New Religions Don’t Look Like Christianity Either

To those familiar with religions throughout the world, new religions like environmentalism, veganism, wokism, marxism, etc. are pretty obviously religions and are causing a lot of damage because that’s what bad religions do. People who are not familiar with any world religions beside Christianity frequently miss this because they think that all (real) religions look like Christianity but with different names and vestments.

I suspect that the idea that all religions look like Christianity was partially due to the many protestant sects which superficially looked similar, since even the ones that did away with priests and sacraments still met in a building on Sundays for some reason. I suspect the other major part is that there is a tendency to describe other religions in (inaccurate) Christian terms in order to make them easier to understand. Thus, for example, Shaolin “monks”. There are enough similarities that if you don’t plan to learn about the thing, it works. It’s misleading, though.

You can see the same sort of thing in working out a Greek pantheon where each god had specific roles and relationships and presenting this to children in school. It’s easy to learn, because it’s somewhat familiar, but it’s not very accurate to how paganism actually worked.

All of this occurred to me when I was talking with a friend who said that the primary feature of a religion, it seemed to him, was belief in the supernatural. The thing is, the nature/supernature distinction was a Christian distinction, largely worked out as we understand it today in the middle ages. Pagans didn’t have a nature/grace distinction, and if you asked them if Poseidon was supernatural they wouldn’t have known what you meant.

Would the ancient pagans have said that there things that operated beyond human power and understanding? Absolutely, they would. Were they concerned about whether a physics textbook entirely described these things? No, not at all. For one thing, they didn’t have a physics textbook. For another, they didn’t care.

The modern obsession that atheists have with whether all of reality is described in a physics textbook is not really about physics, per se, but about one of two things:

  1. whether everything is (at least potentially) under human control
  2. whether final causality is real, i.e. do things have purposes, or can we fritter our lives away on entertainment without being a failure in life?

The first one is basically an enlightenment-era myth. Anyone with a quarter of a brain knows that human life is not even potentially under human control. That it is, is believable, basically, by rich people while they’re in good health and when they’re distracted by entertainment from considering things like plagues, asteroids, war, etc. Anyone who isn’t all of these things will reject number 1.

Regarding the second: ancient pagans didn’t tend to be strict Aristotelians, so they wouldn’t have been able to describe things in terms of final causality, but they considered people to be under all sorts of burdens, both to the family, to the city, and possibly beyond that.

If you look at the modern religions, you will find the same thing. Admittedly, they don’t tend to talk about gods as much as the ancient pagans did, though even that language is on the rise these days. In what sense the Greeks believed in Poseidon as an actual human-like being vs. Poseidon was the sea is… not well defined. Other than philosophers, who were noted for being unlike common people, I doubt you could have pinned ancient pagans down on what they meant by their gods even if you could first establish the right terminology to ask them.

As for other things, environmentalism doesn’t have a church, but pagans didn’t have churches, either. Buddhists don’t have churches, and Hindus don’t have churches, and Muslims don’t have churches. Heck, even Jews don’t have churches. Churches are a specifically Christian invention. Now, many of these religions had temples. Moderns have a preference for museums. Also, being young religions, their rites and festivals aren’t well established yet. Earth day and pride month and so on are all fairly recent; people haven’t had time to build buildings in order to be able to celebrate them well. (Actually, as a side note, it also takes time to commercialize these things. People under-estimate the degree to which ancient pagan temples were businesses.)

Another stumbling block is that modern environmentalists, vegans, progressives, etc. don’t identify these things as religions—but to some degree this is for the same reason that my atheist friend doesn’t. They, too, think of religions as basically Christianity but maybe with different doctrines and holy symbols. They don’t stop to consider that most pagans in the ancient world were not in official cults. There were cults devoted to individual gods, and they often had to do with the running of temples. Normal people were not in these cults. Normal people worshiped various gods as convenient and as seemed appropriate.

There is a related passage in G.K. Chesterton’s book The Dumb Ox which is related:

The ordinary modern critic, seeing this ascetic ideal in an authoritative Church, and not seeing it in most other inhabitants of Brixton or Brighton, is apt to say, “This is the result of Authority; it would be better to have Religion without Authority.” But in truth, a wider experience outside Brixton or Brighton would reveal the mistake. It is rare to find a fasting alderman or a Trappist politician, but it is still more rare to see nuns suspended in the air on hooks or spikes; it is unusual for a Catholic Evidence Guild orator in Hyde Park to begin his speech by gashing himself all over with knives; a stranger calling at an ordinary presbytery will seldom find the parish priest lying on the floor with a fire lighted on his chest and scorching him while he utters spiritual ejaculations. Yet all these things are done all over Asia, for instance, by voluntary enthusiasts acting solely on the great impulse of Religion; of Religion, in their case, not commonly imposed by any immediate Authority; and certainly not imposed by this particular Authority. In short, a real knowledge of mankind will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing; that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often quite as much needed to restrain it as to impose it. Asceticism, or the war with the appetites, is itself an appetite. It can never be eliminated from among the strange ambitions of Man. But it can be kept in some reasonable control; and it is indulged in much saner proportion under Catholic Authority than in Pagan or Puritan anarchy.

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