The Social History of Religion [1]


[2]The subject of the study of religion leads to a lot of misunderstanding. Usually people think I'm religious or that I'm trying to convert them. They ask, "What do you believe?" Those aren’t the questions that brought me into that at all. I was curious. I was brought up without too much religious background, but there was a vague Protestant culture in my family. My father had given up his ferocious Presbyterian family’s obsession with Calvinism as soon as he met Darwin in college and discovered evolution. He dropped religion like a hot potato and became a research biologist.

I was brought up to think that religion was for uneducated people, not like us who understood about the superiority of science. I love poetry and music and dance of every kind, including religious dance, like the Hopi dances that I saw in New Mexico, the songs at a bar mitzvah, the music of Notre-Dame or Catholic churches—amazing. And because I wasn’t Catholic, it was okay to love that music.

When I was about fifteen, I was invited to go to San Francisco one afternoon. I thought anything that happens in San Francisco is going to be better than Sunday afternoon in boring Palo Alto, so I took off and we went to an enormous Billy Graham crusade. I had no idea who this man, Billy Graham, was. There were 18,000 people packed in the baseball stadium and 6,000 in the parking lot. There were highways jammed for miles all around. This was a very big deal. I had no clue. I walked in and this extraordinary, charismatic preacher was talking about America, saying things like, "This is a terrible country," which I’d never heard anyone say. The terrible country, he said, had to do with the fact that this country had just set off bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki not twenty years before and was now trying to build bigger nuclear weapons, and the most intelligent people were driven into science for that purpose. He was also talking about how segregation and slavery had been justified on the basis of the Bible. Well, I had never heard anyone talk like that. I thought science is the epitome of human culture, and America is the moral gold standard for the world. I was very struck and impressed by what he said.

Besides that, there was enormous emotional power in the music, in the choir of maybe 3,000 singing, and in Billy Graham saying that you can have a new life, that you can be born again and be a new person, break out of your life the way it was and everything will be great.

I just turned fifteen and I just loved it. I fell into it, was born again. My parents were horrified and angry, but that was part of the fun of it. I joined an evangelical group and suddenly I could live my life on a much bigger canvas. It was God and Satan—cosmic forces. I was no longer in Kansas anymore. I did think of it as something like falling in love with the Wizard of Oz when I was a child. Suddenly, I could be in a world that wasn’t Kansas. It was Oz. There was a great and powerful wizard who turns out to be a humbug, and the wicked witch, and there was Glenda the good. It was a huge canvas to play with, a huge landscape to enter, and I could be going there with Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, and the Straw Man. So, falling into this born-again religion was like living in an imaginary world that was much bigger than the world I actually lived in. It was great, until it wasn’t.

About a year later I fell out of love with it and left that church because people were saying things that were antithetical to what had drawn me to it. So, I just left the whole thing and absorbed myself with poetry, music, and dance. I decided I was going to be a professional dancer. I wanted to be Martha Graham. She was the one that I knew about growing up in California. I didn’t know much about the dance world in New York, but I got here to study with her company and it was great, except I found out that I wasn’t that great. I was pretty good, but in New York that gets you waiting on tables for thirty years, and I wasn’t in for that.

I decided plan B was to go back to graduate school. I’d always been good at that stuff. So, I applied to five different universities in five different fields: philosophy at Brandeis, social thought at Chicago, art history at NYU with Meyer Schapiro, English at Columbia, and a doctoral study program in the study of religion at Harvard. When the responses came back, I realized that the Harvard program was a secular university, so I had a chance to find out what had hit me in that evangelical, born-again experience five years before. What was it that was powerful about it? Why on earth would I be captured by something that was so irrational?

In the doctoral program at Harvard, you can study mystical Islam with Annemarie Schimmel, or you could study Judaism with major specialists in that field, or you could study Christianity or Buddhism. I thought Christianity and Buddhism were interesting, but Christianity is what I had to struggle with. It’s my culture, so I wanted to find out how the Christian movement started. Who was Jesus? What do we know historically about all of that? How did that movement start? It wasn’t long before I learned that at Harvard you couldn't get back there historically. We just don’t have much information. By that time, I discovered that my professors had file cabinets full of secret gospels that I’d never heard of, dozens of secret gospels—the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. They had Jewish text, Egyptian poems about the Goddess Isis, and all kinds of marvelous stuff. I fell in love with it.

What was amazing about this was that there were fifty-two separate texts, never before seen. They were just totally lost. People thought of Christianity as what you know today from, say, Roman Catholicism to Christian Science or Quakers. It's a big spectrum, with lots of Protestants in the middle. That’s only a small stream compared to what there was 2,000 years ago when the teaching of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Thomas, was something I just found captivating. I didn’t care if Jesus had said it or not, but the claim was that he had said things like, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." I thought, hey, you don’t have to believe that, it just happens to be true.

It’s twenty-five years later from the time that I started working on this, and we understand something quite different about the Gospel of Thomas. What it looks like more than anything else, when you put it in context with other historical material, is Jewish mystical thought, or, Kabbalah. Kabbalah, we thought, was first known from written texts from the 10th to the 15th centuries from Spanish-Jewish communities. Before that, there was a prohibition on writing about secret teaching. It was mystical teaching that you were not supposed to write about because you don't know what fool could get ahold of it if you did. So, there was a prohibition on teaching anyone mystical Judaism before he was thirty-five, and certainly not to women. People were old by thirty-five, so you had to be a mature Jewish man to have access to that kind of teaching.

I, and others who study Jewish mystical thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, suspect that this tradition goes back 2,000 years. This text says it’s Jesus’ secret teaching. Could it be? It could be. I don't know if it is or not, but it’s fascinating to see that what rabbis called “mystical thought” was labeled by Christian bishops in the 4th century to be heresy. That’s when I realized how religious imagination and politics coincide, because of the politics in the 4th century when Christian bishops were beginning to ask who this Jesus of Nazareth was. Jesus was God in human form, and he’s the only one who is the Son of God in human form. So, you can create a monopoly on divine energy and power with a religion that has the only access to the only person in the universe who ever channeled God directly, or was God and became human. That works very well for Orthodox Christianity. 

These other texts suggest that Jesus never thought of himself that way at all, and that other people—whoever put the Gospel of Thomas together—didn’t think of him that way. They thought of him as an enlightened person who understands that being created in the image of God means that you have a direct connection with the divine. That’s the central theme of Jewish mystical thought. Seeing Jesus that way would be antithetical to creating an institution like the Catholic Church or any other church that claimed to be the only true salvation because it’s much more like the Buddhist idea—that the Buddha is a person like you, like me, anybody, but he’s enlightened, and you can become enlightened if you work on it.

These discoveries are changing the way we understand how cultural traditions were shaped and how they became part of the culture in very different forms than they had begun. I find that enormously exciting. They involve everything from attitudes about gender and sexuality to attitudes about power and politics, about race, and gender, and ethnicity. That’s why I began to write about Adam and Eve. I mean, who cares about Adam and Eve? You realize that those traditions still play out in the culture—in the laws of the United States, or the laws of Britain, or the laws in Africa, the laws against homosexuality, and the ones that claim that the only true marriage can be a marriage between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. The Defense of Marriage Act was written by Professor Robert George at Princeton for G.W. Bush. These things still resonate, often very unconsciously, in the culture.

The way I’m looking at it was very new to me and it was new to my field, for sure. There are sociologists who thought this way, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber talked about politics and religious imagination or ideology being completely intertwined. They’re right about that, but I don't think historians had written that way about, for example, what I call the “social history of Satan.” That’s another old story about Satan and how a good angel went bad. I just started writing about the stories—Muslim stories, Jewish stories, stories that Jesus’ followers invented and amplified about Satan—and then I realized that they're not just fantasy stories, as I imagined when I started, but they landed me right back in the real world with stories about how communities divide or how people degrade and literally demonize other people. It led me to discover the origins of Christian antisemitism. And when I did, I was just dumbfounded. I didn’t expect fantasy stories to land me right back in the real world. They are stories about Satan, one of whose names is Mastema, which means “hatred.” And it is about hatred, the way these stories play out, to this day. Some people call these “penumbral images,” that is images in an unconscious part of the culture. And they are.

I began to realize, for example, that even in stories about Jesus in the New Testament, the story is pitched as a battle between the spirit of God and the evil power. I thought, okay, so what’s going on on the ground? Jesus and his disciples are walking through Galilee and obviously they embody the work of the spirit of God. That’s what happens at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark when the spirit of God comes on Jesus, and a voice comes from heaven and he’s proclaimed to be the Son of God. I figured, okay, Jesus and the followers, that’s where the spirit of God is. Now, where’s Satan? Well, that would be the Romans who crucified Jesus on charges of being a Jewish religious revolutionary against Rome. That’s the charge that was written on the cross, that’s the sentence that was given only to slaves and to people who were traitors to the Roman Empire, including Jesus of course. So, I thought it would be the Romans who crucified Jesus and the Jewish authorities who cooperated in the process. That’s the story I remembered. I knew this pretty well because I was studying the New Testament. I went back and started to read the stories. I was amazed because these stories always identified Satan only with the Jews. The Greek word for Judas, Ioúdas, looks almost like the Greek word for Jew, which is Ioúdaios. Judas, the one who is betrayer.

The Jewish priests and the Gospel of Matthew then expand it to what the author calls “the whole nation crying out, his blood be upon us and upon our children,” trying to persuade a reluctant Roman governor to sentence this man to death. The governor said he was innocent, that there was no reason to sentence him because he did nothing wrong. He was not a revolutionary, so what was wrong with these people?

The way the gospel stories are told is with the implication that the Romans had nothing to do with it and they didn't want to do it, but the Jewish crowds insisted because there was a religious quarrel among Jews, between followers of Jesus and people who didn't like it, that didn’t matter to the Romans at all. But that’s not what the history tells us. History is very clear: Jews didn’t crucify people. They didn’t have the equipment or the tradition. It was totally counter to their culture. The chief priests didn’t like him because he caused problems and started public demonstrations, people for and against it. The people who sentenced him and arrested him were Romans because they were told that he claimed to be a King of the Jews. It may be true that he claimed to be that and that he might have thought he was. So, he was guilty of insurrection, and we know that’s the charge on which he was crucified. The gospels go to great lengths to say, yes, he was crucified on that charge, but he was innocent. The whole thing was a mistake. The Jewish crowds and the chief priests deceived the Romans. That’s not what happened historically. We know that.

What I realized is there was a defensive move on the part of the people writing the stories after the death of Jesus because they had just lost a Jewish revolution against Rome and their lives were in danger. It was dangerous to be a follower because of that. So, those who were writing about Jesus said it wasn’t true that he was an insurrectionist—he probably wasn’t, actually— it was the Jews who made this happen. The Romans were wrong. The Romans probably were wrong, but they didn’t know it. So, it was a defensive move on the part of the followers of Jesus to blame other Jews in a time when they were very vulnerable. They were also being accused of heresy by other Jews and accused of following a deceiver, so it made a lot of sense.

In the 4th century when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion—to everyone's shock because it had been illegal—it became dangerous not to be a Christian. That’s when anti-Jewish prejudice became legal disability, as one scholar has put it. For example, if a rabbi were to convert someone to become a member of the Jewish community, he could be burned alive in the 4th century.

So, that becomes part of the history of Western antisemitism. Who knew? Nobody had put it together that way before. They had known that the charges were wrong, but the association with Satan was not something anyone had written about. It’s very much part of the story because people still talk that way, dehumanizing enemies as monsters, beasts, and evil. It's still the rhetoric in our politics.

Antonio Damasio has written about rationality and how it’s not as good as many rational thinkers imagine in terms of the way we respond to situations. Much of the way people respond to crises—political crises, social crises, financial crises—has to do with the way we interpret these events, and the interpretation is an imaginative one. These old ancient stories still play within the culture, often quite unconsciously.

In a conversation some time ago that involved Steve Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, me, and others, Pinker told us that when he was on a curriculum committee at Harvard, he wanted to have entered into the record Daniel Kahneman’s statements on the irrationality of much of human thought. I don't think of religious traditions primarily as irrational, I think of them primarily as imagination, which is what they are, for better and for worse. It’s because of the way they play into intense, emotional responses. It’s very important to understand what of these traditions we need to throw away and what we might want to recognize and keep, if any. It’s not a matter of do you believe in them or not, it’s a matter of recognizing that the power religious traditions convey is that they articulate the values of a culture.

I learned this most clearly not at Harvard, but when my husband and I were in South Sudan visiting Francis Deng, who was then the Foreign Minister of South Sudan. He was the son of a great chief in Sudan who had fifty wives. There were many people named “Deng” in South Sudan and still are. Francis had left his village and gone to University College, London for his education. There he wrote a book called Dinka Folktales, the folktales of his people. When he showed me his book, I was very impressed with how practical the stories were. Their story of creation is about what men do, what women do, why we die, what work we should do, who you can marry, things like that, very practical.

I realized that Western creation stories were equally practical and that these ancient things are not just cultural fossils, they communicate the values of the culture—values about sexuality, procreation, attitudes about death, about work, men, women, and what’s appropriate to genders and so forth. That’s the work they do, and for that reason they’re deeply part of the culture, whether they are Jewish traditions, or Buddhist traditions, or Hindu traditions, or Muslim. Studying these traditions is the study of comparative cultures. That’s why it should be done in middle school. I wish we could do it in middle school, about the age of twelve. It’s a great time for people that age to recognize that some people are brought up in cultures very different and will have very different responses to similar stimuli.

At a certain point in my life, my husband, Heinz, and I had to deal with the loss of our son, Mark. He was six years old. From the time he was born, we knew he had a heart problem and we knew from the time he was two that he wouldn't live long. So, we were living with this awareness that our only child would have a very short life span. He died when he was six. My husband and I decided that we were not going to be defeated by this, so we adopted two babies. Then my husband was killed in a hiking accident, which was a triple shock because it was so completely unexpected. He was in perfect health and he just vanished, which utterly devastated our family. I was totally devastated.

I started writing about Job and about obstacles and how people interpret illness, death, and accident as punishment for sin. One anthropologist said, "Suffering feels like punishment." That’s not unique; it does all over the world, whether you’re African, Greek, Hopi, or American, that’s how people interpret it most often. That’s what our cultural stories have taught us to do. After all, illness and death happens in everyone’s life, and we all have to deal with things that are very painful and things often that we can’t explain. So, how do we do it? We do it by interpreting events, and the question of how we interpret them is enormously important. We could interpret them to mean that everything is awful and is always going to get worse, and we’re just going to lose everything eventually until we lose our life, but you can go into depression that way, as many people do. I’ve decided I don't want that.

These religious traditions often suggest other alternatives to total depression. Buddhism has ways of doing it, Judaism has ways of doing it, Christianity has ways of doing it, and I’m not too proud to say I’m exploring those ways of doing it because they have worked for the human race for a long time.

At a certain point before those events happened, I met someone I’d always wanted to talk to, and that was E.O. Wilson. For decades I wanted to ask him whether he thought religion had a sociobiological function and he said, "Well, of course." He told me that his talks about global warming and population were patterned on the Baptist sermons he heard as a child in the Christian South. He used the same techniques as the Christian preachers when he preached atheist sermons about science. They work because he understands the emotional ways to do that and interpret these events. That’s one of the important aspects of understanding how our imagination works, how we interpret things, and what ways of doing so are most conducive to wellbeing.

At the moment, I’m very excited about discovering a very different tradition. I had thought in graduate school I wanted to take courses on Buddhism with a brilliant teacher at Harvard, but as soon as I started to go to his lectures, I realized that without the languages—Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, or any of those languages—I had very little sense of what these texts were saying. At the time, I was studying Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, French, and German and I knew it was impossible to take on Indian languages or the languages that are cognate with Chinese. So, I dropped the study of Buddhism.

At this point in my career, I’m working with a colleague who is a specialist in Tibetan Buddhism. His name is Jonathan Gold and he teaches at Princeton. He translates 11th century and 13th century Tibetan texts very well, not that I could judge. I suggested to him that we teach a course together called “Jesus and Buddha,” and he took the challenge. He said, "I don't know much about Christianity," (and he doesn’t), and I said, "I don't know much about Buddhism," (and I don't). I’m reading the texts he prescribes for our students and he’s reading the texts that I prescribe, and we’re looking at them together and teaching them in classes of hundreds of students at Princeton. We learn from each other, both about resonances between the two traditions and about deep dissimilarities. People who say all religions say the same thing don’t know much about them. These are culturally, extraordinarily distinct and specific.

Buddhist culture sees your lifetime and mine as one of countless lifetimes, which we have had in so many forms—in animal forms, like the Buddha as a fish, as a rabbit, as a bird, as a merchant, as somebody of a different gender. That’s a very different context of understanding identity and one’s relationship to what we call the animal world, or the plant world or the natural world.

In Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cosmology we see in an individual lifetime that's highly distinct from animals and plants by our superior, rational mind. It’s very different from the way, say, a Mohawk person in the traditions of his tribe or her tribe, or Tibetan or Chinese would perceive these. I’m very much interested, partly from my relationship with my wonderful husband, about how Western science teaches us the superiority of human rationality to that of animals or of any other species to the way that other cultures see that relationship as a much more fluid one, for example.

Heinz and I had a lot of fun with the difference between our interests. He had first said, "Religion, why would you do that? You’re talking about nothing real." And I would say, "Well, you’re talking about elementary particles. You can’t see them. What about that has impact in the real world?" He was irritated, and amused, and provoked, and interested in those questions and so was I. That was a great deal of fun for both of us.

He had proposed that we write a book called The Cosmic Gospel or the Gnostic Code, in which we would write it together, but we never had that opportunity.