Re: Biological = trivial?

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 14:13:04 -0230

At 08:32 AM 8/13/96 +0900, John McCreery wrote:
>Tanner writes,
>>I am trying to see whether I can come up with a consistent anthropological
>>conception of religion (as I understand you to be doing with you notion of a
>>human concern with origins). I am trying to avoid ethnocentrically assuming
>>that the European forms of 'religion' must embody the 'essence' of religion
>>everywhere. At the same time I do not want to abandon totally the common
>>anthropological cross-cultural useage of the term 'religion', although I am
>>prepared to abandon part of what has been called religion in order to arrive
>>at a consistent concept.
>>I begin by asking what do the various cultural forms of belief and behaviour
>>that are generally labelled 'religion' by anthropologists have in common.
>>Since I am not going to assume in advance that they all must have something
>>in common, I begin looking for what seems to be most widespread. As we all
>>know, one of the common definitional items has to do with belief in
>>supernatural or 'spiritual' entities. Both these terms give problems when
>>looked at from a cross-cultural perspective which is sensitive to the
>>specific context of particular beliefs. The significance of the fact that
>>religious entities are called 'spirtual' or 'supernatural' (or however it is
>>expressed) is to be understood in relation to other explanity principles or
>>forces in the same culture. I am suggesting what they may have in common is
>>that they (as believed-in entities with some kind of explanitory force)
>>always seem to be 'hidden' or 'obscure', in relation to other, more
>>'ordinary' explanitory principles common used and acted upon by people of
>>the culture in question.
>Overall, this approach feels very congenial to me. But turning to details,
>when we talk about "spiritual" entities, what are we talking about? Let me
>reiterate, for the third or fourth time, I think, that a good working
>definition is entities invisible to the observer to whom the person
>involved in "religious" activity behaves as though they were sentient and,
>thus, able to participate in social relationships. Admittedly, this is
>still rough and ready. What am I to make, for example, of Internet
>communication, when I step outside myself and observe what I am doing?
>There is also the fundamental question of whether a "consistent concept" is
>what we ought to be looking for. Suppose, instead, that we assumed, as
>Victor Turner did on largely Marxist and Freudian grounds, that all aspects
>of human behavior are shot through with conflict and contradiction. Could
>we be chasing a red herring?

Religion may empically shot through with contradiction. But there is a
different use of "Religion' when it is used to generalize about different
ideas and practices cross-culturally. In such a case we can decide to forego
any contradication of our own as far as possible, by using the term
descriptively in a consistent way. Applying it without being contradictory
does not mean we are unable to include within the term ideas which
themselves may be contradictory.

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland