Anthropology and Religion

Our current discourse of religion and science is mired in 19th century contrasts and framing of issues. In Darwins time, nature was seen as mainly a non human realm, as if to see humans as natural meant seeing us as just molecules.

This inspite of the fact that from early in the 19th century Hegel and others were underlining the importance of culture for human beings. We are natural not because we are simply material but because we are cultural. But 200 years ago this appeal to culture was hand wavy at best and mixed with racism at worst.

The growth of anthropology and archeology in the last 200 years, as well as the rise of history and comparative religion at a truly global scale in the last 100 years, has helped us flush out what culture means for humans. And what it looked like 50,000, 5,000 years ago and 1,000 years ago.

Usually talk of the origins of religion fall prey to two problems. The religious think of origins only in terms of their chosen religion. What kind of experiences did Moses have of God? The answer is given only in terms of what is said in the Bible. As if any perspective beyond the Bible is essentially atheistic. On the other hand, atheists speak of origins by generalizing from the most dogmatic, unspiritual religious people they have encountered. So they reduce the origins of religion to the question of the origins of religious bigotry or stupidity.

Neither side takes the actual historical, anthropological perspective seriously. This is for a simple reason: their interest isn’t really the origins of religious consciousness or concepts, but using the idea of such history to attack the other side.

Something amazing happens when we take the anthropological perspective seriously. It dissolves much of the conceptual puzzles that normally pass for debates on religion.

When we think of a hunter gatherer tribe’s religious activity of dancing, chanting and their stories of their dream ancestors and their exploits with power animal ancestors, what jumps out – at least to me – is how far removed much of this conceptualization is from our current modes of thought. Even from our current modes of religious thought.

What we think of as the ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Homeric Gods, etc – are all comparatively recent in human history. No more than two to four thousand years ago. And all in the context very far removed from the hunter gatherer life. In fact, the ancient religions that are part of our current life all arose within civilizations that were a far cry from the hunter gatherer life.

This means to understand the origins of religion requires understanding the changes in forms of social organization. And how that relates to the convulsions of individual consciousness which gripped Zoroaster, Abraham or Yagnavalka.

I am a Hindu, born and bred. It is easy enough to know what that means: I grew up in a certain way and identify with it. But that gives me no special knowledge of what modes of awareness the Upanishadic sages were channeling when they recited the Upanishads. In fact, most Hindus, like many people in my family, never read the Upanishads or even the Gita. For them Hinduism consists of practices and prayers which they know not where they came from and which they don’t care about. Or rather: where they assume to seek to understand the origins of the beliefs is somehow irreligious. The beliefs and practices just hover in a timeless realm. Hence easily used for political or other uses.

This is the reality: most religious people don’t understand religion. Nor seek to understand it. Not because the religious truths go beyond the rational mind, though that is the excuse given. But because they identify religion with practices which they assume must be eternal or beyond our understanding.

This of course makes for an easy target for atheists. “Look how stupid the religious people are.” True. But that doesn’t mean the atheist understands the origins of religion any better. Or the origins of rational thought for that matter.

The anthropological perspective can free one from this dual limitedness of the typical theist and atheist and open up a newer, broader perspective. Which can show how religion arose and also what can continue to inspire.

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