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

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 28 Jul 1996 08:51:48 +0900

Edward W. Farrell writes,

>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


You, I take it, favor an intellectualist approach to religion ("must have
as its foundation an adequate theory of mind") that historically is part
and parcel of the Protestant individualism that rejected "ritual" as Papist
nonense blocking the direct path between God and believer. Heads up. It
never has squared very well with what people actually DO in the name of
religion: (1) non-routine, (2) stereotyped behavior, (3) specialized for
communication in agonistic situations where (4) the behavior in question is
addressed to beings who are not visible to the observer.

The behavior in question can be rudimentary (a Quaker meeting is about as
minimalist as you can get) or florid (the celebration of a Chinese goddess'
birthday in central Taiwan). Professors of theology do it (defending turf,
struggling for higher positions). Mystics do it (even a cursory reading of
the classic texts reveals an awful lot of trying to move "upward" in a
process typically described as "struggle").

The intellectual history of religions is fascinating stuff, but simply
doesn't exist for the majority of cases that fall within an
anthropologist's purview.A generalized theory of mind would certainly be
useful in understanding the linguistic and other abilities involved in
putting together rituals, but won't say enough about how they come to be
exercised in particular ways in particular historical situations. Straight
inferences from natural environments to particular forms of religion have
proved to be a non-starter. What's left is sociological approaches that do
surprisingly well.(See some of the examples I mentioned in my previous

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