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A Child’s Questions

In a piece for Freethought Today, Barbara G. Walker writes about how, as a child, she began noticing the problems with religious faith. She posed some tough questions to her friend Patsy:

When I was a child, my Catholic friend Patsy told me that her parents were paying a priest for special prayers to get her grandparents out of purgatory. I was fascinated. I asked, “How can you tell when they’re finally out?”

Patsy didn’t know. I continued, “And why do you have to pay? Can’t people say their own prayers for free?”

Patsy said they could, but ordinary people’s prayers don’t work as well as priests’ prayers, because priests can talk directly to God.

“I thought anybody could talk directly to God,” I said. “Yes,” Patsy answered, “but God listens to priests.”

“Well,” said I, “if God won’t listen to you, why would you bother to pray?”

Eventually, Barbara lost her faith. In the proceess, she discovered that “prayer could also serve as an assertion of authority among grownups.”

Later in her article, she talks about sacred names and why we pray, making an interesting connection to mothers in the process:

Now what do you suppose is the real meaning behind all this word magic, name magic, prayer magic? What are human beings really doing when they seek to change things in their own favor, by so ephemeral a tool as human speech?

Humans are the verbalizing animals–the ones who have a far more fine-tuned and sophisticated way of communicating than any other life-form. Inventing names for everything is the human talent. Teaching words to the next generation is the human legacy. Manipulating each other’s thoughts and reactions by words is the foundation of human culture. Names and words take on a sacredness in all human traditions.

When children learn to speak, new worlds open up to them. They can make their desires more distinctly known. They can acquire knowledge without constantly needing direct experience. They can exercise imagination, with plenty of stimulus in their cultural background of words about myth, fantasy, dream, vision, and religion.

The one thing every child knows from the moment of birth, however, is that if it makes the right sounds, a large, comforting, all-powerful entity will take care of its needs. No matter what part of the world they inhabit, a majority of humans seem to have given this entity the sacred name of Ma, or Mah, or Maa, or Ma-Ma, which linguists say refer to “mother’s breasts” in nearly all languages from Russia to Samoa, and also in the ancient tongues of Egypt, Babylon, India, and the Americas.9 The Divine Mother in Egypt had such names as Ma, Ma-Nu, or Maat. The matrilineal clan of Tibet was called mamata, meaning “motherhood” or “mineness.” In Sumer and Akkad, the Creator Goddess was named Mama, Mami, or Mammitu. The primitive Iranian Moon Mother was Mah, or Al-Mah; that same word in Hebrew meant “woman,” not “virgin,” as the gospels mistranslated it in reference to Mary. Latin Ma-ter and Greek Me-ter, “mother,” had the same roots. The Hebrew Mem-Aleph, MA, was said to be a magic charm of great power, combining the ideographs for “fluid” and “birth,” and by extension “mother’s milk.” This was written on Jewish protective amulets from the ninth century B.C.E.10 There are numerous other examples of the magical efficacy of MA.

You can check out the rest of the article in the latest issue of Freethought Today.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • mikespeir

    I don’t think the thought expressed in boldface had ever hit me quite that way before. Fascinating.

  • philosophia

    Wow, that’s a really interesting article. Thanks for the link!

  • http://hugotheatheist.blogspot.com/ Hugo

    The part about the secret names made me think about the late Arthur C. Clarke’s short story
    The 9 billion names of god

  • Aino

    This was indeed interesting, but what about those languages that don’t have anything like MA to idicate the word mother? I’m speaking here from my own experience, I’m a Finn and in Finnish language mother is äiti. When a Finn pronounces that correctly, I won’t be suprised if it sounds harsh to someone unfamiliar with the language. And still, in many polls, it has won the title of the most beautiful word in our language. I’m sure our language isn’t the only one with little resemblance to those MA words. So is there any difference in these cultures in the way we regard motherhood? And if not, then we can ask wether the sound of the word mother is really important at all.

  • MTran

    Aino,

    I’m no linguist but the form of words in any modern language may not show any remnants of the early proto-languages from which they derive.

    The “ma” word that is so widely used for “mother” has been hypothesized to be derived from the natural mouth shape and sound that infants make when they want to suckle. You’ve probably seen hungry infants open and close their mouths in imitation of sucking when they want to be nursed. Add a little bit of baby sounds like “ahhh” or “uhhh” behind it and suddenly you’ve got a “mahh mahh” sound. And what mother wouldn’t quickly recognize the sound her baby makes when it needs her?

    I don’t think the “ma” mouth shape is limited to human infants either. Suckling is common to mammals, no matter what form they come in. A friend of mine does animal rescues and is frequently fostering abandonned litters of various species. The kittens, puppies, and baby raccoons all make very similar mouth shapes when they are stressed, need food, or are seeking their mothers. When she sees the “ma ma” mouth, she cuddles them and checks them for any physical needs or injuries at the same time. The kitten I adopted from her still makes the “Ma Ma” mouth when he wants special attention.

    As for the Finnish word äiti, it appears that the word is derived from a Gothic word, eiþai. The original Finnish word for mother appears to have been emo, which puts it back into the “ma” pattern. (Wikipedia actually mentions the issue briefly).

    Why the Finns would have taken on a Gothic word for such an important kinship term is hard to imagine, and why the Goths used a non “ma” word is another question altogether. It’s been 30 years since I read any Goth and I never studied it deeply enough to retain any of it today!

  • monkeymind

    I think the “ma-ma” thing is a “linguification” of the idea that divine beings=parents. It’s hardly an arcane concept. You don’t have to go into Sumerian etymology to figure out that many religions think of their most powerful deity(iies) as either mother or father or both.

  • monkeymind

    Aino said:

    we can ask wether the sound of the word mother is really important at all.

    That’s another problem with the original premise:

    The one thing every child knows from the moment of birth, however, is that if it makes the right sounds, a large, comforting, all-powerful entity will take care of its needs.

    If babies depended on saying “ma” in order to get fed, most wouldn’t survive beyond a few days. The most reliable cue is rooting, if the baby is quite hungry this might be accompanied by gasps and mews, if the parent isn’t catching on the baby might resort to crying in frustration.

    Once they start babbling, it might take Finnish babies a bit longer to produce “äiti” ( I wonder if this has been studied, btw) but I’m sure they’re just as clear on the concept.

  • MTran

    monkeymind said: “If babies depended on saying “ma” in order to get fed, most wouldn’t survive beyond a few days. “

    I think you’re missing the point of the “ma” linguistic phenomenon and seem to be narrowing the original concept beyond recognition.

    Of course, no child depends on saying “ma” in order to survive. But if a sound becomes linked with a particular thing, state, or activity, it’s not unusual for it to develop a meaning that reflects that linkage.

    The widespread association of the “ma” phoneme with the meaning “mother” has been investigated by linguists for more than a century. Paleolinguistics may be a difficult field of study, but that difficulty doesn’t negate the observations or nullify hypotheses regarding language origins.

  • monkeymind

    MTran – no, I’m just arguing for “arbitrariness of the sign,” and agreeing with Aino that just because Finns don’t use the “ma” derivation it doesn’t follow that the Finnish experience of motherhood and infancy is in any way different than in a “ma” culture.
    My main point was that I don’t understand the point of the original article, since most religions are pretty upfront about saying “Y goddess is our mother” and
    “X god is our father.” No need to delve into ancient Hittite etymology.


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