Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Western scholars studying 'exotic' religions

When I was at uni I studied an anthropology subject about religion. Anthropology is the study of people; traditionally people from societies other than our own (sociology tends to study our own society, although these days the boundaries are fairly blurred). I remember constantly being bothered by this niggling concern, that the Western scholars, and us as their students, were missing something important. We read exerts of ethnographies from all over the world, detailing accounts of witchcraft, ancestor worship, totemism and all other manner of religious beliefs and practices. Yet the assumption was always that the religious phenomena these 'exotic' people engaged with was not real; that is was some kind of device that the society used to explain something else, or perhaps a type of psychological manifestation.

It's not supposed to matter whether or not an anthropologist accepts the veracity of religious believes or magical practices. The idea is that you just observe what happens and think about the role that the beliefs or practices have in the society. The dancing ritual may or may not have any mysterious or spiritual quality that is beyond pure human experience, but it sure does bond people together and transfers some cultural values, for example.

But I think it does matter. I've been doing some more reading on this topic lately, and personally I think that one of the functions of religion is to help people connect with what I call the 'divine'. Other people might call it spirit, or God, or mana, or the goddess. If you start off on the assumption that people's concept of spiritually is not 'real' and that the divine does not exist - which seems to be the assumption by most of the scholars I've been reading, rather than a less decided agnosticism - then you're missing a big chunk of the function of many religions.

I come to this question from the perspective of my own Christian faith, of course, which takes the existence of the divine for granted. It would be hard to accept the divine as a given if you don't believe in it. And certainly many (most?) scholars have not and do not have this conception, largely because many scholars are from secularised Western backgrounds, belong to fairly secular institutions and have agnostic or atheist beliefs.

Which is why I always felt, in that undergrad subject, that our study of religion was fairly ethnocentric - that is, privileging our own ethnic perspective over others. I also felt it to be a bit patronising, as the class smirked at this 'irrational' beliefs of other cultures. Well maybe they understand something that we don't understand! I wonder if academia were dominated by highly religious people from non-Western cultures, would scholars come to different conclusions about the nature of religion?

Friday, September 17, 2010

'Original sin' cosmology makes you feel crap

I've been reading up on religion and cosmology, for a paper I'm writing for work. A 'cosmology' is a theory or conception of the nature of the universe and our place in it. For example, the idea that God is male, or that God is a loving God, or that humans were put on earth to subdue it - these could all be part of people's cosmologies. (These examples come from a Christian worldview, which I'm most familiar with - although probably some are shared with other faiths too.)

Cosmologies really impact on the way that individuals act and the way that a society is organised. They affect the way we interact with nature. Obviously if you think that God wants us to subdue and exploit the earth you're going to be more likely to do that. Likewise, if most people in your society think God is a man then men are likely to be held as more 'God-like' and thus superior.

I was thinking about of theology 'original sin', which I grew up with. It's a distinctly Christian idea, and it doesn't come up in Jewish thought, having developed in the minds of the 'church fathers' in the second and third centuries. Anyway, the idea is that humans are born into sin - i.e. we are born evil. This happened because Eve took that bite of the apple (of course - it's the woman!), and plunged all generations to come into rebellion and darkness. It is only through the salvation offered by Christ that we can be seen as 'good' by God.

I have just realised that this idea, which I have taken for granted for most of my life, has impacted negatively on the way I see myself. I have not seen myself as inherently good and I have not felt that God sees me as good. I have defined myself as a sinner, because that's what the church has taught. The 'goodness' that was bought for my by Christ I have always envisioned as a kind of whitewash, covering what is essentially bad. My badness was so bad, in fact, that Jesus needed to be nailed to a cross to make up for it.

What a crappy, negative, debilitating cosmology. I'm angry that it's what I've believed for most of my life. Even whilst I've questioned the idea that the whole point of Christ's life was his death, I've still somehow believed that I'm essentially bad, or at least, there's nothing much good.

I'm banging the keys hard now. I think I'm mad. But I'm glad I'm now realising that I don't have to let this shitty theology to rule my life. I think it has something to do with the low self-esteem I have often suffered with. But I'm now beginning to nurture a vision of myself that is essentially good. Will probably take some time, though.

Can anyone else relate to this?