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History of the Evolution of “Religion”

Albinos in Burundi - hunted for body partsFrom the belief in souls or spirits, to modern day science, the hypothesis for the root, and development, of religion is discussed. Clifford Geertz, speaking from a perspective almost 40 years old, talks of the evolution of the anthropology of religion. Lecture notes encapsulate and emphasize points that introduce us to why we have religion, and how it may have evolved. Together, a perspective and template is introduced, into which we might analyze our future lessons.

Geertz’s article, “Religion” is basically an historical summary of the anthropology of religion since the mid-nineteenth century. I do find it interesting that there is nothing mentioned of the musings of pre-nineteenth century thinkers. But then, “publishing” was not the way of many thinkers prior. Certainly in an area as ripe for speculation as this, there have been thinkers thousands of years old.

Geertz tells us of the development of the anthropology of religion from the late 19th century onward. He begins with evolutionism and Tylor, certainly a great thinker of his day. His theory was intellectualistic. The belief in spirits was a way to rationalize death, dreams, and possession. “Belief in spiritual beings” was a way to order the world. Polytheism and monotheism grew from this animistic belief. The practice of religion became more sophisticated. “Cause”, “category”, and “relationship” began to emerge. The world is seen to have become more rational. The “primitives” began to arise from darkness into a more ordered and understandable world. This, it was argued by evolutionists, transformed into the more stable, regularized practices of “modern” religion. These were the “evolutionists” that were soon to be taken on by the anti-evolutionists. And the debate was on. But the debate was for naught, as neither side was persuasive.

The positivist movement against historicist thought began to take hold. Sigmund Freud took the front on a psychological approach, while Durkheim took another. The psychological approach argued that religious rituals and beliefs are derived from deep psychosocial wounds suffered in childhood, while the sociological approach argued for the integrity of social order as the root of religious beliefs. This theory argued that all sacred beliefs were derived from “inward social necessities. And this gave rise to “functionalism”, or “structuralism”.

Structuralism focused on the theory that religion was to “celebrate and sustain the norms” that society is built upon. Promulgated by Radcliff-Brown, the focus became the content of sacred “symbols” These symbols were connected to the people’s well-being. Social and natural needs were reflected in sacred symbols that merged both into a cultural “world view”. Yet this left all mystery, and fascination with these symbols unexplained. And the symbols themselves were vexing. Why one symbol for one culture and another for a neighboring culture? It was theorized that these symbols derived their importance from their “functional” utility in everyday life. It does appear that religious practices of “primitives” do reflect the moral, functional values of a culture. This is an important connection. But what about the emotional connection? What about the philosophical origins. We are still lost in the wilderness of an anthropological explanation.

And so we come to “semantic studies”. As of the sixties, there was no central theory of semantic studies, but Geertz postulates that one of the “most disarming” is to simply accept that expressions of the sacred are real. We need only track them, record them, and compare them. Yet the metaphysical questions are left aside. We are provided with an historical record, but there is no delving into the reasons why religious phenomena occur. What is the purpose? All metaphysical questions and considerations are left aside.

So what was the primitive mind thinking? Why establish this set of beliefs as opposed to that set of beliefs? Perhaps it was a result of a distinctive mode of thought; only now perceptible by a primitive mind. What was the “concept of meaning”? How could this effect further research? Was it possible that the primitive mind was capable of logical, original, and bold thought? Radin sought to establish that it was. Of course it was. The primitive mind was no different than our own. This has become nearly universally accepted. Malinowski, however, broadened the argument. He postulated that the primitive mind knew the distinctive lines between empirical, magic, and religious. The problem is that this isn’t even distinctive today. But who is to say the primitive mind was not more advanced than ours?

Levi-Stauss, working with classification systems, focused on how tribal peoples ordered their objects and their world. He focused on the symbolic structures and they way they are formulated and applied. The concrete images of these structures are of supreme importance. They form the connection between the everyday world and the supernatural. The use of good symbols from everyday life form a nexus that contributes to good thinking.

In the end, Geertz admits that all of these approaches, historical, psychological, sociological, and semantic, still can’t explain “religion”. He is convinced that a comprehensive approach, utilizing all of the above and more, is coming. I hope that it has.

The lecture notes for this week were very informative, and merged nicely with the Geertz article on the history of anthropology of religion. The notes reflect a present day “look back” on western civilization and the current thought existent today.

Using the word “we”, as I am a member of the descendants of the white imperialist ancestors, I decry the atrocities we have perpetrated on “primitive” peoples. Our excuses for slavery, ethnocide, and oppression are sorely lacking. I think the “civilized” peoples were the ones persecuted.

Dreaming and death are certainly phenomena to be pondered. How does that happen? It must be a separate part of us we don’t experience in the “real” world. Belief in souls, belief that all things have souls is a natural outgrowth of our inquisitiveness. My dog looks me in the eye, he sees me. He knows when I’m happy or sad. He has a soul. Animism is a given to me.

Neanderthals must have experienced the same thing. We all have, throughout history. “There is no society without religion”. But there are substitutes, functional-equivalents.  They fulfill the need to explain the universe, to explain our relationships, and to give us a meaning for life. Fundamentalism is a cancerous outgrowth of this need.

So what is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Is this all chaos?

Chaos is a threat to the meaning of life. It is the experience of life without meaning. Bafflement, suffering, and ethical paradox all threaten our perception. Evil also threatens us. Why aren’t things the way they SHOULD be? Who did this to me anyway? My “religion” is supposed to tell me. Where are you, God?

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