What is the difference between older religions and newer religions?
Ever since I posted the previous essay in this series, Languages of Spirit, I’ve had a surprising number of page hits from people putting this question into Google. I don’t know — maybe some professor somewhere issued this as a question for a take-home test, or something. In any case, since it seems to be on people’s minds, and I’m itching to write about it anyway, here we go!
In this essay I’m going to continue to build on the “language = religion” metaphor that I introduced in the last post. This metaphor starts with the observation that there are many commonalities between languages and religions, and suggests that perhaps they are even more alike than is generally assumed. Since a great deal is known about language, and religion is highly mysterious, perhaps we can learn a lot about religion by looking at language.
In this case, if the metaphor holds, we can explore the differences between older religions and newer religions by looking at the differences between older languages and newer languages.
All About Old Languages
First off, almost all languages are unimaginably old.
Let’s take a language that most of us are familiar with — English. English per se is usually considered to have begun around 600 CE, when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded England, bringing their language with them. But of course, if they brought their language with them, then English is actually older than that, isn’t it?
The language they brought was very much like the other Germanic languages spoken at the time — Old Norse, Old High German, Frankish, Gothic, etc. In fact, all of these ancient Germanic “languages” were pretty much mutually intelligible, just as the various worldwide dialects of English are today.
These ancient Germanic languages were mutually intelligible because they were, in fact, dialects of a single older language — Proto-Germanic. This language, the earliest common ancestor of all Germanic languages, was probably spoken in northern Germany and southern Scandanavia as late as 200 CE. And where did Proto-Germanic come from? It is a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European, which was probably spoken about 8000 years ago on the steppes of Russia.
Now, let’s be clear. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic to Old English to Modern English there was gradual change. At no point can you point to a spot on a timeline and say “Here! The speakers stopped speaking Proto-Indo-European and started speaking Proto-Germanic.” The change was slow and, for the most part, barely perceptible to the speakers themselves. So in a very real sense, English is over 8000 years old.
And there is no question that Proto-Indo-European developed from still older languages, languages of which we have little inkling. Some have suggested that it developed from an ancestral tongue called “Nostratic”, which is allegedly also the parent of Semitic, Dravidian, Altaic, Finno-Ugric, etc. This language would have been spoken sometime in the middle Stone Age, possibly in the Middle East. Most linguists think that there isn’t enough evidence to say whether this “Nostratic hypothesis” is true. Regardless, it is certain that English in its previous incarnations existed tens of thousands of years ago.
But this isn’t just true of English. The same is the case with German, French, Hungarian, Finnish, Chinese, Hebrew, Xhosa, Lakota — almost any language you care to name. They’re the product of tens of thousands of years of tinkering, gradual change, linguistic contact, and human innovation.
So almost all languages are incredibly old. What does great age do to a language?
- Complexity. What you find when you look at these languages carefully is that they aren’t just masses of arbitrary sound and meaning. There are rules and they do make sense, they’re just not simple rules, because they’ve been thousands of years in the making. People joke about how, in English, you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. Ha ha! Isn’t our language arbitrary and ridiculous! No. The “park” in “parkway” , of course, refers to a park, a natural area through which the road goes; and, yes, one does drive on a “driveway” — and it’s called a driveway because it’s a place on your property where you’re supposed to drive (as opposed to, say, the lawn). Once you learn the (admittedly complex) rules, the language makes perfect sense.
- Character. Old languages are also full of fossils, remnants from the distant past. Why is “flew” the irregular past tense of “fly”, rather than the more regular “flied”? Because 8000 years ago, in Proto-Indo-European, this kind of vowel change was the regular way to mark a difference in aspect; and it’s preserved for us to see today. (Yes, the verb “fly/flew” is at least 8000 years old…!) It’s things like this that give a language character.
- Subtlety. And it’s not just a charming quirk, either. “Fly/few” is actually a useful irregularity. Sportscasters, for example, can say that someone “flied out” instead of “flew out” to make it absolutely clear that the batter did not hop on a plane. (See extensive discussion here.) The character “flaws” of an old language are frequently siezed by its speakers and used to express subtle shades of meaning. For example, because of English’s long contact with French, English has many French loan words which have very similar meanings to equivalent English-native words; and frequently these loan words are in a “higher register” than the English equivalents. For example, English has both “arrive” and “come”. “Arrive” means the same thing, but is used in more formal contexts. Thus it can communicate not only its basic meaning, but also subtle signals about the context of the speech act. If you recieve an invitation to a party, and it says “Come over here around noon, dude”, that tells you something different about the party than if you read “It is requested that guests arrive by noon.”
All About New Languages
Are there any new languages?
Sure. They are rare, but they exist; and they fall into two basic kinds:
- Pidgins and creoles. In linguistic terminology, a pidgin is a language created by a community of adults who do not share any common language, but have to communicate anyway. Generally, the pidgin will have a basic vocabulary that all the speakers know, but their pronunciation and usage of that vocabulary will be unsystematic and deeply influenced by their native languages. Conversely, a creole is a language created by the children of the pidgin-speakers. The children communally create a systematic set of rules for their new language, and standardize the syntax, morphology, and phonology. Creoles are very easy for children and adults to learn.
- Invented languages. This includes things like Esperanto, Loglan, Sindarin, and Klingon. These languages are created by a small number of people, usually in the space of a single lifetime, and consequently are quite simple, with easy rules that have almost no exceptions. Speakers of these languages frequently find that the language has no way to express their intended meaning, so they find themselves adding words or rules as necessary. These languages are usually fairly easy for adults to learn, but not necessarily easy for children, since their rules — as simple as they are — are not always intuitive to the mind of a child. Computer languages might fall into this category as well, although no one uses a computer language to talk to another human being (I hope!).
Summary of Differences between Old and New Languages
- Older languages have complex rules — rules that are so complex that, at first sight, they may seem to have no rules at all, or rules with ludicrous exceptions. Younger languages have simple rules; they are easier for adults to learn, but depending on who created them, they may not be easier for children to learn.
- Older languages have a lot of character; they have traces of their millenia of history scattered everywhere in them. Younger languages are more uniform and “fresh”; one is unlikely to find unexpected treasures hidden in the details of etymology or syntax.
- Older languages allow for more subtlety of expression, because the complex structure and character can be exploited by the users to communicate shades of meaning. Younger languages must rely more on context or intonation to convey these subtleties.
Faithful reader, you have patiently waded with me through a huge mess of linguistics, for which I thank you. Now for the payoff: we will apply this to religion.
Old Religions and New Religions.
Most religions in use today are quite new. Christianity is probably the most popular, and it is only 2000 years old; and it has lots of offshoots (“dialects”?) that are much younger. Islam is only slightly younger than Christianity, and Buddhism is only slightly older. But the oldest religions — the pagan, shamanistic, polytheistic religions — are unimaginably ancient. Like old human languages, they have no known beginning.
- Older religions are more complex. This is to be expected, since, like old human languages, they have been developed and tweaked and built upon for millenia, by millions of people. It’s not a simple thing to sit down and learn, say, the religion of the Lakota, or the religion of the ancient Celts, even if one has a patient teacher and all the time in the world. Just as in the case of languages, complexity is difficult to learn, and hard to make sense of, but it also confers flexibility and power. For example, ancient religions usually have a larger body of rituals and procedures for assisting a person through the various stages of life. These additional rituals are hard to learn, and sometimes don’t make sense on the surface, but if you need them, they’re there.
- On the other hand, the newer religions are much simpler, and usually designed to be learned quickly. (You don’t get many converts if your religion is hard to learn.) Protestant Christianity, in its most basic form, is simply the injunction to love Jesus and place your faith in the Bible. (Easy to learn, perhaps difficult in practice.) Older forms of Christianity, as well as Buddhism and Islam, are a lot more complicated than that; but then, they drew a lot of material from the older religions around them in their formative stages, and they have had about 2000 years to accumulate material. The Christianity of the Catholic Church is much, much more complicated than the doctrine found in the New Testament. Still, it is considerably simpler than the body of lore, mythology, and ritual surrounding a Lakota medicine man.
- Older relgions have more character, and usually this character is bound up with the character of the people who created it. There are traces of the history of the religion and the people wound into its fabric. This is evocative and pleasant for those who are part of the culture, but can be uncomfortable for an outsider.
- Conversely, younger religions are less attached to their birth-cultures and more easily adapted to other times and places. But a younger religion also offers less to discover; once you have learned it, you have learned it, and you’re done.
- Older religions have more in the way of ritual and symbolism, which allows its practitioners to connect with Spirit in any number of ways, depending on their individual needs and situations. If you are feeling depressed, for example, and you are practicing an ancient natural religion, you can contact your ancestors, or the gods, or the nature spirits, or you can perform any number of cleansing rituals. Each of these options have different meanings and effects, and can be tuned to exactly what you need.
- Newer religions have simpler symbolism and fewer rituals. This isn’t to say they don’t work; but it means your options are more limited. If you are a Protestant Christian and you’re feeling depressed, prayer and Bible study are pretty much your only options. If, for whatever reason, these are uncomfortable for you or don’t work, then you have to figure out something different on your own.
It’s not my intent here to argue that one kind of religion is better than another, for all times and in all circumstances. I am trying to show that religions have different characters depending on their history and age; that there are good reasons for these differences; and that different kinds of religion may serve you better in different situations.
I also want to emphasize the idea of choice here. Too many people assume that the major religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. — are the only real kind of religion there is; they don’t know that the older religions are fundamentally different in character, and have a different kind of experience to offer.
I think it’s likely that many people completely turn away from religion altogether when a single religion fails them, simply because they don’t know what the other options are. Many agnostics and atheists I have spoken to are intrigued to learn about the older religions, and want to know more. Part of our calling as pagans must be to educate them — to provide them with that choice.
Links to other Posts in this series: How to Choose a Religion I: Intro