The Question of Natural Religion and Syncretism Part I

Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Related Post Roulette

38 Responses

  1. I was first introduced to the idea in an introductory class on East Asian history. The professor used it to explain how the Chinese adopted, adapted to, and modified Daoism, Confucianism, (what he called) Legalism, and Buddhism. He claimed that “western” religions were not syncretic. Of course, it was only an introductory class and he probably needed to make sweeping statements like that, if only to develop contrasts between what most of us knew and were familiar with and what he was teaching us.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      It’s kinda ridiculous to say western religions are not syncretic. Santeria et al were just part of a near 2 millennia tradition of Roman Catholicism incorporating local custom (first Roman, then Germanic) into its belief system and organizational structure. True, the Protestant Reformation had a push for unsyncreticing Christianity (as a subset in its larger push about ethics in religious governance) – hence the original war of christmas was launched by the Puritans but Protestantism isn’t close to the whole of Western thought, even if we postulate it as non-syncretic (which is a mistake)Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kolohe says:


        I’m sorry I just now noticed your comment. Yes, I think I agree, but I also think my professor had a point in that the Chinese experience seems to have allowed for more syncretism than the Western experience. At least, he seemed to make a convincing case for it. That class covered Chinese history (technically, East Asian history, but a good 70% of the time was spent on China) from the origins to around 1644, so it was a broad brushstrokes thing.

        I’d say that when it comes to the history of western variants of Christianity (don’t know much about Orthodox approaches), there is a tendency among Catholics (especially post-Council of Trent) and Protestants to sometimes incorporate local cultures and ways of looking at the world, but to also double down on the set of core beliefs or (in the case of the Catholic church, the hierarchy) when push came to shove. My professor, to believe his presentation of the issue for China, claimed there fewer religious or dogmatic allegiances were demanded of practitioners.

        Even so, I think you’re on to something, especially if we look at pre-Reformation Europe. And I don’t know nearly enough about East Asian history to know if my professor was right or not.Report

  2. And modern Americans, who call Him “Moola”.Report

  3. Will H. says:

    Knowledge without understanding.

    Deepest values often show in curious ways.Report

  4. Jon Rowe says:

    Since there aren’t too many comments here I am not going to post links to the other two parts of the series in separate Off The Cuff entries. Rather I will post links to them here in the comments section.

    Here is Part II.

    Here is Part III.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Jon Rowe says:

      You might try republishing them are in their entirety? That might help.

      They’re pretty great pieces.Report

      • Jon Rowe in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Thanks for the encouragement. I think I should do something with the Yazidis, given the timeliness of their plight.Report

        • Glyph in reply to Jon Rowe says:

          I’ve read about the Yazidi cosmology before, but I pulled up this article to refresh my memory, and this time these paras caught my eye:

          “The origins of the Yaz?d? faith can be traced to areas of the Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq where pockets of devotion to the fallen Umayyad dynasty persisted long after the death of the last Umayyad caliph, the half-Kurdish Marwan II, in 750.”

          “Yaz?d? mythology says that they were created quite separately from the rest of humankind, being descended from Adam but not from Eve, and as such they seek to keep themselves segregated from the people among whom they live. Marriage outside the community is forbidden.”

          “Two short books, Kit?b al-jilwah (“Book of Revelation”) and Ma??afrash (“Black Book”), form the sacred scriptures of the Yaz?d?s. It is now widely suspected that both volumes were compiled by non-Yaz?d?s in the 19th century and then were passed off as ancient manuscripts but that their contents do in fact reflect authentic Yaz?d? oral tradition. ”

          And there’s that “connection to one’s ancestors” I was discussing with Roland in another thread. 😉Report

          • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

            And please understand: it’s not my intention to mock the Yazidi, or any religious person. I understand that they find meaning and comfort in their beliefs, and I envy them that, and sincerely wish I could share in it.

            But from where I and many people who are not particularly religious sit, “connection to one’s ancestors” looks at best mostly-mythical, often leads to bad results (insularity, and veneration of outmoded ideas – “A strict caste system is observed”) and is only intermittently-right via lucky happenstance.Report

          • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

            I haven’t read a lot about it, but from what I have read, Sharfadin is an absolutely fascinating religion both theologically and historically/anthropologically. The history of the Yazidis seems pretty damn interesting as well. If I can find time, and a really good source, I may spend some time reading up on them this summer.Report

            • Jon Rowe in reply to Chris says:

              If I do a front page post, I’ll link to this. Apparently Bill Clinton recommends it.


            • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

              Yeah, I stumbled across Yazidis years ago after falling down a wiki wormhole on Gnosticism or Zoroastrianism, one of the two.

              I want to reiterate, again, that it is not my intention to mock them, nor any religion.

              I simply mean to point out that older, more-established religions dismissing younger, less-established ones looks kind of silly to the non-religious, in macro view.Report

              • Jon Rowe in reply to Glyph says:

                Sort of like how orthodox Christians dismiss Mormons. Though it’s important for all religions, including Mormons and Yazidis to trace their lineage to the beginning. (A fancier term might be “apostolic succession”). They can all do it, though with varying degrees of difficulty.

                In Christendom — and I say this as someone with no dog in the fight — Protestants have, as I see it, a weaker case than Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, in terms of formal, authoritative lineage.

                Except that formal, authoritative lineage itself can be corrupted, which opens the door to a free for all in “restoring” the lost heritage.Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                I agree. From the outside, pretty much all religion looks kinda kooky after a while. I mean, the largest religious group in the western world worships an at least semi-mythical Jewish dude because he is believed to have been executed by the Romans, and among that sect, the largest sect believes some dude from Argentina is infallible under certain circumstances because a bunch of high-level priests voted for him.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                We’re all in the Reality Tunnels, so mind the gap.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:

                People still believe that good or evil are anything other than evolutionarily useful social constructs despite the fact that it is 2016.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, I’ve said before that sometimes I think that all existence is meaningless chaos, but it’s important (or at least mitigates unpleasantness) that we act as though this is not the case.

                But other times, I think that there’s maybe a 51% chance that there IS some ordering force, whether that’s a God, or the person who runs the Matrix-sim that we are all living in, or some governing impersonal overriding unifying principle (and what’d be the difference in the three, really?)

                So, am I a hypocrite? Or, am I confused?

                Or, do I just switch Reality Tunnels, as needed?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:

                Are you better at tuning into this unifying force than your ancestors were?Report

              • Glyph in reply to Jaybird says:

                All else equal, I should be, since I have more historical information and broader global perspective to draw on.

                Now, please send all your money to the following P.O. Box….Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:

                For the record, I don’t think that “hypocrisy” is particularly interesting in and of itself beyond that it might be a marker for cognitive dissonance or the believing of two contradictory things at the same time. Getting to the two contradictory things can be exceptionally interesting and useful and result in the resolution of the dissonance.

                Now, as for “I have more historical information and broader global perspective to draw on”, this makes me wonder. I’ve no doubt that this is true for you… but I am pretty sure that my knowledge of history and global perspectives are myopic and trite and are easily surpassed by a bit of wisdom which I imagine that a handful of my ancestors would easily be able to muster.

                I mean, if there is an ordering force, access to it shouldn’t be dependent on historical information and broader global perspective.

                I mean, this could mean that you’ve got a better grasp on spirituality than (insert peoples from 3rd World country that only recently got the internet here or, better yet, insert functionally illiterate peoples from 1st World country). Surely such a statement would be risible… but I don’t see how it doesn’t follow.

                Now, of course, the fact that a statement is risible does not make it false. Heaven forefend! (The refusal to even entertain offensive facts is another problem with modernity.)

                But it doesn’t seem true to say that those of us who have attained an education capable of providing us with historical information and broader global perspective to draw on will have a leg up on our connection to The Matrix and the poor benighted counter-example has just that much more to overcome when it comes to trying to connect to The Truth Of Reality.

                Assuming Truth Of Reality, it seems that poor benighted counter-examples are just as likely to be able to tap into it as we.

                And I don’t see how our ancestors wouldn’t have that in common with our counter-examples.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Jaybird says:

                But their observation presumably affected the observed, just as ours does. To lift an example from this book, a cold thermometer both measures the temperature of the hot water you place it in, and changes it.

                Therefore their Truth of Reality is different from ours: because we are different thermometers than they were.

                Why should we trust their measurements, and not ours?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:

                If we’re willing to run with a hard-core perspectivism (and, hey, maybe we should be willing to run with a hard-core perspectivism), then we are in a place where we say that their measurements are accurate from where they are right now and my measurements are accurate from where I am right now and reasons that I need to keep my measurement tools rather than those of another run into problems when we start exploring the whole “should that other person be using mine?” question.

                If they shouldn’t, what does that say about mine?Report

              • Glyph in reply to Jaybird says:

                We are all of us alone together, Jaybird. Accept the contradictions.

                (OK, this is funny – there are exactly an equal number of YT likes/dislikes on this video clip):


              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                I vote for irrealism.Report

              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                I don’t.Report

              • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                Shoot them both!Report

              • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                @chris – hey, you putting that Kendrick piece up this week? I got nothin’.Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                I will, then.Report

              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                Just as reason was able to soothe the melancholy of Plotinus, it provides modern anguish the means of calming itself in the familiar setting of the eternal. The absurd mind has less luck. For it the world is neither so rational nor so irrational. It is unreasonable and only that. With Husserl the reason eventually has no limits at all. The absurd, on the contrary, establishes its limits since it is powerless to calm its anguish. Kierkegaard independently asserts that a single limit is enough to negate that anguish. But the absurd does not go so far. For it that limit is directed solely at the reason’s ambitions. The theme of the irrational, as it is conceived by the existentials, is reason becoming confused and escaping by negating itself. The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits.

                French BogartReport

              • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                Somebody’s bogarting something this morning, that’s for sure.

                (And since this KLF book is touching heavily on Discordianism, this quote is…synchronicity).

                Many different Discordian chapters were founded. The majority of these contained only one member, and some contained none at all. Discordians then wrote essays and letters under these aliases, only to follow them with completely contradictory essays and letters under a different alias. Gradually this process spread and, by the time it reached its height in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it had become known as Operation Mindf*ck. The aim of Operation Mindf*ck was to lead people into such a heightened state of bewilderment and confusion that their rigid beliefs would shatter and be replaced by some form of enlightenment (Glyph: sounds a bit like longer Zen koans).

                That was the aim, anyway. In practice it rarely worked out so well, with those heavily absorbed in Discordiansim proving more likely to succumb to paranoid schizophrenia than any form of enlightened bliss. Still, they meant well.


              • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                “Still, they meant well.” Common final words from historians on a movement.

                Also, where is Malaclypse these days?Report

              • Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                As far as we know, dead, but as with all Discordia-related information, it’s probably best to treat this as speculative.

                I should probably re-read the Illuminatus! Trilogy now that I’m older and might get more out of it.Report

  5. LeeEsq says:

    The Founders were remarkably cosmopolitan men compared to most other Americans at the time. They knew how radical the separation of religion and state was as an experiment while many other Americans saw being American the same as being a Protestant until the 1920s at earliest.Report