Monday, June 14, 2021

Robin Derricourt's "Creating God"

Robin Derricourt is an Honorary Professor of History in the School of Humanities at the University of New South Wales and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He holds a PhD in archaeology from the University of Cambridge. His books include Inventing Africa: History, Archaeology and Ideas (2011), Antiquity Imagined: The Remarkable Legacy of Egypt and the Ancient Near East (2015) and Unearthing Childhood: Young Lives in Prehistory (2018), which received the PROSE Award for Archaeology and Ancient History.

Derricourt applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Creating God: The birth and growth of major religions, and reported the following:
In my secular history of the beginnings of major monotheistic religions, page 99 summarises some key points relating specifically to Christianity. It suggests that to those living in mediaeval and early modern Europe the time and place of Christian origins must have seemed strange and distant. By contrast today (pre-COVID!) thousands of tour parties travel by bus through the sites of “the Holy Land” while numerous archaeologists immerse themselves daily in the buildings, artefacts and food debris of 1st century Palestine, making familiar and ordinary what was once mystical and obscure.

The page also reminds the reader that much of the history of early Christianity has relied on interpreting each word or phrase in those few religious texts in Greek chosen to be the canon of the New Testament for a small and widely dispersed audience. It notes that modern reinterpretations have often come from authors who started from conventional religious positions before moving to a more critical stance.

Choosing page 99 gives a good indication of the overall approach of a book in which I use critical historical scholarship and scientific archaeology to consider the first stages of Mormonism, Islam, Christianity, monotheistic Judaism and Zoroastrianism. It implies that understanding religions’ origins means looking at the social, economic and political contexts in which individuals operate, within a non-mystical material world: a shift from the optimism of faith to the analysis of evidence.

My chapters go backwards in time because the emergence of prophets, the acquisition of followers by some, and the development of a few movements into longer lasting religions make more sense when we start with the relatively familiar. I suspect many readers of the book will endorse a critical and secular approach when applied to religions other than their own, while non-believers will accept its application more broadly, although not necessarily agreeing with all the details of how I interpret the sources and debates.

In another blog I attempted to explain a secular approach to religious beginnings. While religious affiliations and active religious participation have been falling in many regions, sometimes dramatically, we have also seen a rise in the political impact of a range of “religious fundamentalisms”. Although not the primary aim in researching and writing my book, a re-examination of what today’s science and scholarship tell us of the origins of major religions can challenge dramatically some of the assumptions of “fundamentalist” adherents. The history and archaeology of religions provide a fascinating and contested subject: I hope I have added usefully to understanding something of the times, places and contexts where humankind created new religious affiliations. Page 99 invites this.
Learn more about Creating God at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue