EXPERIMENTAL PAPER ON DISBELIEF
posted on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM
In a new site connected to this blog:
** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).
Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.
posted on 07.11.2006 at 1:31 PM
I think I want to take a swipe at anthropologists.
Many nineteenth-century European observers of preliterate peoples mislabeled them as disbelievers because whatever they might have believed sure didn't look like The One True Faith: Christianity. These explorers and missionaries have taken their share of abuse.
But I'm ready to conclude (in reworking my first chapter) that many twentieth-century anthropologists made a similar mistake: They mislabeled the peoples they observed as devout believers because the doubts and hesitations they did harbor sure didn't look like Logical, Consistent, Secular Humanist, Western, Enlightenment Rationalism.
Update on the Book -- 2
posted on 04.23.2006 at 11:29 PM
Been book writing a lot. (Don't know if that is apparent from the quality of the blog writing.) Still mostly on the first chapter, which concerns the anthropology of belief. Why religion? Whence religion? Does disbelief proceed belief? Whence disbelief? All this illustrated, since the idea is to tell stories, with tales of various headhunters, shamans and proto-skeptics. Been writing of failed rainmakers, of "naked savages" who were more skeptical than their well-clothed, British interlocutors, and of kings who didn't believe in the local gods.
The fears? That it will seem -- given the number of societies and concepts to be visited -- disjointed. That in painting the background -- religion -- I'll lose track of the foreground -- disbelief. That I'm neglecting to fear some crucial potential error or infelicity.
And then there's the task of thinking out some of what I can't find already thought out. That includes the mindsets that might have led to early disbelief. I suspect the short section in which I have a go at this subject will go through many a rethink, many a rewrite in the next year.
Writing Problem #1
posted on 03.19.2006 at 7:41 PM
The history of the effort to explain religion -- an effort that dates back to the Greeks and is still being debated on the pages of the New York Times -- will be an important thread in my narrative. But don't I need to give away some of the most up-to-date theories on this early on in the story: when I'm investigating the anthropology of belief and disbelief, doubt amongst the headhunters, etc? Can I talk about whether early humans believed without discussing why?
What March Madness?
posted on 03.18.2006 at 9:30 AM
I'm lost, instead, in tales of religion and (possible) doubt among headhunters in the Philippines. Is there any sense in which nonbelief precedes belief in human history? I'm struggling to sneak stories of anthropologists in with stories of the people they study (with charges of disjointedness still ringing in my head).
A book -- let alone a book plus a blog, let alone a book plus a blog plus a seminar on the topic -- requires something close (well I do like UCLA) to total immersion (another variety of madness?). I only saw one of the best picture nominees. I never got around to forming an opinion on Dubai control of US ports.
And I haven't been this content in a while.
How Deep is Their Faith?
posted on 02.11.2006 at 7:35 PM
Did 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 on 01.31.2006 at 5:30 PM
Writing. (Always a happy development for an author.) Writing about anthropology and atheism.
It seems the answer to which came first in human history belief or disbelief is, to the extent anthropological discussions of hunter-gatherers provide a guide, the former -- in the form of shamanism.
The accounts I'm reading of psychotropic potions being swallowed in tropical jungles or drum-induced ecstasies in Siberia are enough to warm an ex-hippy's heart. Don't do much for the atheist in me, though. For they do make clear how basic is this insistent, if not irrepressible, human itch to populate the sky above and the earth below with spirits -- supernatural, superhuman (superfluous?).
What, to rephrase a nagging question raised below, is our problem? We seem a species of fantasists. What would we be like, I ask on the eve of a US State-of-the-Union address, if we weren't so disposed to imagine a god or a devil lurking in every cave, every cloud, every issue? If we could indeed come off it?
posted on 12.27.2005 at 12:23 PM
Sir Samuel White Baker, one of the discoverers of the sources of the Nile, believed he had come upon humans of "so abject and low a type that the mind repels the idea that [they are] of our Adamite race.
"Without any exception," he proclaims, "they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition."
There is much to respond to in this cocktail of Victorian prejudice, but I want to restrict myself here to just one set of questions: Is his point about religion in any way true? Is there some sense in which atheism precedes religion?
Baker was mostly wrong about the members of the Nilotic tribal group he encountered in central Africa: They had, we now know, their share of earth and sky spirits. Most preliterate societies apparently do. And even hunter-gatherers have their totems and taboos.
Is this what we mean, or should mean, by religion? Have there been any societies -- aside from Left-Bank Parisians -- that don't worship some variety of spirits? What anthropological work should I be reading?