05 December 2007

Thinking Out Loud

When you all are faced with a really tough choice, and after long deliberation you finally make up your mind, do you ever have the impulse to run out and justify that decision to every person you meet? As though by convincing them that you made the right choice you'll convince yourself?

Well, I think I've just come to a decision, and I hope you'll indulge me a little self-justification.

You see, I've spent the last three years studying the Hebrew Bible. And it's been fun, and really rewarding. But because my interests (i.e. showing that the Ancient Israelites were really just a bunch of wacky Iron Age polytheists) are in such stark conflict with what most people want to hear ("everything in the Bible is true, and we have archaeology to prove it!"), this means that for the rest of my professional career, my message will necessarily be a negative one. Just by the fact of how the discipline works, I will be challenging people's cherished assumptions about their own identity on a daily basis. And as much as I like challenging people to think critically about their own traditions (As Penn Gilette once said "Go ahead. Read the Bible - because the world needs more Atheists"), that's just not a battle I want to be fighting every day until I retire.

You see, although I am an Atheist, that identity is secondary to my identity as a Religionist. In fact, I only arrived at my conclusion that there was no god after I became fascinated with the diversity of humanity's religious manifestations. I derive my greatest intellectual satisfaction from understanding how religion works -- not from refuting or demolishing it. Yes: I think it is harmful and backwards in my own society - but in the societies of others or of the distant past, I find much in it to be excited about. Lately, the only thing I've been able to be excited about is being an angry Atheist, thanks to the professional discussions I'm forced to have - but that's not who I am or who I want to be. If I stay within the field of the Hebrew Bible I will be putting myself in a place where I can only be angry at people for not putting aside their biases to do real scholarship - rather than trying to get people excited about studying something new and different, which is what I always wanted to do in the first place.

Which leads me to the alternative: there are a number of options on my plate right now - and obviously I can't pick one until I shop around and see what clicks - but for the moment I'm seriously considering one or more religions of the Indo-European family. That is to say: the Indian Vedic tradition, Pre-Zoroastrian Persia, Hittite religion, Greek Religion, Slavic religion, Germanic religion, and Celtic religion. I feel like these traditions would a) give me the necessary cultural variety I crave, b) allow me to speak as I like without worrying about the tenure-consequences of offending a student of faith, and most importantly c) allow me to study something simultaneously very familiar and very foreign. Because this I-E religious strain both was superseded by the modern axial traditions, and in many cases survived at a folk level after the introduction of these traditions, this would also allow me to study my dual interest in ancient polytheism *and* heterodox behavior among later ethical religions. In other words, I can finally go back to "hey, look at that. Isn't that cool? Why do you suppose they did that?" instead of "don't be stupid. You're reading that text wrong. Your hermeneutic is flawed, and you're letting your faith cloud your judgment."

Now, all I have to do is finish out this semester, and let the fun begin.

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