Re: Religious Variation

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Fri, 9 Aug 1996 04:47:27 +0900

>Kephart writes:
>>My own working definition of "religion" is a set of beliefs and
behaviors associated with the understanding and/or control of forces/
events deemed to be outside ordinary understanding and control. If this
or something like it is accepted (and PLEASE note that it is intended to
be a working definition only!!) then religion is, indeed, a human universal.

Read wrote:
>But this begs the question of where the notion that there forces/events
>outside of ordinary understanding and or control arises. Let me go back to
>my previous comment: Is it possible that "religious thought" arises
>precisely because the mind/brain "insists" on their being an "origin" for
>what is observed, hence it creates a dilemna for itself that can only be
>internally resolved by positing "forces outside of ordinary understanding"?

I comment:
I wonder why Kephart should insist on emphasizing the notion of control
in human religiousity rather than merely understanding. And why should
the desire for control (over nature? over other humans?) be regarded as
a pregiven human universal? While indeed religion in one of its facets
may be regarded as concerning coming to terms with those aspects of
existence either difficult to understand or which provide no easy way of
appropriate response, should religion be limited to these areas?

Read, too, takes for granted the idea that there are forces outside
human understanding and control (and that we would both want to
understand and control them). While I tend to view the need to understand
as a human universal (and perhaps even a non-human one, too, to return to
the issue of the culture of animals), the need for control seems a definite
creation of human society particularly in its most recent history. One could,
in fact, make the argument that religion is about letting go of the desire
to control things around us. This is obvious in, say, Taoism but also in
Judeo-Christianity where it is God which creates and controls the world,
not "man." Human life is chance/destiny which only becomes something
which can be seen as controlable with the ascendency of the scientific
world-view which then projects backwards this need for understanding
(as knowledge of nature's "laws") and control onto the pre-scientific
peoples who for the most part have inhabited this globe.

In a sense, the definition of religion as a need to understand and control
that which cannot be either understood or controlled highlights the most
reductionistic aspects of the modern world-view in that it implies that
it is only science which can provide us with the appropriate knowledge
to understand and control the world, leaving previous knowledge systems
as mere superstition (failed attempts to understand and control that which
cannot be understood and controlled without science).

"Is it possible that "religious thought" arises
>precisely because the mind/brain "insists" on their being an "origin" for
>what is observed, hence it creates a dilemna for itself that can only be
>internally resolved by positing "forces outside of ordinary understanding"?"

Whether the "mind" (and is the "mind" coterminous with the brain? Or is not
the brain, and neural systems generally ways of organizing the intelligence
of the organism just as computers create no new intelligence but only process
pregivens, albeit changing these pregivens in intensifying their patterning?)
insists on "origins" seems less a biological question than a cultural one
(unless one waters down "origins" to concern only predictions of states in
the future based upon continuities in the past). Also to posit "forces
outside of ordinary understanding" begs the question of what is ordinary
understanding. Is scientific understanding ordinary or extraordinary? I
suspect the latter. And by seeing ordinary understanding as somehow
the same as scientific understanding do we not obscure what is essential
not only about the human condition but also about animals?

Kephart continues:
See Derek Bickerton's (1990) Language and Species [concerning Read's
comment on the need to create origins]. In a brief and oversimplified
nutshell, he argues that humans are predisposed to impose order on the
universe in particular ways. Some of this may result from general
properties of the human mind/brain, and some directly from the nature of
language (Bickerton seems to feel that language is the key factor).

I interpose:
Bickerton does not particularly strike me as that astute. He relies on
Chomsky's outmoded ideas of what grammar (or language, since Chomsky
reduces language to grammar) is. In terms of the need to "impose" order
on the world, this presupposes that the world lacks order to begin with
and thus there is a necessity for order to be imposed. I am more in favor
of a gentler science which reveals the order which is already there.

The propensities of the human brain a la Bickerton, etc.:

(1) the tendency to place events in a cause-effect relationship

OK. But maybe better said as "to place events in a relationship": cause
and effect is only one possible relationship.

(2) the thematic role of agent

OK. But the agent has a relationship to the patient, the recipient
of agency. And the role definitions can be blurred.

(3) the feature of language called "prevarication" (Hockett) which allows for
the invention of unicorns, klingons, etc.

I don't agree that this aspect is at all foundational. Myths are more factual
than mythic when it comes down to it. Unicorns are about medieval
realities just as Klingons are about repressed versions of our own modernity.
Interestingly in the star trek series the Klingons have evolved from the
totally bad (blood thirsty warrior types) to more civilized figures.

(4) the existence of "null elements" in syntax which, while phonologically
empty, are functionally/semantically filled

I'm unclear of your meaning here. Perhaps you can elaborate.

'These things taken together make possible<<<<<

"...the setting up of unlimited hypothetical entities; these hypothetical
entities, whether gods, spirits, natural laws, or scientific hypotheses, may
differ in the ease with which they can be empirically supported but they all
belong to the same logical and linguistic types." (Bickerton 1990:226)

Have fun with this, y"all!

I comment:
If I have fun with this all as you suggest, it is merely because I would
wish to question that "they all belong to the same logical and linguistic
types." Rather, more properly are merely a product of Bickerton's Chomskyian
universalistic mentalism. Why, too, should gods and spirits be seen as
"hypotheitical entities"? Certainly to the people who entertain these
kinds of notions they are not hypothetical. I will, though, grant that
laws and scientific hypotheses are hypothetical entities.

Clyde Davenport