Archives For The Evolution of God

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Will the Goddess Movement thrive after the Baby-Boom generation is gone? That’s the concern of Sage Starwalker, co-editor of the MatriFocus e-zine, which just released its Lammas 2009 issue. Starwalker argues that the Goddess Movement needs to be more engaged online in order to reach members of Generation Y and beyond.

“What can we do to make sure that the Goddess Movement lives beyond our generation? I’ve asked myself this question many times. Recently I asked a room full of Goddess Scholars[1] to consider: While some young girls are lucky enough to be invited to rituals, and some are educated about the Goddess by their families, many girls, young women, and nascent queens have yet to discover Goddess. If they’re not in our homes or attending our public rituals or our workshops, where do we find them? Or perhaps the better question is this: Where do they find us?  … If the serious archeological, philosophical, and historical Goddess work and the community of scholarship and shared discussion aren’t happening on the Web, the members of GenY (and their younger siblings) won’t be likely to find their home in it.”

Starwalker endorses the use of social media like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LiveJournal to reach out to younger people, a tactic that others in the Goddess Movement must agree with since you can find folks like Z Budapest, Susan Weed, and Carolyn Lee Boyd twittering away at Twitter. Whether this inter-generational networking will grow the Goddess Movement for the future remains to be seen, but you should all head over to MatriFocus and read the entirety of Sage Starwalker’s interesting editorial.

As much as it pains me to mention Robert Wright again after his rather disastrous essay on shamanism and neo-shamanism for Slate.com, both The Daily Dish and the Religion News Service Blog have mentioned an excerpt from his new book “The Evolution of God” on a subject near and dear to many Pagan hearts: “Did Yahweh have a wife?”

“One oft-claimed difference [between the pagan gods and Yahweh] is that whereas the pagan gods had sex lives, Yahweh didn’t … It’s true that there’s no biblical ode to Yahweh that compares with the Ugaritic boast that Baal copulated with a heifer “77 times,” even “88 times,” or that El’s penis “extends like the sea.” And it seems puzzling: If Yahweh eventually merged with [the Canaanite god] El, and El had a sex life, why didn’t the postmerger Yahweh have one? Why, more specifically, didn’t Yahweh inherit El’s consort, the goddess Athirat? Maybe he did. There are references in the Bible to a goddess named Asherah, and scholars have long believed that Asherah is just the Hebrew version of Athirat. Of course, the biblical writers don’t depict Asherah as God’s wife … However, in the late twentieth century, archaeologists discovered intriguing inscriptions, dating to around 800 BCE, at two different Middle Eastern sites. The inscriptions were blessings in the name not just of Yahweh but of ‘his Asherah.’”

For Wright, this is just further confirmation of his theory that “God” evolved into his/its current (mostly) benevolent  (and monotheistic) form (instead of it being mere religious revisionism). This “polytheism evolved into monotheism” idea has been a popular theory amongst certain Christian thinkers for ages. The trouble is that you have to ignore a lot of stuff (or make some rather insulting generalizations about non-monotheistic cultures) to make this idea work.

“How good is his theology? Wright has done extensive homework, and recounts the history of the Abrahamic faiths in detail, beginning with the animism of early hunter-gatherers and moving through polytheism and monolatry (the worship of several gods with one dominating) to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, ancient and modern. (What about other faiths? In his zeal to pull societies toward moral perfection, did the Lord of the Universe forget the Hindus, aboriginals, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Scientologists?) The problem is that Wright has a tendency, already demonstrated in Nonzero, to dwell on data that support his theory and to ignore those that do not support it.”

Wright’s idea of an ever-evolving (single) God bringing us all to benevolence is a fantasy to reassure nominal Christians and borderline agnostics that religion isn’t an obstacle to enlightenment and peace. The trouble with his theory is that it privileges monotheism with an ethical uniqueness that it simply doesn’t posses.

For a change of pace, let’s look at a newly released book that I’m looking forward to reading. The University of Chicago Press has recently released a new book by Cathy Gere entitled “Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism”, on how British archaeologist Arthur Evans’ excavation and reconstruction of the palace of Knossos on Crete helped inspire a generation of thinkers and artists.

“With Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Cathy Gere relates the fascinating story of Evans’s excavation and its long-term effects on Western culture. Gere shows how Evans’s often-fanciful account of ancient Minoan society captivated a generation riven by serious doubts about the fundamental values of European civilization. After the First World War left the Enlightenment dream in tatters, the lost paradise that Evans offered in the concrete labyrinth—pacifist and matriarchal, pagan and cosmic—seemed to offer a new way forward for writers, artists, and thinkers such as Freud, James Joyce, Georgio de Chirico, Robert Graves, Hilda Doolittle, all of whom emerge as forceful characters in Gere’s account.”

Sounds like a must-read for anyone interested in the cultural threads that ultimately fed into the rebirth of Paganism. You can view the table of contests, here, and read the introduction, here. You can read an interesting review of the book, here.

The Nanaimo Daily News has a by-the-numbers piece on a local Pagan Pride Day event in case you feel nostalgic for the good old days of journalistic accounts of modern Paganism.

“There will be no sacrifices, disembowelling of chickens of goats or the casting of spells to turn someone into a toad. But don’t be shocked if you run into your neighbour at the Pagan Pride Day celebration at Departure Bay Beach on Saturday … “They find out we all have children, so obviously we don’t eat them. They realize it’s a very gentle and personal religion,” she says.”

Come to Pagan Pride Day! We won’t dismbowl a goat in front of you, turn you into a toad, or eat your children!

In a final note, Google News has been slowly building up its newspaper archives, recently quadrupling the number of articles you can search at the beginning of August. As journalism’s history gets digitized, it will allow us to get a clearer picture of how coverage of modern Paganism has (and hasn’t) evolved. A neat function of the Google News archive search is looking at the cool little interactive news-volume graph when you search within a set number of years.

The above graphic is mentions of the word “Wicca” from 1970 to 2009. From it you can see that 1999 was a watershed moment in being noticed by the press. You can also see how it is now possible to do a daily blog centered on Pagan news. If only they had a digital record of British newspapers, we could really track the history of modern Paganism through journalistic accounts.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

You have to wonder if Slate.com is getting somewhat hard-pressed to find subject matter and writers for their regular “Faith-Based” section. How else to explain them getting journalist Robert Wright, author of several game theory/evolutionary psychology-boosting books, including his recent “The Evolution of God”, to write about Neo-Shamanism? Wright, who seems to be a proponent of the outmoded and inaccurate idea that monotheism is a more evolved form of belief than polytheism (Publishers Weekly points out that he uses a “naive and antiquated approach to the sociology and anthropology of religion”), is so eager to debunk popular myths about shamans that he makes some rather sloppy assertions right out of the gate.

“The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles.”

While there is certainly some significant overlap between modern Paganism and Neo-Shamanism, the latter isn’t a “subset” of the former. Nor is modern Paganism a subset of New Age spirituality. These are all distinct religious/social movements with different starting points, ideologies, and goals. Wright is confusing the overlap of practitioners and subcultures (and the tendency of some academics to lump them together for the sake of convenience) with some sort of neat nesting-dolls order of New Religious Movements. Meanwhile, before Wright talks about all the indigenous shamans who were fakes and confidence men, he wants us to know that he isn’t trying to offend.

“But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it’s great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don’t doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a “holistic vision” who selflessly sought to share that vision.”

So big of him, don’t you think? Despite admitting that some shamans may have indeed been honorable and wise, he still wants to point out that some were not. As if human nature hasn’t taught us that some people, no matter how exhaulted their status, can still take part in some very real moral failings and abuse their power. In fact, Wright pretty much admits that there may be some real value to various shamanic ideas and practices (he “praises” them by comparing their worldview to followers of early Abrahamic religions), he just wanted us to take off our rose-colored (shamanic) glasses.

“I’m for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don’t be under the illusion that you’re helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse.”

So to sum up, Neo-Shamanic adherents (who are a subset of Pagans, who are a subset of New Agers) need to remember that some indigenous shamans were fakers and frauds, but really, there is some  (early Abrahamic-esque) wisdom and good stuff to be found there. Heck, “ordinary consciousness could use some transcending”! So I guess now that the Neo-Shamans (not to mention the traditional indigenous shamans) have been taken down a peg by Wright, those crazy diamonds can all shine on. I have to wonder, was there really a point to this article? Did Slate.com actually pay him to just ramble on about animal bladders full of blood and how often shamans got lucky? Of all the topics he could cover, why was Robert Wright writing about Neo-Shamanism?