Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Skeptism Bedevils Modern Revelations

What a difference a few years make, especially regarding our feelings toward religion today.
A few days ago, a Texas teacher was escorted from her classroom after proclaiming that she was married to God, who was going to destroy the world Dec. 12.  However, she assured the students that Jesus had set up another planet where they would be always 25 years old and where money did not exist.

According to officials there, the teacher was not having a revelation, but may have had an adverse reaction to medication.

Not that long ago, any teacher making such proclamations would have been made into a saint and an object of veneration.  Instead, now, she was assumed to be ill.  Another religious figure, Eddie Long, the pastor of a Georgia-based church, was recently wrapped in a Torah and declared king.  He was laughed at by the media and was forced to offer a stumbling explanation.

That didn’t happen to our so-called saints.

Think of St. Drogo, for example.  Saddened that his mother died in childbirth, he launched a career of self-flagellation in the 1100s.  On one of his many pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Frenchman came down with a disease that deformed him.  As a result, he was hidden away and yet revered.  Today, he’s the patron saint of coffee houses.

St. Anthony, an Egyptian Coptic monk, lived in a tomb for many years, he said, to overcome “boredom, laziness and the phantoms of women.”  He drew large crowds of admirers until his death around 356.

St. Hildegard
St. Hildegard, who died in 1179, wrote that “… it came to pass...when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain.”  Too much medicine for her, too?

Let’s not forget St. Joseph, the one who lived in the 1600s.  He was seen flying.  He also supposedly able to command animals, a particularly valuable skill in case something like a hungry eagle saw him airborne.

Back in the 5th century, St. Simeone Stylites lived for decades on top of a pillar near Aleppo, Syria. People crowded around his pillars, seeking advice and blessings from the would-be hermit.

Such absurdities are not limited to Catholics.  Zany activity went on in many other beliefs as well. 

In the light of the odd behavior of religious zealots, what happened in Texas would seem perfectly normal.

In some ways, it is.  People often feel the need to express their religious feelings in bizarre ways for several reasons:

They want to show they are true believers.  The skepticism exists within their own brains.  They are trying to convince themselves.  The pain they often endure helps ease the psychological emptiness.  They are simply not happy with themselves.  As one drug addict noted, “No matter what I did, what I said, where I went, I was never comfortable with the shell I carried called myself.”  For some, religion becomes the drug of choice.

In addition, they have swallowed the religious teachings of heaven and hell with amazing relish and are desperate to ensure their own passageway to God’s home.  Philosophies of religion can become so ingrained that they dictate behavior, much the same way parasites can force animals to perform bizarrely.

Mass suicide at Jonestown
Also, they want to demonstrate they belong to the group.  Mob psychology helps explain group suicides, like what happened in Guyana with Jim Jones in 1978 or Heaven’s Gate in 1997.  In both cases, many people willingly committed suicide.  Acting independently, many probably would not have, but were carried along by the group to “prove” their commitment.

Ego gets involved, too.  People who are immersed in their faith feel obligated to demonstrate the depth of their commitment.  After all, they are being compared to other religious figures from the past and present.  If one "saint" prayed eight hours a day, the next must at least match that, and so on.

Then, too, some people have brain damage or cause their own problems by severely limiting their diets.  Saints are especially famed for their sparse menus.  However, lack of food leads to hallucinations.  Native Americans took advantage of that fact to send their young male adults off into the wilderness.  They would get very hungry, causing dreams that, in turn, resulted in assuming new, adult name.

Psychiatrists undoubtedly can come up with other answers.  However, the differences between yesterday and today are starkly obvious: what used to be considered religious revelation is today thought of as a mental aberration.

That’s how far modern skepticism has overtaken aging religion.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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