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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2 thoughts on “Red “Religion”

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Great quote Cris. I am arguing right now against yet another blogging atheist about how their understanding of “religion” is classically Protestant-Christian and belief oriented. These atheists make broad sweeping generalizations about “religion” without realizing their own packaging methods.

    Whether we call these animist view “religions” or “worldviews” matters not to me, but agreeing with you, it is crucial that we understand the packing methods we are usings and hiding and deceiving ourselves with.

    You seem not to want Deloria to stop calling the “Red Man’s” views “religion”. But it seems he is OK with it, but states clearly he want a broader definition, stripped of the academic packing of his time. Was that your point? Do you want animism not to be called “religion” because it has that packaging, or do you not want it called religion no matter how the word is broadened?

  2. Cris Post author

    Deloria has (or had) good historical, political, polemical, and legal reasons for calling Native American views “religion.” Here in the United States, there are many advantages to calling something “religion,” beginning with tax exemptions! So I can forgive him for doing so.

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