reply to Ed, M & I

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Fri, 19 Apr 1996 12:49:13 EDT

I thought I would repost this to everyone on the list, since it seems
pertinent to the original thread on mythology and ideology.

Hi, Ed,

Sorry I didn't get back to you earlier, but my end of the semester duties
are driving me crazy. Your wrote:

> I've been falling behind in my lurking on Anthro-L, and I came across
> your post regarding the relationship between myth, ideology and religion.
> I haven't yet read the replies to your discussion so I don't know if
> anyone else has raised the issue, but I think that there's a great deal
> of evidence from Asian religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism that
> suggests that these, and perhaps a majority of religions do not require
> exclusive devotion on the part of believers. Judiasim, Christianity and
> Islam are exceptional in their insistence that elements of other belief systems
> are heretical.

You're right, certainly. But my initial concern was not with the specific
characteristics of religions, per se. I lumped Christianity, Islam and
Judaism together (somewhat) because to those in the Western world
(who adhere in some way to them) they signify either 'truth' or 'belief,'
'exclusive devotion', or any of the other fine adjectives we append to
our own institutions and traditions. Conversely-- my argument held-- the
institutions and traditions of others, we brand as 'mythologies' when we
examine them from the perspective of what we consider 'truth'-- whether
scientific or revealed, but in any case, from what we conceive as our
enlightened position. This is why, or so I thought, we might call theirs
mythology and ours 'truth.' I intended to denote by this that the
classification 'mythological' is a specifically Western construct, and it is
[most certainly not] reflected in those cultures whom we have traditionaly
assumed have 'mythologies.' (It is interesting in connection with this, to
go into a bookstore and look for the sections on religion. When we find
the section that says "religion," we will see included in it the three "great"
religions, maybe even Bhuddism and Hinduism as a fourth and fifth-- and
usually little more. In comparison, the belief systems of other groups
almost always appear under the section entitled "Anthropology")

Anyhow, that we ascribe to other groups "truth", "belief", "tolerance",
"devotion", or any of the other values we may happen to swear by, does
not mean that these other groups will also share or actually have those
values. Rather, the ascription of values is something we do (this is not to
say they do not do the same, except that they do it from the starting point of
their own systems, just as we do from the starting point of our own).
Moreover, in ascribing these values thus, we also tend to do something
else; namely, we tend to find the other groups lacking from the point of
view of our values. It is only once we find them lacking that we (in the West,
traditionally) then go on to say, 'they have a mythology,' or, 'this is their
mythology'-- i.e., system of misguided beliefs, or primitive or savage
superstitions. In the case of Christianity, or present-day Islam, having
once ascribed this lack to other groups, representatives of these systems
have gone on to attempt to remedy the perceived lack, often at sword point.
But that they have done and continue to do this is not to say that all groups
do or will do the same, or are bound to do the same because there is
something in the nature of religious thought which binds them to this.

That's what I mean when I write that "what we call truth when we find it
in ourselves, we call mythological when we find it in others."

My original post wanted to explore the
conclusion/question/notion/hypothesis/conclusion of what I thought might
be a transition: Frazer, Levi-Bruhl, Durkheim, Tylor, etc., ascribed to the
'realm of the mythological' the belief systems of other cultural groups-- a
realm which they in a sense fabricated. With the advent of relativistic views
in anthropology and other social sciences, the term 'mythology' as a
means of classification has fallen steadily out of use. I was wondering if it
is being replaced by the appearance of the term 'ideology' as a parallel
means of classification, particularly as these systems start to get detected,
so-to-speak, closer to home.