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December 10, 2006


We had a lively discussion of my paper on the emptiness of the Holy of Holies, and perhaps at the heart of religion. at NYU's Center for Religion and Media.

A number of interesting smaller points were made, including:

** The analogy between Pompey's intrusion into the Jewish temple in 63 BCE and Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in the Jerusalem in September of 2000.

** The presence of similar struggles with the question of emptiness in other religions -- in, for example, the debate over what was to be inside the Muslim holy place in Mecca, the Kaaba.

The larger debate, however, was on these questions:

** Have anthropologists slighted the presence of disbelief and doubt in preliterate societies? It was argued both, as I heard it, that it is wrong to speak in these post-Enlightenment terms of the mentalities of such cultures and that anthropologists already have acknowledged evidence of such disbelief anyway.

** How valid or useful is the sort of sweeping historical study I am undertaking in my book (and have undertaken before)? The argument against it is that cultural differences tend to get trampled in the search for human constancies and that, in the process, modern categories and understandings are inevitably and inappropriately imposed on other cultures. The argument for it -- my argument -- is that the basic work on tracking cross-cultural causes of and elements of disbelief has not been done and must be done if we are to have the background against which cultural differences might better be understood. Of course, this argument depends upon there being such cross-cultural causes and elements -- similarities among disbelief in India in at the time of the Buddha, in the Tongo Islands in the early 19th century and on the best-seller lists in America today. It also depends upon my ability -- in trying to get a handle upon disbelief in such a wide variety of societies - to get what they think right.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 10, 2006 11:48 PM


Very provocative book idea, post, questions, etc.

Are you familiar with Julian Jaynes? Not that I want to lead you afield, but his thinking on what we thought was God talking might just have been our brains, pre-evolution. I wrote about it here:



Posted by: david at December 12, 2006 1:56 PM

yeah, I read the Jaynes book way back when, and it has stayed with me. perhaps it should be mentioned in this history.

Posted by: mitch at December 12, 2006 9:56 PM

I've thought of similar questions, by maybe not on those lines. I have been wondering if religion still exists if there is disbelief in the god.

For instance, you mention disbelief in India at the time of Buddhism. But what happens when the religion itself comes around disbelief. We know that the Buddha was at least unwilling to speak of God, and might have been agnostic, or thought the question illogical. And while many sects today tend toward the supernatural, an equal number of Buddhists see the reverence of the Buddha and other saints (bodhisattvas) not as worship but emulation of great people. And Zen is often a religion of total disbelief in every reality.

Do we call this a religion?

Posted by: Steven Chabot at December 16, 2006 3:42 PM

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