Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My lesson in Hawaii: the cultural and explanatory value of gods


When I was in Maui recently, I attended 'Ulalena, an interesting stage production about some of the Hawaiian myths.  Lono, the Hawaiian god of agriculture, was prominently featured in the show.  It occurred to me afterward that I felt exactly the same way about Lono as I did about Yahweh and Jesus.  They were all myths created by scientifically backward civilizations to explain everyday phenomenon for which there was arguably no other reasonable explanation.

What surprised me, however, was the thought that I wouldn't want to take these gods out of the Hawaiian culture.  They added a certain cultural richness that I was paying to experience.

Moreover, although this made the the Dawkins in me shudder, I asked myself whether it would have better for the Hawaiians to have not created their pantheon of deities, and I found myself saying "no."  In the absence of any scientific explanation for the weather, volcanoes, etc., it made perfect sense for them to invent "agents" that were responsible for these phenomena.  In a way, they were being "scientific," more so than if they did not try to look for explanations for the natural world.  There were simply too many gaps for them to fill without a religious model.

As soon as I thought this, however, my mind turned to the accomplishments of the Greeks: Democritus and atomic theory, Thales and life originating in water.  It was possible for ancient civilizations to develop many correct theories about science.

Were the ancient Hawaiians in the same position, however, to develop similar theories? After reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, I have to wonder whether the geographical and environmental factors would have made this unrealistic. In light of this, I have new questions to consider about the cultural and explanatory value (or even necessity) of gods.

Perhaps a few millennia from now, Christianity will likewise be a curiosity to a tourist in the former "Bible Belt," who similarly wonders what it would be like to disentangle Jesus from "ancient" America but concludes that it added to the cultural richness that he or she was there to experience.  I wonder if that tourist will similarly conclude that we were also being "scientific" in our own way because we had not yet fully developed the Grand Unified Theory or explained ambiogenesis.  In other words, our "gaps" somehow justified our superstitions.


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