Re: M & I

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Wed, 10 Apr 1996 01:11:34 EDT

D. Read writes:

> To
> put it another way: This whole discussion about religions being "true" or
> "false"is,in my view, erroneous with respect to what anthropology is about
> (hence what anthropology should be teaching). Anthropology as a science
> should simply set to the side issues of "true" of "false" as these apply to
> religions. These are non-scientific issues. They are not falsifiable
> except by removing the discourse from a religious domain to a scientific
> domain (which already nullifies what is at issue as the topic of "true" of
> "false" as it applies to religion is already outside of scientific
> discourse). Anthropology is concerned, as a science, with the phenomena of
> religion as a belief system and how it relates to the functioning of the
> brain,how it relates to the set of meanings that individuals use in how they
> go about their existence, how it relates to social form, structure,
> organization, etc.,even how is it that we are "wired" in such a way that we
> can maintain belief in alleged processes that demonstrably do not havetheir
> claimed consequences. We can include religion as a phenomenon within
> scientific discourse without making claims about whether a religion is"true"
> or "false" as is meant by the practitioners of a particular religion.

I agree with this, definitely.

I have refered to the mind in several of my postings. My concern has not
been with whether a religion is true but a mythology false, but with the
nature of the mind that determines which is which. A Catholic, Thomas
(or Justine) for instance, believes his Catholicism, recognizes it as true.
Simultaneously, he sees the belief system of the Australian Aboriginal
as a tissue of misguided illusion, primitive beliefs, or mythology-- you may
choose your own adjectives here. In contrast, Gurra (a long dead Central
Desert native of the northern Aranda group) believes he is the
reincarnation of Tjenterama Himself, the '(to us) mythical' chief of the
Ilbalintja storehouse. Simultaneously, he sees the belief system of the
Catholic Thomas as a tissue of misguided illusion, erroneous beliefs,
and other such errors (we don't know, but it may be that to Gurra,
Thomas is 'primitive,' if only through his-- to the native-- demonstrable
inability to see and follow the Dreaming tracks).
We have then, two systems which, at the level of their internal 'truths'
cannot be juxtaposed. This however, does not mean they cannot be
examined, for there is in fact a ground of commonality between the
Catholic and the Aranda man. There is a 'mechanism'-- for lack of a
better word-- which the two share; namely, the power of 'belief' that
binds each to his own system, along with its correlate, the power of
disbelief in the other's system. This 'mechanism' might even be stated
simply as "I believe in mine on condition I cannot believe in yours." Can
this be advanced as a fundamental characteristic of the human mind?
If so, then at this stage we would not be looking at whether a religion
is true but a mythology false. We would be considering the cognitive
dimension or aspect which makes belief system 1 'true' while belief
system 2 is 'false' from the point of reference of belief system 1.
Let me give another example, this one from Marie Conrad, posted
earlier today. She writes: "I have observed anthropologists who wouldn't
bat an eye at some ideas react with no small intolerance and derision
at religious interests in their colleagues-- as if the person had abrogated
all sense of logic."
So what are these anthropologists telling themselves that they should
get so riled up? Perhaps something like this?: "I can't believe that a
scientist would be subject to religious beliefs! He/she obviously cannot be
a very good scientist-- else they would be like me...." And here again
we have this 'mechanism' in operation: x believes his/her system is 'true,'
while simultaneously acknowledging that y's system cannot be true.
In this instance, it is the 'belief'-- not that science-- but that scientists,
should not have religious interests. And yet-- where is it written that
scientists should not have religious interests? And might not they be
perfectly able largely to keep the two systems separate? Indeed, is
not science-- and anthropology in particular-- predicated on the idea
that these systems can be disentangled to some extent the one from
the other? Any degree of objectivity we may have acquired has been
acquired in spite of the pull of our belief systems. And here I would like
to cite something from D. read's other post, for he makes a point that is
central to the existence and operation of anthropology:

> If it were the case that we are incapable of recognizing the effect of our
> cultural situatedness, then we would,indeed, be in "hot water."One of the
> primary goals of extended field work is precisely to gain perspective by
> moving outside of one's own culture.

This movement outwards, I believe ;-) , does not primarily take place by
getting on a plane and traveling a thousand miles to a 'different' culture;
it also does not take place by interposing between ourselves and the
cultures we study our taperecorders and various other methods for
gathering our qualitative data (and later attempting to strain out of
it what we think is quantitative). A substantial part of this "moving" is
accomplished by learning to disentangle the scientific from, well, from
whatever the other thing is....

But finally, let me reply to something in a post by Douglass St.Christian.
He writes:

> that students come to us in the haze that says "I have truth" and "Others
> have beleifs [ie: misunderstandings]" is something the teaching of
> anthropology should work to address....
> my own spin is to purge the concept of beleif from the discussion by arguing
> its too often ethnocentric application makes it too pernicious a concept to
> retain much analytic value....

I would have to disagree with this. I don't think anything is solved by
purging the concept of belief from the discussion. I wonder if a more
effective way wouldn't perhaps be to agree on a definition for it--
something that will give it analytical utility-- after which we can proceed
to apply it to that class of phenomena which does, roughly speaking,
exhibit the properties we associate with 'belief.'