Wednesday, November 18, 2015

review of "The Slain God": on anthropology and religion (esp. Christianity)

My review/summary of Timothy Larsen's award-winning book, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith...

Larsen says that the theme of his book is "how findings and theories in the discipline of anthropology have been interpreted as undermining or even discrediting the claims of Christianity" (1)-- or more succinctly, the field's supposed "anti-faith bias". (9) (In his review of Larsen's book, Christian Smith describes a perception of anthropology as "post-religious if not anti-religious.") Conversely, Larsen looks at "how anthropological insights have been perceived to be compatible with or even to reinforce Christian faith". (1)

Given the mixed relationship between anthropology (A) and Christianity (C), Larsen ultimately concludes that any "tendency toward unbelief among A's-- far from being hard-won insights-- should rather be viewed...[not] as a product of the advance of knowledge but merely as a cultural bias..." (168)

As with some of the inferences of "Intelligent Design" theory, if one assumes only material causes, you reach a similar angle in A. If so, one has "taken up the implicitly theological position of trying to explain, or explain away, religious phenomena as the product of psychological or sociological causes of the most diverse and even conflicting types, denying to them any preternatural origin." (192)

In fact, "if human beings are incurably spiritual, they are also incurably rational" (216). And how are we to decide-- at least in more complex matters-- whether there is a (necessary or contingent) conflict between the two? The same dilemma arises in economics: we start with an assumption of "rationality"-- that people ably weigh benefits and costs to make decisions. Without this assumption, analysis cannot get started, modeling is futile, and predictions are absurd. Sure, rationality is common, but rationality is not universal, so when do we reject it?

Larsen says there is no debate on the six scholars to include in his study (2-3): Tylor, Frazer, Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and Victor/Edith Turner. (The two reviewers I cite below don't quibble with this claim.) I don't know the field at all, but I'd be surprised at serious disagreement, given the evidence provided and his aggressive assertions. (In fact, he's so aggressive and compelling that if this is debatable, I would not want to play poker with him!)

A few comments on the six scholars:

Of the six, Tylor and Frazer were hostile to C; the others were profoundly and unapologetically Catholic. (Douglas was raised Catholic and E-P and the Turners converted as adults.) 

Tylor: Tylor had a Quaker background and an anti-Catholic bias. "He could not find a way to think anthropologically and as a Christian at the same time" (20). Given his significance, Larsen notes the irony that there has never been a biography of him. Larsen speculates that Tylor "made the mistake of living too long" (14)-- that the field had moved away from him by the end of his life, making it awkward to write a glowing biography. 

The most memorable concept from his work is "survivals"-- "something in a culture that did not make sense there in the present context but rather bore witness to an earlier stage". (22) One concern, in practice: an assessment about a survival "seemed almost inevitable to become contaminated by the A's own prior disposition..." (35). 

The concept of "survivals" also leads to a number of ironies: Tylor was knighted late in life-- a survival among ceremonies (35). His thought was littered with survivals from his Quaker past (33). And his most famous model included three points-- "a curious survival of theological modes of thought" (21), where concepts so often come in trios. (Comte [21] follows suit in trying to diminish religion by referring to it as the first of three stages of progress: theological/fictitious, metaphysical/abstract, and scientific/positive.) 

Frazer: Some form of "comparative method" is inevitable in the social sciences, but Frazer was "a flamboyant practitioner" (39). (Joseph Campbell was a popularizer of this approach on PBS and reached similar conclusions.) Frazer spent much effort on magic vs. religion, arguing that a move to the latter is caused by "a few particularly perceptive people" (45). But Larsen argues that Frazer does not have a grasp of "the meaning of magic for its participants" and "his account of the origins of magic is highly improbable". (44) 

In a more biographical note, Larsen argues that Frazer finds boldness for his views after his parents and his mentor die (56-57)-- often a troubling sign. If you believe something, why not practice it as a conviction? Like Tylor, Frazer has his own "trinity"-- in symbolizing black as magic, red as religion, and white as science (73). And as an important aside, the title of Larsen's book comes from Frazer's use of the same phrase (40) as a central theme in his classic text, Golden Bough-- where Christianity's story is seen as one of many "savage" myths about deities killed by men.

Evans-Pritchard (E-P): E-P converted to Christianity through Catholicism at the age of 42 in Benghazi (91). One result of E-P's work was to open up an interdisciplinary conversation between A's, theologians and biblical scholars (114). 

E-P is still the "undisputed" top in the field (80). "The leap from Frazer to E-P is an athletic one in terms of method, theory, practice, and personal convictions", even though their careers overlapped (80). E-P was the first to do field experience. (Larsen argues that Lawrence of Arabia was "something of a role model" for E-P [85]). It sure seems late in the game to add that methodology (88)!

In contrast to Frazor and other contemporaries, E-P argued that the "uncivilized" (Azande) were generally as "rational" as the "civilized" (Europeans). The mistake by those in the field was "exaggerating both the extent to which Europeans are rational and the extent to which primitive people are irrational." (89) 

E-P noted that the Azande's stories did not necessarily contradict natural explanations. As an example, he uses a shelter that collapses because wood was rotten. The Azande did not deny the natural explanation but were trying to answer a question that we rarely ask: why then? Moreover, E-P notes that primitive people could not survive without "a keen understanding of the natural world which was grounded in observation and experimentation." 

Instead, they were "thinking logically within a closed system". This is a milder version of Chesterton's "maniac"-- where all observations are filtered through a narrow prism. Ironically, Chesterton applies this concept to the materialist, among others.

Beyond that, "E-P not only demonstrated that the Azande were actually quite rational, but he completed the inversion by claiming it was the ideas of figures such as Tylor and Frazer that were 'contrary to common sense'." (98) E-P pointed to the role of "just-so stories" (a la Rudyard Kipling) and although the secular anthropologist "imagines he is offering a 'scientific discovery', it would take more faith to believe in it than "religious" alternatives.

In fact, "it is their very lack of religious beliefs which tempted these theorists into many of their unscientific and absurd views" (99). E-P wrote: "their assumptions that souls, spirits, and gods of religion have no reality. For if they are regarded as complete illusions, then some biological, psychological, or sociological theory of how everywhere and at all times, men have been stupid enough to believe in them seems to be called for." (99)

That said, E-P did not see all primitive religions as equivalent, judging the Zande as magical with a god-of-the-gaps deity vs. the Nuer as "sophisticated, insightful and true" (107). Assuming E-P was an "inclusivist" in his theology, he would have seen the Nuer as "believers". 

Douglas: In comparison to the Turners and E-P who converted later in life, Douglas was raised in a devout Catholic home. She "never ceased to be grateful that the Church had given her an ordered, well-meaning world", from which she could do science effectively (125). In this, I'm reminded of the likely role of theology in general and intelligent design in particular-- that theology can explain the limits of what science will be able to do under proper assumptions-- and perhaps ironically, a clearer understanding of Science and a better practice of science. If we assume away theology improperly, we end up with a needlessly handicapped science. 

Douglas also devoted an amazing amount of energy to the study of Leviticus, with applications to anthropology (132-133a, 151-156, 160)! For those who are interested in the Bible from a "literary framework" or from its anthropological contexts, Douglas' work on clean/unclean, taboos, the role of rituals, and the absence of divination from the text (despite its contemporary practice). 

The Turners: Here are two notable, "negative" aspects (faith in X because the alternatives are lame by comparison) from Victor's statement of faith (185): "I became a theist because I could see no rational grounds for making an act of faith in the non-existence of God. It seemed more reasonable to hypothecate a purposive somebody behind the structure of the universe than a purposeless something." And "If materialism be right, our thoughts are determined by traditional processes and therefore the thoughts which lead to the conclusion that materialism is right have no relation to reason." His wife Edith started rolling at the age of 63 after her husband's death in 1984 (204). 

Larsen's conclusions: The "Ring"
Larsen wraps up the book by noting a "ring" literary structure in the chronology of the six scholars. In a "ring", themes are bookended with each other, starting with the two on the ends. With that framework, E-P is (appropriately) in the center (221), literally and figuratively. 

Key observations from this framework: Turner is the "undoing" of Tylor-- "in Tylorian terms, a revival of a survival" (219). "The project of both Tylor and Frazer was to show the pagan beneath the Christian, and curiously, the Turners often did the exact same thing (219). Tylor lost his C in studying A; the Turners found C through A (222). "We see [Frazer] straining to find a malevolent subtext even for what one encounters as apparently wholesome and innocent, and [Douglas] grasping for a benign interpretation even for what initially strikes one as rather sinister or unpleasant." (222)

Larsen notes that a ring is also helpful in getting us to imagine scholarship and progress in a non-linear fashion vs. the usual, implicit assumptions of linearity (222) for progress in general and for scholarship in particular. As Christian Smith puts it: "The simple idea of secularization theory-- hat over time, modern secularity replaces premodern religious credulity-- is negated by an exact reverse in the case of [these] leading scholars..."

Moreover, Larsen expects this dance to continue (223-224): "A will always be a site of both deconversions and conversions, gain and loss, doubt and faith. Any narrative which latches on to only one half of this equation is likely to be disproven by events as they continue to unfold." (224) 

Two helpful book reviews: 

From Christian Smith in First Things...

Smith notes that "the methods and theories of the early secular scholars provided to be antiquated and embarrassing" to later scholars, including those with a secular bent. The "secular rationalists" produced lower-quality scholarship than the Catholic thinkers. 

In part, this is an artifact of progress in research and non-religious biases held by Tylor and Frazer. On the latter, Smith points to "Victorian- and Edwardian-era armchair anthropologizing...the arrogance of British colonialism and the pre-WWI Enlightment...paternalism and naivete toward colonized people...[and] the background assumptions of scientistic positivism and empiricism."

But the differences cannot be (nearly) fully explained by these deficiencies. Instead, "the organizational universalism of the Catholic Church and the ethical universalism of Catholic faith [and Biblical theology]" allowed for much clearer thinking and "helped make these scholars better A's". In sum, "had these world-class scholars not been Catholic [Christian], their anthropological imaginations would have been much diminished." Again, if Christian theology is true, failure to embrace will necessarily get in the way of Science and may well interfere with good science. 

From Joel Robbins in Books and Culture...

Robbins writes as one in the field. He agrees with Larsen's assessment of the field's history. In sum, "within a generation of A's founding, A's would begin to give up on the evolutionist models that first nourished their field, and they quickly began to promote the idea that there was no useful scale on which to rank societies as more or less advanced." 

Robbins is notably impressed by the retelling of the conventional narrative of the field's preeminent scholars, describing it as "a man-bites-dog kind of story of received wisdom upended...a deeply jarring, unorthodox telling of a key corner of the discipline's history...Tylor and Frazer stay where we'd always learned they belonged...but the [other] biographies...are a revelation...This book will be greeted as something of a bombshell amongst A's of religion." Robbins concludes by asking how the faith commitments of the last four "contribute to their intellectual creativity and success as scholars..."


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