When Privilege And Bad Thinking Meet
In his essay collection Broca’s Brain, astronomer Carl Sagan recounts the following exchange between a western anthropologist and an allegedly “primitive” people.
Bronislaw Malinowski thought he had discovered a people in the Trobriand Islands who had not worked out the connection between sexual intercourse and childbirth. When asked how children were conceived, they supplied him with an elaborate mythic structure prominently featuring celestial intervention. Amazed, Malinowski objected that was not how it was done at all, and supplied them instead with the version so popular in the West today – including a nine month gestation period. “Impossible,” replied the Melanesians. “Do you not see that woman over there with her sic-month-old child? Her husband has been on an extended voyage to another island for two years.” Is it more likely that the Melanesians were ignorant of the begetting of children or that they were gently chiding Malinowski? If some peculiar looking stranger came into my town and asked me where babies come from, I’d certainly be tempted to tell him about storks and cabbages. Pre-scientific people are people. Individually they are as clever a we are. Field interrogation from a different culture is not always easy. (pp. 93-94)
We inheritors of our millenial-old Western culture are burdened with one particular, ugly notion: That ours is the pinnacle of human achievement, whether that’s scientific achievement, political organization, philosophy, the arts, and of course religion. For most of us, religion equals Christianity. You can see that playing out among some extreme forms of right-wing political Christianity that deny the First Amendment protections for religious expression do not apply to Islam. It has a secular version that denies the history, teaching, and practice of Islam as a major contributor to the human store of scientific, religious, social, political, and cultural knowledge and practice.
We inheritors of our post-Enlightenment privatization of religious life, resulting in the absence of religious practice as a category of our social, political, and cultural vocabulary, have the peculiar idea that “religion” is a matter of intellectual assent only. Thus people can pick and choose their “religious” “ideas”, much as they pick out cars or clothes. It has also created a class of smug, self-satisfied people who insist that, human religious ideas varying so much across geography and time, they actually have the ability to dispense with “religion” in their lives, urging others to do the same. This notion of the privatized, bourgeois individual in the religious marketplace has a Christian version. It takes seriously the reality of the variety of expressions of religious belief; it then proof-texts from the Gospel of John to argue that all other religions are false – the corollary being they are not only actively dangerous to our ultimate status before God but perhaps even “demonic”, an epithet used against both Judaism and Islam specifically – and therefore Christianity is the only “true” “religion”.
Whether it’s the self-absorbed hipster or the triumphant evangelical Christian, these arguments are wrong on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Like Malinowski encountering those Melanesians, these folks are convinced they have the “correct” understanding of how the world works and it’s up to them to drag the ignorant masses to the “truth”. That the variety of expressions of the human religious impulse contradict one another should surprise no one who thinks for thirty seconds. Human beings have expressed their social and cultural life in a tapestry of stories, rituals, art, political organization, family life, and even cosmologies, all of which usually intersect to form a cohesive understanding of how that society fits within the cosmic whole. Because each society is birthed and grows under different circumstances, including influences from neighboring societies, there will be both overlap and distinctiveness in how each society comes to terms with its place in the universe.
So, obviously, they are going to contradict one another.
While it isn’t only in the geographical west such contradictions become fodder for violence – just consider Muslim Pakistan and majority-Hindu India – it seems to be in the West where the idea that “religion” is a disposable social reality is becoming more and more dominant. While many anthropologists and sociologists are both fascinated and troubled by this emerging reality, I believe they are the result both of socioeconomic privilege and a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes “religion” and how it functions as a part of our social and cultural “glue”, that which makes us particular members of the larger social and political group to which we belong. Now it may very well be that “religion” as it is currently understood in the West will shrink to the point of social and cultural and political irrelevance – it is well on its way there now – yet the human drive to ask and seek understanding both of ultimate matters as well as how a particular society fits within the larger world will always need to be asked and answered.
We already have the alteration of science as a method for understanding particular natural phenomena, as it seeks to displace Christianity (in particular) in the west. Just consider how many people declare they “believe” in evolution. Or Stephen Hawking insisting that contemporary cosmology “proves” the non-existence of God. Science is not now and never has been a matter of belief. It posits certain theories, usually based upon prior theories, all of which are only accepted after rigorous testing. Epistemologically speaking, science has nothing to do with “truth” at all; at its best it’s “the best guess so far”. That fewer and fewer people understand this basic reality of how science works, rather speaking of it as “discovering” “truth” or being superior to religion, say, in describing the creation of the Universe, just show how science is altering as a social practice. When science first evolved, known as “natural philosophy”, its practitioners wouldn’t have dreamed of it interfering with religious belief or practice; they understood it asked different questions and sought answers in a different way than the reigning Christian theology. That they have reached the point of competing with one another shows how much our larger sense of ourselves has changed; its expression in social and cultural practices reveals that “science” and “religion” are not what they used to be.
The notion that “religion” is “disproved”, either by science or the contradictory nature of religious expression, could only come about in a capitalist society in which the myth of individualism was bought as something substantive. I say capitalist because, as noted above, many in the west believe it possible to pick and choose how to live out their religious lives, including rejecting “religion” altogether. It has become a consumer product no different from sugar, bread, and houses. How we talk about how we choose a particular congregation, for example – that it “fits our lifestyle”, say, or echoes particular social and political ideologies – should make that clear enough. The insidiousness of the lie of individualism, a product of capitalist exploitation that seeks to separate human communities in order to gain the most profit from a people who accept as “natural” their separation from other people, has led to the degradation of religious life in the west to the point that people actually believe they can live without it. That serves the producing class, as our spiritual and moral life are no longer tethered to a sense of the general welfare. Atomized and on our own, we become easy pickings because we honestly believe we either cannot or do not have to rely on others to assist us. We no longer understand our world, have a communal sense of our place within that world, or even an understanding of “community” that serves as a buffer both against other human communities as well as those who would seek to control our life for their benefit.
We face the Bronislaw Malinowskis of our day, those who actually believe they know better than we do exercising their Imperial option to insist that, truth being singular (itself an untestable assumption that has been a part of our thought since Aristotle), “religion” is either singular in its expression (certain Christian evangelicals) or disposable. When Jesus was challenged on his authority to teach and heal, he basically turned the question back on his questioners. His goal was to demonstrate how little power and authority these so-called leaders actually had. We need to stop apologizing for being faithful Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists and ask these folks where they get off telling us how to live our lives. If we can do so while “taking the Mickey” as our British cousins say, well, that’s even better.