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David Eller, PhD
One of the great mysteries is why, despite the best arguments against it, religion survives. After all, every argument in support of religion has been shown to be inconclusive or demonstrably false, yet religion persists; of course, if the case for religion in general fails, then the case for any particular form of religion, like theism or monotheism or Christian monotheism, naturally fails too. If religionists/theists/monotheists/ Christians would just be rational, would just listen and think, atheists grumble, they would see their error and abandon their erroneous ways.
Ironically (or not so ironically), religionists/Christians confront the same stubborn resistance-and not only from atheists. The problem is especially acute for them when trying to "share" their beliefs with members of non-Christian religions, both other "world religions" and those "primitive" or "traditional" religions against whom Christians relentlessly send missionaries. Why don't those people accept Christianity, and why don't they accept it in the form that existing Christians practice and teach it?
I fear that discerning Christian proselytizers, who have been doing this for much longer than atheist polemicists, have discovered the answer, and it is an answer that those who want to "win" the contest and to influence society must heed-namely, culture. From the earliest Jesuits in the Americas to contemporary missionaries in remote villages, successful promoters of Christianity have realized-and exploited-the fact that religion is not only about, not even mostly about, "beliefs" and "arguments" but about a worldview, a way of life, and a learned and shared and produced and reproduced regimen of experience.
In this chapter, I will illustrate how the concept of culture is relevant to the understanding, practice, and success of Christianity in particular and religion in general and how some cunning Christians know this and have used it to their advantage for a very long time. I will further show how the concept of culture reduces Christianity into just another cultural phenomenon, operating by the same processes and yielding the same results as any cultural phenomenon. One of the key qualities of culture is diversity: there is no such thing as "Christian culture" but rather "Christian cultures"; indeed no such thing as Christianity but rather Christianities. This will also explain, finally, why the efforts to debunk and displace Christianity through evidence and logic-the atheist's stock in trade-have been and will continue to be largely futile. Christians are not easily argued out of their religion because, since it is culture, they are not ordinarily argued into it in the first place.
Christianity as Culture
Culture is the central concept in my chosen profession, anthropology. I could, therefore, present an anthropological view of the concept, which I hope that readers will seek out, perhaps in my new textbook on cultural anthropology. Instead, I want to demonstrate how professional Christianity has absorbed and deployed the concept quite intentionally and remarkably effectively.
Unbeknownst to most rationalists, atheists, and academic anthropologists, Christian missiologists (those who study and teach the ideas and methods of mission work) have generated a considerable literature on the subject and actively share and perfect their craft. Whole organizations, institutes, and publishing houses (like Orbis Books and Zondervan, to name but two) exist to fulfill these functions. The challenge for missionaries is that the groups upon which they descend already have their own religions and, more problematically, have their own languages and values and institutions that tend to support those religions and to make Christianity strange and incomprehensible or to defy it altogether. Smart missionaries understand that they must penetrate these barriers and invade and co-opt these languages, value systems, and institutions (which is why translation of the Christian scriptures into local languages is such an urgent goal for them), and, as quickly and completely as possible, either dominate or replace these systems and institutions with ones of their own making and in their own image.
In Winter and Hawthorne's Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, which amounts to a guidebook for culture-aware missionaries, many of the chapters are dedicated to spreading the message of the critical importance of culture. Charles Kraft, one of the leading figures in the project, describes culture as "the label anthropologists give to the structured customs and underlying worldview assumptions [by] which people govern their lives. Culture (including worldview) is a people's way of life, their design for living, their way of coping with their biological, physical, and social environment. It consists of learned, patterned assumptions (worldview), concepts and behaviors, plus the resulting artifacts (material culture)." I think that most professional anthropologists would regard this as a workable characterization of culture.
Kraft goes further, though, to enumerate several more advanced qualities of culture:
Culture "provides a total design for living, dealing with every aspect of life and providing people with a way to regulate their lives."
Culture "is a legacy from the past, learned as if it were absolute and perfect."
Culture "makes sense to those within it."
Culture "is an adaptive system, a mechanism for coping. It provides patterns and strategies to enable people to adapt to the physical and social conditions around them."
Culture "tends to show more or less tight integration around its worldview."
Culture "is complex."
Of the worldview central to any particular culture, he makes several assertions:
It "consists of the assumptions (including images) underlying all cultural values, allegiances, and behaviors."
It grounds and explains "our perception of reality and responses to it."
Its basic assumptions or premises "are learned from our elders, not reasoned out, but assumed to be true without prior proof."
"We organize our lives and experiences according to our worldview and seldom question it unless our experience challenges some of its assumptions."
The immediate relevance for Christian missionization, and for our eventual purposes in this chapter, consists of three points:
1. Christianity, like any religion, is a part of culture. It is learned and shared, and it is integrated with the other systems of the culture, including its economics, its kinship, and its politics.
2. Christianity, like any religion, is a culture. It offers its own worldview, specific terms with which to speak and think, and specific symbolic and organizational and institutional forms. It is never only beliefs, but as Paul Hiebert stresses in the same volume, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, it is also always feelings and values and allegiances and standards for judgment and evaluation. It is a more or less complete design for living.
3. Christian missionization is a type of cross-cultural communication and cultural change. Conversion from one religion to another is, thus, never simply a shift in belief; as Kraft reminds us, "Significant culture change is always a matter of changes in the worldview.... [A]nything that affects a people's worldview will affect the whole culture and, of course, the people who operate in terms of that culture."
From my exposure to the anthropologically informed missiology (and there are, no doubt, variations and exceptions), the Christian writers acknowledge that Christianity and its diverse Christian cultures are not one and the same thing: Christianity can take different shapes in different cultural contexts. In fact, the point of these writings is that Christianity must take different shapes in different contexts, so the writers urge missionaries to "recontextualize" Christianity in such a way as to fit it into the local cultures without rejecting every aspect of those local cultures but without losing the core of the religion. However, as far as they do go in recognizing the cultural nature of their religion, they do not take the final step toward seeing its own dependency and relativity, that Christianity, too,
is one way to regulate human lives, among many other ways;
is a legacy from its own past, evolved over time and learned from its predecessors but held to be absolute and perfect;
makes sense to those inside it but no sense at all to those outside it;
consists of its own assumptions and premises that underlie its norms, values, allegiances, and institutions;
grounds and informs a particular view of reality and possible responses to that view;
is not reasoned out, but assumed to be true without prior proof; and
organizes the lives and experiences of its followers-literally provides the terms in and through which they live and experience-and is seldom questioned by them.
In other words, despite all the sensitive-sounding babble about culture and worldview, and so on, the proselytizers still think (as they would have to think in order to be motivated to proselytize) that their culture/worldview is the true culture/worldview. "As divine revelations," Hiebert explains, "biblical norms ... stand in judgment of all cultures.... Truth, in the end," by which he naturally means his truth, Christian truth, "does not depend on what we think or say, but on reality itself." Other cultures are cultures, you see, but Christian culture is "reality"-which betrays their actual intention and in so doing betrays the message of anthropology.
Christianity Spreading Out to Culture
What these missiologists are describing is the central anthropological tenet of "holism," that every aspect of culture-its religion, its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on-is integrated and interdependent. The functioning of each part affects all of the parts, and changes to one part lead to changes in other parts. Further, dominant elements in a culture ripple through that culture, replicating themselves in various institutions and practices. Ultimately, all of the aspects of culture develop a kind of consonance, an overall consistent feel or theme.
The integration of culture is a two-way process. One of the directions is from the religion out to the rest of culture, and Christian proselytizers have understood this since what Michael Welton calls the "cunning pedagogues" among the first Jesuit missionaries. As early as the 1600s, Jesuits in the Americas invaded native societies with a "pedagogy," or teaching regimen, that was "motivated by an interest in exercising a symbolic, cultural domination over their student adversaries." This carefully developed and meticulously deployed pedagogy was a concentrated and unyielding attack on the cultural foundations of native religion and culture:
The Jesuit attack pedagogy was aimed primarily at undermining the lifeworld foundations of Indian ways of life. The lifeworld is the taken-for-granted source of meaning and action, and various spiritual-religious practices (animism) were interwoven into everyday life.... The Jesuits sought to dislodge [the shaman] from his place of lifeworld supremacy through ridicule, mockery, and one-upmanship and to insert themselves in his place. This was a brilliant, ruthless pedagogical strategy. They used their scientific knowledge of solar and lunar eclipses, tides, and the magical power of the printed word to de-authorize the shaman. They marshaled their own lifeworld resources (now increasingly penetrated by scientific forms of knowledge) to undermine the Amerindian cultural foundations and create a native fifth column in the Devil's Empire.
Among the tactics used then, and ever since, was study of the local language so as to find ways to translate ideas and doctrines "from a hierarchical, patriarchal, technological, status-ridden Christian Europe into the mental universe of the Indians." Armed with knowledge of the language and culture (much of which knowledge constituted the first "ethnological" materials created in non-Western settings), the Jesuits launched a multi-pronged campaign against the bases of native life and belief, especially not-specifically religious matters, like gender roles. Precontact gender relations were so critical and such an anathema to missionization because native women "had considerable power, authority, and prestige in Amerindian tribal life. Although there was a sexual division of labor, Indian cultures lacked the moral vocabulary to conceive of women as 'bad' or 'evil.'" Another tool was the European-dominated fur trade, which gradually achieved the incorporation of local groups into the emergent global, colonial, economic system, teaching them disciplines and values suitable to (the lower rungs of ) the new Christian/capitalist way of life.
Other explicit and finely honed pedagogical techniques used on the native peoples included ridicule and verbal attacks on traditional beliefs and practices and on native etiquette. As "educational warriors," once missionaries "sensed that the traditional lifeworld was eroding, they focused their attacks on the inadequacy of the indigenous meaning system." Their weapons included the scientific skill to make natural predictions (like eclipses), literacy to argue that the written word was better and more authoritative than oral knowledge, and visual images to represent and dramatize their messages. They exploited emotion and melodrama and "studied the aesthetic preferences of their students to increase the effectiveness of their pedagogy." Specifically, the Jesuits sought to create a lavish, sensual, sacred pedagogical space to exert influence over their followers. They conducted their services and rituals with flash and pomp to provide the believers with a spiritual ambience that would awaken the senses and cast a spell over them."
The anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff have discovered the same processes in a later stage of colonialism in Africa during the 1800s. Colonialism, wherever and whenever conducted, involved changes to and domination of the political and economic aspects of subject societies, together with religion and other cultural habits, such as dress, speech, marriage, gender roles, and so on. All these forms and practices, and not merely religious doctrines and rituals, carried Christian messages about what is true, good, important, and possible. Much of such cultural and even religious "knowledge" is implicit and informal, embedded in the big and little things we do all day, every day-what Jean Comaroff calls "the signs and structures of everyday life." Therefore, the conversion process was designed to effect a change in these signs and structures, a "revolution in habits," that is, "a quest to refurnish the mundane: to focus human endeavor on the humble scapes of the everyday, of the 'here-and-now' in which the narrative of Protestant redemption took on its contemporary form." They have also labeled this struggle "an epic of the ordinary" and "the everyday as epiphany": "it was precisely by means of the residual, naturalized quality of habit that power takes up residence in culture, insinuating itself, apparently without agency, in the texture of a lifeworld. This, we believe, is why recasting mundane, routine practices has been so vital to all manner of social reformers, colonial missionaries among them."
Excerpted from The Christian Delusion Copyright © 2010 by John W. Loftus. Excerpted by permission.
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John Loftus has now gathered together a group of scholars to provide a detailed critique of theism and Biblical Christianity. Loftus is one of several contributors to distinct chapters in the book. Loftus summarizes his reasons for rejecting Biblical faith and embracing atheism, although his position is arguably defended in greater detail in his earlier work: Why I Became An Atheist. I urge you to purchase a copy of both of his books.
Loftus now stands thoroughly refuted, however, by David Reuben Stone (2010), The Loftus Delusion: Why Atheism Fails and Messianic Israelism Prevails. This is the critique Loftus hopes you'll never discover.
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