The Anthropology of Religion (the obligatory Science & Religion post)

Jun 30, 2006
One of the things I really respect about current Paganism is the attention being paid to actual history more and more often. For the most part, we've stopped trying to believe that modern Wicca was passed down in its current form since before Christianity came to Europe, we've stopped throwing around huge numbers from the Burning Times to aggravate our own sense of persecution, and we've accepted how little we know about the distant past with which we connect ourselves. And I don't think this diminishes the importance or the depth of Paganism at all, to acknowledge this lack of continuity; it only gives us a better sense of who we are and what we're striving for. Paganism has started to give the respect due to historians and anthropologists, but I can't help but wish that respect would flow a little more freely both ways.

I studied anthropology in college, and I might go back to it in grad school, and while we were pretty damn big on relativism, that belief that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and cultural constructs, we were also big on science. Understanding not only why someone would believe the things they do but how they could hold such a depth of real, passionate feeling for their beliefs was something my advisor tried to pound into us from day one. I may have learned more about faith from our class on apocalyptic cults than I ever learned from years of churchgoing and soulseeking. But despite the constant reminders that religious people have feelings too, you never know when you might accidentally insult one of your classmates, there was always a sense of "otherness" to the discussions of religion. Religious people are not us, was the implication. We are scientists.

We talked about religion, surely -- you can't study people without studying religion. We talked about studying religion, too, how to observe and analyze without giving offense. We talked about magic, in terms of the primitive or, what is now considered to be the less offensive term, "non-empirical" cultures. We even talked about Evans-Pritchard, a British anthropologist who studied the Azande in the late colonial period and worked so extensively with their religion that he said he almost grew to believe it himself. (Reading between the lines of his book, the "almost" in that sentence is hardly warranted, but it has never been acceptable for a scientist to believe in magic, so one can hardly blame him for withdrawing from his position in publication. Indeed, I'm impressed he admitted so much.) Through all of those discussions, though, the otherness remained. I wanted to apply the anthropology of religion to my own faith, but it never worked that way. The classes themselves made it impossible.

Oh, I learned a lot of things I could use to make comparisions with. I learned about the origins of the term sympathetic magic. I learned about Evans-Pritchard and Frazier and Graves, but I also learned how emphatically wrong those men were, how useless they were in an academic context, and how I should strive Not To Be Like Them, to be objective instead of empathetic, to think of religion only in terms of What They Believe and not what I believe or how it affects me.

I was very, very good at this, to the point where I very nearly wrote an ethnography of online covens or Pagan discussion groups and probably would have been acceptably academically objective. To someone of a more traditional religion, I'm not sure it would have been as stifling as it was to me. But Paganism, unfortunately, comes out of the time period of the early anthropologists, and has, over the years, borrowed a great many of those things that anthropologists are supposed to dismiss as old-fashioned and useless. Paganism believes what anthropologists do not, that there is a unity to the universe, that there is a divinity to nature that goes beyond the immediate life-sustaining effects of crops and fields, that magic is real enough to cause people to do things for its own sake.

These are distinctions that emerge in some branches of anthropology, I will grant. Postmodern ethnographers have much less emphasis on objectivity and more on representation, and some forms of evolutionary theory are almost mystical in their descriptions. Mysticism, however, does not go over well in a field that is still sometimes desperately trying to prove itself a Science, and the term was thrown around with great disdain in several of my classes. As well it should be, I suppose; mysticism is not a scientific explanation, and should not be used as one. I don't believe anthropology and Paganism are incompatible, and I wouldn't keep trying to make it work if I did. But I do still have trouble separating the idea of Humanity as a whole from the idea of mysticism, and my anthropological training makes it unbelievably difficult to appreciate almost anything written about pre-Christian cultures and religions from a non-academic viewpoint. I know I would be more succesful in both if I could manage to integrate my anthro studies and my Paganism more clearly, but it's a constant struggle sometimes to treat both with the respect they deserve.

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