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Quinn’s Religion in Daniel Quinn’s Novel Ishmael

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Quinn’s Religion In Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael, religion clearly plays an important role with respect to the central theme of the story. Quinn’s broad definition of the term accurately demonstrates our unconditional acceptance of culture today, as well as the problems that arise from regarding a culture that is not necessarily true.

In the story, Quinn never truly defines religion, despite drawing on several examples of both Eastern and Western religious thought. By leaving religion to be broadly interpreted, he subtly demonstrates his personal contempt for the way that the word is currently used in today’s society. Gage Canadian Dictionary defines it in three ways. First it is the “belief in or worship of god or gods.” According to Quinn, the condition of their being a belief in a certain god or gods is not a factor in determining the meaning of religion, according to Quinn. Secondly, religion is described as “a particular system of religious belief and worship.” To try to say something is a religion because it has religious beliefs is preposterous; the creation of religious beliefs, no doubt, relies heavily on there being a religion on which to base those beliefs in the first place. This seems to be a classic example of circular reasoning. The third definition is the one that is relevant to Quinn, and that is where religion is defined as “a matter of conscious.” In order to develop further the notion that religion is a question of conscious, it is necessary to bring Quinn’s account of man’s civilization to the forefront.

He contends that for millions of years, the earth slowly evolved. Certain immutable laws governed this process, eventually allowing for the creation of all life, including man. From Homo Habilis to Homo Sapiens, man enacted a story that adhered to the rules of the world, namely that man is a creation of the world as opposed to the earth belonging to man. Quinn describes the word “story” as “a scenario interrelating man, the world, and the gods” (Quinn 41). Up until approximately 10,000 years ago, it was the same story that they had always enacted; in fact, it was the same novel that allowed for humanity’s existence in the first place. The enacting of any story, as well as the subsequent following of any rules set forth within that story is what constitutes the culture of a society, and the historical basis for religion to spring forth from. For these earlier people, the story of man reached back in an unbroken chain to the beginning of time. Labeled “Leavers” by Quinn, this society stressed the importance of balance, leaving the Earth alone to decide what was to live and what was to die (39).

Then, rather abruptly, a new civilization appeared that accepted a totally different culture altogether, named “Takers” (39). They flourished in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as the agricultural revolution took full flight. Their culture accepted no other, and they began an invasion and destruction of all other cultures that opposed values that were contrary to their own. The laws learned by a countless number of other societies; the very conditions that had allowed man to spring forward, were all but wiped out. Man took nature into his own hands, while claiming it was his inherent right to play god. The history of man has no cultural relevance beyond the birth of the Taker culture; each successive generation is somehow newer and better than the one before.

Sadly, however, this belief is false. Man was not required for the creation of humanity, neither was he assigned the awesome task of managing the existence of any other species, for that matter. In doing so, the Taker culture is desecrating the rules that govern all earth bound life, including the necessary idea that “diversity is a survival factor for the community itself” (130). If life is to be divided into a series of parts, whereby each element is a function integral to the well being of an individual person and the whole of society, it is up to society en masse to perceive the world around them in a holistic matter. The Taker culture denies such an approach. The apparent success of the Taker culture is merely an illusion, according to Quinn. Until humanity stops insisting on taking part in a story contrary to the natural and unbreakable laws of nature, we are destined to see civilization crash down upon us; the plot will invariably end in disaster.

It is from this account of history that Quinn’s own, abstract definition of the word religion begins to emerge. Quinn states that “any story that explains the meaning of the world, the intentions of the gods, and the destiny of man is bound to be mythology” (Quinn 45). Religion is the historical reference of the values held by a society, with regard to its culture and mythology. It is when meaning pertinent to how a culture should live is applied to the story currently being realized by that same culture that religious thoughts appear. Such a process could apply to any aspect of societies’ indoctrination, whether a Koran or Bible is used in the process or not. To expound upon this point, let us note that the philosopher Paul Griffiths similarly shares Quinn’s open interpretation of the nature of religion. In The Uniqueness of Religious Doctrines, he describes religious doctrines as having five major functions.

They are the rules that govern the life of the community, and provide “structure and order the intellectual, affective, and practical life of the community” (Griffiths 541). As well, they also define the bounds of the community, excluding what is unacceptable or heresy. Religious doctrines are also “both shaped by and formative of the spiritual experience of the communities that profess them” (543), as well as functioning as an instrument for the indoctrination of others into their religious communities. Finally, all religious doctrines claim to hold their teachings as being “expressive of salvifically significant truths” (Griffiths 544). Under those guidelines, it can be said with certainty that all aspects of our culture are religious in nature. Constitutions of nations, societal values such as democracy and freedom: any story that humanity buy into is, in reality, another form of religion.

The existence of a god or gods is not required to determine what religious thought is, an atheist’s beliefs are as religious in nature as those belonging to a devout Christian. Sometimes those religious beliefs are true, as in the case of the Leaver culture, and sometimes they are based on false pretenses. It is from daily, conscious actions of individuals; those that sustain meaning, focus, and rationalization for their existence, that religion are born. “Mother Culture” plays an important role in providing the table of knowledge from which to derive those conscious actions (Quinn 100).

Quinn’s view of religion admirably demonstrates our acceptance of culture. Culture, in essence, is a mosaic created “from a million bits of information presented in various ways by others who share this explanation” (Quinn 40). Quinn points out that when culture is based on an incomplete or false version of the world, the timeless laws needed to ensure the survival of the human race are not listened to; instead, we choose to justify our actions with false assumptions, incomplete historical facts and perverted religious beliefs. This can be easily demonstrated throughout Christianity, Judaism, and Islam alike, exemplified by their insistence on calling for a savior to rescue humanity if and when the conditions of society degenerate to such a state that one is required. As the philosopher David Hume demonstrates in his paper On Miracles, it is only with difficulty that accounts of miraculous events can be believed.

“For first, there is not to be found…any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men [with] such good-sense, education…and integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others” (Hume 77). Unless someone was actually present at the time an event took place, the only historical accounts we have are witnessed, recorded, and relayed on to us by someone else, making them open to misinterpretation and falsification. Jesus was not the founder of Christianity, his disciples were. A distinction must be made between the knowledge learned of an event and the reality of actually experiencing it. Second-hand knowledge can never be proved and, in many cases, is true and compatible under all circumstances. I. M. Crombie also illustrates this point in Theology and Falsification. “In the case of any ordinary statement, such as ‘It is raining,’ there is at least one situation (the absence of falling water) which is held to be incompatible with the statement…which gives [it] its meaning” (Crombie 329). The notion of a savior rescuing humanity follows draws from this mold; short of a savior actually saving the world, under no situation can it be disproved.

While the examples used thus far paint traditional religious institutions in a negative way, Quinn’s broad definition of religion can also include the establishments of society traditionally held to be non-religious. For the individual, pledging allegiance to a traditional religion is the same as attaining membership in a political organization or business association. Where our conscious is at during any given moment defines the nature of religion. That being said, is there nothing that we can draw from our culture around us that is undeniably true? Many philosophers have taken such a hard line stance, most notably RenĂ© Descartes. In Meditations, he claims “all that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through [them]; but [they are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust them” (Descartes 252).

However, Quinn’s account of religion lies both in the internal and external aspects of our lives. Present day sociology confirms to us that “culture is essential for our individual survival…we rely on culture because we are not born with the information we need to survive” (38). While this is true: a baby cannot survive alone in the wilderness, it is also not entirely correct. Culture does not provide all of the answers needed in order to evolve. Because we are told it, see it, and live it, it does not follow that it is necessarily true. Rather, it is the quality not quantity of information that allows humanity to survive. Quality laws of that kind can only subjectively be learned outside the confines of society; expressively taught by the natural world. It is with great care that we must discern for ourselves the laws of the earth that are tried, tested and true. Those seeking escape from the confines of Taker culture often lose their subjectivity of religion, and redefine it in ways that become legalistic and bureaucratic.

In The Function of Education, the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti claims “you learn from everything, therefore there is no guide, no philosopher, no guru. Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning” (33). But when we are surrounded by a culture that accepts a false religious doctrine, the difficulties felt by many people when trying to overcome the feelings of captivity become apparent, and demonstrate Quinn’s acceptance of religious problems. It is the process of internalizing the search for religious truths that individuals must embark upon for their own sake, while at the same time avoiding the natural tendency to be concerned with the actions of others.

It must be said, however, that not all mythology or religion found in culture is false. As Quinn observed, the conquest by the Taker culture never completed itself. Many native tribes have managed to maintain at least some of the traditional Leaver ideals. By studying the history of both Leaver and Taker cultures, those ideals can once again be recognized. Many of the word’s deepest secrets lead back to the birth of the Taker culture in Mesopotamia. As Jim Marrs shows in his book Rule by Secrecy, “It is fascinating to realize that it may be possible to know more about this…civilization than we may ever know about the more recent Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans” (Marrs 375). The Sumerian peoples wrote on cuneiform tablets, not the papyrus sheets characterized by their later descendants.

Unfortunately, culture is doing a thorough job in not allowing much to be learned from the region. The land, located in modern day Iraq, is once again subject to the destructive force of Taker people. It is not necessary, though, to travel any great distance. The Teaching of Buddha, for example, seems to echo Quinn’s notion that problems of religious origin are internal in nature, relying on eternal truths, and not found in the unrelenting blitzkrieg of modern culture. The Buddha’s Dharma or way teaches that “people must first discern what is of first importance, what problem should first be solved, what is the first misfortune to be expected” (Kyokai 135). In order for this process to work, the student must first learn to control his mind and conscious actions through meditation. By removing the world of deceit from focus, the universe’s “Dao” or way can be revealed. This process can be likened to an individual rediscovering the immutable laws that Quinn contends govern the earth.

By demonstrating through both Quinn’s accounts of our civilization and the role culture plays in indoctrinating us to its ideals, it is clear that his broad definition of religion accurately demonstrates our acceptance of culture. As well, it presents a viable course of action that any person can pursue to unshackle themselves from the deceit of enacting a story contrary to nature’s laws. It is up to the individual to make the first step on society’s behalf, an only then can we once again learn to evolve past the differences that keep us bound.

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