Re: Religious Variation [Was " Biological = trivial?"]

Edward W. Farrell (ewf@INREACH.COM)
Sat, 27 Jul 1996 11:34:05 -0700

John McCreery said:

>>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.

Although you often use the term religion in your post, it seems
to me that you are mostly talking about ritual, which I think
is not so much religion's skeleton as it is its skin. Although
I do not doubt that ritual can in some sense be characterized
as a reaction to certain conditions, it is not wholly or even
mainly a reaction. I do not know the context in which
Malinowski made the observation you refer to ("in the case of
human beings ritual is ontogenetically prior to mastery of the
body or tools") but on the face of it I believe the
characterization is inaccurate. Ritual IS a tool. In the mixed
bag of ritual, there are hammers and saws and even computers,
each ritual being specifically DESIGNED to accomplish a certain
end within the context of the religion and society that created
it. Because most people over time come to practice them
unthinkingly (perhaps even without conscious reference to the
purpose they were designed to serve), and because their object
is usually hidden (we cannot with authority say ficticious), we
come to equate ritual with staleness and blindness. But I
think that when you look at a ritual on its own terms you often
find that it is a remarkable creation in its own right, and
possibly admirably suited to its purpose. In other words, to
see (as you asked) "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," you
need to particularize instead of generalize. That, and assume
that ritual at least begins as a considered response to
observed or supposed conditions, and therefore has far more in
common with tools than with hunger pangs.

I would like to suggest that any comprehensive theory of
religious variation (as well as the religious subset of ritual)
must have as its foundation an adequate theory of mind. I don't
mean to suggest that human biology and social organization are
unimportant, but to start from them is to suggest that religion
is mostly if not wholly a product of biological and social
conditioning. I think there is a great deal of first hand
evidence to suggest that religion is a lot more than this, not
the least of which are its manifested variations of belief and
ritual. I would even go so far to say that social organization
is more influenced by religion than the other way around.

Edward W. Farrell