let’s start with some belief basics here. given what season it is, santa. this is a fictional character based on a real-life “dude” for lack of a better word who traveled around giving gifts to people to celebrate happiness and thankfulness, especially children. he was loved and made them feel special at least once a year in a world that was extremely harsh on them for their whole lives. we know he’s not real but it’s a nice idea. of course, anyone who believes in santa as an adult is looked at like they’re pretty stupid. and that’s fair because we know he’s a fictional character.
keeping with the seasonal theme, the yeti or “abominable snowman”. this is another fictional character but a bit closer to reality and may actually have existed at some point in the past, though i wouldn’t stake my life on it. what we’re talking about is an albino gorilla of abnormally large size living in the extreme cold of the tibetan mountains. not wholly unbelievable but at this point after centuries of searching i think we can assume that if such a creature ever existed – not outside the realm of possibility given the profligate nature of the great apes and their lineages – it’s now extinct. this creature has a warm-weather compatriot who’s a bit less on the albino side but just as massive and excited by secrecy known as, in all the amplified creativity of idiots the world over, “big foot”, ironically a direct translation of the ancient king of sophoclean fame, oedipus. again, though, it’s not so much that this is a childish belief but someone declaring their belief in this almost-believable animal in the present is seen as being on the fringes of society and probably a member of the conspiracy-theory set of rabbit holes from alien pyramids to jfk as the victim of collective lesbian rage. in other words, coloring with a little less than a full box of crayons and probably eating those rather quickly.
similar stories can be told of the post-dinosaur fiction known as the loch ness monster, the alien landing at area 51 and the idea that velcro was invented by the vulcans, though that last one has some pretty convincing propaganda and i think i might make an exception to my no-voting approach to life if a vulcan ever ran for office.
but i think we can agree that these childish and fringe beliefs are frowned on by western society as a whole and mocked by many, if not most in the united states and canada. and that is altogether understandable. if you’re prepared to compromise your sanity to that extent, you are probably not a functioning adult and it might be time to work on the education part of your life.
the way deities are viewed is also rather interesting in western culture. egyptian deities like ra and amun are seen as anachronistic silliness and roman and greek gods like jupiter, apollo and zeus are dismissed as ancient stories told for the benefit of the uneducated citizens of the time. not unfair characterizations, of course. indian deities like durga and shiva are accepted more as household talismans and native and african belief systems are seen as societal outliers but generally harmless. but then we come to the beliefs of an ancient and obscure tribe of guest workers in north africa.
they had, as did almost all tribes at the time, local gods. i use the word god here but gender varied and was often fluid, as is the case with many non-western belief systems. travel a few days on foot and you probably encountered another local god. not that the people in the next village believed theirs was the only one. just that it was theirs and they’d protect the village or region. it’s a clear expression of wishful thinking. if you don’t like how reality looks, you pretend it’s different and hope nobody notices. but at that point in history everyone was doing it. tribes went into battle hoping they’d be saved by their gods doing battle on their behalf and they had someone else to blame if they lost. personal responsibility may be at an all time low in the modern world but that’s not exactly a historical oddity to say the least.
as i said, they were guest-workers in north africa for quite a while and came from a collection of west-asian tribes. they were mostly concentrated in egypt but some worked as far west as modern morocco and as far south as modern ethiopia and eretrea. at one point in history, though, during the reign of the egyptian pharaoh ramases ii, they got together and most left egypt and fled east back into west asia where they set up a new independent territory. each tribe had its own gods but realistically we can think of them having one central deity each. those originally from the north had similar views on theirs while those from the south had rather different perspectives but it worked out to be two mostly-distinct personalities. when they came together and started to write religious scriptures, they gave each of these personalities names – one for the northern god, one for the southern god and another for the godly amalgam of the two. over time, though, they were all merged into a single deity whose name was generally, as was the tradition in much of the region at the time, the local linguistic version of “god”. this same process can be seen in modern islam, for example, or many north african tribes.
several thousand years later, this region was overrun by the roman empire, as was just about everything else in the western and near-eastern world. it was mostly self-governing and the romans left them alone to their belief systems as long as it didn’t impact their participation in imperial governance, which it generally didn’t. until a series of revolts, of course, nearly a century after the birth of jesus, when they were completely decimated and subjugated as a population. they were highly-educated and hard-working, though, so they survived rather under the radar even to this day.
these tribes were known as the israelites or, in modern terms, jews, an ethic classification more than a religious one, analogous to “arab” or “indian” or “chinese”. their local gods became a scriptural mashup with a singular name and overarching collection of personalities. of course, jews of the biblical period didn’t profess a single deity, just that this god was theirs as a collective tribe. in fact, the first major faith system to state the existence of only one deity was neither judaism nor christianity. it was islam. judaism was founded on the existence not only of many gods in the world but multiple jewish gods by location. christianity was based on a single jewish god transmogrified into a roman cult and applied to a regional deity but it wasn’t until more than a millennium later than any significant declaration of the singularity of the christian god was espoused, centuries after “there is no god but god” became the muslim creed of belief and submission. even today with the christian trinity the existence of one god or three in that belief system is ambiguous at best while judaism is more a philosophical system of structure and practice based on archetypes and historical traditions than anything to do with belief.
there’s something particularly new and interesting about the concept of the jewish god, though, that also hadn’t been seen before in belief history. before that point, gods were generally good, evil or ambivalent and absent. but the jewish god was responsible for everything, all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful. they could change anything anywhere and sometimes good things happened, sometimes bad things happened and sometimes things were completely random and unpredictable. not wholly unexpected for a god whose beginning was actually multiple deities merged into one but those personalities definitely created a combination that had almost no internal cohesion. that didn’t stop people from believing, though. absolutely not. after the fall of jerusalem a few decades after jesus’ death in 70ce, it would have been easy to imagine the extinction of belief in that particular god but, as luck would have it, a few centuries later the roman empire was in trouble and the emperor, constantine i, needed a unifying force. so he borrowed the jewish scriptures, collected the teachings and writings of the followers of jesus, merged them all together and cut out the parts he didn’t like and combined all the gods into one. a new religion was formed based on his own personal background in roman cult practice but with a huge collection of scriptural history from a tribe generally hated by the romans and some newer material from an outcast group of rebels. if this is starting to sound a lot like a star wars fanfic, you wouldn’t be far wrong.
what’s interesting, though, is that as the roman empire unified on this single belief system, it dominated the western world and eventually spread to the americas after their colonization and conquest. of course, at that point in time the idea of a deity was already of questionable usefulness and certainly no longer in keeping with the scientific knowledge of the day. by the time of the voyages of columbus and cabot and cortez, a relatively good understanding of physics and chemistry was starting to emerge and it was only a few centuries later that biology got a good start in the west, at which point any notion of the supernatural was an interesting historical tradition and often a beautiful one but belief was already far from a declaration of awareness of the world.
though we haven’t actually gotten to the most curious part of this. we are talking about north american culture being based on the belief in a jewish god it is questionable jews actually believed in as anything more than a symbol of cultural performance and order.
in the time of moses, who likely did exist, and the exodus, which definitely didn’t happen the way it’s told in scripture, though the people who eventually became known as the jews certainly were in egypt and left to found a new nation in israel, who were they, the people whose deity has been borrowed by much of the modern west as a symbol of conservative anti-logic? well, they weren’t egyptian slaves. that’s a good place to start.
they were paid guest-laborers living in pharaonic egypt employed as everything from builders and masons to scribes and architects. in other words, they are analogous to modern mexican immigrants in the united states crossing the southern border in search of better lives and becoming guest-laborers. in other words, in moses’ time, the jews were exactly the working immigrants most american christians desperately want to eliminate out of fear and hatred.
even more curious, at the time of jesus, the jews were beaten in battle and subjugated as part of their empire but seen as irritants and mostly left to fend for themselves until they became too rebellious. so we’ve moved from mexicans, who most americans seem to have problems with, to puerto-ricans, the outcasts of america.
so let’s recap. we have a set of local deities from ancient times in asia combined into a single tribe-wide deity with multiple personalities and a nasty temper who was coopted by an imperial cult. it comes from a tribe of guest-worker immigrants living under imperial and colonial rule and generally despised so much people didn’t even think they were worth completely eliminating.
in other words, the christian right is a collection of the descendants of immigrant liberals from asia. who’d have imagined such a thing to be possible? maybe the vulcans.