to get a sense of how to get by in this world’.

  20. “One entitled _Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age_ by Richard Rudgley and _The Great Transformations_ by Karen Armstrong for the meaning and role of religion and mythology in understanding the natural world”

    I’ve read and enjoyed both of those. I’d recommend The End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews, as well.

    ‘Literal truth’ is shorthand. What I mean is that it was meant as an honest, face value account of what happens. People believed there were gods, and those gods did incredible things. There wasn’t, in this case, a layer of mysticism over an impossible problem. It wasn’t something that happened in a ritual space or a dreamtime or what we’d call ‘symbolically’ or ‘metaphorically’. It wasn’t some complex system, like kaballah or the zodiac. It was as simple as a sentence: ‘oh, that happens because a god pushes it across the sky’.

  21. A good introduction to Indo-European historical linguistics is “Indo-European Language and Culture” by Benjamin W. Fortson.

  22. Lance:
    I disagree on two points: the first being that we shouldn’t talk about ‘people’ when talking about religion, the second (implicitly) that we can talk the everyday statements and practices of religious people at face value.

    I think if you want to get anywhere constructive theorizing religion, you need to look at it as a cultural adaptation sustained by certain sets of circumstances to which ‘people’ (a representative agent, if you prefer–I’m not entirely sure what the objection is) are responding.

    Secondly, we should keep in mind that many of the people under investigation are poor, uneducated, or miseducated. This always seems to be a huge blind spot for the typical theorist of religion, for obvious reasons. In any case, you cannot always take the statements and practices of such people at face value, as if they’ve had the same education and socialization as you, and have learned to think and to account for themselves in the same way you have.

    Lastly, you neglect the distinction I made between religion in practice and religion in theory. But I digress — my point was that “we solved the biggest problem of them all” (biggest =? hardest) does not imply “I can solve any problem myself” which is where religion is invoked.

    “Concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer” is not something the typical religious person does.

  23. Jake:
    “we shouldn’t talk about ‘people’ when talking about religion”

    I just mean that phrases like ‘people in the Middle Ages were particularly religious’, say, are meaningless. Every age has the full spectrum of the curious, incurious, dedicated and apathetic, dissenters and conformists. In different proportions, I’ve no doubt, but Anselm is not typical of his age any more than we can point to someone today and say they’re typical of ours.

    “I think if you want to get anywhere constructive theorizing religion, you need to look at it as a cultural adaptation sustained by certain sets of circumstances”

    I used to think that. I used to think of it in terms of social structure and game theory and strategy. I don’t think that’s the case, now. I don’t think people hold or ever held god beliefs because they wanted to be ‘practical’. There were social advantages to being in a group, say. But if you want to do that, join a group, why bring gods into it? There’s clearly a reason that can’t be reduced to simple social advantage. The adaptive arguments usually come from people who aren’t religious, and have always seemed to me to be forced, like someone who didn’t find a joke funny trying to explain why other people laughed.

    “Secondly, we should keep in mind that many of the people under investigation are poor, uneducated, or miseducated. This always seems to be a huge blind spot for the typical theorist of religion”

    Again, there are important distinctions, and we need to be careful. I’d say that the entire population of, say, the modern UK understands that the Sun doesn’t go down a tunnel at night. There are clearly people in ancient times who knew that, too. I can’t say when the shift from ‘a specialist scholar had a theory’ to ‘total acceptance of the population of this as a fact’ took place. It clearly did.

    “Lastly, you neglect the distinction I made between religion in practice and religion in theory. But I digress — my point was that “we solved the biggest problem of them all” (biggest =? hardest) does not imply “I can solve any problem myself” which is where religion is invoked.”

    Again, ‘we’ is a slippery word. I didn’t solve anything.

    • I wouldn’t say such statements are meaningless. I think you’re taking any such usage of ‘people’ to be a universal generalization. You should show more charity to your interlocutors. In any case, I grant that ‘people’ believe for a multiplicity of reasons, but I don’t share your assumption that these can’t be usefully reduced to or approximated by some subset of those reasons.

      And: That people’s religious activity is sustained by social structures or by (perhaps social) needs doesn’t mean that people choose to be religious out of practicality. We’re only modeling motivation as rational choice, not claiming all people are actually rational.

      And “we” is indeed a slippery word—that’s the point I’m making :) You can say “I didn’t solve anything” but you may not act or think in accordance with that fact. Likewise for ‘people’ in general.

  24. Grooving on all these book recommendations, folks – thanks!

  25. “I wouldn’t say such statements are meaningless. I think you’re taking any such usage of ‘people’ to be a universal generalization. You should show more charity to your interlocutors.”

    I apologise if I haven’t seemed charitable.

    I think discussion of religion is an area particularly prone to slippery language, and I think that applies to what I wrote as much as anything anyone else has. Perhaps a better way to put it is that phrases like ‘we’, ‘people believed’ and so on are not ‘meaningless’ so much as capable of meaning just about anything. As I say, trying to work out what ‘people believe’ now is a shell game within a shell game. If asked or challenged, people come up with post hoc justifications for their belief. Often these beliefs are contextual or difficult to put into words: at some level, modern, liberal, mainstream Christians ‘believe’ God created man, even if they also fully believe in evolutionary theory. So trying to quantify or codify what the range of belief was in the Middle Ages, or what the Romans thought of their gods or whatever is a bit of a mug’s game.

    “In any case, I grant that ‘people’ believe for a multiplicity of reasons, but I don’t share your assumption that these can’t be usefully reduced to or approximated by some subset of those reasons.”

    Again, I think this is possible but I don’t think performing an autopsy on why someone holds the religious views they do really expresses it. Belief in God seems to transcend the individual reasons for belief. I’ll talk about some worked examples in a future post, but, in short, if a person says they are religious because who else but God could design the human eye, and you explain how, they’ll often (usually) go ‘oh, well, I still believe in God’.

    “And “we” is indeed a slippery word—that’s the point I’m making :) You can say “I didn’t solve anything” but you may not act or think in accordance with that fact. Likewise for ‘people’ in general.”

    I’m not suggesting that every individual human being will solve the mystery of consciousness. What I’m saying is that the ‘big mysteries’ have been framed as top-down, complex, universally imposed and divinely inspired and stood as mysteries for millennia. But, as far as I know, the ones we solved have all turned out to be the opposite: small, local, blind, simple processes that add up. Reframing the question in those terms has answered the big questions every time.

    One other thing I’d note: Douglas Adams has a good point when he says that asking the right question is better than knowing the answer. I don’t think theology is asking the right question when it comes to consciousness. I think its guns are, as it were, facing in the wrong direction. If I had to back a horse, I’d say that the way to solve ‘the mystery of consciousness’ is going to be to find a small, simple, blind, local process, not to work out the plan of the god that’s pushing it all along.

    • I heartily agree with you that the next big question is “what is consciousness”. Have you read any of the published dialogues of the Dalai Lama and various neuroscientists/physicists/etc. Lots to chew on in what they have shared. And remember, the Dalai Lama (and Buddhism itself) leaves the existence/non-existence of a “god” outside of the conversation.

  26. “Perhaps the difference between the ancients and modern science is that both explain events in terms of bigger-than-human cosmic forces, but science doesn’t anthropomorphise them”

    I think that’s a really good distinction, and at the heart of what I’m trying to say. The ‘god theory’ is, at heart, that there’s this powerful being that controls a natural force or phenomenon and does so with intention, purpose, an agenda … free will, if you like. But I think a modern Christian who says God directs evolution or lit the blue touchpaper on the Big Bang is essentially on the same ‘side’ as the people who thought a god pulled the Sun along in his chariot. There’s a superperson with a purpose ‘behind it all’.

  27. Great post, enhanced by great discussion.

    From the sublime to the ridiculous: I can only imagine what it would have meant for human history if we’d had two suns.

  28. “I can only imagine what it would have meant for human history if we’d had two suns.”

    That reminds me of this video:

  29. That BBC article on the “Oldest English words” is weird. Professor Pagel says he could derive a phrasebook that could let you talk to William the Conqueror. But William the Conqueror spoke French.

    We’re told that the word “four” underwent a “linguistic evolutionary leap that makes it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-European languages”. It changed phonologically, yes, but how does it make it younger? There is a Proto-Indo-European ancestor of English “four”, just as there is a PIE ancestor of “five”, “three”, “two”, “who”, “I”, etc. The article gives the impression that old words are those words that have changed phonologically the least. That’s a weird definition of “old”.

    http://bradshawofthefuture.blogspot.com/2009/03/only-word-they-know-is-grunt-and-they.html

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