Re: Biological = trivial?

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 08:32:42 +0900

Tanner writes,

>I am trying to see whether I can come up with a consistent anthropological
>conception of religion (as I understand you to be doing with you notion of a
>human concern with origins). I am trying to avoid ethnocentrically assuming
>that the European forms of 'religion' must embody the 'essence' of religion
>everywhere. At the same time I do not want to abandon totally the common
>anthropological cross-cultural useage of the term 'religion', although I am
>prepared to abandon part of what has been called religion in order to arrive
>at a consistent concept.
>I begin by asking what do the various cultural forms of belief and behaviour
>that are generally labelled 'religion' by anthropologists have in common.
>Since I am not going to assume in advance that they all must have something
>in common, I begin looking for what seems to be most widespread. As we all
>know, one of the common definitional items has to do with belief in
>supernatural or 'spiritual' entities. Both these terms give problems when
>looked at from a cross-cultural perspective which is sensitive to the
>specific context of particular beliefs. The significance of the fact that
>religious entities are called 'spirtual' or 'supernatural' (or however it is
>expressed) is to be understood in relation to other explanity principles or
>forces in the same culture. I am suggesting what they may have in common is
>that they (as believed-in entities with some kind of explanitory force)
>always seem to be 'hidden' or 'obscure', in relation to other, more
>'ordinary' explanitory principles common used and acted upon by people of
>the culture in question.

Overall, this approach feels very congenial to me. But turning to details,
when we talk about "spiritual" entities, what are we talking about? Let me
reiterate, for the third or fourth time, I think, that a good working
definition is entities invisible to the observer to whom the person
involved in "religious" activity behaves as though they were sentient and,
thus, able to participate in social relationships. Admittedly, this is
still rough and ready. What am I to make, for example, of Internet
communication, when I step outside myself and observe what I am doing?

There is also the fundamental question of whether a "consistent concept" is
what we ought to be looking for. Suppose, instead, that we assumed, as
Victor Turner did on largely Marxist and Freudian grounds, that all aspects
of human behavior are shot through with conflict and contradiction. Could
we be chasing a red herring?

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