Re: Religous Variation

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 29 Jul 1996 08:38:11 +0900

Jesse Cook writes,
>Stand by to be impressed!
>I don't know what Ed Farrell means by "religious variation" but, if he means
>what you have described as your experiences, then the theory of mind that
>both of you are looking for is called "the evolution of human
>consciousness", evolution in both the phylogenetic and ontogenetic processes.
>Specifically with regard to religion, Max Weber called it "demystification";
>I would call it "secularization"; but, unfortunately, sociologist of today
>use that term in a different sense. I think Weber's "demystification" comes
>about as the unintended side effect of what he called "rationalization" as
>it was/is applied to religious beliefs.

I remain unmoved. "The evolution of human consciousness" suggests
metaphorically that the evolution of religious variations is, in some
sense, parallel to biological evolution and thus the result of natural
selection (Snower's "trial and error"). Without explicit mechanisms to
account for the occurence, type and distribution of whatever variations we
want to be talking about, waving the words around is nothing but blowing

"Rationalization" and "demystification" are, like "modernization" (a
concept from the same package) variations of the thought that there is a
universal process in human affairs tending upward to some common end. I
won't deny the possibility for the same good reasons that I don't deny the
possibility that the gods I encounter when I die dress like characters in a
Chinese kung-fu movie (Imagining the costume in precise detail is one
aspect of Taoist meditation!). The reasons are mainly a decent respect for
the opinions of people who may know something I don't.

Be that as it may, the starting point for Mary Douglas argument in re
"group" and "grid" is the observation that the assumption that "primitives"
are religious, i.e. more inclined to elaborate rituals, and "moderns" less
so is specious. Ituri Pygmies, Persian nomads and white collar workers in a
mobile labor market--all peoples who belong to fluidly bounded and usually
transient groups--share a common "protestant" distaste for ritual. Bog
Irish in traditional British working class neighborhoods, Balinese and
other folks who belong to rightly bounded and structured groups tend to be
highly ritualistic. Those deeply concerned with group boundaries tend to
observe taboos which control the entry of substances into the body. Those
competing for grid positions tend to favor more manipulative (lets call
them "magical") rites.

"Tend to be" is important; we are talking sociology and statistical
distributions here. Human individuals can, of course, have highly varied
opinions, even in highly organized groups. In a study of a village in
Taiwan, Stevan Harrell (now at the University of Washington) collected data
that showed that most villagers went along with popular rites because it
was "the thing to do," and were muddled as most of us would be in
explaining the "beliefs" behind their actions. There were also three
"theologians," individuals who elaborated specific conceptual schemes that
were *different from each other*. And, finally, there were the "village
atheists" who thought that both the rites and the beliefs cited to explain
them were nonsense. They still went along with the rites as a matter of
conforming to neighborhood custom.

A "theory of mind" would be interesting if it could explain these
variations. It would also, then, be more powerful than the sociological
explanations which remain confined to tendencies at the level of
groups.Why? It would, presumably, account for variation in more detail. I
have yet to see anyone here propose even the outlines of what such a theory
would look like.

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