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February 11, 2006

How Deep is Their Faith?

Writing about the anthropology of belief and disbelief, I am stalled (not for the last time, I fear) by the question of how thoroughly and sincerely people believe the stuff they say they believe.

shaman.gifDid the Hopi, for example, really and truly believe that animals could take off their skins revealing themselves as actually human? Was this seen as metaphor? Was it assumed to be something of an exaggeration?

What went on in the mind of a shaman lying on the ground in a (perhaps drug-induced) trance and said to be flying off on a mission to rescue a soul from the underworld? Was some part of him aware that he was involved in a performance?

Are we sure that these societies did not contain the same range of belief/unbelief present in our own?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 11, 2006 7:35 PM


Sometimes I believe people are regressing and getting more ignorant and credulous with time. When the Adam and Eve story was first told, it was obviously a metaphor, and no doubt understood as such by the people of that time. After all, "Adam" is Hebrew for "man", and "Eve" is Hebrew for "life" - how much more of a hint do you need? And yet millions of Americans today believe the story is a scientific and 100% accurate account of the creation of the Earth.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at February 11, 2006 9:14 PM

There are levels of perception that are noted by the variety of psychonauts and spiritually aware. If you access these other worlds, they can be as potent and "real" as what we conventionally conclude by the perception of our senses. But there is more sense than the five observed. Hence the shaman flies, the healer heals. Those who can't see, don't. But those who have been there, appreciate the possibilities, even if they can't do them.

Posted by: Jeremy at February 12, 2006 9:41 PM

Belief is probably strongest in the absence of any alternative view of reality. In such societies, hallucinations have more power than they would have otherwise. In a closed, isolated society, they are as real as anything else. In a society with multiple perspectives, they are more likely to be recognized (though not by the person hallucinating) as creations of the mind. I have no doubt there have always been a few unusual minds that saw through the creations of their culture, but it's not likely that they would have revealed themselves. Ostracism, torture, death are all very powerful maintainers of the status quo.

Posted by: Catana at February 14, 2006 2:27 PM

If the cargo cults are any indication, many people do believe the things they say they do.

The Smithsonian has visited a contemporary cargo cult.

In John They Trust

Posted by: Enon Zey at February 14, 2006 5:55 PM

Believe...yes...I guess...but, possibly, believe in a different way. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz: "The everyday world of common sense objects and practical acts is…the paramount reality in human experience." Are not these other realities (animals as human under their pelts) something else -- something less "paramount," even something, beliefs, more gently held? Very few of those who believe in a really neat afterlife seem in any particular hurry to experience it.

Posted by: mitch at February 14, 2006 6:25 PM

Perhaps there is a range of degrees of sincere belief. My reading of the sceptical literature about "psychics" tells me some of them are charlatans, just in it for the money, some want to believe but have doubts, and some sincerely believe they have special powers.

Nietzsche comments somewhere about ancient peoples believing the reality of dreams; at one point dreams may have been common sensibly real to most people.

I've had a pet die and then later hallucinated hearing or seeing it out of the corner of my eye. If I didn't have good reason to believe that sort of thing is just memory playing tricks on me it might seem just common sense to think the pet still present in some fashion.

Posted by: Enon Zey at February 16, 2006 10:01 PM

I've experienced a deceased cat walking across the bed at night; at the time, the experience comforted me, although rationally I knew that it was just a trick of my mind.

In one sense, everyone believes; we each have a set of assumptions about reality that aren't ultimately testable. It's impossible to step outside the plane of observation that is our own minds.

Posted by: Karen at February 17, 2006 2:05 AM

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