The Novelty of a Lack of Novelty

Spend any time studying religion, at least on a superficial level, and you will run into similarities. Religions all have similar features and it doesn’t matter where one goes, those features are there. Seeing the similarities though caused many authors in the 19th and early 20th centuries to draw fallacious conclusions about religion. 

The general thought in religious studies was that, based upon Darwinian assumptions, one could trace the development of religion back through time and arrive at a religious common ancestor. That religion could simply be explained away. Indeed, there are certain Darwinian observations that have some meaningful explanatory power on one level; however, once we get inside the system the explanatory power of Darwinian presuppositions loses. 

There is, of course, within what is called “religion” certain homologous elements that are common across the varieties of belief systems. These homologies are often what are emphasized by those who have no interest in getting beyond superficialities. 

See Also: Politics and Religion: Strange Bedfellows or Longing Soulmates?

Religions have certain key beliefs, structures, and functions—scientifically speaking—but when we drill down, things begin to lose focus. Matters of worldview then come into focus. The underlying presuppositions become exposed to the air and how they react with the light of exposure determines their truth value because experience and expectations must have a certain level of justified coherence. 

Sociologically there is a connection between religion and culture, in that culture is often understood to be the common religion. If we look at the most general definition of the term “culture”, this is most evidently seen: “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”. The point that is often missed in such a categorical distinction is that there is essentially no difference between a “religious group” and a “social group”, thereby making any distinction merely artificial. Critics of religion often either misunderstand or ignore such subtlety, moving the goalposts to avoid the inherent problems of philosophical justification for particular beliefs. This confusion becomes especially evident when looking back through time, such as in this post by J. H. McKenna, where he writes,

For instance, the ancient religion of the Jews, when that religion was new, borrowed ideas from even older religions in Sumeria, Akkadia, Babylon, Egypt, and Persia: the bible’s garden paradise, the forbidden tree, the ethics of the ten commandments, the baby set afloat in a basket upon a river, the world flood, afterlife beliefs, and more, were borrowed ideas.

This is a very good example of a classic over-generalization. The simple fact is that there were shared, not “borrowed” ideas. As Michael Heiser writes in his book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible,

We talk a lot about interpreting the Bible in context, but Christian history is not the context of the biblical writers. The proper context for interpreting the Bible is not Augustine or any other church father. It is not the Catholic Church. It is not the rabbinic movements of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is not the Reformation or the Puritans. It is not evangelicalism in any of its flavors. It is not the modern world at all, or any period of its history. (p. 16, emphasis original)

Indeed, when we look back into time, especially when it comes to ancient literature—whether historical or religious, and even then the distinction becomes somewhat blurred in certain cases—we see certain similarities. Whether it’s in regard to key worldview elements, literary themes, or even in manner of presentation. In one textbook on sociology of religion, when discussing the social constructionist view in sociology in regards to religion, it states,

Unlike many animals, humans are “unfinished” at birth due to our underspecialized and undirected instinctual structure. Consequently, humans must make a “world” for themselves, externalizing a world we call culture. In particular, we create symbols (and symbolic acts) that help us to interpret the world around us and communicate with each other. Religious symbols, as we will see, or crucial to this. Examples of symbols include the star of David, the cross, the star and crescent, eight spoke wheel, and the Aum. (p 67)

Therefore, we may see—especially when looking superficially—similar symbols used across cultures. But similarity in symbols doesn’t mean anything. It’s what those symbols mean in a particular culture that matters.

McKenna tries to demonstrate his case by raising four points.

Point 1: Time obscures connections between religions

Let’s say that’s true, I’m going to argue that he is, in this instance using “religion” as a synonym for “culture,” in such a case we could say that time does obscure connections between cultures. McKenna writes,

The borrowing happened so long ago that few can espy it. Most ancient religions died, and time erased the ancient paths of connection between the dead religions and current living religions.

This statement is so generalized that it essentially has no meaning. Cultures (I would like to remind everyone that I make no historical distinction between “religion” and “culture”) rose and fell. Cultures have unifying images and concepts, and no culture has exclusive rights to its symbolism, but it does have rights to the meaning of those symbols.This is one of those moments where we have to ask, what is being shared here?

Point 2: Simple unawareness

He writes,

Few people know anything about ancient Sumerian or Akkadian or Babylonian or Persian religious ideas.

Yeah…and? Most people simply don’t care about those ideas because they simply aren’t necessarily relevant to their everyday religious experiences or exercises. But then there’s also the problem of dating those ideas and when they were prevalent. For example, this paper walks through a rather large number of similar accounts form ancient literature that falls into what the writer calls the “exposed child” motif and even creates a chart that compares them. The writer even makes a compelling point, while discussing a similar motif,

An ancient peasant, listening to such a story [of a youth torn to pieces] told of a human hero, would doubtless recall at once the myth of the god. But the reverse would also surely be true: regaled with a re-telling of the myth, the peasant would think of the tales of mortals who had suffered similar a similar death, and perhaps recall members of his own community who had been devoured by carnivores. (p.210)

The writer also notes,

To discern “lines of descent”…is difficult in the extreme. Moreover it may be misleading, since many seem to be de novo compositions with but a reminiscence of the framework of the motif, and not adaptations or borrowings of specific stories. (p 227)

In other words, just because there are similarities in ideas, doesn’t necessarily mean that those ideas are, in fact, related.

Point 3: No opportunity to investigate the history of religious ideas

McKenna writes,

Only those who stumble into a university course on religion would learn about religious borrowing.

This, as noted in the previous point, runs into the problem of assuming what is difficult to prove. I have sat through those very classes, and read those books which make those claims, the problem is that it rarely goes beyond making the assertion.

McKenna’s point 4: The devout may reject the notion of borrowed ideas

To which he adds,

The uniqueness, and possibly the legitimacy, of a religion is at stake if the religion is not perceived to be completely innovative. No divinely ‘revealed’ religion needs to borrow ideas from pre-existing non-revealed religions.

Here’s the problem, and it’s something that Michael Heiser, who I seriously recommend in these instances, often points out: if God was going to speak, he would speak in a way that would have meaning to those to whom he was speaking. So many of these accusations are often the result of fallacious post hoc reasoning.

Each of these four points have some measure of truth to them, because I have run into them. There is a measure of ignorance in the church. One of the points in me starting this blog was to expose believers to difficulties and help them see their way through them, or at least that’s what it has come to be. I’m not afraid of ideas. I’m not afraid of facts. I am afraid of people with agendas preying on ignorance.

Keep thinking friends.