Re: Religious Variation [Was " Biological = trivial?"]

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 3 Aug 1996 21:15:33 +0900

Mike Shupp writes,

>On Wed, 31 Jul 1996, John McCreery wrote:
>> "Living faith" is tricky stuff. Shall we exclude Chinese who seem to live
>> by Confucius' advice to perform ceremonies but keep spirits as a distance,
>> or Japanese who turn out with enthusiasm for shrine visits on New Year's
>> Eve but, leaving aside funerals, weddings, and tours of historic sites,
>> never set foot in religious structures otherwise, or mainline Protestants
>> who practice religion on Sunday but leave it behind when "business is
>> business."
> I would. This sort of pretended religiosity is what our Victorian
> predecessors called a "survival"-- a cultural relic, a habit of
> behavior which no longer fulfilled some former function. It is
> of course part of our culture, but it's about as "meaningful"
> as the ties and white shirts that salesclerks, bank tellers, and
> other people in menial trades wear to advertise their genteel
> social and occupational status.

How do you know it's "pretended"? Just because there's a strand in our own
traditions that makes unshakable faith a criterion of "real" religiosity,
is there any more reason to accept it as a definition of religion than
insisting the only patriarchal nuclear families are "family," the other
possible arrangements between only barbarities.

Imagine a world in which the gods are beings analogous to heavenly
bureaucrats; sticklers for rules they themselves impose, occasionally
corruptible and willing to do a favor, but always dangerous when angry, so
it makes sense to do what's required to pay your respects at the god's
birthday, ask for a favor when you need one, but otherwise keep a nice,
safe distance. (Think, China)

Imagine a world in which the gods are pretty much an unknown quantity, but
ritual provides an aesthetic structure to life, and some of the big, annual
events have the scale and excitement of, say, the Rose Bowl. Morality and
loyalty are serious stuff but not, on the whole, highly situational and not
directly linked to the rituals. (Think, Japan)

Imagine a world in which religion and secular life are legally separated,
with separate rules for each sphere. The wearing of white shirts and ties
is a counter in the struggle for higher status that preoccupies the
majority of the population. The games being played are, in fact, the
primary source of meaning for those who play them. (Think the United States
of America)

None will be happy worlds for those that Weber called "the religiously
musical," those for whom intense faith, dogmatic commitments, or mystical
enlightenment touch every aspect of life. Confining our sense of what
religion is to what only the religiously musical do is, like restricting
"music" to Bach or Red Hot Chile Peppers, or art to Manet or Grandma Moses,
a definition that has a certain snob appeal and, as Bourdier notes in
_Distinction_ draws a sharp line between the "we" who have good taste and
the "they" who don't.

I am reminded of the classic apochryphal story about the Oxford
undergraduate who, when asked to describe the culture of a certain people
from New Guinea, is reported to have written, "Customs beastly, manners
none." I could, perhaps, empathize with his point of view; I am, after all,
an anthropologist. But when I draw my own lines, I cannot call it

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo