Religion has fascinated me for decades. Our Western culture, though largely secular, is nevertheless informed by it through the Christian religious culture that it grew out of. Secularism, indeed, can be seen as a means to resolve religious conflict and so is itself the consequence of religion.
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In The Beginning
Travelling, perhaps we might first notice the scenery, the mountains, the beaches. We might be interested in the people and find them friendly and attractive — or not, as the case may be. But nearly always, close to the beginning of our voyage, serious travellers begin to look at religion.
I remember being a teenager and fascinated, on family holidays to Europe, by the great Catholic cathedrals of France. Later, still in my teens, I entered the Sultan Ahmet, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and was amazed. I then went to the Aya Sofia, the great Basilica of Saint Sophia, and wondered. Istanbul is indeed a city of contrasts, where East meets West and Islam meets Christianity. Later, on the same trip, I slept in the Golden Temple at Amritsar and travelled to the Buddhist Holy City of Dharmsala. It was a mighty voyage and I learned many things. And all through it I was aware of the tick-ticking of a very ancient clock; religion.
I was brought up in the Scottish Presbyterian faith, which smells somewhat, or did then, of dust, wood polish, tobacco smoke and urine. It is not a colourful cult, or at least, not in the way that Catholicism and Hinduism are.
When we were children, my brother and I would be dressed up in kilts and ties and taken to the little kirk at Arbirlot. Well, one of them. No visitor to that village, which comprises of around twenty houses and so is scarcely more than a hamlet, could fail to notice that there are two substantial churches, immediately opposite each other, at the centre of it.
You might be forgiven for thinking that one of these was Protestant and one Catholic; but you would be wrong. They were both Protestant and not only that, both Presbyterian. There is no need here to go into the fascinating historical reasons why a tiny village had invested in two such imposing piles devoted to the worship of the same deity, though I will write a post on it some day. Let’s just say that religion was pretty prominent.
The Sunday routine was always the same. My brother and I would rise at eight; my father would have made porridge already. It was the maid’s day off so only the four of us were present, my mother fussing with us while my father loomed in the background. At nine, porridge and boiled eggs consumed, we would wash, put on our kilts and ties and have our hair combed prior to final inspection. Then, at nine-thirty, we would all get into Dad’s car and drive the three miles to the church. It was a routine so immutable that it might have been set in stone.
One Sunday morning, something very odd occurred. That fateful day, we boys rose at eight as usual, ate our porridge and dipped our toast fingers in our eggs, drank our milk and then waited. Nothing happened. No kilts, no ties, no hair combing. Eventually we gave up and went outside to play; it seemed a reasonable plan. That was it; my family never went back to church.
Nobody said anything and I never asked. I think I was terrified that if I spoke to my parents about it they might remember and we would have to go again. ‘Gosh, church! I knew there was something I forgot…’ I mean it was a lot more fun to go down to the burn and guddle for trout, after all.
I suppose my atheism might date from that fateful day; but I think I would have got there anyway. I had grown up believing that if I prayed for something, it would happen. Oh, how I prayed for the big blue Dalek suit in Smiths’ in Dundee. It was only later that I figured out that Dad had fixed its arrival on my birthday, not God, and that definitely contributed to my suspicions.
Was this God fellow like Santa Claus, whose mythology had been busted when I found the stash of asked-for Christmas presents in the hall cupboard?
Voyage of Discovery
I had other things to think about for a few years — partly sex, or the arrival of puberty at least, but we’ll discuss that elsewhere. When I came to look again at religion it was several years later. I am a child of the 60s and everyone then was ‘looking for something’.
In my teens I most assiduously tried to discover it by doing what I did best: reading books. I read the Bible, from cover to cover; my mother had once read it to me as I sat on her knee. Now I read it again, for myself. I read the Bhagavad Gita. I read tomes on Buddhism and Islam. I examined Black Magic; but quickly found the nonsense of Crowley and Wheatley ridiculous. I was not then to know that this was but a mocking pastiche of a real, indeed the original faith : Goddess worship. I read about Greek mythology and Egyptian as well. I understood that nobody believed these nowadays, though I thought that in itself begged a quaint question: why not?
Being unpersuaded by this, however, I looked to Materialism. I studied Capital and the works of Engels. I think I read every book the library had on Communism. I read ‘Mein Kampf’ — and laughed. Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, John Stuart Mill, I plundered shelf after shelf. Voltaire fell to my hunger, as did Descartes and Thoreau was consumed not long after.
I was getting a good science education at school and at home I devoured Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ and Desmond Morris’ ‘The Naked Ape’. The latter had caused quite the stir when it was published in 1967; I was eleven. I read Tolstoy, Kafka, George Orwell, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Lawrence Durrell.
For years, I would go into the little bookshop run by a dear old woman on Brothock Bridge, every Saturday, and buy my book for the week with my five shillings pocket-money — which was delivered after spending three hours serving petrol at Dad’s garage. (One and eightpence an hour, in case you are trying to calculate it.) ‘Oh there you are! Look what I have for you!’ And always it was some charm, many of which I still have.
Little did I know how much the bookshop-owner and the librarians at Arbroath Public Library were shaping my young mind. Looking back, I must have fascinated them; not many 13-year-olds read Plato voluntarily. Yet they rose to the challenge with a never-ending refrain of, ‘Have you read this one? I put it aside for you.’ Yet they did shape me. They taught me to question. Most of them were graduates who had found that, in the 1960s, being a qualified woman did not necessarily lead to fame and fortune.
Books filled me up; I read about the Tupamaros and Che Guevara, about the leaders of the French and Russian Revolutions. I read about the Irish nationalists. I read ‘A Thousand Days’, the story of Kennedy’s Presidency and Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, along with Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’, possibly the most inappropriately-named book of all time. But I found no trace of this ‘something’ that everyone was looking for.
You must bear in mind that this was when the Beatles were tripping out to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and, even in a backwater like Arbroath, one might see young people dressed all in yellow chanting Om, Mani, Padme, Om.
(My old friend Ken Powrie regarded one such group, of a young man with around a dozen girls, on a Saturday, with baleful eye. ‘He won’t last a week before he gets beaten up. The Arbroath lads will never stand for him having that many women all to himself.’ He was prescient.)
I was a musician and played in many bands. A bass player can always get a gig, you know, especially if you’re handy. Most guitarists are far too vain for it. Through this I was introduced to drugs, which were amusing, if hardly as life-changing as either their supporters or detractors claimed. But marijuana and, in particular, LSD did teach me something: whatever I was supposed to be looking for, if it existed at all, it was not outside me. It was inside me.
With that revelation made clear I went on with life. In a way, the question was settled. If it was inside me it was not out there, so I didn’t have to deal with it.
I am at essence a pragmatist; and in any case I am a photographer. We deal in reality. If physics is a hard science then photography is a hard art, or at least it was then. Light meters and film, focus and depth of field. I went to college, I cut my teeth, I worked.
For many years I thought sex might be the answer, and pursued it with huge enthusiasm — and mixed success. It isn’t, after all; but it does make the passing of time more agreeable. I was later to discover that sex is in fact the only thing that makes married life — in which your personal space is permanently breached — tolerable at all.
For decades I ignored religion, or at least, other than that which I could find between a good woman’s thighs. In all other ways I was a practising but unconcerned atheist, and in that I think I was very much like most of the people I knew. To be overtly religious, in Scotland then, was to mark yourself out as a bit odd. Even those who actually went to church were only doing it for show, weren’t they? I mean, they didn’t actually believe that stuff? Surely?
In 2001 we moved to France and, for various reasons, I once again became interested in the great cathedrals. I live in Burgundy and there are, after all, many here. I was particularly taken by the Cathedral of Saint Lazarus (Saint Lazare) in Autun. There was something strange about this one. It was full of non-Christian imagery.
The more I looked, the more I saw. There was something going on that had no relationship to my understanding of Christianity. There was a goddess in here. What was she doing there?
Some years later, my wife and I parted. The reasons are not germane. But after that, I immediately fulfilled a desire I had had since my undergraduate days: to do a Masters. And my research area was exactly this: who was that goddess and why was she in so much of Christianity? What on Earth was going on at Autun?
This eventually led to ‘Why Men Made God’, which took my Masters’ thesis and contextualised it.
You might say that at last the penny dropped. Once I had completed that book, I got it. I had never got it before, now I did.
I suddenly understood the intense relationship I had with nature, especially woodlands and rivers. This had become one of the central themes of my personal work as a photographer. I could see now that it was a spiritual relationship that I had been documenting and that I was not the first to do so.
Jesus and Mo
It is safe to say that I was shocked by these discoveries, but my investigation of religion is ongoing. At the moment I am researching two seminal figures in Abrahamic religion, whose mythologies, together, have helped shape most of the world: Jesus and Mohammed.
We can be reasonably certain that the patriarchs of the Old Testament were invented, but because, if they lived, it was so long ago, we can never be really sure; effectively, they are prehistoric. Jesus and Mohammed, on the other hand did, allegedly, live in the historic period, so we should be able to say with more certainty.
For all that they cast their long shadows over modern human culture, we have no hard evidence that either actually existed. The story of how their stories have evolved is fascinating and, while we may not ever be able to be fully certain of the answer, the evidence that may finally settle the debate –were they or were they not real? — grows more compelling as time goes by.
Out of Africa
‘Why Men Made God’ took us back to the cults of Ancient Sumer, where myths were first written down. But these myths referenced earlier beliefs, as for example, Nammu, the Eternal Sea, the first known Sumerian Mother Goddess. But was she the very first?
African religion has long been ignored — shamefully — by Western academics, yet we now know that everyone outside Africa is descended from one small group of people who left the continent around 50,000 to 55,000 years ago.
It is axiomatic that this small group of closely-related individuals spoke the same language and culture, so they shared the same mythology. But where did that come from? And was it the precursor to the beliefs inherited and written down by the Sumerians 6,500 years ago?
Because of this, and the concomitant idea that all human culture must have its original in Africa, that is where I now am beginning to investigate. It does appear that the Goddess and the matriarchy are strong in Africa and it is only the colonisation of the continent by Europeans and Arabs, and their implantation of patriarchal religion, that has changed this.
Calendars of the Goddess
Closer to home, we have, in Europe, many mysterious structures, often grouped together as ‘megaliths’. In ‘Why Men Made God’ we showed how one such, Newgrange in Ireland, is actually a device that marks the point at which the midwinter sun begins to rise again.
Patriarchal academics are fond of claiming that these structures are evidence of sun worship. Yet in all the early mythologies, as in the Sumerian, the sun is a minor deity, less important than the sky or even the moon. Indeed, when the Egyptian King Akhenaten introduced sun-worship, the people reacted so badly that all trace of him and his new cult was eradicated after his death (though his ideas did eventually resurface, centuries later.)
Why would people expend so much effort erecting monuments to a third or fourth-level deity?
To suggest that they did would be an extraordinary claim and so would require extraordinary evidence. Such evidence does not exist; patriarchal academics just assume it. They magic it out of thin air like the conjurers they are. A little appeal to authority, a dash of misdirection…you get the picture.
In fact, what evidence there is suggests that these monuments are calendars which, in marking when the sun begins to rise from the Winter Solstice, mark the mythological moment when the Earth is rejuvenated after her winter death. In other words, they are artefacts of Earth worship — and the Earth is The Goddess.
The Goddess is a woman, and her culture is a matriarchy, whereas the Western academy exists to perpetrate the patriarchy and provide intellectual apology for men’s suppression of women. Western patriarchal academics have shown themselves only too willing to suppress or deliberately misinterpret any evidence of Goddess worship, matriarchies, or the political power of women in the furtherance of this end.
These three subjects, the historicity of Jesus and Mohammed, the original Goddess of Africa, and the megalithic Calendars of the Goddess, are the projects I am currently pursuing in religion.