Religion, etc.

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 11:34:50 -0400

John McCreery writes:

"Still puzzles me why anthropologists tend to one-dimensional constructions
of the objects we study (in this case Ron's scale from individual to
ecclesiastic).That's why it impressed me so much when I saw that Mary
Douglas had two ("group" and "grid"). Now I know that using two is a
perfectly standard move by market researchers. Three isn't that hard to
visualize, and physicists nowadays routinely deal with 10 or more. Is part
of our problem our tendency to approach multidimensional problems from the
point of view of flatlanders?"

Well, I made the mistake of trying to make a point fast. I mentioned the two
"extremes" of individualistic and ecclesiastic religions; I didn't go into the
other possibilties on the continuum, which include (at least) shamanistic and
communal types. Nor do I think this is the only way to think about religion,
but I do find it to be a very useful and informative analytic model.

By the way, speaking of the influence of magic numbers, isn't it more than a
little unsettling that Freud found 3 parts of the personality, Hegel found 3
components of the dialectic, and Marx found 3 components of sociocultural
organization???? Of course, the number 3 just happens to be a magic number in
(Indo)European culture. If Freud had been a Kishwa Indian, psychologists would
almost surely be discussing the TWO principal compnents of the personality.

Anyway, in a private post to me regarding the issue of "individualistic" vs.
"ecclesiastic" cults someone writes:

"Let's see afro-brazilian cults for example (candomble, Umbanda) or Santeria in
Cuba, etc. There is a part totally individual of practise, sure, but the most
important part is running in groups."

I think that when the emphasis of religious activity is on the performance of
ritual in a group setting, then you have what Wallace calls "communal" cults.
These cults are common in pre-state horticultural and pastoral societies and, of
course, they spill over into places like Haiti and Cuba which have incorporated
these kinds of activities into eccelsiastic religions (syncretism!).

And finally, Samantha Solimeo writes, regarding the word "cult":

"In response to a conversation with Rosemary Gianno... I can empathize with your
dillemma in choosing terminology. I am sensitive to the term "cult" because I
am doing ehtnography with Dianic Wiccans who object to the word... [snip]
This leaves me with the crux of the postmodern dillemma in ethnography and
language. Do I define every term, every utterance- or do I leave it all up to
personal interpretation (or misinterpretation)?
Is this where postmodernism has deserted us?"

Somebody who's more into postmodernism will have to answer the last question.
Regarding the use of "cult", I borrowed it from Marvin Harris, who borrowed it
from Anthony Wallace, I believe. I like it, especially in intro classes,
precisely because it helps reduce ethnocentrism and achieve cultural relativism
by labeling ALL types of religious organization "cults". It helps provide a
perspective; it's a model, one way of looking at things, that's all. But I
think when you do this you DO have to make your use of the word explicit, to
avoid confusion and resentment.

Ron Kephart
University of North Florida