Re: Religion and ethnocentrism LONG

Martin Cohen (mcohen@UCLA.EDU)
Wed, 10 Apr 1996 22:23:30 -0700

I had tried to stand by and not comment on this thread, because I am too
close to the topic. Finally, I had to give in to temptation (I blame only
my weak will, not some demon ;-)

First: I have twice taught a course at CSUN with the snazzy title:
"Visions of the Sacred". It is a basic anthropology of religions class. I
never know whether to reveal the fact that I am an athiest up front, or
wait until I am asked about my beliefs. So far, I have chosen to wait.
Suprisingly, I have only been asked in private, during office hours, and
never in front of the whole class.

Do I teach students that their religion, or all religion is false? Of
course not. I do, however, treat religion as a human and cultural
construct. I also present both symbolic and functional explanations of
religion. I compare religion with other ways of understanding and
attempting to manipulate the external and internal universe. I present an
analysis of the subjective nature of religous experience as well as a
comparative approach to belief, myth and ritual. Ultimately, I present a
model for approaching religion that assumes religion is a human creation.
It does not, however, explicitly say that religion, or any one religion, is
false. My own bias is expressed in this emphasis on the human basis of
religion. But I add, when I am asked about this approach by students, that
anthropologists are not theologians; we study religion as a part of
culture, it is not up to us to determine what, if any, is the nature of the

Second: I am engaged in fieldwork that requires me to at times re-evaluate
the relationship between ethnicity and religion. At first I thought there
would be no problem. I am studying secular Jewish identity; specifically
within the secular Jewish traditions that developed in the Pale of Russian
settlement in the last century and have been expressed primarily in a
Yiddish secular culture through the middle of this century. As an
"insider", I thought that my own lack of religiosity would be reflected in
the people I work with. I have found, however, that the heirs to these
traditions do not present the fairly unified athieism of the past.

For example, one of my "informants" (I have trouble with the word, as in
one project some of them or their families were victims of McCarthyism; in
another project I am working with survivors of Holocuast resistance; for
either group, the word "informant" is understandably disturbing) was raised
in a secular tradition, by parents who were themselves raised secular, etc.
But she finds that she has spiritual needs that are met within the
structure of a Reform Synagogue. Still, she identifies herself ethnically
as a secular Jew. She is active in a secular Jewish community organization
as well as a Reform temple. I met her rabbi socially, and he knew about
this and found it confusing; he seemed to vaguely disaprove of her being
active in both secular matters and his temple. (The Reform movement denies
Jewish ethnicity; they define Jewishness as strictly a matter of religious
pursuasion). Another informant stated that he felt the "Shama" (a specific
statement that is sometimes described as a prayer but is more literally an
affirmation of personal faith) was the basis of Jewish identity; despite
the fact that he himself lived entirely as a secular Jew.

While the majority of my informants probably are athiests, a number of them
have expressed spiritual yearnings, and for them secularism is a rejection
of organized religion. This is espcially true of younger ones who have
been influenced by "New Age" spiritual philosophies. One is particularly
involved with Zen Buddhism. Some claim their their concept of the
spiritual is completely within the confines of athiesm.

Three: Passover just ended. Many secular Jews do observe this holiday.
There are even a number of secular Hagadas (the book read at a Passover
Seder) available. Myth without religion, or history? There is no
historical evidence beyond biblical scripture to support the Egyptian
bondage story, or prove that there was a historical Moses. Why would
rational secularists who reject religion take such an observance seriously?
There a number of answers: Some secularists argue that since this story
has had such an influence in shaping Jewish identity and ethics that it
*must* be true (the basic story that is; miricles and divine intervention
are seen as embelishments). Others secularists would say that the "truth"
of the story transcends the question of historical accuracy, and accept
that if it is "only" myth, it is their myth and has meaning for them. As a
story of bondage, freedom, and human dignity, it is universalized by
secularists, and by many religious Jews as well. In this way a myth can be
central to ethnic identity, and yet not be taken as literal truth.

This last point is interesting to me. I have Christian friends, including
a clergyman, who are church-going believers, but who tell me that they do
not take their "myths"; that is, the bible; literally. For a secularist to
find a depth of meaning in his/her own myth, and not be bothered by the
historical "truth" is one thing. We are all capable of finding "truth" in
great works of fiction, drama and poetry. But is the ability to believe in
the divine _as defined by a specific tradition_ and at the same time hold
the defining myths of that tradition as both human in origin and
historically untrue a strictly Western phenomenon? I have not found any
such condition in the literature concerning non-western peoples (some may
seem less than reverent by our standards, but that is not the same thing).
People may accept conflicting myths, but again this is not denying their
truth. If anyone know of a non-western case, I would be interested.

If you have made it this far, thank you for hearing me out. I would be
interested in any comments.

Martin Cohen