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.
New Genes -- II
posted on 03.20.2006 at 6:25 PM
Only one human invention can compare in its impact with the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago, and that's writing, which came along (also in the fertile crescent) a little more than five thousand years ago and which would not have come along without agriculture.
Writing's effect on religion was profound, beginning with the book, the word. The three Abrahamic religions mark, in important ways, the shift from oral to literate culture. And disbelief, in forms recognizable to us, may depend on the analytic ways of thought made possible by the objectification and manipulation of words through writing. Nonetheless, agriculture's effect was probably profounder.
Agriculture and religion?
-- Killing a stranger was not a particularly foolish move for a hunter-gatherer. But that sort of thing couldn't go on in the settled, dense villages and towns made possible by wheat, rice, cows and chickens. Hence the "Thou shall not"s of the new religions. (This point, I believe, is Jared Diamond's.)
-- Such bigger settlements, bigger societies, also required bigger, more powerful gods -- to preside over grander mysteries, to propound more far-reaching meanings, to enforce broader laws.
-- As humankind began to forgo foraging in favor of cultivation, it wasn't enough to have a spirit world that just existed, just swirled about; men and women began conceiving of the universe as having been "seeded," as having not only a "shepherd" but a "creator," as having a purpose and a direction.
-- Farming ain't easy. Its rewards are off in the future, its toil and trouble here now. Takes a Grand Super Ego to keep you and your husband and your kids at it.
-- The move from wandering to staying put, from living off the fruits of the earth, to sowing and reaping, was a traumatic transformation and our religious documents are haunted by it, as can be seen in their use of such significant and highly charged terms as the "garden" or the "wilderness."
Now this new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago indicates that adapting to agriculture may have changed not only our way of life but, though the time frame seems awfully tight, some of our genes-- perhaps including genes involved in brain size. That's damn profound. (It's also, not to forget, damn tentative at this point.) Could the new religions have required (or even themselves encouraged) larger minds than might have been encouraged by the old beliefs: shamanism, totemism, animism? What a blow that would be to cultural relativism.
Is it possible that the human brain -- and this really would be a kick in the head -- has continued to evolve, through, say, the Enlightenment?
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.
New Genes -- I
posted on 03.07.2006 at 1:46 PM
The new study by Jonathan Pritchard at the University of Chicago shakes the ground underneath the field dubbed by Jared Diamond "human history." (The field some small corners of which I fancy myself currently plowing and having plowed.)
We've long thought the genetic structures that help determine how we eat, mate, relate and, perhaps, believe have remained pretty much unchanged since the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, 50- or 100-thousand years ago. This study indicates that this was not the case -- that our gene pool may have significantly altered after the world-changing invention of agriculture 10-thousand years ago.
This might mean that when we look into the evolution of religion, as Daniel Dennett has recently done, we might pay more attention to life in a village among cows, chickens and wheat fields, and less to life in a hunting and foraging tribe.
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 02.01.2006 at 8:52 PM
A few quotes from Weston La Barre's The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (first recommended to me in a comment on this blog):
** "Religious behavior appears to be unique to man among all the animals."
** "Religious behavior is present in all known human societies, past and present."
** "The basis of all religion in both North and South America [and by extension, La Barre believes, everywhere else] is the shaman or medicine-man."
And La Barre believes that these shaman -- in the role of "master of animals" -- actually predate gods. Which may complicate the which-came-first-belief-or-disbelief question slightly.
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?