A Very Partial View of Religion

Nautilus ran an interview recently with a noted anthropologist who has a very interesting, although very partial, view of religion.  To my mind, his view is what results from an exclusively extraverted and concrete view of the world.  Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse directs the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, and “developed a theory of religion based on the power of rituals to create social bonds and group identity. He saw that difficult rituals, like traumatic initiation rites, were often unforgettable and had the effect of fusing an individual’s identity with the group.” For him, religion is merely a system of “elaborate rituals that foster group cohesion, creating personal bonds that people are willing to die for.”  When asked about the sages of the Axial Age, he ultimately dismissed the theory, and said that what we need is a huge database to examine the record for patterns in religious behavior before we can really address such questions.

He does not seem, at least in this interview, to address the issue of mysticism or the phenomenon of visionary leadership, such as that of Moses or the Prophet Mohammed.  His theory, at least as discussed in this interview, does not acknowledge that religious experience is possible outside of group rituals, or that some of the most compelling religious experiences are solitary visions that have gone on to influence millions.  For this anthropologist, religion is entirely a group-oriented activity with only practical consequences.


I personally don’t agree with the idea that the main explanation for religion is that we’re on a quest for meaning.  I don’t think innate curiosity and desire to puzzle together the meaning of life explains religion.


His theory perhaps explains how religion works for some people, particularly early people, but his explanation is certainly not the only one.  While he may provide an explanation for some of the origins of religion, it does not address the stage humanity has reached now as evidenced by the current pursuit of meaning, and the greater interest in meditative practices that we see today.  Younger people, particularly, are forsaking traditional religions with their group rituals to take up personal spiritual practices, and finding it more satisfying.  Those who engage in such practice are specifically searching for meaning, not just a thrill from some exciting group event.

Some of this is due to the fact that the lives of those who are more economically secure are no longer as difficult and frightening as those of early humans, and their spiritual endeavors reflect their less desperate experience of life.  Once we get past the overwhelming need to just survive, we can turn our thoughts toward other pursuits, such as art, science, and the search for meaning.

It is my opinion that there is a major change taking place in human consciousness that is moving us toward this type of spiritual endeavor and away from more traditional ritualistic practices that demand group conformity and involve intense emotional experiences.  I find this change hopeful and a source of joy.  If humanity can survive the impending ruin, then we can move into a new world that will be more tolerant and peaceful, and religion will be a source of meaning rather than division and fear.


Copyright © 2016 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.


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