Michael Blume’s research into the high fertility of the religious recently went viral in the media. News reports were soon breeding like rabbits: Scientific American, Live Science, The Telegraph, The Richard Dawkins Foundation, The Guardian, Sifi News, [and even New Zealand’s TV3 News]. Soon enough, like those stupidly reductive nineteenth-century theories of religion, we were soon treated to the media’s grand theories about ‘the essence of religion’, talk about ‘religious genes’, and the conclusion that all ‘religiosity’ had apparently originated in the primeval paleolithic orgy of ‘fertility religion’. And nothing sells newspapers like sex.

Die Antwoord's Evil Boy - Probably wll be interpreted as a 'fertility cult' in 100 years or so
Die Antwoord’s Evil Boy – Probably wll be interpreted as a ‘fertility cult’ in 100 years or so

But this is just speculative nonsense with the thin facade of scientificity. Or, nonsense on stilts. And good rebuttals are available from Epiphenom and Genealogy of Religion.

In biblical studies, there are some scholars who likewise assume a similar evolutionary social development from an imagined (or fantasized?) down-and-dirty ‘fertility cult’ in ‘Canaan’, to the high ethical monotheism of  ‘Biblical Israel’. But in The Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, Nick Wyatt rightly counters that the term ‘fertility cult’ is merely ‘a reductionistic put-down for ideological purposes’ (540). Wyatt also comments:

it is a fact that the interest some scholars have shown in Ugarit, and in particular in its religious life, appears to have been for purposes of comparison of an invidious kind with biblical religion, where a theological agenda appears to have predetermined the outcome (529)

Fertility cults crop up anywhere!Which brings me to my favourite example of a grand 19th-century theory of the development of religiosity. It involves, curiously enough, Giants.

In Geschichte des Volkes Israel (1864), Heinrich Ewald outlines a theory which explains the ‘backward’, ‘close to nature’ status of the native inhabitants of Palestine, versus the scientific-minded, ‘enlightened'(!) and sophisticated religiosity of the Israelites under their (historically real!) leader, Moses. He also provides a justification for this division, however… just in case you were thinking it wasn’t a rigorously scientific theory. Ewald justifies his theory by comparing the gigantic height of the local inhabitants with the short stature of the Israelites! (Num. 13 describes these imaginary people as gigantic, making the Israelites appear as small insects in their sight.)

Here’s his wissenschaftliche reasoning, in all its glory:

…some primitive tribes which remain closer to the state of nature more frequently possess gigantic bodies, compared with other more advanced and articulate people, who appear to have lost in the body what they have won in the mind, and so the Hebrews already in Moses’ time must have possessed the same thin/short bodily form which is also possessed by the very hardy and skilled Arab.


H/t: Craig