Category Archives: Definitions

Xenu Bunnies & Pagan Easter

While I am not a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brand of popular science, I can certainly appreciate his good, and no doubt lucrative, works. These works sometimes require him to critique religion, which he does in a such an easygoing and avuncular manner that it barely registers. If the goal is persuasion, this seems a more effective approach than throwing atheist firebombs and telling religionists they are delusional. Gentle corrosion is, over the long term, more effective than aggressive confrontation. Consider this contrast as it applies to cars: oxidation is barely noticeable but will eventually result in disappearance. The aphorism here might be steel to rust and rust to dust. Crashes, on the other hand, just result in cars that limp along or sit in the salvage yard without disappearing. Although deGrasse Tyson has suggested something along these lines to Richard Dawkins, the latter still prefers the thrill of demolition derbies.

There are times, however, when even deGrasse Tyson cannot resist. Consider this response to a question from The Daily Beast:

Interviewer: I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.

deGrasse Tyson: So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy?

True though this may be, it is a bit out of character for deGrasse Tyson. What follows at this later point in the interview is more characteristic:

Interviewer: The HBO documentary “Going Clear” essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.

deGrasse Tyson: But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them [not] a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?

As the sociologist Rodney Stark often observes in his work on what makes some religions successful and others not, this is only partially correct. It is not just antiquity or age that determines whether a new religion is accepted. While time depth certainly enables selective forgetting and remembering, both of which contribute to mythmaking, the key is that the new religion must be an offshoot of something older: it should build on that which has gone before. If the originators handle things properly, they will construct their religion on an already accepted tradition and then transform it. This is precisely what happened within the Abrahamic line: Judaism begat Christianity which begat Mormonism. Joseph Smith, in stark contrast to L. Ron Hubbard, intuitively understood the need not to start from scratch and craft a religion from whole new cloth, or Xenu scrap paper. This explains why today there are over 6,000,000 Mormons and less than 50,000 Scientologists. It also explains why the former is sometimes called a “sect” and the latter is often labeled a “cult.”

Christianity, for its antiquarian part, is not just or merely an offshoot of Judaism. During the centuries long course of its early development, Christianity assimilated various aspects of Greek philosophy and adopted all manner of pagan rituals. While Saturnalia-Christmas is the most famous example of this (a fact, by the way, which caused the Puritans to ban Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681), Easter is in a similar egg basket. Over at The Conversation, Professor Rod Blackhurst observes:

For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

There are many who revel in these sorts of facts and associations because they apparently undermine the alleged originality and purity of Christianity. This is certainly one way of looking at things (and I confess to so looking at them when the argumentative need arises), but there is another way of looking which relates to my earlier point about pragmatism in constructing a religion. Professor Blackhurst explains:

[These pagan elements do not] detract from Christianity – on the contrary, [they] can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition. When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it. In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs. The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad.

We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them.

These points are well-taken, though another should be added to Blackhurst’s somewhat celebratory essay. Religions are also destructive when, having assimilated that which came before, they declare an end or closure to the tradition. When they deny or exclude everything that comes after (as nearly all of them do), they tend to get aggressive, destructive, and downright ugly, sort of like Donnie Darko.


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All About Islamism

The web is currently on fire with some great writing, and serious thinking, about “Islam” and Islamism. In this post, I covered some notable aspects of Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS. As good as that article is, and I think it superb, there has been some pushback, including this response in the Atlantic by Caner Dagli. Although Dagli is a professor of religious studies, his interest – or perspective – is not purely academic: he approaches these issues from inside the tradition. As a Muslim, he takes issue with the outsider idea or claim that ISIS is “Islamic.” As an insider, he argues that ISIS is in fact “un-Islamic” and disputing this puts (the vast majority) of non-militant Muslims in an impossible position: How can they denounce ISIS if they can’t rely on the texts and tradition to argue that ISIS-Islam is inauthentic, wrong, or as Dagli puts it, “phony”?

As an outsider, I can empathize with Dagli’s position and certainly want him, and other Muslims, to continue arguing that ISIS-Islam is “un-Islamic” and wrong. But as an outsider, I also recognize that these kinds of arguments may make pragmatic sense from inside a tradition but are analytically suspect from outside the tradition. This may explain the relative incoherence of Dagli’s response: it rings weak to my outsider ears. As an insider and an academic, Dagli is in a double-bind. While I don’t find his argument persuasive, I certainly hope that Muslims do. There is no way that outsiders can adjudicate issues of authority or authenticity within “Islam.” Lacking such standards, it behooves us to take Islamists, and their beliefs, seriously.

This, in fact, is what Michael Walzer argues in this dense piece over at Dissent. He chides his political fellow travelers on the secular left – liberals, journalists, and academics – for failing to recognize that religion itself can provide powerful, and perhaps even primary, motive force for human action. As I observed in my post on Wood’s ISIS article, this may sound strange to those who take their religion or religious beliefs seriously, but academics have a long history of explaining (or explaining away) religious beliefs-actions as the product of something else. Walzer argues, rightly in my estimation, that this is a mistake:

In the three and a half decades since the Iranian revolution, I have been watching my friends and neighbors (and distant neighbors) on the left struggling to understand—or avoid understanding—the revival of religion in what is now called a “post-secular” age. Long ago, we looked forward to “the disenchantment of the world”—we believed that the triumph of science and secularism was a necessary feature of modernity. And so we forgot, as Nick Cohen has written, “what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny.”

Today, every major world religion is experiencing a significant revival, and revived religion isn’t an opiate as we once thought, but a very strong stimulant. Since the late 1970s, and particularly in the last decade, this stimulant is working most powerfully in the Islamic world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, and in parts of Europe, too, Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf.

So the Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left: can we recognize and resist “the possibility of tyranny?” Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it. One reason for this failure is the terrible fear of being called “Islamophobic.” Anti-Americanism and a radical version of cultural relativism also play an important part, but these are older pathologies. Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.

The root cause of religious zealotry is not religion, many leftist writers insist, but Western imperialism and the oppression and poverty it has bred. So, for example, David Swanson, first on the War Is A Crime website and then on the Tikkun website (with a nervous but only partial disclaimer from the editor), asks “What to do about ISIS?” and answers: “Start by recognizing where ISIS came from. The U.S. and its junior partners destroyed Iraq . . .” That’s right; there would be no ISIS in Iraq without the U.S. invasion of 2003, although if Saddam had been overthrown from within, the same religious wars might well have started. For ISIS doesn’t “come from” the U.S. invasion; it is a product of the worldwide religious revival, and there are many other examples of revivalist militancy. Swanson might offer a similar explanation for all of them, but the explanation loses plausibility as the instances multiply.

The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion (emphasis added). Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests.

But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).

[W]e have to acknowledge that the academic theory (which was also a left theory) that predicted the inevitable triumph of science and secularism isn’t right—at least, its time horizon isn’t right. Leftists have to figure out how to defend the secular state in this “post-secular” age and how to defend equality and democracy against religious arguments for hierarchy and theocracy. The appeal of religious doctrine and practice is obvious today, and we need to understand it if we are to persuade people that religious zealotry is frighteningly unappealing.

Because I’m an academic of sorts, I have considerable interest in all the non-religious theories (e.g., economy, politics, power, imperialism, colonialism, symbolism, etc.) that may explain religious beliefs and behaviors. But because I was raised in an American evangelical environment, in which wildly diverse people from all walks and stations of life take their spooky religious beliefs seriously and act accordingly, I have never discounted – or explained away – those ideas and actions on the basis of something else. While non-religious theories may partially explain why some people take their beliefs so seriously and are moved to act on those beliefs, these explanations are rarely and perhaps never sufficient.

While searching for an explanation which brings us closer to a necessary condition, we should acknowledge there is a psychology at work which predisposes some people, at all times and in all places, toward religious beliefs and consequent actions. We should take them seriously when they tell us they are doing something for religious reasons. Sometimes religious actions are just what they appear to be and what believers say they are. This is the methodological lesson that Robin Horton so forcefully made about the anthropology-sociology of religion, and I reckon he is right.

There are of course those, primarily academics, who disagree with this view in general and Walzer in particular. In this response, Yale professor Andrew March takes Walzer to task with alternative theories of Islamism and in this Berfrois article, Justin E.H. Smith (whose work I greatly admire) states his disagreement. While I do not disagree with either March or Smith, their arguments are not exclusionary or alternative: they are complementary to Walzer’s point, as I think he makes evident in this reply.

— Cris


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All About ISIS

Over at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood has posted an article on ISIS that is a tour de force of reportage, a near perfect melding of intellectual history and investigative journalism. It makes for gripping reading and left me yearning for more, though the more I want would require ethnographic fieldwork that is impossible for obvious reasons. At this point we can only imagine what life is like in ISIS controlled territory, but Wood’s article allows the imagination to run wild. I imagine a Camus-like atmosphere, an all too real yet surreal theater of the absurd. Blood, lots of blood, has this flowing quality: it spins back and flashes forth, galvanizing one moment and disorienting another. The closing scene of the latest ISIS video perfectly captures this quality, though stills can do no justice to this Coptic-killing choreography of waves:

Isis-Bloody-WaveISIS-Message-BloodWithin Wood’s article we find two lessons that deserve further emphasis, as both are major issues in religious studies. The first is about definitions and teaches us that “Islam” (like all modern religions) manifests in myriad ways, no one version of which can be singled out and normatively classed as “true, authentic, or legitimate.” There are many iterations of “Islam,” in other words, and saying that ISIS is un-Islamic gets us nowhere. The second is about motivations and teaches us that religious beliefs can directly and primarily impel action. While this claim may seem commonsensical to some, academics often explain, or explain away, religiously motivated action as a product of something else: economy, social structure, politics, power, colonialism, symbolism, etc. In the case of ISIS, religious beliefs are primary and direct spurs to action.

With these in mind, let’s look at some key article excerpts on the first lesson (definitions):

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition” (emphasis added for benefit of progressive ecumenical religionists, aka Huffington Post religion section readers).

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself [wrongly] claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”…I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi [i.e., ISIS] and non-Muslim chauvinists [i.e., Fox News producers/consumers] trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’t susceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Now let’s look at some key article excerpts on the second lesson (motivations):

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation – that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

These excerpts, while extensive, are but a small part of Wood’s article, which I strongly recommend reading in full. It also repays re-reading, allowing the ethnographic imagination to run wild with morbid fascination.

— Cris

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Constructing the “Social”

What do we mean by “social”? I will confess to having never given this important issue much thought, which I now realize is a serious mistake. I should have known better, given that half my research is in evolutionary biology and cognitive science (where “social” is used one way) while the other half is in the social sciences (where “social” is used another way). These disjunctive uses of “social” have a history or genealogy. We’ve all heard about the “social construction” of one thing or another, but have we stopped to closely consider how the “social” has itself been constructed? How the concept of “social” has changed over time and what the consequences of such change might be?

I was just made aware of this issue, or oversight, while reading Gregory Hollin’s superb Somatosphere post on “Autism, Sociality, and Human Nature.” In the past, “social” was constructed in Durkheimian ways which were later popularized by Peter Berger in The Social Construction of Reality (1966). Over the past few decades, there has been a substantial shift away from this construction. This alternate construction has been formulated by cognitive scientists and biological anthropologists, and has eventually seeped over into psychiatric medicine. In any event, I encourage you to read Hollin’s piece, which contains this money paragraph:

Within the experimental human sciences this is a really significant shift in understandings of the social.  Under this new regime the social is individualised, essentialised, and biologised, becoming a property of individual persons outside of context, individual or institutional history.  I have an innate, biological capacity to feel empathy and this capacity lies at the heart of my social being.  In other words, ‘the social’ is not something that shapes us throughout one’s lifetime, it is something that we are inherently and naturally.

These different constructions and uses of “social” have profound impacts, not just in our trans-disciplinary debates (which often seem to be at cross-purposes, probably due to differing definitions), but also in a world where “autism” is the diagnosis or pandemic affliction du jour.


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Red “Religion”

While I don’t think that Vine Deloria’s God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973) does an especially good job of describing animist worldviews, Deloria clearly understood that these worldviews cannot be crammed into western conceptual categories or analytical frameworks:

There are serious questions whether Indian tribes actually had any conception of religion or a deity at all. Wherever we find Indians and whenever we inquire about about their idea of God, they tell us that beneath the surface of the physical universe is a mysterious spiritual power which cannot be described in human [i.e., anthropomorphic] terms and must remain always the “Great Mystery.” (151)

Although several generations of scholars have sought to devise a comprehensive theory of religions that would explain how [tribal religions and world religions] are similar to each other, I can find no satisfactory explanation of what elements they have in common (emphasis added). Perhaps the most popular explanation is the device whereby cultural evolutionists see tribal religions as primitive efforts to come to grips with their experiences in nature and later world religions as sublime expressions of religious knowledge.

Academic orthodoxy in religious studies regards the statements of world religions as a higher evolved expression of religion primarily because the concepts are [supposedly] more rational. Tribal religions, with their emotional and ceremonial emphasis, are placed at the bottom of the cultural evolutionary scale because they practice [i.e., are action oriented] rather than preach [i.e., are idea oriented]. Unfortunately, the evolutionary framework [dominates comparative religious studies] and it is very difficult to get anyone to break out of this context and look seriously at the data. (154)

The interpretation of religion has always been regarded as the exclusive property of Westerners, and the explanatory categories used in studying religious phenomena have been derived from the doctrines of the Christian religion. (288) [Tribal religion cannot] be understood in Western categories (290).

If we take the data seriously, as Deloria demands, we would question his use of the term “religion” to describe these worldviews. Ironically, it appears he has internalized the very category or construct that he rightly rejects.


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Procrustes and “Religion”

While researching Robin Horton’s thesis that traditional religious thought is structurally and functionally similar to modern scientific thought, I came across one of those tête-à-têtes that sometimes gives academics a bad name. This sidebar revolves around The Southeastern Indians, published in 1976 by anthropologist and historian Charles Hudson. As was so often the case when post-modernism was all the academic rage, in 1996 Hudson’s rather straightforward reference work was subjected to critical scrutiny by one of the cognoscenti. Some years later, Hudson became aware of this treatment and responded to the criticisms. In the course of doing so, Hudson recalled his state of mind while writing Southeastern Indians more than twenty years earlier:

[The critic of my book] missed or ignored the strongest influence on my thinking in the early 1970s, namely Robin Horton’s two-part paper on African traditional thought and Western science. Central to Horton’s schema is a presumably universal distinction between common sense and “theory.” According to Horton’s “intellectualist” approach, when people can render their experience intelligible through the common sense of their culture, they will do so. But when the events in life defy explanation in commonsense terms, then people resort to a higher level of explanation that postulates the existence of causal agencies that are commonly called spiritual, but may properly be called theoretical because of their abstractness. One attractive aspect of Horton’s approach is that it did not require me to identify any particular piece of Cherokee belief as magic, religion, or science, as was usual at the time in which I wrote. Instead, I could speak of Cherokee conceptions as a belief system or “native folk theory.”

While I don’t think this accurately characterizes Horton’s distinction between primary theory (the mostly visible world of commonsense) and secondary theory (the mostly invisible world of explanation), it nicely illustrates the way in which Horton’s thesis cuts through modernist classifications that are ill-fitted to the past and other peoples. This is an attractive feature of Horton’s work, and it is one that I use when treating “animist worldviews.” These worldviews cannot be made to lie down on procrustean beds or modernist categories like “religion.”


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“Religion” in China

It has been a few years since I proposed “The China Rule” which would require that any general theory or universal claim about religion be subjected to testing using data from China. In that post, which has proved to be one of the most popular and enduring on the blog, I observed:

The Chinese didn’t until recently have a word for “religion” (they created one for purposes of translating Western ideas into Chinese) and most Chinese don’t conceive of “religion” as being a separate conceptual or historical category. It has long been part and inseparable parcel of everyday Chinese life, without the Western trappings of institutions, doctrines, hierarchies, or formalities. While I sometimes hear that modern Chinese aren’t “religious,” this view derives largely from Western constructions and understandings of “religion.” Metaphysical ideas and supernatural agencies are alive and well in China.

Indeed they are, but one of the practical difficulties facing those who would use the China Rule is that data are few and far between. While the Chinese government probably has good data, it won’t be sharing this potentially subversive information with us anytime soon. What would this data look like? While some of it may conform to western constructions of “religion,” I am guessing that it much of it does not.

While obtaining data is difficult, three new books on Chinese “religion” suggest it’s not impossible. As Ross Perlin explains at the outset of his review of these books, the scare-quotes are appropriate in Chinese contexts:

“Religion” in the Western sense is arguably still something of a foreign concept in the People’s Republic of China. The reasons are both ancient and modern. The template of monotheistic, “organized” religion is of little use for understanding any and all of these — the deep Chinese substrate of mythology and folk practice, the little-systematized accretions of Daoist tradition and teaching, the ethical and philosophical system of Confucianism — let alone a complex amalgam of them all, inlaid with a Buddhism only fully naturalized after centuries of conflict. The “three teachings in harmony,” which came to characterize the basic religious situation of imperial China, present a remarkably different picture from those three teachings of western Eurasia — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — which have also grown up together, but through constant opposition.

The remainder of Perlin’s piece provides some tantalizing insights but in the end we are left wanting more. It’s frustratingly hard to apply the China Rule without data. Whatever data exists is surely being deployed in the service of the state, as Perlin duly notes:

Moreover, at least in part to counter the Christian threat, the Chinese government has started actively restoring Daoist and Buddhist temples, promoting the “three traditions” as authentically and integrally Chinese forms of religious expression — indeed, even as a spiritual basis for national renewal. Unimpeachably Chinese and safely moralistic, the remote, semilegendary figure of Confucius has become central to the Party’s effort to construct a usable past.

However intertwined they’ve sometimes grown, “Caesar and Christ” represents an ancient division in Western thought, reinscribed even in the Enlightenment separation of church and state. The lines are much less clear in China: these studies remind us that there’s no partitioning Chinese religious movements from Chinese nationalism, that no creed or tendency can take root in Chinese soil until it reckons with the Middle Kingdom in all its civilizational complexity, including a certain degree of submission to the state. Theoretically, the imperial state lorded it over a relatively open and roomy pantheon — where the emperor was high priest and former bureaucrats might be worshipped as gods — but in practice the Chinese religious landscape has long been complex and decentralized, including flourishing cults.

These observations dovetail nicely with the second half of my post on the China Rule, in which I noted that Confucian cults and ritual practices have long been a staple of Chinese life. These rituals, often sacrificial, pragmatically tend toward instrumentalism and have real world goals. Symbolic analyses of these, no matter how creative or invigorating for western semioticians, don’t get us very far or lead to much understanding.

Chinese “folk” beliefs and practices are centrally concerned with explanation, prediction, and control of the empirical world. This probably explains why evangelical forms of Protestant Christianity appeal to increasing numbers of Chinese and are making the most headway when it comes to foreign cults. These are the forms of Christianity that take seriously the idea that “religion” explains, predicts, and controls things, people, and events in the space-time world.



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