The Beginnings of Religion

by Peter Gent


I’ve sometimes wondered, if I were hit by lightning, would I too get superhuman powers? Every time it rains or thunders, I find safe cover—most would say wisely—not hiding under a tree or standing in the middle of an open field, so I am not likely to know. I did once get stuck in the mountains of China with a group of students I was semi-responsible for as an unexpected lightning storm crashed around us. We found shelter and waited out the storm. Nothing happened.

But I imagine it differently. What if a meta-event had occurred in which said superpower were unlocked.

I imagine myself there. Reborn. Eyes glowing and hair on edge. With new vision, suddenly seeing every fork and twist of the future, and lightning bolts emanating from my hands on command. There I would stand, Oxford gown streaming in the wind, ready to go forth as a night angel, sent by God to cleanse the world. 

Or maybe, more likely, drooling. Unable to remember my name.

I do actually want to make a point, though, for this is putatively a story about religion.

What if in addition to seeing forks in the future, one were to self-fashion a steak knife and carve up bits of that futuristic vision, package it neatly and distribute it to those seeking religious comfort? What if one were to monetise this endeavor. Or even if not so crass, what happens when one eventually gives in to the adoration of those who follow your every word, seeing you as speaking on behalf of the deity. I think it would go to your head. It would go to mine.

The thing is, many people report having religious experiences. I do not believe that the persistence of religion is simply because we are wired to believe.

We lack adequate tools, ways of knowing, and hermeneutical concepts to make sense of religious phenomena. We don’t know who is lying, who is confused, who is retelling hearsay, and who saw what, or if anyone saw anything.

Power relations, self-interest, leaky and unstable memories, poor transmission rates. These sorts of things make making sense of religion a near impossible task.

Thomas Kuhn’s work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, seems helpful here. Religion, like science, is ultimately about making sense of – and finding our place in – the universe. Contemporary work on religion is in what Kuhn called a pre-paradigmatic state, where lack of a working model or theory creates crisis for those trying to interpret observations.

‘The pre-paradigm period’, wrote Kuhn, ‘is regularly marked by frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution, though these serve rather to define schools than to produce agreement.’[1]

Sounds like theology and religious studies. But I have hope. If there is human experience, there is a human mechanism behind it. Mechanisms can be studied and understood. This is not to argue for a reductionist approach to the humanities, but rather that if there is experience there is an explanation.

And it may indeed be that all religious experience has a purely natural mechanistic origin. Advances in neuroscience, physics, or whatever may one day make sense of what people have felt or known or maybe only thought they knew.

Or maybe not; perhaps God, if God exists, is simply non-observable. To observe the God would be to make the universe become undone and collapse in on itself along with all we love. But even if this non-observability of God were true, we could still one day have a new paradigm, a new way to observe, or at least to understand why we cannot observe.

Until then it’s all wide open.

[1] Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, fourth edition, University of Chicago Press (2012), p. 48.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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