Re: FW: Religous Variation

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 00:13:54 +0900

> John, I'm going to do my best to explain it, but we're not
> getting off to a good start in "establishing communications"
> here. I never asserted that you need a theory of mind to
> "account" for religious variation; you need a theory of mind to
> "develop an adequate theory of religious variation."

I do, of course, agree.

> insistence on a theory of mind has to do with adequacy, with
> explaining all the facts in their proper relations. Durkheim is
> perfectly content to "account" for the religious in terms of
> equivalency to the social, as (I take it) are you.

Here you err. I do not take religion and the social to be simple
equivalents. Do remember, please, the bit from Malinowski and the
observation that the world of the Chinese gods is far from being a simple
mirror of current social realities. The theory of mind I have in mind would
have to explain not only the raw ability to imagine invisible worlds but
also why people find themselves attached to one imagined world instead of
another. Please note, too, I do not assume that an imagined world is a
fiction; it is, as others have suggested, an hypothesis that may be true
or, conceivably, a revelation. Not being able to say which, I prefer to
focus first on what I can observe, then on what people say about it, and
then a larger social, historical, and ultimately, biological context.

I am one of
> those who happen to believe that religion encompasses a larger
> sphere than the social (notwithstanding your etymology).
> Therefore my explanation will have to "account" for more than
> yours. An adequate theory of mind would help to explain some of
> the things your "account" leaves out. But more than this, as a
> matter of basic principle, I do not understand how any science
> that would proport to explain human behavior can afford to
> neglect coming to terms with the individual mind from which any
> given behavior ultimately originates, socially conditioned or
> not.

Indeed. But whether the "individual mind" is a purely biological
phenomenon, a social construction, or a ghost in the machine is very much
up for grabs.I don't deny the possible utility of a theory of mind; I have
never seen one that does a better job of explaining visible differences in
how people behave in what they themselves identify as "religious" (allowing
variation due to differences in translation) contexts than the sociological
theories developed by Douglas and others working along Durkheimian lines.

> In the view I'm speaking for, religion consists, in broad brush,
> of belief and practice. Within the sphere of "practice" are
> such
> things as ritual, doctrine, and morals. (Certain doctrine, such
> as some of the various Christian creeds, would arguably be
> called
> belief by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. In these cases,
> where doctrine would become belief and not practice would depend
> on whether the doctrine were viewed as divine revelation or
> human
> formulation). Doctrine is a statement or formulation of belief;
> ritual is a prescribed enactment of belief intended to achieve a
> certain end determined by belief. Morals give us precepts that
> may guide our conduct into conformance with belief. There is a
> fourth part of "practice" that is harder to define (it may or
> may not be a part of ritual), which includes activities such as
> meditation, prayer, and belief-centered willful action (obeying
> the ten commandments against one's inclination, good works to
> please God, etc.). None of this is particularly far-fetched, is
> it? It is in this realm of practice that you observe your
> (quoting from your earlier post):
> >... religious/ritual behavior: (1) non-routine; (2)
> stereotyped;
> >(3) specialized for communication in agonistic situations; (4)
> >addressed to beings not visible to the observer.
> (Although, as an aside, isn't this behavior more-or-less
> confined
> to societies whose "routine behavior" is not predominantly
> religious? Malinowski observed some time ago that "Today we are
> somewhat perplexed by the discovery that to a savage all is
> religion, that he perpetually lives in a world of mysticism and
> ritualism. If religion is coextensive with "life" and with
> "death" into the bargain, if it arises from all "collective"
> acts
> and from all "crises in the individual's existence," if it
> comprises all savage "theory" and covers all his "practical
> concerns"---we are led to ask, not without dismay: What remains
> outside it, what is the world of the "profane" in primitive
> life?")

Again I observe, following Douglas, that the view that "to the savage all
is religion" is a piece of evolutionist phantasy. Malinowski himself
observes in re the Trobrianders, a notably ritualistic people, that no
Trobriander is fool enough to think that magic alone make sweet potatoes
grow. He may insist that ritual is needed to ensure a good crop but will
nonetheless plant, hoe and weed as well. To which we may add that the
Trobriander also uses different terms for the magic than he uses for the
other operations. (The same is true, bye the way, for the Taoist magicians
I studied in Taiwan.) Annete Wiener goes further and observes that magic in
the Trobriands is confined to items used in competitive exchanges and
omitted in cases that involve nothing more the personal consumption. This
fits the "agonistic situations" model rather well.

> It's in this arena of "practice" that the religious and social
> interact. However, behind the practice and behavior, and
> supporting it, is belief. Belief, especially belief in the
> supernatural, is where the religious variation of the sort I am
> speaking of originates. Belief is the activity of an individual
> mind; it can be shared through common practice (although,
> conversely, it may never reveal itself overtly in the social
> realm except in rare moments of crisis), but it is essentially a
> private activity.
> Here are a few of the important religious variations of the sort
> I have in mind:
> 1. Beliefs about the mind.
> 2. Beliefs about man's relation to God/gods/spirits/forces
> 3. Beliefs about man's relation to the world
> 4. Beliefs about the world's relation to God/gods/spirits/forces
> 5. Beliefs about the necessity of right action
> 6. Beliefs about free will, predestination, fate, and the like
> These variations are so well known and have been discussed so
> exhaustively in comparative religious literature that I will
> only
> provide sources if you insist. I hope you will not argue that
> what I'm referring to here is book-bound "religious intellectual
> history" that never appears in the field worker's case load.
> Where we may perhaps legitimately differ is in the "chicken or
> the egg" question; I am maintaining that belief precedes action
> and that social phenomena mostly proceeds from beliefs that are
> primarily metaphysical, and not socially determined.

It is, of course, one of the usual ways of looking at things for people
(including me) with a Jewish, Christian or Muslim background, and
especially for those of a "protestant" persuasion (which exists in all
three traditions) that emphasizes the liberation of personal faith from
social constraints and a direct, unmediated relation between the believer
and God. It simply isn't very useful unless we become specific about the
beliefs in question and, then, when we ask "Why those beliefs?" we find
ourselves left with purely idiographic histories. I think we can do a bit
better than that.

> I am not aware of the existence of a "theory of mind" with the
> same definition of, say, the theory of relativity. The unique
> problem with a theory of mind is regression, i.e., the subject
> of
> the theory is also its object. As a tool of science, then, such
> a theory would always be subject to buffeting by the very sorts
> of beliefs it is engaged in explaining. As difficult as this
> is,
> dealing with mind openly and straightforwardly is all the more
> essential in my view. Else how will the anthropologist ever
> account for the suppositions and prejudices that work to shape
> his or her view of the field?

Absolutely admirable in theory.

> The world religions devote a great deal of "theoretical"
> (doctrinal, really, but as it often reexamined it takes on a
> texture of the theoretical) and practical attention to mind that
> has been carefully examined by such lights as Nietzsche, Weber,
> Jung, William James, Sir John Woodroffe, Albert Schweitzer, and
> Alfred Whitehead. Your "cognitive, emotional, or spiritual
> experience[s]" are dealt with in particular detail by some of
> these men in an effort to understand manifestations of mind
> not simply within the context of their native religions, but in
> a
> more general way.

Oddly enough I read most of them while doing a B.A. in philosophy. It was
dissatisfaction with airy abstractions that never quite crossed the gap to
Sunday School, church picnics, serving communion as an acolyte,
factionalism in the Church council, hysterical prayers when I thought I'd
done something stupid or evil, the specific contents of the Apostles Creed
as spelled out in Luther's Small Catechism, which I once had to commit to
memory, that led me to anthropology.

> When I speak of "theory of mind," however, I
> am not so concerned with the strictly personal manifestations of
> mind as with the relationship between metaphysical belief and
> such phenomena as modern science and technology, hindu caste,
> monarchy, civil and canon law, and monasticism. Certainly there
> are some fruitful correlations left to explore here.

I do agree, and assert that when someone explains them the explanation is
likely to include a heavy dose of sociology as well as some general
biological assumptions built into that elusive theory of mind.


An aside to Mike Shupp. The lone believer communing with his God is a
binary social relationship that occurs in a larger social context. Putting
aside the believer's view that what is going on is sacred, it bears a
strong resemblance to a toddler's talking to an imaginary friend, an act
which the person most directly concerned may also take very seriously
indeed. One can see the toddler as practicing an ability that may ripen
into a serious faith or the believer as behaving in an childish way. Or one
may step back, note the similarity, and try to see if there is something
homologous in the social or other circumstances in which the two behaviors
appear. Which is doing anthropology?

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