Category Archives: Power

From Alcindor to Abdul-Jabbar

As we approach the April finale of March Madness, we should pause to consider one of the all-time greats, Lew Alcindor, who won three consecutive national championships (1967-1969) with UCLA and was three-time MVP of the NCAA tournament. Over at Aljazeera, he explains why he converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s a powerful essay that touches on issues of race, identity, and politics. His conversion was in part a protest against the majority religion which he saw as a culprit:

Much of my early awakening came from reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing Malcolm did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam. To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and supporting the racism that permeated society. His family was attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan, and his home was burned by the KKK splinter group the Black Legion.

Inspired by Malcom, Abdul-Jabbar began studying the Koran and eventually converted to Islam. Contrary to popular belief then and now, Abdul-Jabbar did not join the inaptly named “Nation of Islam.” Regardless, his decision vexed both his parents and white America:

The question I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I had firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag…My parents were not pleased by my conversion. Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel. But the more I studied history, the more disillusioned I became with the role of Christianity in subjugating my people. I knew, of course, that the Second Vatican Council in 1965 declared slavery an “infamy” that dishonored God and was a poison to society. But for me, it was too little, too late. The failure of the church to use its might and influence to stop slavery and instead to justify it as somehow connected to original sin made me angry. Papal bulls (e.g., “Dum Diversas” and “Romanus Pontifex”) condoned enslaving native people and stealing their lands. 

And while I realize that many Christians risked their lives and families to fight slavery [bless John Brown’s soul] and that it would not have been ended without them, I found it hard to align myself with the cultural institutions that had turned a blind eye to such outrageous behavior in direct violation of their most sacred beliefs.

From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.

The irony in all this is that Abdul-Jabbar chose a religion which would which in some ways supplant race as the next great bogeyman for large segments of white-Christian America. So having jumped out of the racial frying pan, Abdul-Jabbar now finds himself in the religious fire:

Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America. According to a Pew Research Center poll on attitudes about major religious groups, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims — slightly less than it has for atheists — even though Islam is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us. Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples. Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about my religion, not to convert them but to co-exist with them through mutual respect, support and peace. One world does not have to mean one religion, just one belief in living in peace.

While there is a hint of naivete in this conclusion, I’m not going to complain or critique. More power to Abdul-Jabbar and I hope he keeps writing.


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Corporate Nation Under God

In a recent poll, 57% of registered Republicans “support establishing Christianity as the national religion” and another 13% are not sure about it. Most such voters believe that the United States was, from its inception, a Christian nation, so formally establishing this “fact” seems a logical next step. But has the United States always been a Christian nation or was this idea manufactured and marketed by the industrial-business class? According to Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse, it’s the latter. In a recent NYT article which previews his forthcoming book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Kruse genealogizes this relatively recent idea:

Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.

The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal…Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology’s appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.

In a shrewd decision, these executives made clergymen their spokesmen. As Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew noted, polls proved that ministers could mold public opinion more than any other profession. And so these businessmen worked to recruit clergy through private meetings and public appeals. 

The most important clergyman for Christian libertarianism…was the Rev. Billy Graham. In his initial ministry, in the early 1950s, Mr. Graham supported corporate interests so zealously that a London paper called him “the Big Business evangelist.” The Garden of Eden, he informed revival attendees, was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” In the same spirit, he denounced all “government restrictions” in economic affairs, which he invariably attacked as “socialism.”

With Graham’s fervent support, Americans elected Dwight D. Eisenhower in a landslide and the national annointing commenced:

The first week of February 1953 set the dizzying pace: On Sunday morning, Eisenhower was baptized; that night, he broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign; on Thursday, he appeared with [a corporate funded pastor] at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; on Friday, he instituted the first opening prayers at a cabinet meeting.

The rest of Washington consecrated itself, too. The Pentagon, State Department and other executive agencies quickly instituted prayer services of their own. In 1954, Congress added “under God” to the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. It placed a similar slogan, “In God We Trust,” on postage that year and voted the following year to add it to paper money; in 1956, it became the nation’s official motto.

During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as “one nation under God.” They’ve believed it ever since.

Though Kruse does not mention it, the geopolitical context for this christening was the Cold War, which was ideologically framed in the United States as a righteous battle against godless Communism. Like all great and enduring myths, the origins of this one were soon shrouded by the mists of time, or selective forgetting, and the Christian nation story took on a life of its own. Despite the end of the Cold War, the campaign continued and today it appears that ~76 million Americans would like to establish Christianity as the national religion.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with one of these many millions. He had just published a book on George Washington, the purpose of which was to prove that this revered founding father had always conceived the new nation as Christian and that the Jeffersonian separation of church and state was an egregious error. When I asked how he had approached the project, he stated he had hired research assistants to selectively search Washington’s entire corpus of writings for references to “God” and/or “Providence.” He then arranged these cullings in chronological order, without regard for context and with no examination of what Washington understood by “God” or how he conceived of “Providence,” as proof that Washington had originally framed the United States as a Christian nation. Rather than question these research methods, or lack thereof, I decided on a calming glass of wine.

This, however, is the sort of thing that continues to nourish the myth. While I doubt that Kruse’s book will persuade the believers, and am sure it will be savaged by the free-market Christian patriots on Fox, I’m looking forward to its release. Though Kruse’s focus is slightly different, his book may serve as a nice companion piece to Jeremy Carrette’s classic, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (2004).


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Graeme Wood Responds

Following on from Cris’ recent posts about ISIS and its coverage in the media, a new interview of Graeme Wood addressing his recent Atlantic article has just been posted by New Atheist Sam Harris. I often have a polarised response to Sam Harris because on the one hand, I agree with him that people are often reluctant to criticise any aspect of religion under the guise of tolerance/relativism, however, he also frequently makes grand reductionist pronouncements about religion or religious traditions and seems to have little use for the extensive existing research literature on religion and extremism. True to form in this interview, Harris provides much to agree with and yet also presents some head-slapping moments. Graeme Wood however comes across well, he provides interesting details about how he constructed the story and further nuances his position. I also agree with his assessment that many of his critics are simply misreading his piece based on their rather inflexible agendas:

Wood: Many enemies of Islam … have wanted to read the story as claiming that Islam is responsible for terror, or that ISIS is Islam. In fact it denies these claims explicitly and has a long section about literalist Muslim objections to ISIS. Many Muslims have, ironically, read the piece in exactly the same way, assuming it blames Islam for ISIS. That misreading, I think, is because it’s easier to argue against the anti-Islam point of view than to reckon with the possibility that Islam contains multitudes, like other religions, and that some of them are very, very nasty indeed, even though they share the same texts as the not-nasty ones… Finally, some readers are desperate to see my article as a portrayal of Muslims as savages, and cannot process that I am actually arguing something like the opposite, and specifically about ISIS. Its members aren’t brainless brutes who cannot think—that’s the Orientalist view, and ironically it’s the view that a lot of people who would call themselves anti-Orientalists take when reading the piece. ISIS members are often highly sophisticated people, just as capable of intelligent critical thought as anyone else. They are simply evil.

The only comment that gave me pause was the final ‘they are simply evil’, which is an understandable reaction but also something of an unproductive sweeping assessment. Sam Harris calls him on this point later however and argues for a more nuanced position:

Harris: Yes, but nor are these people “simply evil,” you stated at the beginning of this conversation. Calling them “evil” can be as misleading calling them “crazy.” …

I see no reason to think that most jihadis are psychologically abnormal. The truth is far more depressing: These are mostly normal people—fully capable of love, empathy, altruism, and so forth—who simply believe what they say they believe. (emphasis added)

I fully agree with Harris’ point here and it made me think about the recent fascination, evident even with liberal news sites like the BBC site and the Guardian, with various mundane details of the previous life of ISIS’ British executioner ‘Jihadi John’. While, his unmasking generated understandable interest, I was taken aback with the fact that the BBC and Guardian’s top stories for the past few days have been recounting his previous jobs in IT and comments from previous teachers, as if they represent some shocking revelation. The fact that he was a normal person, who had lived a fairly unremarkable life, seems to be baffling the media but that actually seems entirely predictable. Extremists can be life long fanatical devotees, raised in families of extremists or recruited after suffering some great injustice, but often they are not- especially when they come from the West, in such cases they are usually just ordinary teenagers or young 20 somethings that fall into extremism for fairly mundane reasons, be it political dissatisfaction or even just existential ennui. Harris’ makes this point clearly and I think it is noteworthy that this suggests a more realistic appreciation of Islamic extremists than many of his critics claim.

Wood defends his point by noting that ISIS fighters commit acts of barbaric savagery and openly promote things like the return of slavery and the execution of homosexuals as ‘good’ and thus calling them ‘crazy’ or ‘evil’ is not entirely unwarranted. Most people would agree with this, but I still think Harris’ point stands that to do so can be counterproductive.

Harris’ hawkishness does come out several times during the interview however and at one point he seems unable to understand how meeting ISIS in some glorious clash of civilizations battle could be a bad strategy:

Harris: It seems that they wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to engage us there, especially if we told them that we intended to build a gay-porn palace on the site, or some other sacrilege. It seems that these guys are telling us with every breath how to wage psychological warfare against them.

So why not act on this information? It seems to me that the psychological and propaganda value of our resulting victory is not something to wave away lightly. Imagine the effect this would have on true believers everywhere: They’ve created a new caliphate, and the new caliph is just swell. All the prophecies are coming to fruition, so an army of the purest jihadis to exist in a thousand years rides into this final battle and gets smashed by infidels. And God just sits on his hands…

Graeme Wood is eventually able to counter Harris’ enthusiasm by highlighting that such actions would lend ISIS and other Islamic extremists a propaganda victory that would ultimately prove harmful:

Wood: The decision not to attack them that way is a natural outgrowth of acknowledging that they mean what they say. If they really think there is a war brewing between Muslims and the West, then you don’t convince them otherwise by telling them to bring it on.

But even then, Harris seems to fail to appreciate how utterly self defeating it would be to hand ISIS a clear demonstration of one of its central propaganda premises, namely “that Crusaders are out to kill Muslims and will come to crush them whenever they become strong”.

Harris: It strikes me as such a strange fear to be obliged to consider. And to have it be the primary concern that closes down specific military options just seems uncanny.

I also enjoyed Wood’s counter of Harris’ simplistic dismissal of all of the existing academic research into extremism. He does then go on to criticise the peculiar ‘dogma’ of certain researchers who dismiss the relevance of ideology or beliefs out of hand but it is clear he does not attribute this perspective to all researchers:

Harris: … when someone says, “I think infidels and apostates deserve to burn in hell, and I know for a fact that I’ll go to paradise if I die while waging jihad against them,” many academics refuse to accept this rationale at face value and begin looking for the political or economic reasons that they imagine lie beneath it. So the game is rigged.

Wood: Yes. However, the countervailing current in social science is the tradition in ethnography and anthropology of taking seriously what people say. And this can lead to the exact opposite of the materialist, “root causes” approach. When Evans-Pritchard, for example, talks about witchcraft among the Azande, he’s describing exactly what they say and showing that it’s an internally consistent view of the world. This is something that anthropology has done quite well in the past, and it gives us a model for how we can listen to jihadis and understand them without immediately assuming that they are incapable of self-knowledge.

What I’m arguing for in the piece is not to discard either type of explanation but to remember the latter one and take the words of these ISIS people seriously (emphasis added).

In short, this is a very nice follow up to The Atlantic piece, which is simultaneously enlightening and at times very frustrating to read. Graeme Wood comes across as a very reasonable and responsible journalist, whose main argument is that we need to pay attention to what extremists say and not dismiss the influence of their beliefs because of the somewhat removed role of religion in Western democracies. He does not posit ideology as being the single factor responsible for extremism but rather a factor that is all too frequently overlooked. Harris on the other hand comes across sincerely, and at times well informed, but also as reactionary and dismissive of opinions that differ from his own. However, I am glad a voice like Harris’ is out there as liberals do need people like him to serve as a counterweight to the vocal US-centric narratives of liberal critics like Chomsky and Greenwald.

— Chris K.


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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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Channeling National Religion

In a recent Foreign Affairs article the author analyzes a propaganda television channel in one country which reminds me of a propaganda channel in another country. I have removed all references to the first country and inserted bracketed references for the second country:

Once the television audience’s attention has been grabbed, [this channel] sets about reshaping its perception of the world. The process starts with an assault on critical thinking. [This channel] is full of conspiracy theories and mysticism, not just about the nefarious [traitors and foreigners] who stand behind every public protest in [the country] but also about countless other threats lurking everywhere. Bizarre pseudoscience programs warn viewers about impending deadly fungi epidemics and introduce them to psychics who can enter their minds. Any sort of rational debate is rendered impossible by a constant stream of false assurances—illogical connections between two associations where two random facts are fused to create a distorted whole.

“A coincidence? I don’t think so!” — that’s the catch phrase of the popular talk-show host[s]. [These hosts have] famously asserted that a[n] education program that teaches children about bodily functions demonstrated the West’s appalling moral decline. [These hosts have] also attributed [Muslim] criticism of [the West] to a historical grudge that he said they have harbored since suffering a military defeat [during the Crusades]. 

Having drawn in the viewers and disabled their critical defenses, [this channel] reaches deep into the nation’s emotional traumas. Politicians and presenters feed the audience nonstop reminders of the difficult [Cold War era], when, they argue, [Communists] cheered at the sight of a weakened [Homeland] and of the tremendous human toll of the two world wars. Saying that [this channel propagandizes] the past wouldn’t be quite correct; rather, [the channel] engages with history in a way that inflames traumas instead of healing them.

These kinds of tricks are not aimed at helping viewers achieve closure — in fact, they serve the opposite purpose. Coming to terms with the past requires that people bring their traumatic experiences into the realm of critical thinking in order to grapple with them—an approach used in psychotherapy. [This channel], by contrast, works more like a cult—heightening the vulnerability of its followers by forcing them to relive bad experiences without ever making peace with them.

Once viewers have been turned into emotional putty, [this channel] makes its final move: lifting the audience up with tales of glorious victories achieved by national leaders, from [the Founding Fathers to Ronald Reagan], thereby tying the viewers’ emotional uplift to [patriotic] heroics. The necessary [myth] is added as the icing on the cake—and by that point in time, the audience is ready to swallow almost anything.

The original article is about “Putin TV” or Russia’s Channel One, though it well describes the ways in which Fox News works. While I watch Fox only occasionally for academic reasons, it’s like entering another world, one in which everything is falling apart, enemies besiege us, our countrymen betray us, and only God and guns can save us from the coming political, military, and religious Apocalypse. In this television netherworld, anxiety, fear, and crisis are manufactured or kept at fever pitch so that calls to salvation will have maximum effect. While Fox makes for fascinating study, its national religion hold on the faithful is insidious.

— Cris


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Non-Agentive “Power”

Not long ago I was having an enriching dinner conversation with Stewart Guthrie, former Chair of the Fordham University Anthropology Department and author of Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), a seminal book in modern evolutionary religious studies. Naturally, we were discussing his theory that religion arises from our strong cognitive tendency to anthropomorphize. Because human agents, both real and imagined, are central to this theory, I observed that anthropomorphic agents and agency are not always foundational to thought-action systems that are often characterized as “religious.”

As examples, I pointed to Native American hunter-gatherers whose cosmological conceptions are oriented around the idea that the world is suffused with inchoate “power” and that such power is non-human, incorporeal, and non-intentional. This power, often glossed as a “great mystery,” is never fully understood, grasped, manifest, or controlled. It is a force or energy that flows, permeates all that is, and which constitutes all things. The Lakota know it as wakan, the Crow as maxpe, the Shoshoni as puha, and many Algonkian tribes as manitou. In this post on the kinetic nature of animist worldviews, I discussed it in more detail.

Most of my examples were drawn from nomadic hunter-gatherers, although many Algonkian tribes (especially those east of the Mississippi) were village horticulturalists first and hunters second. While recently reading Preston Holder’s classic, The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians (Landmark Edition) (1970), I came across these passages which bear on the discussion:

The Pawnee and Arikara village bundles were the basis for the control and production and social relations within villages. The bundle itself was a skin envelope enclosing physical symbols which were used as devices for the recall of complex elements of religious ideology and ritual (42).

The continuing life of the village was guaranteed by powers within the bundle, forces derived from a pervasive ocean-of-power investing the universe. The idea is exemplified by the Pawnee term tirawahut, so often translated as “God” or “Heaven.” A close etymological analysis indicates a meaning nearer to “this which expands” or “this expanse.” In this light we can more easily understand the comment offered by the Skiri White Man Chief on being shown the endless expanse of the Atlantic ocean: “It was like God” (43).

Regardless of these interpretations, the idea of an incorporeal power surcharging the universe was present…especially in connection with bundle renewals, where it is often mentioned also as “Luck.” There is abundant reference to the same idea among the Arikaras (43, n.16).

It is often said, in the ethnographic literature, that “primitive” societies had no notion of luck or randomness and that everything was assigned an agentive or “superstitious” cause. Indigenes supposedly had no idea, akin to our own statistical ideas, that things can happen for no particular reason, or for probabilistic reasons that we do not really understand. We call this “good or bad luck” and “chance” — matters of being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. As is apparent, these older ethnographic ideas (or prejudices) are incorrect: the Caddoan Pawnee and Arikara had similar ideas.

And speaking of the Pawnee and bundles, this past summer I visited the Pawnee Indian Museum and Historic Village Site in northern Kansas near the Nebraska border. It’s an impressive place, located in the lush Republican River valley, surrounded by gorgeous grasslands and rolling plains. The village site can clearly be seen and portions have been excavated. The large ceremonial structure was so archaeologically impressive that they built a museum right over the excavated floor. It’s one of the more beautiful settings and museums I’ve seen, made even more so by the presence of a sacred Pawnee Village bundle which has never been opened and cannot be photographed. With Pawnee songs being piped in the background, one feels the presence of mystery.


Interior of Pawnee Village Museum — Excavated Floor of Structure surrounded by Exhibits


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Taking Up Serpents

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

— Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16:17-18

Among biblical literalists, these passages are electric. American evangelicals and Pentecostals are fond of casting out devils and speaking in gibberish tongues, both of which are histrionic performances that can be seen every Sunday in churches across the land. Most stop there and refuse to read the next two items literally: they don’t take up serpents or drink poisons. Except, of course, for some particularly fervent Pentecostals in Appalachia.

Over at the Pacific Standard, Mike Mariani examines this sub-culture and its most high-profile practitioner, Andrew Hamblin, who has become something of a television star while simultaneously living on food-stamps. The Discovery Channel must not be paying well, or Hamblin needs an agent who can negotiate better deals. For his story, Mariani wisely interviewed Ralph Hood, a University of Tennessee psychology professor who literally wrote the book on Pentecostal serpent handling. Their conversation led, at least in part, to this attention grabbing paragraph:

When one considers the cultural and religious history of Appalachia, though, Pastor Hamblin’s socioeconomic circumstances hardly come across as problematic. While the Appalachian region is frequently stereotyped as what Professor Hood calls a “culture of poverty and deprivation,” this definition is “probably inappropriate.” Instead, Hood explains, Appalachia rejects the larger American culture of materialism and financial success in favor of a lifestyle devoted to God and the matter of one’s eternal salvation. He even goes so far as to refer to Appalachia as “America’s Tibet.” What outsiders see as a “backwoods” culture sunk in squalor is really austerity by design; these are devout Christians that deliberately insulate themselves from mainstream American values (see: greed) and privilege service to God over affluence and material betterment.

This is the first time I’ve encountered an anarchy theory analysis of Appalachia. If I’m not mistaken, this is a riff on James C. Scott’s work on stateless societies and subaltern resistance. In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series) (2009), Scott makes a compelling case for seeing southeast Asian hill people not as “primitive” or backward peasants but rather as deliberate change agents who hove to hinterlands for very specific, and anti-state, reasons. While reading Scott’s superb book, it was clear to me that his arguments applied also to many historically known hunter-gatherer groups around the world. It never occurred to me that Appalachia, or at least parts of it, might also be an example of this process. When it comes to Appalachia, my views probably suffer from presentism: what we see today is fairly dismal, if not perfectly dysfunctional. I would have to know more about Appalachian history and ethnography before deciding whether the anarchy thesis provides a proper frame for analysis.


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