Raising the level of religious literacy
July 18, 2010 by Bill
The Honorable Walter Annenberg became my patron in 1990. In his letter of explanation he said he wanted me to be free to write and lecture full time. That was the first of over 200 letters to me in our wonderful and constructive ten-year relationship. In that same first letter he told me the most significant reason for his decision. He wrote: “I consider your newspaper columns monumental in raising the level of religious literacy.” He went on to add that this reduces the level of bigotry, superstition, and ignorance.
His use of language in the letter, with the phrase “raising the level of religious literacy,” was very interesting to me for the following reason: Every semester, in my last class with my university students, I would always ask them this question: “what part of this semester made the most significant contribution in raising your level of religious literacy?”
Without exception, there was always one included. It was the section that brought out the fact that all the rituals and beliefs of present day Christianity and Judaism had their origin in the primitive religions of magic, superstition, ignorance and witchcraft. We studied many examples with a few being obvious to even the most innocent and naive student.
RITUALISTIC CANNIBALISM – the sacred meal. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of divinity. The Protestant Communion and Roman Catholic Mass are obviously a continuation of this ritual with the symbolic cannibalism of eating the body of Jesus and drinking of his blood. Men have believed that they acquired the powers of whatever organism they consumed. They came naturally to the conception of eating the god. Sir James Fraser in “The Golden Bough” wrote “by eating the body of the god, he shares in the gods attributes and powers.” Dr. Jean-Paul Dumont, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington has made a lifetime of studying ritualistic cannibalism. He writes: “by sharing the body and blood, the purpose is to take on the qualities of the person you eat. It is a sign of respect. It is always a religious act, even in symbolic form as practiced in the churches of today.”
TALKING TO THE SUPERNATURAL – the belief that a human being on this little planet earth can actually communicate with the gods…goddesses…spirits…from the origin, thousands of years ago, under the full moon of an ice age, to today’s Presidential “prayer” breakfasts and “prayer” meetings, to ministerial “invocations.”
REPRESENTATIVES OF DIVINITY – the belief that special human beings are closer to the gods than the common person. The belief that special human beings, from medicine men, shamans, “holy” men and women, to today’s clergy, ministers, priests and rabbis, are heard by the gods. You know today’s clergy as the “official” pray-er. “How about a prayer reverend?” The primitive belief that “God” speaks to the common man through his “official” talking head. Today’s talking “god head” cannot even explain a light bulb, but he or she can tell you all about God.
SYMPATHETIC MAGIC – or “imitative magic” (like influences like), such as voodoo dolls. This includes the sacrifice of human beings or animals. A human being or animal is sacrificed on behalf of a community, simulating or “saving” the community itself. You may have heard the phrase “Jesus died for your sins,” and if you believe it, you are buried in primitive imitative magic and superstition. My favorite book on this subject is “Custer Died For Your Sins” by my good friend and Sioux scholar, Vine Deloria.
TABOOS – “thou shalt nots,” cultic taboos, such as the “ten commandments” etc. have been everywhere in primitive and superstitious religions – things you cannot touch, cannot eat, cannot do, cannot say. The Hebrew people were overwhelmed with 613 laws of things they could not do, as were, and are, Christians, and Islam, the people of the “book,” the bible.
I could continue for another 50 pages, but I think you get the thesis. Everything we believe today, and act out in ritual, has its origin in the magic, witchcraft and superstitions of primitive religions. The formula is: Myth plus ritual equals religion. Rituals are rationalized by myth.
Where did this great drama begin to unfold? In some far away swamp long ago, or from some cloudburst, some bubbling pool, some electrical storm, new life burst forth. Life that began to evolve to something that slunk through steaming forests, then roamed through the glitter of glacial nights, under the full moons of many ice ages, to some prehistoric shaman that began to ask questions about storms and earthquakes, and births and deaths, and in the head of this earth bound creature, the gods were born and created in man’s image, and their primitive concepts continue on into today’s multi-billion dollar cathedrals.
Raising the level of religious literacy. Ah, it is no easy task in today’s climate of religious ignorance.