“Cultural Literacy for Religion”

Paleo Retiree writes:


I enjoyed Mark Berkson’s hyper-basic (one-half to four lectures per major religion) Great Courses series very much. My beefs with it first, but only because complaining is so much more fun and easy than praising. It wasn’t the anthropological lecture series of my dreams. I’d have enjoyed some looks at animism, tribal beliefs, and Egyptian, Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian religions, as well as a few tours through the main ongoing debates over what’s a religion and what’s not. Is our current regime of multiculturalism / feminism / diversity / PC / neoliberalism taking on some characteristics of a religion, for instance? (I sure think so.) The course’s worthy “If only we understood each other we’d get along better” framing struck me as pretty silly. Why shouldn’t intellectual curiosity be understood to be reason enough to justify going through such a series? And, perhaps predictably, Berkson’s treatment of Islam seems as concerned with preventing listeners from hating the religion as with presenting and explaining it. Berkson in fact seems to have intended his Islam lectures as a corrective to some imagined wave of anti-Islam vindictiveness. Since despite checking the news most days I’ve remained unaware of the angry mobs in the U.S. that are apparently clamoring for attacks on Muslims, I did roll my eyes a few times during these particular lectures.

OK, it’s a pretty earnest experience. But, all my ungallant carping to one side, I also found it to be a super-clear and very informative series of talks. If you’re like me, you’ve run across 3/4 of this material before but only in a scattershot, higgledy-piggledy fashion. Berkson lines it all up in very easy-to-digest order. He speaks clearly and well; he has a lot of enthusiasm as well as a major gift for organization; and he supplies just the right amount of historical context-setting to make the beliefs, dogmas and developments comprehensible. And for what the course wants to be he gets the generalization-level just right. That strikes me as a very big accomplishment. (A writerly note: It’s fascinating how the demands of speaking hyper-basically can — somewhat paradoxically? — make a person come up with interesting things to say, as well as interesting ways of saying them.) For a few minutes, my head felt very clear, and that’s something I’m always very grateful for. Verdict: A first-class (if slightly, and forgivably, square) shot at Major Religions of the World 101.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Education, History, Philosophy and Religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to “Cultural Literacy for Religion”

  1. JV says:

    If you’re looking for more of this:

    “I’d sure have enjoyed some looks at animism, tribal beliefs, and Egyptian, Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian religions, as well as a few tours through the main ongoing debates over what’s a religion and what’s not.”

    Then check out The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, if you haven’t already. The first third of the book covers exactly what you wanted. I really enjoyed it.



  2. Fab, thanks for the rec, just ordered it.


  3. JV says:

    Also, this:

    “Is our current regime of multiculturalism / feminism / diversity / PC / neoliberalism taking on some characteristics of a religion, for instance?”

    I’d add environmentalism to that list, even primarily so. It seems obvious to me that as certain demographics become more secular, they are simply replacing ol’ time religion with social causes. The “god-shaped hole” thing? Who knows. It’s interesting, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For anyone looking for book on this topic, I heartily recommend Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions”: http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Religions-Plus-Huston-Smith/dp/0061660183

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fake Herzog says:

    “I know that Ehrman has been a controversial figure, so one thing I’m looking forward to is finding out what his fans and detractors see in him.”

    Oh dear, where to begin with Ehrman. For those of us who take Christianity seriously, we think Ehrman is a joke because he cherry-picks evidence to support his arguments, ignores evidence that doesn’t fit his narrative, and generally uses slimy techniques to make his case:

    1) http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=12&article=4844

    2) http://michaeljkruger.com/bart-ehrmans-worldview-problem/

    3) http://www.reformation21.org/articles/how-jesus-became-god-a-review.php

    4) http://www.str.org/blog/bart-ehrman-s-latest-book-%E2%80%93-how-jesus-became-god#.VTa-IB4o6Uk

    5) http://www.risenjesus.com/review-of-bart-ehrmans-book-forged-writing-in-the-name-of-god

    Some of those reviewers are more generous to Bart than others — I can’t stand him personally, but YMMV and supposedly, he does know his ancient history!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What’s the general beef with Ehrman? In the series I’m listening to he seems pretty down to earth. Jews did this, Romans did that, Christians distinguished themselves this way or that. I know Jim Kalb doesn’t like Ehrman either, but I’m having a hard time understanding what’s objectionable. Is he felt to have a bum agenda of some sort?


  6. Mary Scriver says:

    As soon as I finish the book I’m writing, you’ll have the answer to all your questions. 😉 But the book won’t be published by any business I know, so you’ll have to get it off Google or something. Seriously, if you start with God or “Major” or WRITING, you’re already past everything that isn’t a formal institution with guards at the gate. I’m looking at the neurology of meaning at the moment, and, yes, it’s very useful.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mary Scriver says:

    Basic individual minds are developed by brain organization — self-creation — pushing against the environment through the use of the senses and muscles. This happens according to the instructions encoded in the genome and annotated by the epigenome.

    Gradually the fetus assembles itself in the first environment, literally supported by the womb, which has its own separate genome+epigenome (the mother’s, not the father’s). It gives the fetus what it can spare, while the fetus seizes what it can. Once the infant emerges into the world, there are two environments: the sensate world which is presumed by interaction through the senses and the internal mental world which is partly unique to the person and partly “imparted” by the culture through other humans.

    Environment provides the basics of food, shelter, and nurturing through whatever resources are there (animals, plants, minerals, temperatures, water). Foods might be rice where there is shallow water, wheat where there are grasslands, marine animals at the north pole. What is eaten, how shelter is formed, responses to weather — all form the culture which encodes survival: boats, weapons, cooking, sexual relations. Once internalized, the person becomes committed and finds it hard to change.

    Certain ideas are valorized when they lead to success and weeded out when they cause bad things to happen. “Thou shalt honor thy father and mother” is usually a good and “Thou shalt not kill” is usually preventing a bad. But if father and mother are punishing and restricting, one might want to kill them in spite of knowing there will be bad consequences. These ideas are stored in the brain, generally behind the forehead. We call them “ethics” or “morality” or “laws.”

    At the same time the body is storing a different kind of thought which every living creature has, an accumulation of knowing that is not conscious. The Autonomic Nervous System governs this knowledge, which does not normally become conscious unless it prompts noticeable reactions like panting, fast heart beat, or a clenched gut. The autonomic nervous system is deeply involved in what is called the spiritual when practices or ideas trigger basic blissful or otherwise intense internal reactions. These reactions form in the fetus as soon as the necessary structures have formed. They are wordless. They constantly adapt to new circumstances, maintaining homeostasis.

    Probably the experiences described by saints which involve basic binaries (hot/cold, dark/light, embraced/falling, distant/close) are perceived, like sex, through the autonomic nervous system. This system is parallel to conscious nerve/muscle systems and not necessarily controllable. At one time it was described as dyadic whole-body reactions that work in opposition: calm and resting versus alert and ready for action. Now the enteric system, a mesh of nerves in the wall of the intestines, is considered part of this larger system. In fact, even the colonies of microbes that live in the guts can influence mood.

    Freud realized the existence of something below consciousness existed was tried to get at it with free association and by thinking about old stories like Greek drama, which was very close to being religiously valorized and provided the idea of sitting together, focusing on some kind of performance. The most distinctly and recently evolved human capacity is that for empathy, which allows us to experience second-hand what another person is experiencing. Thus we can know strong emotions and deadly reactions without endangering ourselves. These can prompt us to put felt concepts into words.

    There is a thin wall between the religious practice of a communal experience and the psychological or artistic sharing. The crux of “religion” is survival, either survival of the group and species or survival of an individual. When they support each other, the autonomic system runs along happily and the ordinary sensate world is enjoyed. The opposite might be called evil and be felt as coming from the outside or seeping up from the inside — something supernatural and uncontrollable.

    Beyond empathy is rational thought like mathematics and, more recently, science which by observing certain rules (detachment, testing, repeatability, mathematical measurements) can offer shared concepts that don’t change as obviously as humanities ideas or art styles, what are called “memes”. Through the use of instruments, we have extended our perception and understanding of realms never dreamed of: subatomic particles, virus codes that invade cells, how the neural cells work. When the attitudes of reflection and analysis are used on the problem of non-sensate but significant concepts, they become theologies — theories of the sacred, which are felt through the autonomic system, translated into social assumptions and groups. (If the system has no “theos” or concept of “God,” then it is called philosophy or sometimes anthropology.)

    Individual unconscious feelings (felt meanings) guide people into socio-economic groups provided by the environment and culture. We call them “congregations” but could call them aggregations. People group together spontaneously in a pluralistic society but can be forced into groups by a coercive culture. (Schools, military) Or they may simply have developed as genetically related people or people in a specific environment or of a certain age. (Though I don’t know of any teenaged religious congregations, maybe a case could be made that fan groups count.) When the business of the group is supporting a world-view that controls their behavior, then they are seen as religious by others.

    In the Middle Eastern lands around the Mediterranean, kingdoms and tribal groups spontaneously formed which defined themselves with theological dogma drawn from living in that place. Gradually through the millennia, responding to war over territories, dwindling resources, the invention of agriculture allowing grain storage and domestic animals to accumulate wealth, and forms of government that developed into walled towns with focused resources, supported by a specialized priesthood who performed a kind of theatre of sacrifice — all this formed into a few dozen theological stances and their members. Then three “took off” in power and wealth, supported by written “books” that were said to be supernatural: Judaism (Torah), then — emerging from it — Christianity (Bible), then — using many of the same concepts — Islam (Koran).
    These three have dominated our idea of what a “religion” is. As Christianity spread over Europe, piggy-backing on the Roman Empire, it became the Holy Roman Church and
    managed to convince the several governments that it represented “God” who was the Caesar of all Caesars. It brokered peace, crowned kings, created a supernatural reality of heaven, saints, the devil, and so on that gradually became corrupt. The Protestant movement meant that many small subdivisions of Christianity formed, according to the environments, temperaments, and sources of success in different groups.

    The original Christian church, as expressed in the Catholic system, had many different styles and subdivisions that came out of spreading into new territories, but they were strongly connected to Rome. The Protestant church had no such restraint and often reached into “spiritual” sources as guided by the autonomic system, the mammal brain of felt meaning. But also theology could build on rational ideas. All these differing groups could then be called “denominations” or different namings of the basic idea of Christianity. Denomination is a term usually reserved for Christian sub-groups.

    Islam and Judaism are related but separate RELIGIONS, not denominations. They are grouped with Christianity as the Abrahamic religions, since the holy books of all three say they descended from Abraham, who was asked by God to kill his son but was then spared, an emblem of survival. Religions and denominations are both institutional: that is, they are organized, hierarchical, supported monetarily and with staff, housed in buildings, capable of acting like corporations. Spirituality continues parallel to theology.

    Spirituality is immanent, an upwelling from within, a product of the limbic/autonomic brain and therefore unconscious except in physiological phenomena. Theology is a way of unifying and empowering institutions. What I want to understand is the path from a felt meaning to a power structure intent on perpetuating itself.


    • slumlord. says:

      What I want to understand is the path from a felt meaning to a power structure intent on perpetuating itself.

      I’m being completely serious here, but a lot of it is akin to Roissy’s rationalisation hamster.


      • Mary Scriver says:

        The truth is that a lot of religion IS a hamster wheel. The gap is what you identify as the path from a felt meaning (spirituality) to a power structure intent on perpetuating itself, in other words, an institution. The path goes from family to community to territory to defense to prosperity to — um — advertising. In the last decades my denomination (I’m an ordained but non-serving UU minister) has gone from “universal principles” (which really weren’t anyway) to surveys of popularity and t-shirts. I’m starting with Eliade and ending up with Joe LeDoux. What I want to know is how to prevent spirituality from becoming politics for hamsters.


      • slumlord. says:

        What I want to know is how to prevent spirituality from becoming politics for hamsters.

        You need to go over to NRx, There’s a Post over at social matter called the The Protestant Question you might find interesting. The only thing thing that stops the Hamster is a Pope. You don’t need a Pope to discover a religious truth, but you need one to stop you from going into error.


      • Mary Scriver says:

        I’m not doing a good job of managing this comment section! Should have made coffee first.

        I have no interest in ANY religious system.

        http://www.gocomics.com/francis/2015/04/20 Here’s a good comic strip if you like the current Pope. I do. What I’m interested in is more like the ecology of religion which overlaps a lot with the ecology of cultures which is based on the ecology of the planet. You CANNOT get hamsters to wise up. And some of them really LIKE the running wheel. Exercise is good for hamsters!

        Prairie Mary


  8. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Audible has most of the Great Courses lectures, and they are almost always at the sale price. Plus, you can arrange things, so that you get them for even cheaper. Unfortunately, it is audio only. But then I listen to these things while driving etc.


  9. agnostic says:

    Political correctness, etc., are not religious for two main reasons. Both get at the core function of religion — to morally regulate behavior for the greater harmony of the group.

    1) There’s no supernatural component to them. “Religion without god(s)” is a meaningless category. The gods are present in order to over-ride whatever objections and squabbles may arise among flesh-and-blood mortals. Whether those be objections from an individual against the consensus, or squabbles amongst the group to form the consensus.

    Some really existing higher power or being — not an abstract principle — has made its will manifest, and we ought to obey it.

    2) There’s no group-bonding activity, let alone on a regular basis, let alone with an emphasis on out-of-the-ordinary sensory experiences (singing / chanting, music, dance / rhythmic movement, or other corporeal rituals). “Religion without services” is also meaningless. (Yes, that applies to Christians who never go to church, or other Christian group activity.)

    These group rituals are practiced in order to make the members feel a palpable belonging-ness in a larger community. Otherwise as atomized individuals, they would feel more comfortable violating their duties regarding proper beliefs and behaviors.

    In short, just because PC, etc., attempt to morally regulate our beliefs with dogmas and our behaviors with taboos, doesn’t mean they’re religions. They lack two central features that make religions so successful at regulating behavior in a social context, both involving the sense of duty to a higher level than the individual.

    This must be why they have been so pathetic at catching on among the majority, finding a foothold only among the minority who are numb to supernatural beliefs or feelings, and whose social lobes of the brain are underdeveloped or atrophied to the point of not wanting to submit the individual to the group to preserve collective well-being.


    • Mary Scriver says:

      Abraham salutes you. Buddha does not.


      • agnostic says:

        Really-existing Buddhists believe in deities (devas) as well as the spirits of their local folk religion, and they gather regularly in temples for services led or mediated by ordained clergy (monks), chanting, making offerings, positioning the body just so, etc.

        Genuine, sincere Buddhists:

        Fake, airhead Buddhist:


      • Mary Scriver says:

        I am not Buddhist and have not studied it. Thank you for the enlightenment.

        Prairie Mary


    • JV says:

      I agree generally with your comment, but this:

      “They lack two central features that make religions so successful at regulating behavior in a social context, both involving the sense of duty to a higher level than the individual.”

      I’m not saying it’s right, but for, say, environmentalists, “the environment” is the entity to which they feel a sense of duty beyond the individual. It’s misguided, of course, because in reality, “the environment” should matter to humans only insofar as it can sustain us; but for some environmentalists, humans are a virus which the environment must be protected from. Hence, you get preservationists who wish to return the environment to some imagined pre-human and pristine ideal, as opposed to the more rational conservationists who only wish to be good stewards so that we can continue to extract the resources we need to survive.

      I’d say the same goes for any cause that is fervently believed in. The believers believe they are sacrificing their individual freedoms for a greater good beyond themselves. Which points to the idea of a “god-shaped hole,” something I was resistant to in my younger days but have come to believe is there for most of us. In lieu of religion, we’ll latch on to something else.


    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      Thanks for saying this.

      I occasionally get into arguments with Jim Kalb and other religious people who want to call everything and its dog a religion.

      Liberalism may occasionally have some half-hearted attempt at ritual (humans can’t entirely do without such things), but these things are pretty occasional, and an occasional ritual sounds as lame as it is. We really do live in a very informal society, and I don’t see how anyone can deny this.


      BTW I was reading about Sappho and some of the controversies about whether her poetry was the expression of private feelings or was intended for public events. The article made reference to the constant and pervasive round of religious festivals in Greek society. Now that was a religious society.


  10. agnostic says:

    As for the minor gripes you had, those are probably due to marketing to the intended audience, revealed in the title — “everything the well-educated person should know”. You won’t want to appear backwards and boorish, do you? Well then, here are the facts you need to know, and how to frame them for yourself and for others.


  11. agnostic says:

    “Then three “took off” in power and wealth, supported by written “books” that were said to be supernatural: Judaism (Torah), then — emerging from it — Christianity (Bible), then — using many of the same concepts — Islam (Koran).”

    Reminder: only two of those took off, Christianity and later Islam. Judaism never caught on outside of its small, localized ethnic group.

    If we need to respect the magical number 3, we can substitute Zoroastrianism for Judaism. It was the religion for one of the largest empires at the time, practiced (at least for a time) outside of its original ethnic group, and was highly influential on subsequent large-scale religions in the Near and Middle East.

    It’s shameful that Zoroastrianism was neglected in the Great Courses survey, while the quasi-animistic folk religion of Japan (a tiny isolated land for most of its history) get its own lecture.

    Multiculturalism wins again.


  12. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I suspect the course leaves out some of the fundamentals about religion:

    1. Religion is about attributing mind and agency to non-human things in the world. For the religious person, reality is personal.
    2. A lot flows from this. For example, religious ethics tends to be more about fulfilling the purpose (mind, agency) of things rather than just about subjective happiness, suffering and the distribution of those things. Which is why religious people tend to be the last holdouts against acceptance of gay sexual relationships, among other things.


  13. Ebay has some really great deals on Great Courses also.


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