Creation Myths of the Middle East
On January 11th, 2001, Dr. Ewa Wasilewska, professor of anthropology, presented to the chapter a talk on “Creation Myths of the Middle East.” Dr. Wasilewska teaches numerous courses on the ancient and modern Middle East and Central Asia at the University of Utah. She has conducted archaeological and anthropological fieldwork in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, and has traveled extensively through Central Asia and the Middle East, as a consultant, cultural and applied anthropologist. She is also a freelance writer and photojournalist.
Dr. Wasilewska began by posing the question, “What is religion?” Religion can be reduced to rituals and beliefs. Beliefs include myths. In order to have myths and religion, communication is required. It is likely that people had to speak before they could have religion, but it is not definitely known when human speech began — perhaps 30 to 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthal artifacts (such as flowers in graves) are not conclusive.
Myths probably began with language. We know that, around 3400 B.C.E., when writing was invented, myths were fully developed. Writing first began in Mesopotamia, what is now known as southern Iraq (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), by the Sumerians. The creation myths of Sumeria were documented thousands of years before the Bible, and it is clear that the biblical authors borrowed heavily from the older texts Of the Sumerians, Babylonians and the Egyptians in creating the stories of Genesis.
The Sumerians, Egyptians and the Hittites produced creation myths that hardly mentioned humans. The invention of monotheism changed that. Monotheism accommodated a greater role for humans, but the Bible still retains the residue of polytheism in references to Elohim, a Hebrew term for “gods”.
The Genesis stories may be divided into the Yahwistic and priestly accounts. The Yahwistic passages date from around 1000 B.C.E., while the priestly passages are more recent, from circa 500 B.C.E..
Dr. Wasilewska indicated a consensus of Middle Eastern scholars believe that the ‘paradise’ of the Sumerians, Dilmun, has been discovered in Bahrain, on the East Persian Gulf. She also described a Sumerian story of the “Lady of the Rib,” which is a likely basis for the biblical account of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib.
For a full description of the creation myths of the Middle East, readers are referred to Dr. Wasilewska’s book, Creation Myths of the Middle East, published by Jennifer Kingsley Press.
Politics and Humanism
All through the Middle East where three world religions began, a war rages.
It is a seemingly endless battle of ethnic groups, of religions, of nationalities. No matter that the Israelis and Palestinians are cousins; they are also bitter enemies.
The United States should understand this. The Civil War left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. An escalation of political, economic and cultural conflicts built, over generations, to a crescendo of violence. In recent years, disturbing echoes of that terrible time are sounding again. The polarization between North and South, secular and religious, black and white, rural and urban, is increasing. Why is this happening? What can we do about it?
Humanism and politics are rarely mentioned together. I think that is a mistake. We have a very great interest in the governments of our country, because we highly value human rights. We aspire to be the most humane of the “isms” but we often distrust parties and movements.
And with good reason. Many of us are refugees from religions and cultures that were all too happy to exercise social and psychological control. We are often painfully aware of the real histories of the icons and the saviors and the heroes. We habitually question authority. We reject voter guides.
This does not mean we should only be spectators. We have a voice and we must speak. We need to be heard. And we will be.
What I must remind myself, as talk of culture war increases, as partisan rhetoric builds, is that we are individuals first. When I recall the many people who have been good to me, I recognize that they were all colors and creeds and genders. What united them was their desire to make someone else’s life better. That is the common ground we can all share. That could be a beginning.
Message to Middle East, and to Anywhere, USA: Let the killing and the hate stop. Life is too short, and the world too small, for such nonsense.
RE: Are Souls Real?
I enjoyed Richard Layton’s January discussion group report on Professor Jerome Elbert’s book Are Souls Real. Richard asks if we agree with Professor Elbert’s statement that “mechanisms within the brain determines our choices” and conflict with “some common ideas about free will”. I say yes, in an absolute way, it most likely does conflict, but it doesn’t really matter since one is never aware, and I doubt that any Old System creatures are either.
I find the relationship between the Old System (OS) and the New System (NS) that Elbert writes about more interesting than any philosophical or theological speculations about free will. My hope is that an improved understanding of our real humanness and real limitations may one day reveal secrets that can help people get along with each other.
HoU Chapter Member
Living With the Local Culture
10 YEARS AGO
February 16, Arizona Republic publishes analysis of decades of talks by Seventy’s president Paul H. Dunn who has misrepresented his military and baseball careers in order to tell “faith-promoting” stories to LDS youth and young adults.
20 YEARS AGO
January 24, New York Times reports conversion to LDS Church of Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther radical of 1960s. He is first nationally prominent African-American to convert to Mormonism. In 1995 he publicly reaffirms his faith in Mormonism, although he no longer actively attends LDS services.
–D. Michael Quinn,
The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, 1997
A Brief History of Time
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, addresses the question in the title of this article. He asks, “…are we perhaps just chasing a mirage?” There seem to be three possibilities: ” 1) There really is a complete unified theory, which we will some day discover if we are smart enough. 2) There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe more and more accurately. 3) There is no theory of the universe; events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extent but occur in a random and arbitrary manner.”
Some would argue for the third possibility on the grounds that, if there were a complete set of laws, that would infringe God’s freedom to change his mind and intervene in the world. St Augustine said the idea of a God that might want to change his mind is a fallacy of imagining God as a being existing in time: time is a property only of the universe that God created.
With the advent of quantum mechanics in the world, we have come to recognize that events cannot be predicted with complete accuracy. But that there is always a degree of uncertainty. One could ascribe this randomness to the intervention of God, but it would be a very strange kind of intervention, for there is no evidence that it is directed toward any purpose. Indeed, if it were, it would by definition not be random. “We have,” Hawking states, “effectively removed the third possibility above by redefining the goal of science: our aim is to formulate a set of laws that enables us to predict events only up to the limit set by the uncertainty principle.
“The second possibility, that there is an infinite sequence of more and more refined theories, is in agreement with all our experience so far. On many occasions we have increased the sensitivity of our measurements or made a new class of observations, only to discover new phenomena that were not predicted by the existing theory, and to account for these we have had to develop a more advanced theory…We might indeed expect to find several new layers of structure more basic than the quarks and electrons that we now regard as “elementary” particles.
“However it seems that gravity may provide a limit to this sequence of ‘boxes within boxes’…Thus it does seem that the sequence of more and more refined theories should have some limit as we go to higher and higher energies, so that there should be some ultimate theory of the universe…I think that there is a good chance that the study of the early universe and the requirements of mathematical consistency will lead us to a complete unified theory within the lifetime of some of us who are around today, always presuming we don’t blow ourselves up first.”
This book is Hawking’s first for the non-specialist. Carl Sagan describes it as holding “rewards of many kinds for the lay audience…In this book,” he says, “are lucid revelations in the frontiers of physics, astronomy. cosmology, and courage.
“This is also a book about God…or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein’s famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end of time, and nothing for a creator to do.”
Tony Hileman Visits Humanists of Utah
The evening of February 8, 2001 was a welcome bright spot in the cold dark winter: a gathering of humanists to enjoy each other’s company and hear a presentation on “A Humanist World.”
Tony Hileman, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, spent the day with local journalists and chapter board members before meeting the general membership at a banquet at Distinctive Catering.
Mr. Hileman asked that we imagine “A Humanist World.” Here follow some excerpts of his remarks.
“Consider that 1) Human life is of supreme worth. The very basic foundation of humanism is the insistence that we are each an end unto ourselves and not a means toward something else. We humanists are impelled by a sense of the moral worth of all human beings.
“Consider that 2) Freedom and expression of thought and inquiry. We tend to take this somewhat for granted in our country, and perhaps think at times that we have achieved this humanist aim. But we must be ever vigilant.
“Consider that 3) The enrichment of human experience. A humanist world would simply be a world in which the sole ends of endeavor would be those of human enlightenment and human betterment.
“It is the radical claim of humanism that we can live rich full lives while believing only in this natural existence. It is the even more radical claim of humanism that such lives are the most satisfying lives because they are lived meaningfully through the joys and challenges of working together to transform the world.
“And it is my most radical claim that we who chose to already live in a humanist world.
“Humanism is not the mainstream and likely never will be. But I do not accept it as a mere tributary of the mainstream of our culture. I believe humanism to be the undercurrent of progressive thought carrying us forward. We humanists can claim credit for a significant share of the world’s progress.
“It is we humanists who have believed so long and so passionately in humanity’s ability to improve itself. They call us nonbelievers. I’m not a nonbeliever. I believe in our ability to change the world, to create, through the way we lead our lives, the mind shift that will continue to carry us forward. It is they, on the other side of the theistic divide, who do not believe in our ability to intentionally create a global change that alters the way we act toward one another.”
Mr. Hileman joined in a question-and-answer session with attendees after the presentation and visited with chapter members.
All photos Copyright © 2001 by Rolf Kay