How To Be A Martyr

A few weeks ago, when I published an article on vegetarianism as a political tool, I received emails and comments from people in India contesting the opening graphs, which were actually designed to set the stage more than be a driving point. 


Their basic contention: vegetarianism was a deliberate, moral choice, not a political one, as my research had shown. When I asked for research supporting their claim, I never heard back. One email included the following: 

Marvin [Harris] is using western framework to analyze and evaluate Indian practices and with little or no context into the culture he is talking about he seems to have missed the point.

If Harris was attempting to define the manifold polytheistic Hindu deities in the context of a biblical god, that would be ‘using Western framework.’ But his argument had nothing to do with rationalizing theological constructs; he was reporting on a historical incident. Unfortunately these two are often confused.

Confusing theology with history is the exact scenario needed for another repetitive occurrence in religious thought: martyrdom.

In order to create a martyr, you need the written word. As Karen Armstrong wrote, it was the Deuteronomists that made ‘Yahwism a religion of the book.’ From that point onward scripture trumped oral storytelling for spiritual guidance. This also opened the floodgates for a whole host of interpretations.

‘The problem lies not with the use of these texts as religious stories,’ writes Notre Dame religion professor Candida Moss, ‘but with their acceptance as historical records.’ Capitalizing on the inhuman and mystical feats literature affords is the perfect recipe for instituting a lasting religion, regardless of how factual those stories prove to be.

If one positions oneself on the side of the martyr, Moss continues, you'll certify your claim of being oppressed. Such a circumstance played out in the recent sexual misconduct lawsuit brought against Bikram Yoga founder Bikram Choudhury. Defending himself, Choudhury shot back, ‘People talked bad about Jesus also.’  

This is how a multi-millionaire yoga businessman aligns himself with an oppressed—and righteous—martyr. The not-so-hidden (or humble) sentiment: Bikram too is a prophet, or so he wants you to believe. As Moss writes,  

If anyone claims to stand in continuity with the martyrs, and if that authenticates their message, they can claim to be right.

Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero devoted an entire book to detailing the ways in which Jesus was transformed by followers into being whoever they wanted him to be. An especially poignant time for the savior’s publicity campaign came in the late 1960s, when the Christ figure was used simultaneously by hippies, the black power movement and the growing conservative sect in America. The fact that his historial origins are not clear only adds to the mystique and malleability of his image. 

Two dangers exist. First, for the person claiming to be a martyr, such as Bikram, those susceptible to falling for his claims will give up personal power and identity in following someone plagued with neurotic delusions. This is why it took Sarah Baughn many years to file the suit, which may work against her—she continued to attend his classes after the incident. 

Second, and probably the more relevant for many, is romanticizing deceased humans. One important example of the ‘perfected’ human can be witnessed by invoking Gandhi. While an exceptional human on many fronts, he was not infallible. We should not disregard his faults too quickly.

As an aging mendicant, Gandhi regularly battled with his long struggle with celibacy. Besides never consulting with his wife in the initial decision, he later forced his teenage great-niece to sleep naked with him nightly to prove to himself that he could overcome desire. While that might have seemed an admirable cause to himself, I’m going to guess that the girl might have taken issue with such an arrangement.

When we claim any human being perfect, we strip them of their humanity. While this might be a goal of some—Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, for one, attempts to force national media to play to only her good side—it is important to remind ourselves that perfection is an unattainable concept, not a factual reality. 

Humility can be its own form of arrogance when attempting to feign martyrdom—if someone tells you how humble they are, run away. Fast. More importantly, as Moss concludes in terms of the Christian focus on martyrs, 

It makes collaboration, and even compassion, impossible.

We should expect the best of ourselves, and demand the best of others. This should never come at the expense of denying our shared humanity. That's what compassion requires: seeing the better in someone when they falter, not pretending they have not lived up to some level of unwavering idealism. Nor should we act as if any one person has reached such a plateau. As Alan Watts famously wrote,

When you confer spiritual authority on another person, you must realize that you are allowing them to pick your pocket and steal your own watch. 

Image: Renata Sedmakova/shutterstock.com

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.