Religion and Ratatouille

One of the dilemmas I faced when creating this blog was deciding what to call it.  Although I eventually settled on the word “Religion” rather than “Metaphysics,” this decision was not easy.  Why?

The concept of “religion” is Western and recent.  Simply having a category called “religion” implies there is something — a set of practices, rituals, and beliefs — that is separate and apart from other domains that are non-religious.  I was reminded of this the other day while reading Raymond DeMallie’s “Lakota Belief and Ritual in the Nineteenth Century”:

It is essential at the outset to emphasize that traditional Lakota lifeways were not compartmentalized into the distinct institutions that characterize modern America.  Religion was not separated out from the rest of social life but was an organic part of the whole….In a very real sense, humankind and nature were one, just as the natural and supernatural, so basic to European thought, was meaningless in Lakota culture.

The Lakota were not alone in their monism.  Most small-scale societies had (or have) similar views.  It is primarily in the West that we find a dualistic (natural/supernatural) cosmology.

This obviously poses something of a problem for scholars of “religion.”  It also raises the issue of whether etic (outsider) studies of the emic (insider) can proceed in a meaningful way.  I think they can.

Over at his blog, the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse asserted (after drinking several glasses of wine) that religion was akin to ratatouille, and classified religions as being of four “types” (similar to four recipes for ratatouille).  Maurice Bloch responded with this zinger:

If we go on with considering explaining religion as a legitimate scientific enterprise we imply that all humans have an essential characteristic which can be indicated by the R word. This would mean that religion is a feature of human beings, rather like the shape of their femur. This is wrong, highly misleading and it plays into an insidious argument that our language lets us slide into….

Humans may not have a religion bone, but there does seem to be something about our universal cognitive architecture that lends itself to metaphysical thinking.  Having said this, Bloch raises some important and subtle questions about treating “religion” as a category.  There is a slippery slope here, which can be traversed so long as one anchors the concept of religion in history and carefully defines the term.

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