Religious Variation [Was " Biological = trivial?"]

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 27 Jul 1996 10:49:19 +0900

>While I thus would disagree with Tanner's discounting genetics when we
>discuss religion, I would equally agree that we don't get very far from a
>genetic/fitness framework when we want to account for and understand the
>variability we find in how religion (or other cultural phenomena) is
>expressed across different societies.


Yet, as I read this conclusion, I still feel disappointed. It is, I fear,
all too likely that having reached the truism from which we should have
begun, the thread will now unravel.

Still, hope reigns eternal. Let's see if we can push on a bit.

Suppose we began by noting that behavior identified as religious is
characteristically ritual as ethologists see it: (1)non-routine;
(2)stereotyped, (3) specialized for communication in agonistic situations.

[Can we think of counterexamples?]

Suppose that, following Malinowski, we note that in the case of human
beings ritual is ontogenetically prior to mastery of the body or tools. The
human infant is often in the position of crying out to invisible powers
(parents, siblings, other caretakers, who do not, at the moment, happen to
be in the infant's visual field), and frequently the infant's cry results
in care, feeding, escape from fear, being tickled, or other reinforcements.

[Does anyone object to this characterization?]

Next, we observe that human patterns of child-rearing and the socialization
that results are highly variable. The invisible powers to which the infant
cries out may respond instantly and soothingly; or instantly and violently
("Smack the kid and make it shut up."); or may be slow to respond, if,
indeed, there is any response at all ("Letting the child cry itself to
sleep.") It would not seem accidental that the invisible powers invoked in
rituals should also be highly variable.

[Is it worth noting that religions are often associated with characteristic
approaches to child rearing? So that, arguably, Dr. Spock has more to do
with recent historical changes in mainline Christianity than, say, Vatican

Variations in child-rearing may be linked to forms of social organization
that are, themselves, reflected in ritual. In _Natural Symbols_, Mary
Douglas proposes a simple model composed of "group" and "grid," which I
take to be equivalent to the ethologist's "turf" and "pecking order."
Ritual is, she says, likely to be elaborate where either group boundaries
or grid positions are important to the ways in which social life is
organized. In mobile, fluid, eqalitarian groups (the Pygmies of the Ituri,
for example) ritual is minimal. In egalitarian but highly group conscious
societies (the Kibbutz? or other utopian communities), rituals are
concentrated at the group boundaries, while behavior inside the group may
be informal. The opposite situation occurs when group boundaries are weak
but grid positions important (as, she suggests, in many Melanesian
societies); here rituals tend to be both elaborate and manipulative as
competition for position is the core of social life. Then, of course, there
are high-group, high-grid societies in which both group boundaries and grid
positions are highly valued. These are the societies in which rituals are
most pervasive and elaborate. The Chinese, among whom I did my own
fieldwork, are an excellent example.

[Are there other dimensions than group/turf and grid/pecking order that
need to be taken into account?]

In _The Birth of the Gods_ Guy Swanson argues in a similar, but more
straightforward Durkheimian vein. His cross-cultural survey suggests that
gods and human leaders/rulers tend to be represented in similar ways. Thus,
for example, the Jehovah of the Old Testament is represented as being and
acting in many respects as a typical Middle Eastern king of the time when
the Bible was being written. In studies of Chinese religion it is now an
established cliche that gods, ghosts and ancestors are spiritual analogues
of imperial bureaucrats, unrelated but dangerous strangers, and kinfolk

Here, however, we encounter a problem, the lag between these
representations and the current state of society. We are left to wonder why
the Old Testament Jehovah remains appealing in at least some segments of a
kingless modern society? Or why Chinese temples and the rituals performed
in them seem to assume that neither revolution (on the mainland) or
modernization (in Taiwan, Southeast Asia) has occurred?

Any ideas?

My basic thesis here is that in several different approaches to
understanding religion we have the basic elements we need for a
comprehensive theory of religious variation, rooted in human biology and
sensitive to variations in human social organization? It obviously needs
tightening up.

Again, any ideas?

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