Halloween is coming up, reminding us to confront the lurking evils around us, and to dispatch them to the sulfuric pits from whence they came. Up your game this year with real advice from history’s best demon hunters. These saints have been taking out the trash for millennia, and it’s time you had some of their mojo.
Anthony of the Desert
The story of Saint Anthony (c.251-356) had a huge impact on the development of demonology. He is sometimes referred to as the Father of Monks, having created a desert monasticism that drew Christian ascetics far away from the urban centers. But his famous fight with demons in the Egyptian desert also laid the groundwork for all subsequent thinking about demons and possession .
Questing after spiritual purification, Anthony left the pleasures of domestic life and moved to live in a tomb outside his village, where he was attacked by a “multitude of demons” who sliced him into a bloody mess. “For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment.” But his faith revitalized him and he rallied back. After throwing off the temptations of the flesh, Anthony was revisited by the devil many times – but the devil always shape-shifted to appear as some creature. “Changes of form for evil are easy for the devil,” Anthony explained, “so in the night they make such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things.”
But most demons, Anthony assures us, have no real power in the physical world. They only seem to be causally efficacious. The trick is to acknowledge that you are having a frightening experience, but realize that the frightener is like a hallucination rather than a material creature. In fact, reading St. Anthony is like reading an early self-help treatise for schizophrenics.
In addition to demons who shape-shift into frightening phantasms – which are easily banished by a resolute sign-of-the-cross – Anthony acknowledges the phenomenon of real human possession. This is somewhat difficult to square with his persistent claim that demons have no real power. In the last half of the Life of Anthony, Athanasius tells of many terrible cases of people who have come into the custody of demon spirits. A man named Fronto, for example, had a madness that involved biting his own tongue and injuring his own eyes, a woman from Busiris had mucus fall from her nose that immediately turned into worms once it hit the ground, and “another, a person of rank, came to him, possessed by a demon; and … he even ate the excreta from his own body.” And this young man actually attacked Anthony, but the sage said, “Be not angry with the young man, for it is not he, but the demon which is in him.”
Anthony cured all these cases and many more, but it is unlikely that the man eating his own excrement would have agreed with Anthony’s refrain that demons are powerless. And, for that matter, if they are truly powerless, why would anyone need Anthony’s exorcising acumen? The answer is interesting: Demons do not have real power unless you become afraid of them, in which case you grant them entry into the cause-and-effect world. Our response to demon attack can either give them causal traction in our world or banish them from it. We are instrumental in the outcome of the encounter. The role of the demon hunter is to help us cognitively reframe the experience, thereby neutering the threat.
Anthony’s demonology was further refined by many Church Fathers, including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, for example, took pains in his City of God to distinguish earlier positive uses of the term “demon” (by pagans like Socrates), from the only truly positive spirit beings – the “angels.” The pagans, he argued, were aware of angels and demons, but not as such. Heathens lacked the Christian truth and therefore misinterpreted their occasional encounters with the spirit realm – imagining a pagan theology where they should have seen a monotheism. But more interestingly, Augustine delved into the psychology or epistemology of the demon mind – arguing that demons have knowledge but their knowledge is not sanctified by a sense of charity.
Citing Corinthians, Augustine says “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity buildeth up,” and he uses this point to connect demonic psychology with pride . In a tour de force of hermeneutics, he further shows that this is why human pride is empty of charity and indistinguishable (except perhaps by degree) from demonic psychology. Demons, he says, are capable of getting the outward shell of Christ’s message, but not the inner meaning. Demons have knowledge, but it is sterile. And the important difference between demonic and angelic knowledge is spelled out. “The good angels, therefore, hold cheap all that knowledge of material and transitory things which the demons are so proud of possessing” . Perhaps the good news for humans in this picture is that because demons focus, like humans, on the transitory changing world, they can be deceived. They, like us, live in the world of shadows, and passions can agitate them as well. That means their own emotions can be used against them, by the clever demon hunter. Angels (and Saints), instead behold in the wisdom of God the eternal “cardinal causes” of things, and so they are never deceived.
Augustine instructs us about the imperfect minds of demons, but also offers some insight into their mysterious bodies. He asks the Christian reader not to feel envy about the demon’s amazing “aerial bodies” – capable of becoming invisible, floating, flying, shape-shifting, and even passing through walls. He points out that many animals too have greater bodily powers of strength, perception, and speed, but humans are more than compensated with the infinitely important faculties of rationality and virtue. Okay, demons have really impressive magical bodies, but “divine providence gave to them bodies of a better quality than ours, that that in which we excel them might in this way be commended to us as deserving to be far more cared for than the body, and that we should learn to despise the bodily” .
Writing almost nine-hundred years later, Aquinas is still refining Christian demonology and giving nuance to the ideas first formed by St. Anthony. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas considers whether demons are inherently evil. He offers some standard theological and scriptural ways of thinking about demons and monsters. “Nothing can exist unless it has existence from the first being, and the first being is the sovereign good. But since every being, as such, acts to the production of its own likeness, all things that come of the first being must be good.” And he caps this theological claim with some scripture: “This is also confirmed by the authority of Holy Scripture: for it is said, Every creature is good (1 Tim. iv, 4): God saw all things that he had made, and they were very good (Gen. I, 31)” . This means demons are not intrinsically evil, and Aquinas gives a philosophical argument for this surprising view .
He starts from an old premise about the way that conscious beings make decisions and act. Conscious beings, which would include humans but also aerial-bodied demons, and even angels (but not lower animals), always act for the sake of some perceived good. They may be wrong about it, but at least they are moving in a direction that seems beneficial to them in some way. Imagine, for example, that you’re late for an important event. You are pushing a crowd of people in the street in order to get to your destination, and some people are injured in the scuffle. Their suffering is not your intended goal or motivation. Their suffering is an unfortunate but unintended consequence of your over-zealous sense of punctuality. You are not guilty of knowingly and willfully hurting other people – but you are guilty of being careless and thoughtless about the safety of others. You’re not excused for the harm you’ve done, but you’re not an inherently harmful or intrinsically evil person either.
Aquinas thinks this point extends to the demons as well. The wider popular culture believes demons to be inherently evil beings that intentionally seek the pain and suffering of others as their only real goal and purpose. But Aquinas thinks demons are confused and weak-willed – accidentally evil, not essentially evil . When those demons tortured St. Anthony, for example, they were motivated by their (admittedly selfish and wrongheaded) sense of good. Like other cases of evil and sin, the suffering of Anthony is the result of a “false judgment” rather than a “bad will.” The only other way, theoretically, for a demon’s will to be truly bad would be if it were tied to a faulty faculty of understanding – one that would always misjudge, always make a false judgment. But, according to Aquinas, “false judgments” (e.g., thinking heroin might be good for one’s children, or thinking hemlock would make a good snack, etc.) are actually freakish occurrences, not the norm. “False judgments in acts of the understanding” he says, “are like monsters in the physical universe, which are not according to nature, but out of the way of nature: for the good of the understanding and its natural end is the knowledge of truth.”
One suspects that Anthony, and other victims of demon torture, would have found this nuanced theory to be cold-comfort. This more sophisticated view of conscious agency hardly takes the sting out of the demon’s venom. A demon’s victim might retort: So, if they’re not intrinsically evil, then why are they causing me so much pain and misery? In fact, more crucially, if there’s no real “bad will,” then whence comes sin? The answers are interesting. With impressive consistency, Aquinas claims that the demon’s volitions are still only good (by definition), but the demon has failed to submit his own personal good to the higher, superior good (God’s will). The demon’s sin is the failure to restrict his own agenda of perceived personal goods to the cosmic perfect good of God’s benevolence.
Aquinas analyzes the fall of the prince of demons himself, Lucifer, and finds a perfect illustration of his general theory. Even the devil is not naturally or essentially evil. Referring to Isaiah (chapter xiv), Aquinas says that the devil did not properly impose the Higher Good upon his own. Lucifer’s will “was not regulated by any higher will, a position of independence proper to God alone. In this sense we must understand the saying that he aimed at equality with God, not that he ever expected his goodness to equal the divine goodness: such a thought could never have occurred to his mind. But to wish to rule others, and not to have one’s own will ruled by any superior, is to wish to be in power and cease to be a subject; and that is the sin of pride” .
Now we know what makes demons tick, so to speak. There is no evil “force” or “power” skulking about in the shadows of our world. Demons are not, contrary to popular opinion, embodiments of this imaginary evil energy . They are instead, aerial-bodied agents with conscious volition who confusedly seek their own self-aggrandizement – in other words, they are meaner versions of ourselves, who can also shape-shift and turn invisible. Strangely, the issue of sadism (actually taking pleasure in another’s pain) does not seem to have occurred to Aquinas. At least he prefers to analyze demonic deeds in the context of prideful power struggles for recognition – the torture techniques of demons are just their means to the end of “conversion to the dark side” or their coercive attempts to get reverence, and other similar sins of pride. Aquinas does not seriously entertain the idea that the misery of the tortured human is the pleasurable end goal of the demon’s activity .
The Witch-Hunter, Institoris
In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII gave Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Institoris wide ranging legal powers to pursue and eradicate witches (Papal Bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus). The Bull was used as a justificational preface for Institoris’ famous demon hunting guide Malleus Maleficarum.
The Malleus Malificarum argues throughout for a “middle-way” position between witchcraft that’s too real (and therefore in violation of God’s goodness and power) and that which is not real enough (purely imaginative and fictional). Earlier demonologists, like Aquinas and the authors of the influential Canon Episcopi , argued that the frightening visions and shape-shifting episodes associated with witchcraft were really just quasi-dream-like phantasms. If any mischievous manipulation is occurring to a man who thinks he’s a werewolf, or experiences aerial lift-off on a broom, then the cause would have to sneak in, according to these more skeptical demonologists, at the physiological juncture where his “imaginative faculty” meets his “interior senses.” The imaginative faculty is described as a “treasure house” in each person that stores or preserves visible shapes, like the images of animals for example. It’s a treasure house of memories. If some evil spirit were to trigger this storage faculty just right, then it would flood the perceptual senses and give the person the illusory experience of real external stimuli outside the body. A mundane version of this happens all the time, when bodily humors trigger the “treasure house” in sleep and we subsequently dream.
Institoris breaks with this more benign version of witchcraft, and offers a clever way to get demons back in their threatening positions. Works of evil, according to Institoris, are not just indigestion-like fabrications of the body. They are real and they are happening in the external world; children really are being eaten by demonic were-wolves, the witches are actually taking flight. But how is it done, if only God has true creative power like this?
Demons according to Institoris do not make something from nothing when they enact their transgressions – that would truly violate a cardinal notion of the monotheistic God. It may seem that demons and their witches conjure monsters and terrors from thin air, but they do not really create in such an absolute manner. Instead, the demons have an amazing understanding of the Book of Nature. They grasp the first principles, fundamental springs, and material trajectories of physical nature itself. Demons are manipulative “scientists” long before this term even existed. They are the ultimate alchemists .
When demons do shape-shifting and other seemingly supernatural marvels, they are not “creating” so much as “altering” nature. According to Institoris, the evil ones sift the matter of nature to find the seeds (semina) of transformation, and then use these micro-agents as catalysts for their own nefarious inventions . Demons transform nature more by chemistry than by magic. Just as the form of the oak tree exists like a germ in the acorn, so too all of nature is filled with micro-seeds that when triggered alter the perceivable world in significant ways. Demons understand these mechanisms, which are invisible to humans, and they engineer outcomes in ways that look miraculous to us. By this subtle knowledge of nature, witches appear to predict the future, but they cannot really see the future (as God can) . In this way, Institoris explains how demons and witches “create” mayhem in the world, but he avoids the heresy regarding ex nihilo creation. Demons simply alter nature in ways that scare and frighten us, and seem supernatural .
Nature is being altered by demons in ways that allow witches to kill their neighbors with effigies and pins. Of course, letting insignificant chump-demons and their paltry witch covens undo the beautiful divine cosmic plan would reflect very badly on an omniscient God, unless God was actually giving his permission for this suffering. Demons, then, are sometimes working as God’s henchmen. Whatever their agenda, however, the way to take them down is clear. Study up on the laws of “science” and use them against these Mephistopheles-types.
Those who were possessed, however, were considered differently than witches. In the case of possession, the person afflicted was not considered to be evil or malicious, but rather set-upon (not entirely responsible for their actions). In these cases, their demonic behavior could be exorcised and they could be restored to fully human status. Interestingly, Institoris notes that when exorcism fails after multiple attempts, then the victim may have been misdiagnosed and probably deserves their condition as a divine punishment.
If you come across a possessed person, a helpful exorcism is outlined by Institoris . It’s best if a cleric performs the function but anyone of good character can do it if necessary. First, make the afflicted person give a confession. Next do a careful search of the home to detect any magical implements (e.g., amulets, effigies, etc.) and burn these. It’s important to get the afflicted into a church at this point, and make s/he hold a blessed candle while righteous witnesses pray over her. This should be sustained three times a week to restore grace, and the victim should receive the holy sacrament. In stubborn cases, you should write the beginning phrases of John’s Gospel on a tablet and hang it around the person’s neck – holy water should be applied liberally. If exorcism ultimately fails, then either the person is being punished by God and has to be surrendered, or your faith, as the exorcist, is not strong enough (and new administrators should be brought in).
In closing then, always remember to employ the three tried-and-true weapons of the demon hunting arsenal: prayer, fasting, and faith. Anthony first recommended these low tech strategies, and they remain the bread-and-butter of demon hunting. Thankfully, however, new armaments, especially the antipsychotics Clozapine and Risperdal, have also proven themselves crucial in twenty-first century demon management. This Halloween, go forth and mollify.
Stephen T. Asma is the author of On Monsters: an Unnatural History of our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press), and Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press). Asma is a Fulbright Scholar, a fellow at the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture, and professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago.
 Anthony’s marvelous episodes have also fueled the pictorial tradition, from the medieval period to the present. Paintings by Heironymus Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, and Salvadore Dali, for example, have helped to keep Anthony’s tribulations in the popular imagination. Anthony’s battle with monsters comes to us via his famous biographer Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293-373). Athanasius chronicled Anthony’s life in a work titled simply Vita Antonii, or Life of Anthony. The book was eventually translated into Latin and set the template for subsequent medieval monastic biographies. Athanasius is revered in all the major sects of Christianity as the first Church Doctor. He served under Alexander of Alexandria, until succeeding him as Patriarch of Alexandria, and may have accompanied Alexander to the First Council of Nicea in 325. Athanasius was adamant to stamp out the popular theory about Christ, called Arianism, named after another Alexandrian theologian named Arius (c.250-336). Arians believed that God created Christ – Christ is not the same substance as God. This was anathematized by the Nicene Creed, which made Christ, and the Holy Spirit, consubstantial with God the Father. Athanasius’ position, that the holy trinity is the same being (homoousia in Greek, or essentia in Latin) and all are eternal, became the orthodox theology for Christianity. But this orthodoxy was not established until after a sustained attack on Arianism as heresy, some of which occupies the later sections of the Life of Anthony.
 See I Corinthians, Chapter 8, 1.
 See Book IX, 22.
 See Book VIII, 15.
 See Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, Chapter CVII. Quotations are drawn from Joseph Rickaby’s, translation (London: Burns and Oates, 1905).
 The starting premise of this argument, indeed this entire way of looking at agency, is derived from Aristotle’s (and even Socrates’) view that conscious action is always teleologically arranged toward the perceived good of the actor. Aquinas, and most Christian theologians adopt this starting point, but also add unique considerations (that did not trouble the ancients) about the relevant mechanisms of sin.
 To get the full sense of Aquinas’ argument we have to understand his rather different notion of “causality” and the old essential/accidental distinction. Causes produce effects that are similar in kind to their causes. Conscious goals are causes of actions/effects. Since a conscious goal is by definition a kind of “good” (a perceived good at the very least), and since such goals are causes, then Aquinas thinks it follows that a person’s intentions can only cause evil “accidentally.” The cause is essentially good, and therefore no evil can flow from it – so any evil that results is incidental. Finally, he thinks, this proves that evil (which is always caused incidentally) is not a real metaphysical presence in the world (a real causal force), but only a kind of unpleasant epiphenomenon. “For no agent acts except with some intention of good: evil therefore cannot be the effect of any cause except incidentally. But what is caused incidentally only cannot be by nature, since every nature has a regular and definite mode of coming into being.” (Chapter CVII).
 See Chapter CIX.
 Here Aquinas tows a line first laid out by Augustine against the Manicheans. The Persian notion of evil is this idea of a cosmic metaphysical force or power – something outside of God and His control. In silencing this heresy, Augustine redefined “evil” to mean a “privation” or “lack” of a good. Evil is not a positive reality, but a purely negative adjective that people mistake for a “thing.” The word “evil” might be considered more like the word “shadow” in the sense that it picks out something particular, but in reality a shadow is just the absence of light. It is nothing in itself.
 Aquinas can counter the sadism point (and maybe even the more difficult masochism issue) by replying that the true telos (end goal) is the pleasure enjoyed, not the harm. But the modern mind finds this protest somewhat naïve in the sense that sadism means that a certain kind of pleasure is only attainable in the harming. To use his own lingo, there may be an essential causation between the harm and pleasure.
 The Canon Episcopi is probably a ninth century Frankish document (sometimes thought to originate in the fourth century), and its short text on witches had become Canon Law by the time of the Malleus. It characterizes the more “psychological” theory that I’ve been sketching, and that Institoris was reacting against. Roughly speaking, witches are just very confused about their own powers and experiences (delusions), but this still makes them dangerous heretics because they tend to infect other innocents with their promises of Satanic power; that betrayal is still real, even if the magical powers are imaginary. The Canon Episcopi famously formulated the scenario of groups of women (hallucinating themselves to be) riding through the air for great distances.
 Alchemy had been a positive part of Islamic scientia for centuries, but when the texts and ideas flowed into Europe (after the Moor expulsion) it came to be seen as a threatening alternative knowledge base (with infidel origins). Alchemy became associated with the black arts and heresy, but ironically many of the “research programs” of alchemy (e.g., the transformation of natural substances) became the foundations of later chemistry. Dominicans like Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, together with Franciscan Roger Bacon, originally tolerated alchemy, trying to submit its claims to rational criteria. But by the fourteenth century alchemy was outlawed in many places. See Chapter One of Roslynn D. Haynes’ From Faust to Strangelove (Johns Hopkins University, 1994).
 The idea that nature is filled with invisible seeds of transformation (rationes seminales) was very useful to theologians like Augustine, who used the concept whenever he needed to explain natural growth, development, or evolution in a monotheistic paradigm of “fiat creationism” that precluded such transformation. Ecclesiasticus 18:1 states that all things were created by God simultaneously (qui vivit in aeternum creavit omnia simul), but Genesis gives us a staggered creation over time. Augustine’s idea of “germs” of forms existing within other forms helped to make consistent the unrolling of creation and the simultaneous miracle of creation. Institoris seems to be drawing on this tradition to help him explain demons’ “creative” power.
 Institoris, in defense of his demonology, cites a gloss on Exodus 7 (when Pharao’s magicians also made serpents from staffs), which says, “When workers of harmful magic try to do something by chanting [the names] of evil spirits, they [the spirits] run off in different directions through the world, and in a very short time bring back the seeds of those things with which they stimulate this [process], and in this way, with God’s permission, produce new forms from these.”
 Institoris points out that such demonic “alterations” of nature can never violate the ways of nature (e.g., bring a dead man to life), but only speed-up, slow-down, mix or otherwise mutate changes that could happen anyway (theoretically).
 See Chapter 6, Part II.
64 thoughts on “An official guide for demon hunters: helpful advice from philosophers and witch-hunters”
Wot, no C S Lewis?
All the same, an excellent and very enjoyable article. I have been long fascinated with monsters of various kinds and their psychological roots. Your book on monsters sounds interesting too.
There is at least one type of materially-existing spirits: alcoholic beverages. They are even called “spirits”. I don’t know all the history of making these things, but I I think a lot of Christian mystics may have been guided by them.
Actually, that’s unlikely. More often than not “mystical” experience may have been the result of sensorial and/or food/drink deprivation.
Nice article! 🙂
There is just one thing I don’t understand — why does this article has a “religion” tag? Is the tagging accidental or deliberate? If it is deliberate, I’d say it is misguided at best. As far as I can see, the article has nothing to do with religion. It’s mostly about ontology of magic, with a little bit of magical mysticism.
If I were to draw a parallel — demonic possessions, exorcisms and witches have to do with religion just as much as cold fusion and magnetic bracelets have to do with physics and biochemistry. And the fact that St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have been involved in the topic doesn’t automatically relate it to religion. Similarly, Isaac Newton was involved with alchemy and occultism, but an article on those topics should never be tagged with a “physics” tag. 🙂
Reblogged this on Anakin's reveries in multiverses.
“More often than not “mystical” experience may have been the result of sensorial and/or food/drink deprivation.”
That’s less likely than you think. One needs to undergo the extremes of deprivation to understand this. To measure my preparedness for arduous, long distance mountain ridge walking, I did two experiments:
1) I ate nothing for five days and on each of these days I ran a distance of 20 km.
2) I ran for five hours on hilly trail, in 31 deg C heat without drinking anything.
I experienced the extremes of hunger, fatigue and thirst, discovering in the process how the power of the will can overcome the limitations of the body(Tim Noakes has written about this). I came close to collapse but never experienced anything resembling hallucinations or altered cognitive state. What I noticed instead was how intimately connected I felt with my body, with a kind of heightened awareness of every muscle and nerve ending.
I know this is a sample size of one and other people may react differently. I think though that the level of pain, suffering and discomfort keeps one so intimately aware of one’s sensory system that one is very grounded and unlikely to have artificial mystical experiences. I have had mystical experiences but they were in peaceful, relaxed, soothing conditions.
I accept that other people may report differently but the best I can do is report my own experiences(sample size of one!). Of course, built into your comment is the belief that real mystical experiences are not possible and therefore there *must* be a mundane explanation. At this point we must agree to disagree. I hope the disagreement can be a cordial and respectful one 🙂
What also can be demonic? The US Republican Party Platform:
Excellent historical overview; I feel better prepared to face the threats from the netherworld.
Fantasy conventions are filled by thousands of young (and not so young) people who so wish they could live in the universe of Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Conan the Barbarian, or the mighty Thor, that they spend extra money and effort ‘cosplaying’ in the dress of their fictional heroes. They seem oblivious to the historical fact that human kind once inhabited such a universe, and there are reasons many became unhappy with it.
Yet there are still people living in that universe. My attention was directed recently (by the blogger Sensuous Curmudgeon) to the writings of Linda Kimball, a regular columnist at the right-wing RenewAmerica site. She believes in demons, possession, and exorcism. One of her big fears is that demon-directed aliens (“Lucifer’s Elite Troops”) have already taken over the world through human impersonation. “Even though UFO’s were seen in previous centuries, today’s UFO’s are heralds of the end-time. They appear most frequently in countries where the cult of Satan flourishes and their most obvious purpose is to destroy faith in Christ and the Bible and replace it with hell-born wisdom.” How do we know this? “Of all the foolishness of man masquerading as wisdom today, there is no more destructive and demonic than evolutionism.” Yep, evolutionary theory marks the notice that the Anti-Christ is on his way!
The human mind’s capacity for weaving intricate but fantastic narratives and rationalizations as explanations for what it cannot, for whatever reason, currently comprehend, is utterly amazing. It’s one of the reasons that I wonder sometimes if our brains, rather than a happy achievement of evolution, might be some genetic experiment gone wrong. (Those dam’ aliens!)
I remember a visit to a doctor’s office; besides the usual magazines in the waiting room, there was a small bookshelf filled with religious texts, Not the looney evangelical stuff, but reputable works by such as Niebuhr and Tillich. I found myself thinking, remembering how much has been written by Star Wars fans over the years, that I was looking at a collection of fantasy novels and their commentary. It was a crucial moment, for I then realized how far I had traveled in the progress of my unbelief.
It’s remarkable that humans can devote their entire lives to chasing dreams as thin as air. But perhaps we all do. “Thankfully, however, new armaments, especially the antipsychotics Clozapine and Risperdal, have also proven themselves crucial in twenty-first century demon management.” Perhaps that’s yet another dream; perhaps new demons are yet to be discovered.
Or perhaps we’ll all get raptured back to our home planets. Until then, I guess we’re kind of stuck with planet earth just as it is.
Marko, I put the tag in. Well, Stephen does mention a number of Saints in his essay…
This is your webzine, so do as you like, but my suggestion is to remove the “religion” tag, and put “magic” instead. To use an analogy from your own field, conflating religion and magic is like conflating philosophy and sophistry (in the modern sense of the word). Lay audience may get confused, and get a wrong impression on the former because of the naivety (and sometimes downright absurdity) of the latter.
A remarkable study in the power of philosophy to clarify issues as it explores conceptual space! I particularly like the way the psychologizing demonologists use empirical experience of a purely natural world to inform their explorations without succumbing to the scientistic temptation. The last time I heard Aquinas mentioned on TV, it was Pat Robertson explaining how certain unsavoury parts of Christianity had succumbed to Aquinas’ siren song of humanism. (I was only channel surfing but when you hear stuff like that you just have to stop and listen.) Well deserved publicity for him!
Of course, Jesus was an exorcist but that gets you into religion.
Actually, folk and pagan religions are often about supernatural beings such as demons and witches (cf. anthropological work by such as Pascal Boyer), so the tag is appropriate. The Abrahamic religions might dominate today, but such are only one style of religion.
Anyhow, the current Pope believes in demons and exorcism (link and link).
I disagree with this statement: “Athanasius is revered in all the major sects of Christianity as the first Church Doctor”.
It would be better to say that Athanasius is revered by the conservative wing of the Catholic Church. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he quarreled with the communitarian/socialist/cosmopolite Christian wing. He tried to beat down Arianism and Nestorianism and engaged in a confusing debate about the divine substance of Jesus. His ideas weren’t welcome in many Eastern Christian communities.
He was very close to the bishop Cyril (also born in Egypt), that was condemned by Theodosius II for behaving like a proud pharaoh. The Nestorian bishops at the Council of Ephesus declared him heretic, labeling him as a “monster, born and educated for the destruction of the Church”.
Cyril was one of the responsible for Hypatia’s death, it was the result of a struggle between two Christian factions, the moderate Orestes, supported by Hypatia, and the more rigid Cyril. Athanasius wasn’t as fanatic as Cyril, and certainly had a strong influence in the Western Catholic Church, which is a branch of Christianity.
Athanasius devoted part of his life working as carpenter and bricklayer, building up monasteries and died after the roof of a church collapsed on him and five mates.
“Halloween is coming up, reminding us to confront the lurking evils around us, ”
“What also can be demonic? The US Republican Party Platform:”
When last I looked the demons were colour blind but it is a sure thing that no-one can see their own demons and that is because they don’t lurk around us, they lurk in us. A good sign of demon possession is the accusation that others are possessed by demons.
No, I am not talking about real demons, I am talking about the forces in us. These are the forces, that given the right conditions, cause the havoc that is called history.
This is the point of our myths and fables, to give voice to our fears, apprehensions(and hopes). They are cautionary tales reminding us of the dangers we face from each other. Our literature has recorded this from ancient times in tales such as the Odyssey, through to modern times in tales by Lewis Carrol, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and J K Rowling. They are literary devices that speak to our need for illustrative narratives. Their metaphor appeals to our instinctual understanding. Their force is felt, not understood.
Excellent essay. History is how philosophy ought to be done. No history, no philosophy.
Some have the religion of religions. They worship the idea. The idea of religion. Of course, they have an agenda; it could be Tibetan Buddhism (with its demons), or the Christo-Islamist god, who absolutely needs a fig leaf. And the name of that fig leaf was Satan (or Shatan, namely Hades, Pluto, or Ba’al, refurbished, with a fresh Dark Side coat). The Christo-Islamist god does not do with just Satan, but a whole army of demons, fallen angels, or “djinns”.
There is a funny passage in the Qur’an where Allah (Arabic word for the Christo-Islamist Jewish god) warns about asking him questions about his business with Shatan and Djinns. He hints darkly that those who ask too many question will end in the fire (where they will be burned until their skin falls off; then their skin will grow back, and they will be thrown in the fire again; apparently the Qur’an anticipated stem cell treatments yet to come!)
There are religions, and religions.
Re-ligare: bind together again. We The People. To what? To whom? To us again?
Religions basically come under two variants: those which bind to rationality, and those which bind to madness.
By “madness” here, I mean any altered state of consciousness. I am a mountaineer and a mountain runner. I have run very long, say in Iran, at 10,000 feet, in a one way solitary run I had to complete to save myself. The heat was great, blood was seeping through my running shoes. I felt nothing. This sort of altered state of consciousness, evolution given stoicism, is routine for tough mountain climbers, who are familiar with slipping out of cracks from blood seeping from their bodies, while keeping a happy smirk on their faces.
Why would one bind to rationality? Because, without rationality, there is no survival. Homo has been mostly selected for increasing rational performance over the last 5 million years.
Civilization blossomed this in the idea of democracy. The republic is the fundamental religion, as it effectively was for the Romans, for centuries (in co-existence with superstitious cults, such as the original Roman one).
Why would one bind to irrationality? Because, once We The People has become irrational, in other words, dumb, it can easily be manipulated into subservience.
Hence superstition. “Superstitio” was used derisively by the Christians against Pagans as early as the Fourth Century. However, the concept is “what stands above”… the world. In other words, what cannot be objective.
Superstitious religions are there to terrify people, and force them into abject subjugation, so they all have demons, as the Punic religion did, or the Aztecs.
Terrified people obey their masters well. And if that is not enough, the Christians, later imitated by the Muslims, would exert what (“Saint”) Augustine referred approvingly as “great violence”. By that time, the executions of those-who-had-chosen (= “heretics”) were routine.
We have seen demons. They helped emperors love the church demoniacally.
“To use an analogy from your own field, conflating religion and magic is like conflating philosophy and sophistry (in the modern sense of the word).”
Yes, religion is the kind of magic that wholesome, responsible people can believe in. Those who believe that Jesus is on his way back—and who symbolically like to eat his flesh and drink his blood—have used time-tested methods of critical thinking – the same used in physics – while witchcraft is just a mass of superstition and fallacy. The cold deductive rigor of religion should not be conflated with the whimsy of spell-casting, broom-riding sophistry!
But wait. Isn’t Wicca—a magic-related practice—an official religion? Isn’t praying a lot like casting a spell. Is the Kabalah magic or religion? How was Jesus not a witch?
This distinction between “magic” and “religion” is hard to make when you look at the whole sphere of mystical belief. You’re essentially asking Massimo to consider witches heretics. From a witch’s point of view, the view I think Massimo should adopt regarding relevant classifications, it’s all witchery, just some try to use the word ‘religion’ to dignify their magical speculations.
If one is going to believe in the mystical, the critical thinker should prefer witchcraft, as while it has its traditions, it’s an open-ended personal exploration without dogmas, as opposed to authoritarian doctrine.
I am a Reform Jew, and Reform Judaism is the largest denomination of Judaism in the country.
We do not view praying as “a lot like casting a spell.” Indeed, I doubt that a single Reform Jew in the US thinks of it that way.
Most of us have no use for Kabbalah, other than as a medieval curiosity.
I also suspect that most Reform Jews don’t have strong “mystical” beliefs of any kind. A good proportion of us are, literally speaking, atheists, if what you mean is whether we think that there is a giant invisible creature controlling cosmic traffic. So, to us, Wicca is as absurd as evangelical Protestantism, if it is full of this sort of magical thinking. That Wiccans are more tolerant than evangelicals is very nice and may lead us to form political coalitions on various matters of shared interest, but it doesn’t speak to this particular dimension of the question.
I suspect that much of what I say here about Reform Judaism could also be said about liberal/progressive Protestantism. I know plenty of involved UCCs and Episcopalians who are atheists, in the literal sense just described.
I have just as much of a problem with conflating mysticism” with “religion” as I do conflating witchcraft and religion. To do so, presumes a heavily orthodox or evangelical view of religion, to which those of us belonging to modern, progressive forms of religion do not adhere. This is one of the basic problems with so many of the new atheist arguments: they essentially agree with evangelicals as to the nature of religion, they just disagree as to whether it’s a good thing or not.
All the people whom I know that belong to my synagogue and other Reform synagogues do so because we feel a connection to one another as a people, with a shared history, shared culture, shared traditions, shared literature, and shared values. I don’t see why supernaturalism is necessary or even desirable. When we recite the ancient prayers, we are invoking our ancestors and speaking words that our people speak across the world and have spoken over time. This creates a powerful sense of community and makes possible a kind of sharing that is otherwise difficult to imagine.
So, yes, I also object to the lumping together of this sort of nonsense with religion, as I don’t see the two have any essential connection in the modern era.
Several various points on what will likely be 1 of less than a full 5 comments.
1. Per Mario, yes, if you’re a Monophysite, Athanasius means nothing to you. He means almost nothing, today, if you’re a non-creedal Protestant. Also, per Mario, it depends on what’s “major.” I could claim that Mandeanism (in the news off and on due to fundamentalist Muslim atrocities in Iraq), is a “world religion,” sprung like Christianity out of Judaism, just with a different Messiah, and somewhat different constellation of beliefs.
2. Re the “tag.” I didn’t realize the virtue ethics piece had also gotten the “religion” tag. That said, yes, one person’s magic is another’s religion and vice versa. Magic, in the metaphysical sense, can be and is used as a pejorative. That said, also, per Arthur C. Clarke, one civilization’s sufficiently advanced science and technology is another’s magic, but that’s a tangent away from this peace.
3. Speaking of that … and not that this is here for my “entertainment,” but … this piece within the context of Sci Sal just … didn’t do that much for me. At least not by itself. However, if Massimo also wants to entertain a piece on the origins of Christmas, including how its date moved around in different parts of the early Xn world based on what the top dog of paganism was (in pre-Constantine Egypt, it was celebrated in November, on a day that “just happened to be” a major Osiris festival), then, as the context of Sci Sal develops, it might do more for me.
4. To sum together comments that have nibbled on the edges, more non-Xn background would have been appreciated. After all, Halloween steams from Christian attempts to “baptize” the Celtic Samhain via All Saints Day. And, even that doesn’t touch on “non-Western” magic.
I grew up about 25 miles from the “Big Rez,” the Navajo Reservation. Traditional Navajos, still today, believe a lot in various forms of witchcraft, including various were-animals (not just/only werewolves), skinwalkers (think of a Three Stooges episode of a de-fleshed skeleton walking about, but with truly nefarious intent) and more.
5. Phillip: Jung, in an exchange of letters with AA founder Bill Wilson, justifying Wilson’s religious-based approach to treating alcoholism, said “spirit drives out spirit.”
A: Jung said a lot of things that, in my opinion, are shite.
B. AA is religious, and lest anybody argue, three federal appellate courts in the US have said that, in First Amendment terms, it is, too.
I really don’t understand this much resistance to distinguishing religon, magic and superstition. Let me explain briefly the difference between them.
Shortly put, superstition is a belief that some events are a signal of some future bad event about to happen (which nobody can avoid or stop — it is a “blind fate”, beyond human control). The most common examples — a black cat crossing your way (means your trip is bound be unsuccessful), or accidentally breaking a mirror (which means seven years of bad luck in love, or whatever).
Magic is the belief that one can engineer various (good or bad) events to happen to someone else (most often at the expense of some third party), typically by performing some ritual recipe. In contrast to superstition, in magic one believes that one can actually control the “blind fate” happening to oneself or others. Rituals like waiving dead chickens, piercing dolls, demon exorcisms using salt and holy water, etc. are examples of magic.
Religion is a belief that there exists some form of deity (a conscious person, as opposed to a blind fate), who can help you in the time of emotional distress. Praying to a god is a form of meditation, a way to reestablish emotional self-control and suppress anger, fear and various other destructive passionate feelings. Prayer is a poor man’s way of going to a psychiatrist for a therapy session. It has nothing to do with engineering events, nor with believing in some unstoppable fate. It is meant just to help people deal with emotional pain.
It is important to note that the above three things are *concepts*. (Also note that these are not full definitions, but rather main distinguishing features among the three.) In every historical example of mystical belief, all three concepts have been present, each to a greater or lesser degree. And this is purely because people fail to make a distinction between them. Conflating them together opens the door for making some elementary mistakes, like Paul does by identifying Jesus with a witch etc.
So why keep making those mistakes? Do all religious people believe in witches and magic? Do only crazy people go to a psychiatrist? Is philosophy all about manipulating someone to accept your opinion? Will a magnetic bracelet help you be as healthy as when you take your medicine?
I thought that one of the purposes of this webzine was to stimulate critical thinking, and help everyone look beyond stereotypes, rather then reinforce them.
But this is getting off-topic… 🙂
well said. At last someone has brought clear thinking to the subject.
“I thought that one of the purposes of this webzine was to stimulate critical thinking, and help everyone look beyond stereotypes, rather then reinforce them.”
Regrettably stereotypes will flourish for as long as there are agendas to nourish them.
According to Wikipedia, Athanasius is venerated by the Roman Catholic Church, Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lutherans and the Anglican Communion. In this sense, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t a creedal Protestant.
Is highly dubious that Christianity sprung out of Judaism, Jesus was born in a Nazarean/Essenean community that didn’t share all the Jewish laws. According to Epiphanius: “They considered unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claim that these Books are fictions, and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers. This was the difference between the Nazarean and the others”…
The accounts by Josephus and Philo show that the Essenes led a strictly communal life. According to Josephus, they had customs and observances such as collective ownership, electing a leader to attend to the interests of the group, and obedience to the orders from their leader. They controlled their tempers and served as channels of peace, carrying weapons only for protection against robbers. The Essenes chose not to possess slaves but served each other and, as a result of communal ownership.
On the other hand, the Essenes had a direct link with the Egyptian Gnosticism, it means that a Essene community was settled in Egypt. Jesus and his parents fled from King Herod that was looking for the newborn child. They moved to Egypt and looked after in the Essenean community in Egypt. Many years after, before he started his civil and spiritual preaching, he had an initiation in the Heliopolis’ temple in Egypt. Those initiations were common among Gnostics.
The cultural and religious customs of Essenes and Gnostics had little to do with the orthodox Judaism and his laws, that’s why is highly dubious that Christianity sprung out of Judaism. I would say that the Essenean community, in which Jesus grew up, had some contact with the heterodox Judaism, but Jesus himself had nothing to do with the orthodox Judaism. His teachings had a cosmopolite, non-dogmatic sense, and also show a communitarian and socialist tendency.
Hi Marko, Aravis and labnut,
The term “religion” covers a broad range of things. It is a commonplace that religious people are often a bit embarrassed by every type of religion except for their own, and thus tend to argue that only their own type is actually “religion”.
On the other hand, broadening the word “religion” by dropping the requirement that it involves supernatural stuff would make it encompass just about any social activity or social bond, which strips the word of any meaning (unless you want to argue that political parties, golf clubs, theatrical groups and nearly all forms of traditional activity amount to religions).
Another commonplace is to unfairly attribute to “new atheists” a narrowness of perspective and a lack of understanding. “New atheists” do realise the wide diversity of religion, and religions involving demons, superstitions and other supernatural elements have been very common over human history, even if some of those in the Abrahamic religions today would prefer to distance themselves from it.
Of course that tendency of the religious to distinguish their own views from and distance themselves from the ideas of other religious people is why there are so many different religions, and why most religions are split into factions.
Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough was once common reading.
If you say “superstition is a belief that some events are a signal of some future bad event about to happen (which nobody can avoid or stop — it is a “blind fate”, beyond human control…” even though this saves a huge number of questionable practices from being disgraced as “superstition,” it is not clear how it doesn’t single out double predestination Calvinism, some schools of Islam and most interpretations of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism with which I am familiar….and of course, the old LaPlacean determinism that held all future events could be predicted given sufficient data. This seems excessively broad to me. Also, I surely would have thought the most common example of this kind of thing was astrology, the stuff the Magi did.
If “demon exorcisms using salt and holy water, etc. are examples of magic…” demon exorcisms relying upon the intervention of another entity are surely something other than “engineer(ing)?” Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician has some interesting information on Jesus’ activities as an exorcist.
“Religion is a belief that there exists some form of deity (a conscious person, as opposed to a blind fate), who can help you in the time of emotional distress… It has nothing to do with engineering events, nor with believing in some unstoppable fate. It is meant just to help people deal with emotional pain.” Every time a believer says that God did something material for them or that He intended this to happen, they are disagreeing with you. I understand that the philosophical clarification of issue informed by experience is supposed to provide knowledge scientific study of society and history can’t. But surely we need a little more explanation as to why so many people keep conflating all these “concepts”? How can we demonstrate to them they are mistaken?
Coel, if you want to redefine “religion” so that it no longer includes the largest denomination of Judaism in the US, that’s up to you. (Argument by stipulative definition is your standard debating tactic.) Everyone else who speaks English, however, will continue to refer to Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism as religions. The US government will continue to treat them as religions in the tax code. Their Rabbis will continue to be considered clergy by hospitals, etc. Sorry, but there it is…Humpty Dumpty theory of meaning regardless.
Your remarks regarding New Atheism are completely unresponsive to the very specific point I made. The fact of the matter is that in modern, Western nations—i.e. the ones we actually live in now—-millions upon millions of people belong to modern, progressive forms of Judaism and Christianity, with little to no supernatural commitments. That their ancestors used to make those commitments, in the past or that many others still do today, speaks not at all to this fact, and does constitute a fundamental lapse in the New Atheist critique. In my view, this lapse is deliberate–though stupid, for a number of reasons, not to mention burning important bridges that are needed for political coalitions–but that gets to motives, which are hard to prove.
So, like it or not and regardless of your idiosyncratic uses of language, millions of us are religious. We belong to religions. Our kids receive religious education. I even teach Sunday School and serve on the Rabbinical Court. And yet we hold none of the absurd beliefs identified in the article. Thus, categorizing these beliefs under “religion,” with no qualifier, is both inaccurate and offensive.
As for superstition, it is not about the existence (or lack of) of determinism. It’s about belief in a causal connection between one’s future fate and the present trajectory of a black cat, or the number of pieces of some particular mirror. If such causal connection can be reproducibly established under controlled conditions, it is called science. Otherwise, belief in it (despite evidence to the contrary) is superstition (astrology included). Determinism is fully compatible with absence of superstition.
Jesus’ activities as an exorcist are usually the misinterpretation of the words in the Bible, coupled to lack of proper context. Two thousand years ago people didn’t know modern psychology, and when one behaves “strangely” it was said that one is “possessed by a demon”. In today’s perspective, one could say that a typical alchoholic is “possessed by the demon of drinking”. Alchoholism can even be treated using prayers and religious views of the world (like in 12-step programs), which could be translated as “exorcizing the demon”. It is all about treating psychological problems and slowly reestablishing self-control (say, from addiction) using suggestive methods of prayers and religious views. This has nothing to do with manipulating any form of supernatural entities. What Jesus did was talking to sick people and helping them get better using prayers. But ignorant people today seem to lose the perspective of a 2000-year old text, and interpret it literally in modern meaning (imagining the scenes of Hollywood’s “The Exorcist”, or whatever…).
Finally, when a believer says that God did something material for them, the sole purpose is reinforcing belief. I see nothing wrong with a person continuing to believe that they are getting better because of a medicine, even after being informed that the medicine is just a placebo. Reinforcing religious belief on an everyday basis helps one not lose faith in critical situations of extreme emotional pain. Like practicing for a marathon every morning, despite the fact that the actual marathon happens only once per year. When a believer says “God helped me win the lottery” it doesn’t mean that he believes in some supernatural entity influencing the dice despite laws of physics. Rather, it means that they choose to believe that winning the lottery was *more* than just dumb luck, and that it has a “purpose” beyond simple randomness. They connect this purpose to their god, in order to practice virtues of humility and gratefulness, and avoid celebrating their luck with an orgy or something. It’s a poor man’s way of practicing virtue ethics of sorts. So no, there is no contradiction.
“But surely we need a little more explanation as to why so many people keep conflating all these “concepts”? How can we demonstrate to them they are mistaken?”
Educate yourself about the difference, and then go educate others. A tag on some website might seem insignificant, but even that is more than just doing nothing.
Mario Several things you have incorrect or incomplete.
1. Lutherans and Episcopalians are creedal. Baptists, Amish, and many other Xn groups you do not list are non-creedal and have no special care for Athanasius. You proved my point.
2. Judaism of the turn of the eras was much more diverse than you apply or apparently realize. First, Essenes were just as Jewish as anybody else. Second, a Christian “heresiarch” writing a few hundred years later probably isn’t the best source to turn to for histories of Judaism at the turn of the eras. Also note that Jewish scholars in general and particular, Dead Sea Scrolls scholars like Geza Vermes have no problem with seeing Jesus (to the degree we can know historical or theological matters about him) as part and parcel of that diversity of Judaism.
3. Ergo, terms such as “orthodox” and “heterodox” Judaism are nonsensical.
4. If you believe the Matthean legend of Jesus’ parents fleeing to Egypt is literally true, you’re wrong. And, it’s probably not worth my time to discuss these and other things in more detail.
Marko No, per previous discussion on these webpages about Buddhism. Buddhism is an atheistic religion.
2. For people who actually are religious believers, prayer is nothing like what you describe it as seeming to be from a secularist perspective, of course.
StevenJohnson A few follow-ups.
1. It’s true that we have Aramaic incantations on ostraca and such from this era. That said?
1A. It’s the understanding of most modern religious scholars that “Jesus the Magician,” the actual text at the heart of the book, is an academic fraud perpetuated by Morton Smith himself.
2. Frazier in particular, and somewhat the “Myth and Ritual” school of comparative religion, has fallen out of favor. n
With Frazier in particular, it was overdrawn conclusions and overly broad comparisons. For a modern, evolutionary study of comparative religions and related elements, I’d recommend various writings by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, among others.
Coel You’ve met different Gnus than I have. PZ Myers, for example, will, from time to time make an “apologetics” claim that he really does differentiate liberal Methodists or Episcopalians from conservative Baptists, then go right around and regularly show, once again, that he actually does no such thing.
I can otherwise believe that non-metaphysical types within either Reform Judaism or Unitarianism are not religious in my definition, without the seemingly negative implication that they’re “running away” from anything. I don’t call myself an atheist regularly, in part because of most Gnu Atheists, but I don’t consider myself to be “running away” from anything.
Guess I’ll be making more than 1, or 2, comments here after all.
When I first read Aravis’s description of what he believes in the context of his commitment to Reform Judaism
my immediate reaction was more or less along the same lines as Coel’s. I have a similar reaction to Christian church-goers who do not actually believe any Christian doctrines. But sometimes religious (metaphysical?) beliefs of a sort are still there, albeit undefined.
Aravis talks about atheism, but in a specific (and limited?) sense. He also talks about shared values. I can see how a commitment to values that somehow transcend the accidents of history (even if they have arisen in an historical context) could be conceived of as an essentially religious commitment.
The sort of naïve religion which most militant atheists spend their time attacking has little intrinsic interest, I think. The only forms of religion which are of any interest (to me at any rate) are the more sophisticated forms (such as the tradition with which Aravis identifies). But I always suspect that these forms are unstable and ultimately unsustainable, shadows cast by previous (actually believing) generations, as it were.
Atheistic religion makes sense to me. There are plausible-as-such religions (e.g. some witch religions and Eastern religions) that believe in magic or reincarnation or something metaphysically unusual but which deny a god or gods. But a religion with no specific shared metaphysical beliefs does seem to open the door to anything being a religion. Why couldn’t baseball be a religion in this sense?
I would agree that the community you have with your fellow cultural Jews is a beautiful thing but without a shared metaphysics it’s hard to see how it’s a religion in any meaningful philosophical sense, whatever name is put on it.
I would insist that a religion is first a shared metaphysics; more specifically, I would say a religion is a shared more or less supernatural metaphysics that has attained a certain level of institutionalization.
1. Re: defining ‘religion’. Some people here seem to think that we are going to be able to define ‘religion’ in terms of some set of necessary and sufficient conditions. This seems to me to be obviously impossible. If anything was made for a relational definition, then ‘religion’ is. My own best stab would be some sort of historical definition — x is a religion if it is connected, historically, in the appropriate ways to something that was previously accepted as a religion. (Historical definitions are popular today, especially in aesthetics — see Jerrold Levinson.)
2. The conclusion that the largest denomination of Judaism in the US is not a religion after all strikes me as a reductio of whatever definition one is employing.
3. With regard to Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, there may be a shared “metaphysics” but it is likely not with respect to invisible beings or magic. More likely, it is with respect to the idea of a shared peoplehood, which given the length of Jewish history and the likelihood of intermarriage is likely somewhat mythical. That said, genetics would seem to prove that Jewish peoplehood is not entirely mythical.
4. With regard to Mark English’s pessimism about the survivability of my religion, I appreciate his concern, but don’t share it. Gentiles have never quite been able to grasp why we’re still around — after all, aren’t we nothing but a bunch of refuseniks and throwbacks? Yet, here we still are. My congregation is quite healthy, thank you, and the most active, healthy part of it is that which includes families with young children, my own included. Impressive, given that we are a congregation in the most evangelical/fundamentalist region of the entire country, where the only purpose for Jews is to be converted to Christianity.
5. I really don’t understand the insistence that religion remain metaphysically primitive and otherwise ignorant or else disappear. I would have thought that the concern for those who identify as secular humanists would be with superstition, prejudice, anti-scientific attitudes and the like. And yet, the Sam Harris’s of the world press their anti-religious crusade against modern, liberal, progressive religionists as strongly as they do against the evangelicals. My synagogue’s adult population consists almost entirely of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and college professors. What problem do you — secular humanists — have with us, exactly? Why do you want to insult and alienate us, to the point at which you practically drive us into the arms of our more orthodox coreligionists? Do you not want partners in the great social and political struggles we face against the forces of intolerance and reaction?
This time of year, baseball defines the distinction between religion and obsession (although, for some, their religion is both. Obsession is in part about seeing much of reality through one’s obsessive lens (e.g., time, the unexpected as expected, enacting the impossible, etc. in baseball). Religion and obsession have much in common: the New Atheists are obsessives and obsessively misunderstand religion.
I have a somewhat stipulative, philosophy of religion based definition of religion:
3. Focused on metaphysical matters of “ultimate concern.”
4. Using orthodoxy, orthopraxy, or both, to better “align” individual members and the organization with 3.
Hence, Buddhism’s a religion. To me, both Reform Judaism and Unitarianism (with the assumption that almost all modern Unitarianism is agnostic or atheist) is not. Neither is the Ethical Society, setting aside its own motto of “liberal religious fellowship.”
Not everybody might agree. But if I note that this is not to say it’s “bad” or “degenerate” to move beyond the metaphysics of a parent religion, I think they would understand. Per Wittgenstein, I may not be playing exactly your game, but I am playing a clear game with rules I have explained.
There’s also a temporal sociological angle to this. We don’t wake up one day and say “Reform (or Unitarianism) is no longer a religion.” That’s because of their connections to a clearly religious past, and also because not every Reform Jew or Unitarian wakes up on the same day and says, “Hey, I am now an antimetaphysician.”
Per this, and witchcraft, etc., Satanism, witchery, etc., all would be religions in my book.
As for the “unsustainability”? Reform Judaism may be the exception that “proves” the rule. Non-metaphysical “cultural Christians” of Western Europe have voted with their feet ever since the end of World War II, and I suspect that, within a generation, much of Eastern and Central Europe will catch up on vacant cathedrals and churches.
Beyond that, notes on other things.
Aravis’ point 4 is important. At some time, Zionist Israeli Jews (not every Israeli is a Jew, of course, and not every Israeli Jew a Zionist) will have to start “paying the piper” for the dance with conservative evangelical and fundamentalist American Protestants, as they are definitely the most “supersessionist” of the modern strands of Christianity.
Aravis’ Point 3? I don’t think “peoplehood” is metaphysical. Ideas in general, unless ideas about things already considered metaphysical, are themselves not metaphysical, at least not in my book. Otherwise, if “peoplehood” were considered metaphysical? Erm, a certain 1930s German movement would arguably then be a religion. It clearly meets the other three points on my checklist
Also, re another part of your Point 3? While I don’t think Arthur Koestler was totally right, I don’t think his “Khazar hypothesis” was totally wrong, either. (Since the Khanate lasted well over 200 years, surely more than just the rulers of this mixed state of largely Turkic ethnicity converted; modern DNA research at the least indicates that Koestler wasn’t totally wrong.) And, given that in Spain, we know Jews were converting Christians in the Middle Ages (really) basing Jewish peoplehood on genetics, at least from this person’s perspective, might be a false start. Even today, with the great deal of intermarriage in the US, and, at least in some of those cases, the children becoming religious/social/cultural Jews not Christians, yet of mixed ethnicity … (Herod the Idumean Jew could also be brought in at this point.)
Finally, an issue that’s disputed within wings of Judaism? Is being Jewish is only matrilinear or not? Again, thinking of peoplehood primarily in genetic terms, from this outsider’s perspective, might be problematic.
Aravis himself is not doing this, I don’t think; I note his caveats. But, at least some Orthodox Jews do think this way. Judaism is considered matrilineal because (pre test-tube babies, at least) one always knows a child’s mother. And many Orthodox thought leaders consider Koestler the equivalent of a traitor.
If baseball is a religion, per Father Mulcahy on MASH, every good Catholic should be a Cardinals fan.
Hi Aravis et al,
New atheists are generally aware of “cultural Christianity” and “cultural Judaism”, which is indeed increasingly common these days. In the case of Jews, particularly, it is understandable that they place great importance on their cultural identity and cultural traditions and thus often identify strongly with the Judaic religion despite having stopped believing the supernatural stuff.
However, that is very much an outlier regarding religions across history and across the world, in which supernatural elements are usually prevalent and often core (Reform Judaism and Unitarianism are pretty small numbers in world terms). I can understand why one would regard it as “insulting” to be associated with the supernatural stuff, but I still think it is a key element of what we regard as “religion”.
Your definition, that something can still be a religion owing to historical links, even if the supernatural beliefs have died away, is interesting, but even in that definition the link to the supernatural stuff is retained, even if only a historical link.
I’m lost, is it the calling you “not religious” that you regard as the insult or the calling you “religious”? As for the New Atheists, they seem to me focused on the bad effects of believing in the supernatural stuff. I’m not aware that they’ve picked a fight with atheistic Jews of the sort you describe. Yes, they use the broad term “religion”, but what word would you suggest that they use for the 98% of religions that include lots of supernatural stuff?
Just interested, do you read writings by the “militant atheists”, or are you saying that based on what others say about militant atheists? As one example, Jerry Coyne on his blog attacks “sophisticated” religion vastly more often than he attacks literalist religion.
I don’t quite understand the emphasis on new atheism, it is the simple and flat negation of God. But there’s other type of atheism that claims that the divine spirit is faceless, formless and not visible. In this sense, God is defined as Nature, the Sun, the Moon, the Universe, the gods and the daemon. Therefore the searching for such spirit is an inner exploration/discovery. For instance, Buddha and Socrates led the path of inner exploration and they were ambiguous about the term God.
I don’t attribute to old and new atheists a narrowness of perspective and a lack of understanding, I don’t do it because atheism has existed from ancient times and it is a cultural fact. Millions of people grow up in religious families and nations, but not all of them are religious, they simply respect the beliefs of others, and I guess they do it because the spiritual topic is very old.
As I explained to you it’s wrong that the Essenes were just as Jewish as anybody else. The community in which Jesus grew up had nothing to do with Judaism, though is plausible that that community had some contact with the heterodox Judaism.
Mark English wrote: “My immediate reaction was more or less along the same lines as Coel’s. I have a similar reaction to Christian church-goers who do not actually believe any Christian doctrines.”
Who said I don’t believe any of my religion’s doctrines? I believe many of them and especially those that one finds in the Wisdom and ethical literature. What I don’t believe is the existence of anything supernatural.
Socratic Gadfly: A few points.
1. I wouldn’t ring the death bell of progressive/liberal Christianity so quickly. The US is not Europe. Europe’s antipathy to religion has much to do with its experience of centuries of religious war, a history that the US does not share. What I have found, in my own community, is that the liberal churches are doing quite well. Indeed, the more shrill and crazy the evangelical churches get, the better the liberal churches do. We have a thriving gay and lesbian community here, who now actually have options with respect to churches in which they can get married — our synagogue included.
2. As a liberal Zionist, I have always rejected the support of the American Evangelical Right. Apparently, even the Orthodox in Israel are beginning to reject it. http://religiondispatches.org/israels-chief-rabbis-say-no-to-christian-zionist-event/
3. In Reform Judaism, if either parent of a child is Jewish, the child need not convert. The same is true of Reconstructionist Judaism.
4. My referring to the Jewish concept of peoplehood as “metaphysical” was meant very loosely — my aim was to acknowledge the extent to which this may be somewhat mythical, given the realities of history and intermarriage. My reference to genetics was also intended somewhat loosely — to indicate that it is not entirely mythical. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Jews. I certainly was not suggesting anything with a “racialist” tint to it.
Coel: I am traveling and thus unable to devote as much time to hunting down the links, but I recall several of the New Atheists — prominent ones — actually suggesting that liberal/progressive religion is even worse than the evangelical/fundamentalist variety. This is what I mean by burning bridges and undermining coalitions that are necessary, in the political arena, to combat the forces of reaction.
Signs from God or the answers he gives to prayers are the same as shards of mirror, the indicators of destiny, albeit conceived as a personal will. And for that matter, laboratory experiments qualify as infallible signs of the heat death of the universe in old-style physics. That may seem too materialist to qualify as an eschatological prophercy to you, but it does for me. Also, religion and philosophy deny that laboratory experiments can proves such things (the futility of merely worldly wisdom and the problem of induction, and so on.)
So far as ignorant people literally reading texts about Jesus? Your claim is very hard to sustain. It is highly unlikely that the original texts were meant figuratively, as in the light of modern science of any sort, much less psychologically. Thus, it is very probable that literal readings must be preferred for historical context. So far from being ignorant, literalists will correctly point out that it’s the figurative readings that are forced.
You are of course armed with the knowledge of conceptual space provided by philosophy. Thus you know when believers have incorrectly stated their beliefs. I’m afraid I’m so devoid of wisdom that I’m still taking their statements of belief in material benefits from God at face value. I certainly understand how progressive religionists can dismiss the supernatural from their religion yet I cannot understand how they can dismiss it from everybody else’s, and even from their irreligion! Worse,in my experience, most religionists are supernaturalists. Evern worse, most of the people who seem to have dismissed the supernatural from at least their everyday life are unchurched and nonobservant. These people tend to sheepishly admit to being not religious!
I’m sorry I don’t think your distinction in concepts serve to clarify anything in practice, but obscure. No doubt it’s good philosophy, but here we are.
1. Presence of Aramaic magical inscription means that texts from the period would have been understood in that context.
1A. The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark has nothing to do with Jesus the Magician.
That said, the comfortable consensus that the document was forged, and forged by Smith rather than someone at Mar Saba monastery, rests first of all upon the posthumous decision that Smith was gay and that this somehow gave him a motive. A second major element is that only a scholar of Smith’s skills could have made such a flawless forgery. No one has ever managed to suggest how Smith knew no one would check the original or demonstrated that Smith somehow hid or destroyed it. Genuine proof of forgery, given the absence of manifest anachronisms in the text, requires physical means. Bart Ehrman tells an anecdote about students seeing the original long after Smith’s stay.
2. You cite Frazer for overdrawn conclusions and overly broad generalizations, then cite Evolutionary Psychology? Only the Boyer is available on library loan, so I will read it to see if this is reasonable. But, shocking as it may seem, I have great disdain for EP, starting with Tooby and Cosmides’ primer.
I agree that you are well within your rights to define your religion without regard to the supernatural. jBut I cannot endorse the tacit assumption that actively maintaining a cultural separation from the rest of society is an undoubted good. Reform Judaism openly affirms that it is not maintaining all the old traditions as they were understood historically. But I firmly believe that the notion that there is a deep continuity in any religious tradition is completely ideological. All religions chance with their society, regardless of what their members believe. I do not believe that genetics serve as legitimate markers in any case. I can not conceive any rational sense in which children can be deemed to have a religious identity.
My personal belief is that the New Atheists in particular are offensive precisely because they do not critique religious bigotry. In fact, I think they are prime offenders in fostering religious bigotry against minority religions while comfortably imagining they are the perfect judges. Nonetheless, I must say that the case for giving non-supernatural, cultural religion any more dignity than being a sports fan has not been made. (And the episodes of violence in connection with sports should be disturbing.) The conceptual confusion between religion, race, ethnicity and nationality, and its intersections with notions about class and gender I believe raise serious questions about all religions, even those purified of the supernatural.
I don’t know why you are saying that atheism is not a metaphysical belief. A claim like “there is almost certainly no God” as made by Richard Dawkins obviously is a metaphysical claim.
So if a religion is a movement with a shared metaphysical belief then the type of atheism promulgated by Dawkins et al obviously qualifies.
As for demons and so on, I have previously pointed out that the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis as described by Max Tegmark implies infinitely many demons (as well as Pookas, Snarks and Jabberwocks) just as long as these things can have a mathematically coherent description. Just not necessarily in this universe.
Sorry, Massimo, for bringing up the MUH again. But I can’t let Naturalism get off scot-free with respect to demons and suchlike.
Being culturally separated from society (I assume this means the majority) is not “an undoubted good”:
Maybe, but sometimes separation is necessary, especially when the society has elevated levels of cultural toxicity.
Cultural religion is no more dignified than being a sports fan and religious continuity is simply an ideological myth:
It seems to me that this denies the often deep historical and familial connections people have to these practices. And how is this tied to sports violence? A Unitarian minister is hardly comparable to a Manchester football hooligan. As for continuity, no one said there wasn’t change. That does not mean that everything changes nor that there is not continuity. In many ways, I am different than I was 25 years ago, yet in other ways I am still the same person. I am no social scientist or philosopher of religion, but why can we not take that kind of approach to religions, especially those whose texts have remained the same, while interpretations have evolved? Lastly, I’m unclear as to what is irrational about children identifying personally with certain cultural practices rooted in a particular religion and history and teachings that are connected to their forbears and describing that as a religious identity?
Please note the (clarificatory) final clause – which you omitted – of the second sentence of mine which you quoted. I am using the sophisticated/naïve distinction in a particular way here. (Humpty-Dumpty strikes again!)
Another clarificatory example: I would count Alvin Plantinga’s religious ideas as naïve even though he is a sophisticated thinker.
And you confirm in your own comments that atheists are not much concerned with non-supernaturalist religionists.
I’ll have another look at Coyne however.
Does one believe ethical doctrines (such as might be found in the Bible) – or does one commit to them (i.e. try to follow or embody them)?
I do think atheism is a metaphysical belief. What I’m saying in the passage you quote is not that atheists do not have metaphysical beliefs, or that atheism is not a metaphysical belief, but that it is hard to see how a group with no specific metaphysical views that set it apart from the general population can be considered a religion. A proper subset of atheists, for instance, could not claim that atheism alone defines them as a religion, though atheism is a metaphysical belief they share.
In saying such things they would be taking “religion” to imply supernatural beliefs. New Atheists to tend to think that, in terms of intellectual coherence, “sophisticated” religion (by which I mean the supernatural aspects) is just as bad as more literal religion.
There is also the issue that moderate religions give cover for extremist religions,by promoting the idea that religion overall is a Good Thing, and that supernatural beliefs can be respectable.
For example, if one were to criticise communism as an ideology one could have a straightforward discussion on the facts of the matter. But anyone trying to criticise Islam as an ideology gets shouted down as an “Islamophobe”, based on the idea that religion is automatically a Good Thing and thus off-limits for criticism.
The “liberal/progressive” just assumes that anything bad is “not true Islam”, and rejects outright the idea that there could be anything wrong with the “moderate” versions of Islam.
It does not seem that way to me, to me it looks like an evaluation on the evidence (but then what counts as “metaphysical” is pretty undefined).
I’m impressed by your ability to know about Jesus’s upbringing, given that you’d have a hard enough time presenting decent evidence that Jesus actually was a real person (as opposed to an entirely conconted character).
Mario Well, you’ve made even more clear your lack of knowledge about the diversity of Judaism at the turn of the eras. (But, not partially for the reason Coel claims.)
StevenJohnsonThe alleged Secret Gospel of Mark actually is connected with “Jesus the Magician,” if Smith were a forger. Both make claims WELL outside of conventional New Testament scholarship. As for your claim that everybody accusing him of forgery is motivated by anti-gay bias? Tosh. He had plenty of other motive for forgery. I don’t think the case is totally settled, but I lean toward the idea that he’s a forger. Besides the idea that both Magician and Secret Gospel are outlandish, if Secret Gospel is a forgery, it “goes to character” on other writings of Smith.
I mean, the subtitle of “Jesus the Magician,” namely, “Charlatan or Son of God,” is an illustration of Smith’s psyche on display.
As for Boyer (and Atran, reviewed by me here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/45747.In_Gods_We_Trust) I’ve never had a blanket condemnation for all ev psych, only that with unwarranted, either overly broad or deliberately provocative (like Morton Smith!) claims. The base idea of the matter, that human psychology evolved as part of general human evolution, is a no-brainer. Specifics of the actual discipline of Ev Psych as actually practiced in the US, though, starting with the EEA, are often non-scientific, though. In some cases, especially on the overly broad claims, I usually use the phrase Pop Ev Psych as a distinguisher.
Given that neither Boyer nor Atran is connected academically to the mainstream of US Ev Psych thought, I have no problems with their discussion of the evolutionary origins of religious belief. And both have done extensive cross-cultural anthropological work.
That said, I don’t totally reject findings of the myth and ritual school.
Meanwhile, even though I have said that I don’t see Reform Judaism as a religion, I’ve also said that’s not intended as denigration. I certainly would not put either it, or Unitarianism, on the level of sports. That’s doubly the case when you mention sports violence in the next sentence.
Without getting into ideas of “shunning” or other things, had my “move” from my original Christian background ended with Unitarianism, I’d have been a bit upset; were I like Aravis, much more so. I’m not the designated peacemaker of these threads, but, I can certainly see how that’s more upsetting yet to someone else. Enough said by me on that for now.
Aravis, partially responding on your behalf to Coel “Accommodationist” is the term you’re seeking, spoken with a sneer in many cases. It’s how Gnu Atheists describe non-Gnu Atheists’ work with liberally religious people on things like public school science education.
On your responses to me? Right, I didn’t think you felt that way on any of that. As far as “inheriting” Judaism? 2,000 years ago, it seems that patrilinealism was the “recognized” descent.
Coel Erm, NO, on mythcism. As likely to be true as Mario’s claim that Essenes aren’t part of normal Judaism.
> There is also the issue that moderate religions give cover for extremist religions,by promoting the idea that religion overall is a Good Thing, and that supernatural beliefs can be respectable. (…) The “liberal/progressive” just assumes that anything bad is “not true Islam”, and rejects outright the idea that there could be anything wrong with the “moderate” versions of Islam.
This discussion is taking a strange turn.
I can assure you that moderate religious people do criticize extremist religious people. Christians do criticize extremist christians, jews do criticize extremist jews, muslims do criticize extremist muslims etc. If that is “giving cover”, I wonder what doesn’t count as giving cover. A politician who criticizes another politician is giving cover (he wants to hide that politics is totally corrupt, I assume), an economist who criticizes another economist is giving cover (he wants to hide that economy is not a science, I assume), a philosopher who criticizes another philosopher is giving cover (he wants to hide that philosophy is … ) etc, etc.
It’s my impression that “liberal/progressive” religious people don’t believe you can realize something like “true Islam” or “true christianity” or whatever. They know that everybody has to live with interpretations and that interpretations are fallible. They just don’t feel the need to denounce their religion wholesale because some group abuses it. Why is this hard to accept? Nobody asks people to denounce rationality because vile things have been done in the name of rationality (google a bit, you’ll find good examples of people who were convinced that racism actually was a rational, even scientific attitude).
“Without getting into ideas of “shunning” or other things, had my “move” from my original Christian background ended with Unitarianism, I’d have been a bit upset; were I like Aravis, much more so.”
Yeah, I gotta say, rereading the thread, the more this really bothers me. Trashing a guys family, his kid’s religious identity (not to mention the issue of the Shoah), etc. So, let me ask Massimo: If there were any other kind of denigration on the boards, would you permit it, or is this the kind that is acceptable, and if so, why?
jarnauga, it’s a fine line. I block overt insults and unnecessarily harsh comments, but value judgments are allowed, and of course they are bound to upset people.
Have to agree with some of the comments expressing surprise regarding the appearance of this article on SciSal.
I also must admit that, despite its being well-written and apparently well-documented, that I was not encouraged to finish reading it.
I’ll assume that the author’s intent here is meant to be lightly amusing, but, nevertheless, ultimately to be pointless ridicule.
What has ensued in the comments are the usual forays into recherche distinctions about magic, superstition, the supernatural, religion, and atheism.
Mankind’s fascination or, possibly, need to speculate about what appears to be inexplicable has a long history. Indeed, there continues to be a very profitable literary and cinematic industry devoted to it even today. With this in mind, some of you may be interested in checking out Eric Schwitzgebel lists of some of the favorites among scientists and philosophers. Just scroll down to his Archive. Today’s is the fifth installment:
“I block overt insults and unnecessarily harsh comments, but value judgments are allowed, and of course they are bound to upset people.”
We are realists and know from long experience what to expect.
When when our little congregation paid for the tuition of impoverished university students their joy was our joy. When we help the sick and the starving their gratitude is our gratitude.
Good cannot be stopped.
Hi stevenjohnson, you wrote:
“The conceptual confusion between religion, race, ethnicity and nationality, and its intersections with notions about class and gender I believe raise serious questions about all religions, even those purified of the supernatural”.
I totally agree, this is a complex matter. I feel that the spiritual perception is a mixture of intelligence and emotion, that is why I’m sympathetic with those approaches that don’t put the emphasis in churches but in the personal exploring and discovering of the spirit. This searching isn’t, in my opinion, supernatural, it seems difficult to claim that the explorer is supernatural, so the spirit has to be felt through natural tools.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of religious congregations, the dogmatic one and the flexible one. The former stands as interpreter between the spirit and the believer, the later has a horizontal, natural view and consequently doesn’t isolate from the political, economic and cultural circumstances that rule the society. At least in Western societies the supernatural stuff tends to be seen in a rational way, it seems that religion becomes a personal and communitarian story felt with affection and with the subtle presence of the divine presence behind the scene.
Regarding the personal inquiry on wisdom, that means to get rid of our demons, Epicurus suggested aponia (absence of pain), aphobia (absence of fear), apatheia (no passion), ending all of it in ataraxia that is closely related to the achieving of an empty mind.
Contra Epicurus, the philosopher Arcesilaus claimed that reaching ataraxia doesn’t lead to wisdom, for him ataraxia was the river’s shore but it wasn’t the goal. Other people called this shore the dark night of the soul. Nevertheless, if the philosopher doesn’t reach the shore wisdom wouldn’t appear. Therefore, to get rid of our demons means to get close to wisdom.
Well, I’m interested in the social and cultural side of Jesus and his work, the spiritual side of his doctrine belongs to the sensitivity of any one, in this regard I haven’t much to say.
If you check back to the end of the Humanism/Naturalism comments, the “natural/supernatural” divide seemed to be completely undefined.
“Metaphysical” on the other had pretty much applies to any claim about the nature of reality which goes beyond what science is telling us so at least it is a little clearer than “natural/supernatural”.
There is nothing about the term ‘metaphysical’ which rules out an evaluation on the evidence. I suppose that you will claim that Dawkins was doing science when he wrote that argument, but if so I think that you are trashing the term ‘science’.
In any case I think that the new Atheism as espoused by Dawkins et al certainly fits the bill for a religion when you consider religion as an anthropological phenomenon, or as a common behaviour pattern. I don’t apply this to atheism generally.
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