Saturday, September 29, 2012

Human Sacrifice and the Gods That Call for It

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

"Human sacrifices are one of the principal characteristic traits of Devil-worship..." HOD, P13, Paul Carus
When Carus says this, he means not the worship of the Biblical Devil, but rather a Devil; a type of god who is worshiped and appeased out of fear.  For, as Carus proposes, from fear is the origin of all religions.

Even though Carus is not talking specifically about the Biblical Devil, he doesn't hesitate to bring up how frequently human sacrifice is mentioned in the Bible.  Usually that is in association with worship of other gods, such as Molek in Leviticus 20:2-5.

The most notable Biblical pagan human sacrifice was in 2 Kings 3:  Moab rebelled against the Israelites, but the battle went very poorly for them.  Through Elisha, God had prophesied that the Moabites would be utterly destroyed.  Just as the destruction of the Moabites was nearly guaranteed, the Moabite king sacrificed his firstborn son on the city wall.  It does not mention to which god the son was sacrificed, but it was probably Chemosh (1 Kings 11:33).  Anyway, this sacrificed worked, because afterward the "fury against Israel was great," causing the Israelites to retreat back home!

The Biblical God considered human sacrifice detestable, at least by fire (Deuteronomy 12:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-12).  However, that didn't stop Him from commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering, or Jephthah from sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to Him as a way of saying thank you for a battle victory.  And, of course, Jesus was the ultimate human sacrifice.

Carus suggests that:

"Progress in civilisation(sic) led to a modification but not to a direct abolition of human sacrifices." HOD, P12, Paul Carus
I am not so sure.

In this model, human sacrifices come first, and then get changed as the developing society becomes more sensitive to the loss of human life.  He suggests that the modifications come in various forms, such as allowing a chance for the person to escape sacrifice (like in the "sacrifice" of the Native Americans in the previous post) and sometimes:

"... human victims were supplanted by animals, as is indicated by various religious legends. Thus a hind was substituted for Iphigenia and a ram for Isaac." HOD, P13, Paul Carus

However, I am more inclined to believe that human sacrifice was a later invention.  At least, if you don't include killing captured enemies part of human sacrifice.  It seems that sacrifice is fundamentally about, well, sacrifice.  It is giving up something you would desire for yourself: the fruits of the orchard, a ram, etc.  The more you desire it, the more powerful the sacrifice, which is why firstfruits (Exodus 23:19) and perfect livestock (Leviticus 1:3) are preferred.  Following that line of thought, sacrificing of your children would be the pinnacle of reverence for your god; an echelon of piety which would take time to recognize.

In one of the more comically overreaching statements Carus makes, he discusses how cannibalism is the "height of abomination" of Devil-worship, where the partakers gain the attributes of the slain, and then he follows that with:

"The last remnants of the idea that the wrath of the Deity must be appeased by blood, and that we acquire spiritual powers by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the victim still linger with us to-day in the medieval interpretations of certain church dogmas, and will only disappear before the searching light of a fearless and consistent religious reformation." HOD, P13-14, Paul Carus
This is aimed right at Christianity and Jesus saying that you have to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54-56).  While there is a hint of truth in it, to tie in ritual cannibalism with Christianity, from where there is no established cannibalistic history, is too much of a reach, even for me.

So I think that Carus goes astray a little in his assessment, but he still has still a lot of good content within his book, so I hope you'll join me as we dig into the historical details of the Devil-worship within different cultures in the coming chapters.

In closing, out this chapter, I'll leave you with Carus' summary view on the evolution of religions.  Note that by evil, he is referring more to adverting natural disaster, defeat in battle, or the wrath of the deity, and may best be thought of in contrast to the good, such as love, peace, tolerance, understanding, generosity, etc.
"We must remember, however, that certain superstitions, at early stages of the religious development of mankind, are as unavoidable as the various errors which science and philosophy pass through in their natural evolution.

"Religion always begins with fear, and the religion of savages may directly be defined as "the fear of evil and the various efforts made to escape evil." Though the fear of evil in the religions of civilised(sic) nations plays no longer so prominent a part, we yet learn through historical investigations that at an early stage of their development almost all worship was paid to the powers of evil, who were regarded with special awe and reverence." HOD, P14, Paul Carus

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Functional Gods of the Natives

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

Savages.  That's what the early European explorers and settlers thought they had found in the native peoples of the Americas.  Their dress and their customs were so far removed their European counterparts that they seemed primitive and uncivilized to the white men.

Paul Carus begins his historical evaluation with cases of relatively recent, community-wide Devil-worship, working on the thesis (as discussed in the prior post) that all religions have their origin in Devil-worship.  That leads to the Devil-worship of the Native Americans.

But what exactly does Carus mean by "Devil?"  That gets tricky.  Most minds familiar with Christianity will envision the Devil as an "evil" being which actively fights against the good.  Sometimes, that is what Carus means as well, but what he is referring to here is just a demon or deity which does not claim to be perfectly moral or good.  At least, that's what I think he meant, or should have meant.

Another part of Carus' thesis is that Devil-worship is just the first stage of religion.  Given enough time, he implies that religions will eventually evolve to God-worship when "the positive power of good is recognised(sic) and man finds out by experience that the good, although its progress may be ever so slow, is always victorious in the end." HOD, P14, Paul Carus  While I can see how propitiation of "devils" could instigate all religions, I have some problems with this part of his thesis.  I don't think that, given enough time, Devil-worship absolutely will progress to God-worship, if we are defining "God" as a perfectly moral and Good.  Instead, I think that these "Devils" may instead get more complex.

Anyway, on to the natives...

In most of the chapter on "Devil Worship," Carus briefly relays accounts of the religious practices of the Native Americans from various historians.  The sum of these accounts is that, while many of the Native Americans did have a belief in a good deity, it was the devilish deity which garnered the most respect and worship.  This builds on his platform that all religions start with Devil-worship.  However, I got a slightly different vibe when I read Carus' longest quoted reference; one from Captain John Smith, one of the primary leaders in the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia.

Below is Carus' quoted text from Smith's "A map of Virginia. With a description of the covntrey, etc., written by Captaine Smith, etc. Oxford. Printed by Joseph Barnes. 1612."  I have changed the text only to match up with modern English for easier reading:
"There is yet in Virginia no place discovered to bee so Savage in which the savages have not a religion, Deer, and Bow and Arrows. All things that were able to do them hurt beyond their prevention they adore with their kind of divine worship; as the fire, water, lightning, thunder, our ordinance pieces (guns), horses, etc. But their chief God they worship is the Devil. Him they call Oke, and serve him more of fear than love. They say they have conference with him and fashion themselves as near to his shape as they can imagine. In their Temples they have his image evil favoredly carved and then painted and adorned with chains, copper, and beads, and covered with a skin in such manner as the deformity may well suit with such a God." (Original ed., p. 29.)
Carus had many great insights and explorations in his book (as time will show as my series continues), but here I think he is taking Smith's words a little too literally, not accounting for Smith's limited perspective.  Smith's take on the Native American's "divine worship" of powerful items like the white mans' guns and horses should have been tempered with their appreciation for fire and water, both of which they had long known before the white man.  In all likelihood, the Native American's regarded them as gifts from the gods due to their great strength and utility.

Also, we can see that Smith's view was directly tainted by his Christianity, saying not that the natives worship some strange god, or even a demon, but rather nothing less than the Devil (in the Christian sense of the word).  Smith notes that the natives worship more out of fear than love.  Like most modern Christians, Smith seems unaware of the God of the Old Testament, and even some of the content of the New Testament, where God commanded His followers to fear Him over twice as often as He told them to love Him.

As the account continues, we find the "human sacrifice" which provides the direct association with Devil-worship.  I've added the bold emphasis...
"In some part of the Country, they have yearly a sacrifice of children. Such a one was at Quiyoughcohanock, some 10 miles from James Town, and thus performed.

"Fifteen of the properest young boys, between 10 and 15 years of age, they painted white. Having brought them forth, the people spent the [morning] in dancing and singing about them with rattles.

"In the afternoon, they put those children to the root of a tree. By them, all the men stood in a guard, every one having a Bastinado (a stick or club)  in his hand, made of reeds bound together. [These men] made a lane between them all along, through which there were appointed 5 young men to fetch these children. So every one of the five went through the guard, to fetch a child, each after other by turns: the guard fearlessly beating them with their Bastinadoes, and they patiently enduring and receiving all; defending the children with their naked bodies from the unmerciful blows they pay them soundly, though the children escape. All this while,the women weep and cry out very passionately; providing mats, skins, moss, and dry wood, as things fitting their children's funerals.

"After the children were thus passed the guard, the guard tore down the tree, branches and boughs, with such violence, that they rent the body and made wreathes for their heads, or bedecked their hair with the leaves. What else was done with the children was not seen; but they were all cast on a heap in a valley, as dead: where they made a great feast for all the company.

"The Werowance (the chief) being demanded the meaning of this sacrifice, answered that the children were not all dead, but [only] that the Oke or Devil did suck the blood from their left breast [of those], who chanced to be his by lot, till they were dead. But the rest were kept in the wilderness by the young men till nine months were expired, during which time they must not converse with any: and of these, were made their Priests and Conjurers.

"This sacrifice they held to be so necessary, that if they should omit it, their Oke or Devil and all their other Quiyoughcosughes (which are their other Gods) would let them have no Deer, Turkeys, Corn, nor fish: and yet besides, he would make great slaughter amongst them.

"To divert them from this blind idolatry, many used their best endeavors, chiefly with the Werowances of Quiyoughcohanock; whose devotion, apprehension, and good disposition much exceeded any in those Countries: who though we could not as yet prevail with them to forsake [their] false Gods, yet this he did believe, that our God as much exceeded theirs, as our Guns did their Bows and Arrows; and many times did send to the President, at James Town, men with presents, entreating them to pray to his God for rain, for his Gods would not send him any.

"And in this lamentable ignorance do these poor souls sacrifice themselves to the Devil, not knowing their Creator." (Original ed., pp. 32, 33, 34.)
Now, I'm no anthropologist, but I play one on the internet.  What I see here in Smith's account looks to me more like a type of coming-of-age transformation ceremony than a human sacrifice.  Young boys (not yet men)...painted white (like bones)...young men protect the boys (building bonding and group cohesion, but also symbolizing a transitional agent from the underworld of death)...women weeping as though the boys have died (morning the loss of the child' childhood)...boys thrown on a heap (symbolizing death)...nine months later, the come back to the tribe (the symbolic deaths followed by symbolic rebirth via nine months).

As for the "sacrifice," it doesn't appear that the ceremony is really a sacrificial ceremony.  The Werowance explained that the children were not actually killed, although sometimes ("by lot") some boy or boys did die.  He explained that this was Oke's doing, but such a perspective on the loss is similar to what we find in Job 1:21 "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." NIV

As for the sentiment that this ceremony was necessary to satisfy their gods, or else they risk having no "Deer, Turkeys, Corn, nor fish: and yet besides, [Oke] would make great slaughter amongst them," this is also in line with the type of worship we find in the Old Testament, where God would curse the Israelites with much worse than Oke's threat if they failed to obey all of His Law, which included ceremonies.

Of  course, maybe these similarities are just evidence that Jehovah at one time in distant history was more of a "Devil" than a God.  Carus would later make that case with other verses...

On a final note, we see more of Smith's tainted perspective in calling the native religion "blind idolatry."  Clearly he is unable to see the parallels between their religion and his own.  But even beyond that, he does not understand their religion.  It is more complex and more functional than the monotheism he is used to.  This can be seen as he observes that the natives thought that "[the Biblical] God as much exceeded theirs, as our Guns did their Bows and Arrows."

What Smith didn't realize was that they were speaking functionally.  The natives had different gods with different spheres of influence.  They would have thought the white man's God superior only because the God of the Bible allegedly created and controls everything.  So Smith and company didn't make many converts of the natives because their gods already fulfilled the necessary functional roles.  The Biblical God, while more grand in scope, was superfluous to the natives.

When you have a functioning system, there is little impetus for change, and so I think that it is unlikely that all religions would ultimately yield a purely "good" God on a long enough timeline.  A capricious, human-like god, showing both good and bad qualities, could persist on indefinitely, especially given that such behavior mimics the realities of life often all too well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Like an Ape Out of Water

Thinking back to the 2012 Summer Olympics, two things stand out in my mind:  One, it was amazing to me to see just how specialized the body forms were in order to excel at certain sports.  I've seen that in other Olympic games, but for some reason in this year's competition it seemed even more prevalent.  Two, in the majority of the swimming competitions, the participants have mastered what I would call a "dolphin body kick" where, from the mid-to-lower back and on out to the toes, the athletes would propel themselves with a rhythmic waving motion in their latter half.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I have always been curious about why we look so different from our evolutionary close relatives.  Why are we bipedal when they are not?  Why are we naked when they have fur?

Back when evolution's implications were being explored, scientists of the time came up with an answer to those questions:  We moved from the jungles to the savannah.  We needed to stand to see prey and watch for predators in the tall grasses.  The heat of the savannah and other factors helped to make our fur coats unnecessary, so they were shed in an evolutionary process.  Etc.

As archeologist dug into our past, they discovered a big problem with that theory:  The fossilized plants found with the ancient hominid skeletons were not from the savannah!  However, academia has become a little too attached to the previous theory. It has become a faith.  Even though there is this glaring problem with the theory, they still cling to it.   They use it as a foundation for teaching and as a springboard for their questions in interpreting archeological findings rather than embracing the void of no theory, or exploring other possible options...

NetFlix has recently incorporated "TED Talks" into their library, and one particular series of talks called "Ancient Clues" discussed this little big issue.  A delightful elderly lady scientist, named Elaine Morgan, discussed a theory which offered to fill in the gaps and step past the savannah issue.  It's a theory from back in the early 1960's which never got any traction, nor apparently was it ever properly refuted.  It goes like this:

What if we had aquatic ancestors in our evolutionary family tree?  Aquatic chimps?  Strange, yes, but there are several factors which we seem to share with other mammals of aquatic ancestry.  I'll list a few to entice you to check out the talk for yourself:

  1. Except for one subterranean mole in South America, all "naked" mammals have an evolutionary aquatic ancestor.
  2. Only mammals with aquatic ancestors can consciously control their breathing.  (This is critical for our ability to speak.)
  3. Only mammals with aquatic ancestors have a layer of fat under the skin, like we have but chimps do not.

If you have an interest in evolution science, you should definitely watch this.  Also, if you can appreciate how the beliefs of even scientists can morph into a system resembling religion, you should definitely watch this.

This may not be the correct answer to the question of why we are so different than other primates, but we owe it to ourselves to honestly explore this theory as a possibility.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Seeing the Light on Vacation

My best friend Wasam (a Thai name) and I just got back from an epic road trip: two weeks, six states, two countries, six national parks.  It was a truly excellent experience, and something we'll both be cherishing in our memories for years to come.

At one point, Wasam said:
"Dude, everything we need is in this car right now."
He was referring to more than just what we needed for the trip.  He meant that we had the necessities for life, and a good one at that...  No fancy house.  No widescreen TV.  No junk.  Just a little clothing, some shelter (tent), some food, and a way to see the world.

The simple life really is a good life, but I don't want to bore you with a trite platitude.  Like many things in life, it is the process, the journey, the story which makes matters more interesting and enriching.  This story starts about fifteen years ago, with roots centuries deep.

One stereotype of mainstream Asian culture is an interest in displaying social status.  That's far from being unique to Asia, I know, but it has taken a special prevalence there, and has been made manifest through an infatuation with product brands in our modern era...

Nike.  Gucci.  Even McDonalds.  Wasam has often remarked how expensive it was in Thailand to buy Baskin Robbins; even a single scoop of their ice cream in Thailand would cost the Thai equivalent of a full meal for up to two people from a street vendor.  (In fact, Wasam has said that it is so cheap and easy to get food from the various street vendors that often families to choose that option over making dinner themselves.  But the quality is relatively high.  Imagine flipping the perspective to where a standard restaurant meal is served at Western fast food speed and cost, while McDonalds is a meal that people might save for a special occasion, and you'll get the gist.)

So fifteen years ago, when Wasam and I first met, he was very brand focused, but there was a small, quiet part of him that didn't want to be.  Perhaps it was from the example set by his parents coming through poverty to a position of financial comfort while maintaining some humility.  Perhaps it was just a growing repugnance with superficial cultural contexts.  I can't help but wonder if that's part of what attracted him to me as a friend.

As I look back on my closest friendships, I realize that there is usually one or more strengths that they have in areas where I am weak.  It seems that I want friends who will challenge me to grow and think in different perspectives more than I want friends who are just fun to hang around with.  And it seems like there is reciprocation.  My strengths are often weaknesses in my friends, so through the years we have grown stronger together.

Fifteen years ago, almost to a fault, I had practically no brand affinity, especially when compared to Wasam.

In the time that has passed, I've gained an appreciation for design and craftsmanship which had been sorely lacking.  I am willing to pay more when it makes sense to pay more, up to a practical limit.  Meanwhile, Wasam has nearly conquered the materialist-elitism instilled in him by his cultural upbringing in Thailand; perhaps ironically doing so in a country which is widely considered the most materialistic on earth; the United States.

Watching your friends and loved ones grow through the years is truly one of life's great rewards.  Challenging yourself to grow is one of life's most worthwhile endeavors.  If you need to gain perspective on where things are, what is important, and what needs to change, may I suggest a long drive with a good friend?