The Moon is the Beginning of all Religion…

by , under Philosophy, Science, Theology

‘I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.’ – Yuri Gagarin

‘That transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur.

‘But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.’ G.K. Chesterton

One of the things I love (or hate, depending on conditions) about camping is how much closer one feels to the environment: wind speed, temperature, humidity, rainfall, cloud-cover – and even the cycles of the moon.

Last week I was in France, on Ile de Ré, and often stayed up late into the quiet of the night, sometimes down on the beach, where the moon would set into the distant horizon. It stirred again some thoughts that I’d been percolating a while: how the existence of the moon is perhaps responsible for us becoming a religious species.

Though we rarely give the moon much thought, once one does it’s hard to imagine earth without it. Many planets do not have satellites, so we are lucky to have one in a way, and the effects it has had, and continues to exert, on the earth are huge. It provides us with tides, which determine the biological clock of so many parts of our ecosystem. It also affects our weather patterns, and the distribution of water in the oceans (giving a large bulge of water at the equator). The moon has also been important in giving stability to the earth’s spin.

But at a more human level, the moon has, I think, been key to our evolution as a species with a gravity towards religion. Looking up into the night sky, the moon draws us into an understanding of ‘otherness’ – there is something else out there. The sun provides this too, but the sun is more constant and obvious: it simply rises and sets. The moon, on the other hand, rises and sets and waxes and wanes. It has a nocturnal life-cycle, by which we can’t only measure the changing of the hours, but the movement of months too.

For early humankind, this must have been awe-inspiring, must have drawn thoughts up from ground level and into the celestial realm. From the relative proximity of the moon we were drawn on to the stars, to the vast spaces of the universe beyond. Without the moon, we may not have bothered to look further than the clouds.

So the moon nurtured us in religion and science: it lifted us up from the earth and urged us through its alterity to look deeper into things. Eventually, we built rockets that did take us up beyond earth… where Yuri Gagarin famously delivered his neatly scripted Soviet line ‘I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.’ Finally, we set foot on the moon itself – and with that moment seemed to expel some of the divine mystery of space: there was nothing there but fine dust. Of course, that was not the experience of most of the astronauts who made those journeys, and their extraordinary testimonies have been brilliantly collected in Andrew Smith’s wonderful book Moondust (highly recommended). For them, the moon was the perfect shadow to the abundant earth: it’s barrenness was itself testament to highlight just how wonderful the earth was.

This is why I have to disagree with GK Chesterton here, who saw the fine outlined perfection of the moon as symbol of all rational reason, and thus the route to luna-cy. The doesn’t drive us mad, it simply drives us out of ourselves and into mystery…and it is in mystery that some find pain and confusion. I love the sun – as anyone who has seen me strip and tan at the slightest break in the clouds will know. But the sun’s heat is rather simple and dumb. It is from the moon, smashed and silent, rising and falling, growing and dying, that I learn the most. If that makes me a lunatic, one drawn out of the self and into mystery, then so be it…


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  1. camostar

    Dad told me once that more people give birth on a full moon. I’m not sure how true that is. But my high school science teacher posited that if it was true, it might have something to do with our bodies being mostly water and how the moon has an effect on tides!

    But then there are also those nights when coincidental and strange things happen, people act weirdly, someone remarks that it must be a full moon so you check and if it’s not full it at least looks full, giving you some handy confirmation bias… I suppose the moon is not only an objective historical factor in giving rise to beliefs in the supernatural, which eventually break from it (I heard Allah in Islam arose partly from the moon god in the Arabic pantheon, partly from the monotheistic Christian/Judaic God), but it remains a part of supernatural experience, as Emily Dickinson put it:

    Each that we lose takes part of us;
    A crescent still abides,
    Which like the moon, some turbid night,
    Is summoned by the tides.