Today it occurred to me, I don’t know why we give the Native American religions a free ride. Well, yes I do, it’s because we don’t have a Native American with 181 delegates backing him on the promise of eradicating women and gays because the spirit of the buffalo entitles him to make being different from him illegal. But from a purely philosophical standpoint, they’re just as full of shit as all the rest of the supernatural belief systems, but at least in the part of the country where I live (one of the ones with the heaviest Native populations remaining), anyone who celebrates the wind spirits and talks to the trees seems to get a free ride from the rationalist folk.
Some of it, of course, is that they’ve never been taken all that seriously to begin with. Animists, and their honky successors of various new wave religions, are always taken with a grain of salt, and people tend to be a lot less shy about asking “you don’t really think there’s healing energy in that crystal, do you?” than they are asking if someone really takes their cues from an illiterate Middle Easterner from Roman times. On top of that, because there’s no established church, animism feeds well into the American desire to be considered “spiritual, but not religious” without being accused of copping out of the debate.
I’m not saying animists aren’t good people. I do think that if they had been accepted into the power structure as Jews had in 1st century Palestine or Christians have in 21st century America, corruption and intolerance would affix itself to their belief system just as readily as it attaches itself to any other religion, because one of the greatest weaknesses of religion is its very virtue of the necessity of faith. If someone is already willing to believe in an omniscient being, spirits in the trees, or just some vague force without having any proof of its existence, then they’re agreeing to believe in something that doesn’t exist. Or at least, it’s not necessary that it exist in our perception of reality to believe it.
That’s a powerful, powerful, device, and if the people in authority follow a doctrine with that allowance, the doctrine is quickly corrupted. The movie Troy beautifully illustrates a scene where Trojans went to crazy lengths to justify how their belief system compelled them to go to war with the Greeks. Well, of course they wanted to go to war with the Greeks, but the reality was against them. It was a military mistake and a diplomatic disaster. But they really wanted to give it a shot, so rather than turning to evidence-based observation. they turned to faith-based religion.
Meanwhile to the east, a band of African itinerants traversing through Asia suffered the opposite problem. Theirs was not that their opulence gave way to base desires, but that base desires interfered with their need to live with limited means. It’s difficult to keep your people happy living on nothing but dry bread and steady exercise when your neighbors walk down gold-lined streets and get together in the afternoons for orgies. But as it became to difficult to explain to their people why they had to be extra-careful about what they ate since they lacked sanitation and their numbers were small enough that they really needed to be careful about inbreeding and love triangles, they came up with a different tact: if you don’t listen to us God will destroy you. Where reason fails, religion begins.
Reading through the Jewish religious documents, it seems apparent that the first couple tries didn’t stick. They made for some good folk tales but didn’t encourage proper behavior. So the rules became more specific. God became more wrathful. Characters were no longer centenarian myths, but people they actually knew: Moses. King David. Solomon. The stakes were raised until gentiles were no longer regarded as simply other people but as enemies. To be continued