Re: Religious Variation

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 12 Aug 1996 23:34:52 +0900

Davenport raises an interesting question. Even a cursory review of the core
doctrines of several major religions shows a stronger focus on
relinquishing control than on taking control. Christianity and Islam both
advocate submission to a heavenly patriarch and faith that God will do the
right thing. Taoism espouses a return to the womb through cultivating a
relationship to the world like that of the fetal embryo that floats in
perfect harmony with the mother. Buddhism is even more radical; elimination
of desire leads with remorseless logic to the dissolution of the self, so
there's nothing to worry about. Is, then, as Davenport suggests, the view
of religion as taking control in uncertain situations an artifact of a
worldview dominated by science and technology? I think he is on to
something here that is definitely worth exploring. As usual, however, I
will attempt to complicate matters.

Besides doctrine, what do we know about the cases in question:
Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism? We know (and this is documented
history; not "If I were a horse") that all these religions arose in the
contest of traditional states and in conscious opposition to existing
religious systems, all of which were highly ritualistic. Each in its own
way opposed magical (a.k.a. manipulative) ritual aimed at securing such
worldly goals as wealth, health, and fertility. None has ever succeeded in
spreading its original, undiluted message to more than a tiny minority of
humanity. All, in their current popular forms, tend to be deeply involved
with--yes, you guessed it--wealth, health, and fertility. The most typical
of miracles is healing. The most convincing evidence of divine favor is
prosperity. Among adherents to organized religions, prosperity is recycled
in acts of religious merit that include among their by-products the
conversion of economic into cultural capital accruing prestige.

These facts tend to be highly distressing to those rare individuals who
find special meaning and comfort in the original messages. That these
individuals are rare and may yet retain a special moral authority is
another datum that needs explanation.

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