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Changing of the Gods

By John Michael Greer

When a fundamentally irreligious society takes up the comparative study of religion, it’s a safe bet that the results are going to be weird. Certainly my own encounters with the academic field of comparative religion, first in my university days and then in decades of reading since then, have left me scratching my head more often than not. The oddities aren’t accidental—far from it—and they have quite a bit to teach that’s of relevance to the project of this blog.

I’m thinking just now of a conversation I had just after a class session of my first comparative religions course at the University of Washington in Seattle. The teaching assistant who taught the course—real professors were already starting to think of themselves as above such things—spent most of an hour talking about theories that claimed to explain why people have religions. There were sociological theories, psychological theories, linguistic theories, and so on, all trying to explain why it was that people in so many different cultures and eras around the world had the curious habit of religious faith.

There were quite a few of these theories, and some of them deployed a great deal of intellectual ingenuity in finding an explanation for religion, but I was sufficiently naive in those days to be startled that one obvious possibility had been left off the list. So I went up to the teaching assistant after the class, and commented that people all through history have reported religious experiences: that is to say, experiences of personal contact and interaction with what seemed to them to be disembodied, superhuman intelligent beings, that is to say, gods and goddesses. Might it be reasonable to suggest, I ventured, that religion might be the normal and logical human response to those experiences?

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