It’s pretty easy to pick on Scientology. After all, it’s a recent invention and we have the evidence to prove it. As it has been famously said, the difference between a cult and a religion is that in a cult, the person at the top knows it is a scam, whereas in a religion that person is dead. I think I heard Hitchens say that, but I believe he was quoting it elsewhere as well. If anyone knows who said that I’d be happy to attribute it.
In Scientology, we know who invented the cult. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, lost the rights to his pseudo-science invention and decided to take it back by making up a religion based on the idea. The ideas he penned are typical science fiction of the 1950s and 60s, complete with the aliens, the DC-8 looking UFOs, the use of nuclear weapons, and spiritual woo-woo.
It’s the same linkage we can find if we read science fiction from 140 years ago, where the idea of “boat trains” were the future, since airplanes hadn’t been invented yet, and the chief worry would have been Native American raids. If someone were to invent a religion today, elements might be Mars settlement and the rise of China. The key is to take a current geo-political fear and mix it with a bit of science fiction. This is what Ron Hubbard did, and we know he did it because it has those cultural markers. Well, that and we have recent history to draw upon.
This is the same model Joseph Smith used to write the Book for Morons. Smith, a self-described psychic and convicted fraud (for using the same seer stone trick he used to found Mormonism), took advantage of the western New York state “burned-over districts“, so named as they had been razed by one religious craze after another. Captured by the uproar of the Second Great Awakening, these communities were swept up in the push-back against rationalism and highly susceptible to religious fervor. At the same time, native american artifacts were being discovered. Neither rationalism nor the failure of religious texts to account for an ancient society was good for the longevity of religion. Something else was needed, and Joseph Smith filled that need.
Smith captured the religious fears at the time and gave those fears a new outlet, in the form of his goofy revised history, and new prophesies. These included the imminent return of Jesus (of course), stars falling from the heaven (bible re-hash), but also predicted the “Zion temple” in Independence, MO, which to this day hasn’t been built. He basically predicted a new world order, centered in Missouri, that would beat up all the bad people and help all the good people, ushering in an age of judgement in about 56 years.
So, not exceptionally interesting fiction, but in keeping with other religious texts he decidedly failed in his prophesy.
I still think it’s pretty easy to pick on Mormonism, just based on the sheer ridiculousness of it all, but Mormonism does have one key component that helps it’s case over Scientology: It’s older. Yep, just like the quote in my opening paragraph, the dude that knew what a sham it is has long passed away. And further still, those that knew him personally have passed away. The witnesses to the supposed events have passed away. And even their children and grandchildren have all passed away. Thus unbridled from the burden of first-hand or even third-hand information, the religion is free to indoctrinate the false history.
So, religions are born out of the culture of the day. This is easily demonstrable for any of the world religions, albeit the histories may be much older. Or sometimes younger. But another interesting phenomenon also occurs as the religious dogma begins to lag behind the culture. After multiple generations, culture can shift. The culture that bore Mormonism lost interest in polygamy, albeit the ending of the practice was enforced by law, and the introduction was seemingly pressed into service by the leadership. But suffice to say that faced with doing what their religion said to do, vs what the law and the culture said was okay, the Mormon church went back and re-wrote their history. Just as the founding documents reflected a snapshot of the culture at that time, so did the re-write.
Which brings us up to the point of this article. Christians today like to think of their religion as a warm, giving, family oriented, and loving religion. And to a certain extent, it is. But that’s not how it started. For the majority of it’s history, Christianity was not a friendly, loving religion. It was harsh, cared not for individuals, expected subservience, advocated slavery and genocide, and dominated in politics. Total wars were fought as a direct policy issue, not in spite of Christianity.
And Christmas was definitely not the Christmas of today. Christmas wasn’t even a thing until the 4th century CE, when Rome decided to merge the pagan winter solstice festival with it’s newfound interest in Christianity, effectively re-branding the former event. By the middle ages, drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling were more likely activities of the day than decorating a Christmas tree. Such debauchery even lead the Puritan movement to ban Christmas in the 17th century. These factions- on one side an attempt to resurrect a religious holiday, and the other an attempt to purify their religion- Charles Dickens became the lead author of the most important day on the Christian calendar.
Charles Dickens wrote Christmas. Topical to the day, the middle of the Victorian era, were issues of great social concern. Dickens saw inequality, hardship, extreme poor, and the horrible treatment of orphans. In the time of Dickens, relationships were transactional. This is demonstrated in the old tradition of gift giving, which was usually reserved for people in a financial relationship such as a boss and employee. Marriages weren’t of love, they were strategic legal agreements between families. Children were free labor. But in A Christmas Carol (1843), a new idea was promulgated.
Not that Dickens was the only one writing this new culture. British churches had begun bringing attention to the plight of the poor, and were also attempting to re-hijack the holiday back as a religious-only notion. But the tale of the old (Ebenezer Scrooge) being replaced by the new (Tiny Tim) resonated with a population ready to embrace something that met their newfound sensibilities of warmth, family, love, and social reform. For the first time, Christmas was seen as a time for family and social reconciliation. Caroling was reinvigorated. Christmas trees began popping up.
As the public perception of Christmas began to change, so did their perception of their entire religion. I would be amiss to place the entire movement on the shoulders of Dickens, but he did paint the picture of the movement. He brought the ideas together. He branded it in a way that was simple and easily acceptable by the people. This kinder, gentler Christianity is what survives today.
It would seem that someone like I would be critical of A Christmas Carol, precisely because it does seem to imply that Christianity is the only path to morality. But as the history above noted, that is hardly the case. Christianity did not come to these values by itself, they were literally re-branded in a mere 177 years ago.
Christianity of today is not over 2000 years old. It is a religious movement younger than the United States, built on a tribal religion with a Victorian twist. And the prophet is Charles Dickens.
The Spartan Atheist