Stephen Larsen, Ph.D. LMHC, BCIA-eeg, Author of the Month for February 2009
Why (some think) The Gods Must Be Crazy:
(Or how do we sink into delusion when we think that "God is on our side?")
By Stephen Larsen
In 2007 Dr. Larsen published The Fundamentalist Mind: On how Polarized thinking Imperils Us All. The book was awarded the Gold Medal in Psychology and designated Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine.
In the early chapters of my book: The Fundamentalist Mind, I tell how my mentor, Joseph Campbell, saw it all coming: Gaza in Flames, the so called "holiest" places on earth the loci of untrammeled violence, pain and despair; people frozen in attitudes of paranoia, defense, and aggression, all in the name of the highest good. How could these things be? Is the very idea of God incendiary for human beings?
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
Though I wrote the book, published in late '07, in less than a year, my ongoing and painful study of this subject goes far back into my youthful contemplation on genocide. As a (I suppose thoughtful) kid, I couldn't wrap my mind around large-scale human cruelty. The Native Americans, for example, weren't just wiped out in a series battles; the dominator culture (ours), insisted on also killing the very core of their beliefs, the gods along with the people; devaluating an ancient and dignified spirituality, and in the bargain, losing thousands of years of accumulated indigenous lore on how to live sustainably on this continent.
And why would a religion with the image of a gentle, nonviolent Savior, torture, murder, enslave those weaker and less technologically advanced: (Wouldn't it be a kind of mental sadism, or spiritual chauvinism, to tell someone that their religion was worthless?) Moreover, serious scholars have suggested that the "Devil," who haunts the European imagination, was the previous deity, a positive figure for an older culture, often shown horned and hoofed, to indicate his mastery of the animals and the world of nature. But it took the Christian shadow imagination to make him the incarnation of Evil. (I will explain more about that oppositional faculty presently.) Studying what the Holy Inquisition did to millions of women (the film The Burning Times suggests over six million-spread over several centuries) was extremely traumatic for me even as a young Christian male. (I can't imagine what it is like for thoughtful modern women-as they imagine themselves in the place of those poor medieval herbalists and midwives.) The infamous Malleus Malificarum, the "Witches Hammer," explores the full range of the Inquisitor's sadistic fundamentalisms on how to "detect" witches-by such anomalies of nature as birthmarks, moles, extra nipples, fingers or toes, etc., or how they scream when pricked, prodded or burned. Campbell knew that mythologies address the dark and the destructive elements in life, as well as the visionary and creative. He saw that with secularism emerging, the mythologies themselves (especially the ones that took themselves most seriously-that is, literally) would begin to thrash about and engage in violent and fanatical gestures to survive.
So as the world turns, and untried new culture-forms emerge, we have equal and opposite reactionary forms pulling backward, atavistically: the Islamic Taliban, the Rapture-bound Christian fundamentalists. (Some theorists think they deserve each other: the Ayatollahs and the Popes, the Ahmadinejads and the George Bushes, each listening to the invisible, but omnipotent whispers of the Most High, while blundering and making fatal errors in the world of social realities.)
Any life form wishes to survive. People and animals do. Why shouldn't religions, even ideologies, since their substance is also biological? Aren't human beings the meat, the blood and the nerves, of churches, of nations? Humans are exquisitely receptive bio-computers. But culture and myth (religion) are the organizing patterns; software imprinted on the vulnerable bio-hardware: The "phantom rulers of humanity": "These forms," writes California poet Robinson Jeffers, "to whom labors and wars, visions and dreams, are dedicate…" These forms endure--or try to endure-even as the world tries to slough them off.
Campbell and his old friend, religious historian Mircea Eliade, posited that human beings have a basic dichotomy in their thinking: That timeless one between the "profane" and the sacred (the secular and the sacred, the ordinary and the holy). For many people it is useful to keep the two kinds of mentality apart. This was probably the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when asked if it were legitimate to pay taxes to the Roman overlords: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's."
But what if God and Caesar are mixed up? You think (and Caesar thinks) that Caesar is a god. Or, it works in reverse: any god worth worshipping has to have a Caesar, an earthly vicar, a plenipotentiary, to make absolutely certain that you fall on your knees at the right time, and in the right way. Then you begin to glimpse what Campbell was thinking about (as well as the founding fathers of the US). Church and state, sacred and secular conflated.
Perennially, in a kind of spatial perspective, the divine hovers over the human, even as Jehovah hovers over the Jews, Indra over the Vedic Aryans, Zeus and Athena over the battle on the plains of Ilium. Humanity seems unable to disentangle myth from its doings. Some of my most interesting courses at Columbia were in mythology as well as psychology-this led me to Campbell and the awareness that psyche and myth were inextricably entwined. Later, meeting Campbell, studying with, and having many conversations with him, I became aware how intimate and potent the psyche/myth connection was.
He thought the most dangerous kinds of mythologies were the literalized ones-the ones where myth and history are confused, imagination and perception. Campbell, like the rest of us, loved many things about Creation mythologies: gardens, serpents, falls from Grace. These are perennial myths which instruct the spirit. But, he said, if you want to find out where the world as we know it really came from, go to the physicists, biologists and archaeologists. It is amazing, that we are almost ninety years after the Scopes trial, and still the debate with the creationists vs. evolutionists rages. (God put those trilobites and Juraissic fossils out there to test our faith, brothers and sisters.)
We all know that religious Jewish people have anticipated a Messiah, a chosen one, who will vindicate and bless the faithful among his people. It is a powerful mythogem (a unit of mythic meaning). We all learned as children to wait for the goodies--and there can be no doubt that the messiah is a good thing-at least for his people. But the world is very bad (it hurts and persecutes his favored ones, his Chosen People). On a psychological level, somehow waiting for the good thing enables us to endure the bad-and still believe! In Christianity, the offshoot religion of Judaism, the Messiah already came--in the form of Jesus. But the inner expectation that something wonderful is coming is, well, almost indispensable to messianic religion-so to preserve that inherited mythogem, we are told that Jesus is coming again.
In The Fundamentalist Mind I have a section of a chapter on this theme of "The Second Coming of Christ." In Matthew 24:21-30 (the so-called "Little Apocalypse") Jesus did in fact predict his own return in "glory and the clouds of Heaven." But he also predicted the time: "Before this generation shall pass." The historical record shows no such epiphany (or if he did come, he met a similar fate to the first time, but without anyone writing it all down). Nor did he come in the next century or two-the early church father Irenaeus (2ndc. CE) was sure the coming would be in his own lifetime. (His student Hippolytus, who also, in fact, codified and popularized the mythic lore of the Antichrist, thought so too.) Both were disappointed, but unshaken in their beliefs, sorry to say. In the early stages of Christianity, the predictions of Christ's return were so rife, that by St. Augustine's time, this important Church Father insisted that they be stopped-or the failures of so many prophecies would discredit and ruin the Church. But such was the obsessional power of the expectation that it kept springing up. Thus was formed a kind of Fudamentalist "shadow Christianity," based on the expectation of an historical Second Coming. That mythologized "Antichrist" theme was too good to put down too; it gave frustrated millenialist Christianity a diabolical enemy to project on its many persecutors.