An important book which deserves the careful attention of serious students of religion." Religious Studies Review
Anthropologist and spiritual explorer Felicitas Goodman offers a "unified field theory" of religion as human behavior. She examines ritual, the religious trance, alternate reality, ethics and moral code, and the named category designating religion.
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Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality
Religion in a Pluralistic World
By Felicitas D. Goodman
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1988 Felicitas D. Goodman
All rights reserved.
The Religious Can It Be Defined?
Magic versus religion. In contrasting the so-called "great religions' and others, the term magic is often employed to describe the latter. In the past, this usage was popular because it seemingly supported the superiority of the "great religions." There, a religious ceremony, so the argument went, was designed to elevate, to praise, etc., while a magical rite of savages was thought to be able, "falsely, of course," to manipulate the objects and circumstances of the real world.
Even when a somewhat more balanced view of non-Western humanity began to dawn, the topic of magic proved to be surprisingly slippery, despite the fact that at first blush it seemed to represent an apparently neat and well-defined category. Recognizing the difficulty, social scientists tried repeatedly to redefine the difference between religion and magic. To the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, it lay in the fact that a religious rite was obligatory, while a magical one was optional. Frazer, also much quoted on the topic of magic, subdivided the category into types, such as "contagious magic," "imitative magic," etc. He considered magic "false science": Science worked, magic did not. The British social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, consistent with his view that all cultural behavior was "functional," i.e., directed toward the goal of satisfying physical needs, advanced the suggestion that magic had a definite practical purpose, while religious rites were expressive without purpose. Harking back to Frazer's "false science," he felt that magical practices attempted to bridge the hiatus between knowledge and practical control, so that magic was applied when the practitioner felt that there was an element of uncertainty involved. In a now-famous example (1954), he described how in the Trobriand Islands, where he did fieldwork in the first decade of this century, no fishing magic was used to enhance the catch and provide protection within the lagoon. Such rituals were carried out only on the high seas.
Weston La Barre attempted to stretch the phenomena of religious behavior to fit the Procrustean bed of Freudian psychoanalysis. As to the nature of magic, he makes the intriguing suggestion that "mothers make magicians; fathers, gods" (1970: 109). In an entirely Freudian vein, he points to the distinction between the father figure as instilling fear, while the infant can summon the mother simply by crying. In the same way, magic is an outcry for help: "Magic is ... an oral context adaptation: the magic cry summons succorance, coerces reality, and the inchoate infant ego emotionally consumes the world" (1970: 95). Magic is seen as the "self-delusory fixation at the oral-anal phase of operation" (1970: 10).
Upon closer scrutiny, none of the suggestions advanced by the above writers holds up. Rites are not either elevating or manipulative, obligatory or optional, abstract or practical. They usually combine these various features, which in addition do not correlate with a religious/magical opposition. Contrasting magic as "false science" and our presumably "true" one is so ethnocentric, it hardly warrants comment. In fact, Malinowski was the one who early pointed out that non-Western societies had "true" science, or else how could they have survived? As to La Barre, he twists his own metaphor later in the same discussion. Mothers, he continues, do not "make" magicians, in the way fathers "make," i.e., become overpowering "supernatural" entities. Rather he finds that the magician, far from being the mother, is the child crying to the "supernatural."
No matter how we turn the individual arguments, the difference between magic and religion remains unclear. As Dorothy Hammond says, "Examination of the concept [magic] indicates that the distinction between magic and religion, whether phrased as dichotomy or polarity, is unwarranted.... That the distinction has led only to confusion supports the judgment that the abstraction is based in misinterpretation" (1970: 1355).
Definitions of Religion With the concept of magic as a useful category within the religious realm out of the way, we now need to ask, What then is religion? How can it be defined? As can be expected, the literature abounds in suggestions. To cite a few examples, there is the famous minimal and descriptive one by the British social philosopher Edward Tylor: "It seems best ... to claim as a minimum definition of religion the belief in Spiritual Beings" (1871: chap. 11). The Austrian anthropologist Father Wilhelm Schmidt went the historical route:
Original religion revolved around the worship of a high god. Out of this Urmonotheismus there later arose, through a process of degenerative speculative thought, such concepts as spirits and ghosts, animal and plant souls, multiple gods, and wide variety in worship. (Paraphrased in Lessa and Vogt, 1965: 21)
Clifford Geertz suggests a normative formulation:
[Religion is] a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and longlasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (1966: 4)
The influence of Freud can clearly be discerned in the psychological definition proposed by La Barre:
In a sense religion is the group dream, or perhaps nightmare, that teaches men the proper stance vis-à-vis the parental divine, as characteristically shaped in that society, but in either case now "unreal" except psychologically. (1970: 12–13)
And then there are also structural definitions, such as this one by Melford E. Spiro:
Every religion consists of a cognitive system, a set of explicit and implicit propositions regarding the superhuman world and man's relation to it, which it claims to be true. (1966: 96)
In addition to these carefully crafted definitions, we frequently encounter what Kroeber and Kluckhohn, in a book on definitions of culture, term "incomplete definitions" or "on-the-side stabs in passing" (1952: 141). Here, for instance, is one by Joseph Campbell, an author on comparative religion, from an article written for the educated lay reader:
These three lower chakras correspond to man's life in his naive state, turned outward upon the world. A religion that concerned itself with only these lower chakras, one that cared little for inward and mystical realization, would hardly merit the name of religion at all. (1975: 78)
Or another one, this time from the work of an anthropologist:
Although the kumu [priest] ... officiates in a fertility ceremony, its form is far removed from the crude sexual symbolism that characterizes other ritual activities, and it is evident that what is involved is a true cult in which the problem of mere earthly existence has been sublimated. (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1971: 139)
To take the incomplete definitions first, they demonstrate that the authors disapprove of sexual symbolism in religion, which is a Western cultural bias. Rather than enlighten us on the nature of religion, such "on-the-side stabs in passing" insinuate value judgments into the thinking of the reader by presenting them as generally valid. They are not, for they are artifacts of a particular culture, and thus their validity does not extend beyond its boundaries.
The other definitions quoted—there are, of course, innumerable more--demonstrate that each writer is intent on staking out a domain, mapping precise limits to the way in which the phenomenon "religion" is to be viewed. None of the definitions is entirely incorrect, to be sure. "Religion" includes some of everything they touch on: It speaks about "spiritual" beings; some societies have high gods, although "degenerative thought" is no longer acceptable to modern theory; it has symbols; it shows the operation of psychological mechanisms; it is a cognitive system, shaped by the culture of the respective society; there is ritual, and there are myths. But it will be noted that none of the definitions covers all these aspects, and by delineating boundaries and decreeing what belongs within the domain, those features that fall outside are necessarily classed as irrelevant, or worse, as inadmissible. Clearly, the many facets of the phenomenon can simply not be accommodated in a single, concise definition. What we need instead to do justice to religious behavior and to the complexity of the religions that humans profess is to formulate a sort of mega-definition, or, since that will most likely be unworkable, a theory of religion consisting of a number of interrelated tenets. The question, then, is, What might these tenets be?
Universals of Religion. Much discussion in textbooks of comparative religion is devoted to the diversity of human faiths. What is often overlooked is that beyond their undoubtedly great differences, all religions share some "universals," a certain rather limited number of striking traits. These traits are as follows:
1) Ritual One of the most visible manifestations of any religion is its ritual. Some anthropologists have gone so far as to use the term ritual behavior as synonymous with religion. This is an unfortunate choice, because all habitual human behavior is ritualized (see, e.g., Goffman, 1967). Religious ritual, properly viewed, has a special task, namely, expressing all or part of the complete drama of human life, from birth to procreation, and to death.
2) Altered states of consciousness. A religion can be described using ordinary language, but a religious experience can take place only if there are radical changes in the way the body functions, initiating an alteration in consciousness, in the perceptual state. In religious contexts, there are in the main two altered states of consciousness that are institutionalized: lucid dreams occurring in sleep, and the religious altered state of consciousness, the religious trance, leading to the experience of ecstasy. Both provide entrance into the alternate reality.
3) The alternate reality. This aspect of reality is often described as being "supernatural." The term will be avoided here except in quotations. The argument in favor of such an omission is that if a phenomenon were super-natural, humans, being part of nature, would be unable to perceive it. Instead, we will assume the stance, shared by religious specialists the world over, that the alternate reality is another part or dimension of reality as a whole. Ethnographers innocent of the experience of this reality often contend that it is identical with images perceived during ordinary dream states. This is an error that has haunted modern writings ever since Tylor first proposed it in the last century. Ordinary dreams, however, are very different from experiences in the alternate reality. They are strongly idiosyncratic; their components are usually one-dimensional, dissolve easily, and are difficult to remember.
By contrast, the alternate reality entered with the help of the religious trance or the lucid dream is patterned by the specific culture that the religious practitioner belongs to. Such experiences or visions have great internal consistency. The objects of a vision can be examined from all sides, and the details of a visit to the alternate reality are easily recalled, often being remembered as long as a person lives.
4) Good fortune, misfortune, and the rituals of divination. Unaccountable changes in life, be they good or bad, are usually attributed to nonhuman agencies, and there are numerous rituals by which humans try to wrest their secrets from them. This leads us into the intriguing topic of divination.
5) Ethics. Humans have a basic need to live harmoniously with each other and to safeguard a dynamic balance between ordinary and alternate reality in their lives. This is accomplished by obeying certain principles of conduct, incorporated into a system of ethics.
6) The semantics of the term for "religion." All societies have a word for religion: It is a named category. Unfortunately, this term is often mistranslated or misinterpreted, and may even go unreported. Linguistic fieldwork indicates that it is a composite category, consisting of three distinct parts: two refer immutably to the religious trance and the attendant ecstatic experience, on the one hand, and to the alternate reality, on the other, while the third one varies with the respective culture.
The six traits outlined above that all religions share, offer a convenient framework for a systematic comparison. However, as we try to compare religions cross-culturally using these characteristics, we discover a curious discontinuity. While in some instances, religious systems appear to be closely related, in other cases the differences with respect to a certain trait are so thoroughgoing, they cut so sharply, that we intuit the action of a powerful disruptive force. I propose that this disruption resulted in a change in interaction with the habitat, leading to an important modification in lifestyle. The introduction of domesticated plants, for instance, altered among other things the settlement patterns, tools, clothing, and social structure, as well as the position of women, the bringing up of children, and population dynamics. It stands to reason that it should also affect religious behavior. That is, the interaction with the habitat represents to my mind the pivot, the "independent variable," as it is called in experimental science. It is the ratchet wheel in the complicated system that is culture. The components of culture are its dependent variables, including the universals of religion listed above.
Independent variable: The interaction with the habitat. I have chosen to speak of "habitat" rather than "nature" in order to indicate that in the context of human experience, nature is a "cultural fact." Humans do not perceive nature directly, in the raw, as it were, or in its entirety. As Marshall D. Sahlins says, "[At issue is not] the reality of the world; [what is at issue is] which worldly dimension becomes pertinent, and in what way, to a given human group by virtue of a meaningful constitution of the objectivity of objects" (1976: 145). This "meaningful constitution of the objectivity of objects" changes as humans adopt a new and different subsistence activity, which in turn changes their manner of interaction with the habitat.
In the course of human history, fundamental changes of this nature did not occur all that frequently. One such change was mentioned above: the introduction of the domestication of plants. There was also the domestication of animals, and finally urbanization. In anthropology, we distinguish the following societal types as the result of changes in adaptation to the habitat: hunting and gathering; horticulture; three different forms of nomadic pastoralism; full-blown agriculture; and urbanism. To paraphrase Sahlins, each new adaptation causes a different worldly dimension to become pertinent.
The sophistication of the religions of the hunter-gatherers and their extensive cross-cultural agreement suggest that religion must have been a part of human culture at least from the time when our herbivorous and/or scavenging ancestors became hunter-gatherers. In other words, it must be unimaginably old. Elaborate burials and traces of shamanistic activity go back sixty thousand years or more. To the eyes of the prehistorian, such evidence of religious activity is quite advanced. It is to be assumed that it was preceded by even earlier forms not detectable in the sites of still more ancient human activity. The beginnings of religion, in other words, are lost in the misty reaches of our past.
In summary, we may then say:
Religion is an ancient part of human culture. It shares cross-culturally a set of universals, namely, ritual, the religious trance and its attendant ecstasy, the alternate reality, ascription to the alternate reality of changes in fortune and rituals of divination, a system of ethics, and a tripartite named category. These universals are dependent variables of the interaction with the habitat. Religions vary systematically with societal type, that is, in correlation with modifications in the interaction with the habitat.
The above concise theory provides the general outline of this work. In chapter 2 I am going to provide some "maybe" answers to the question concerning the process of emergence of religious behavior. I will do that by combining in an admittedly speculative manner results from archeology with ideas derived from linguistic research on the same topic. In chapters 3 and 4, I will present further details on the independent variable and the six dependent variables touched on above. Chapters 5 to 9 contain ethnographic examples of religions in correlation to societal type. In the Conclusion, finally, I will develop some conjectures on the future role of religion in urban societies.
Excerpted from Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality by Felicitas D. Goodman. Copyright © 1988 Felicitas D. Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Theory
Chapter 1. The Religious: Can It Be Defined?
Chapter 2. Human Evolution and the Origins and Evolution of Religious Behavior
Chapter 3. The Independent Variable: Interaction with the Habitat
Chapter 4. Dependent Variables
The Religious Trance
The Alternate Reality
Good Fortune, Misfortune, and the Rituals of Divination
Ethics and Its Relation to Religious Behavior
The Semantics of "Religion"
Part Two: Ethnography
Chapter 5. The Hunter-Gatherers
Chapter 6. The Horticulturalists
Chapter 7. The Agriculturalists
Chapter 8. The Nomadic Pastoralists
Chapter 9. The City Dwellers