In anthropological litterature it is commonplace to find definitions of religion which are framed in terms of oppositions. Murray L. Wax points out:
"Definitions usually involve contrast, and religion is almost always contrasted with magic or science. More important, religion is usually defined in relationship to one side of a pair of polar opposites: supernatural/natural, sacred/profane, ritual/nonritual, transcendental/mundane (empirical). When the context is the Western world, the application of these predicates is usually self-evident (or at least presumptively so). However, in the context of a non-Western nonliterate - generically "primitive" - society, the application may not be so evident, especially if we inquire whether the distinction is one which is made by the native actors." (Wax 1984: 9)
Up until the seventies, the more common approach to the definition of religion was, as Wax notes, the 'contrast' approach with religion defined in contradistinction to science/the empirical or some variation on this theme. Since then a growing number of authors have developed a more cognitive perspective, interesting themselves principally with the problem of how religions answer the question of meaning. In this group one will find authors such as J. M. Yinger, Thomas Luckmann, Marc Augé and Mary Black. Between the 'contrast' approach and the cognitive approach other authors such as Clifford Geertz can be found. Geertz, for example, regards religions as cultural systems and does not identify them by the use of a particular cultural content (i. e. belief in supernatural beings, the sacred, etc.). However, on the issue of the religion/science relationship, Geertz continues to express it in terms of opposition (Geertz 1973: 111, 112). Even with Emile Durkheim one can perceive a certain indecision relative to this relation. On one side Durkheim underscores the religious origin of science and of a number of other social institutions (1960: 598) and on the other he notes that one must inevitably recognize the religion/science contrast as without yet supplying any content to this supposed antithesis (1960: 635). The approach taken in the following pages involves the introduction of the concept of entropy allowing the development of an information theory view of religion.
The entropy concept.
Before proceeding any further here one might ask what precisely is entropy and what is it's use in the natural sciences ? The laws of thermodynamics are amongst the best demonstrated laws in science today. Jeremy Rifkin, in a volume on this subject, remarks:
"Albert Einstein once mused over which of the laws of science deserved to be ranked as supreme law. He concluded by making the following observation: "A theory is more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premisses, the more different are the kinds of things it relates and the more extended its range of applicability. Therefore, the deep impression which classical thermodynamics made on me. It is the only physical theory of universal content which I am convinced, that within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts will never be overthrown"." (Rifkin 1980: 42)
The laws of thermodynamics were initially developed in the 19th century in relation with contemporary research on the efficiency of steam engines and understanding the transformation of heat (caloric energy) into work. The first law postulates that in a closed system where energy is expended (due to chemical or other reactions) the quantity of energy always remains the same. The second law establishes that the quality of this energy degrades in an irreversible fashion, that is, that in any physical process, part of the energy produced by the reaction will be dissipated (through friction, radiation, etc. ) and will become unusable. Thus, in this context, entropy measures the amount of unavailable energy. Kenneth Wark makes the following remarks on this law.
"The second law of thermodynamics has many ramifications with respect to engineering processes. Among others, it determines the direction of change of equilibrium for a particular system under a given set of constraints. (...) The importance of the second law to society is this: The first law deals with the quantity of energy in terms of a conservation rule. The second law deals with the quality of energy. It is essentially a nonconservation rule. To speak of the quality of energy may be surprising, since quality implies that some forms of energy are more useful to society than others. (...) The concept of optimization of energy usage implies that there are better and worse ways of using energy. It is the potential of various forms of energy to do useful work for humanity that determines the quality of those forms. The second law places some restriction on the transformation of some forms of energy to a more useful type. In addition, we are all familiar with the notion that certain "losses" are associated with energy usage. The presence of friction in a process denotes to most people a loss in performance. Thus certain features of an energy process leads to a "degradation" of energy or, again, a loss in quality." (Wark 1977: 7-8)
Isaac Asimov provides an example of the classical view of the second law:
"Let's suppose, for simplicity's sake, that a steam engine is functioning as a "closed system"; that is, as a sort of walled-off portion of the universe into which no energy can enter and from which no energy can depart. In such a closed-system steam engine the Second Law states that heat must be flowing from the point of high energy potential (the hot reservoir in this case) to the point of low (the cold reservoir).
Conversely, the amount of energy which cannot be converted into work must increase. This increase in the amount of unavailable energy is the inevitable consequence of the heat flow predicted by the Second Law. Therefore to say that in any spontanous process (one in which energy flows from high to low) the amount of unavailable energy increases with time, is just another way or stating the Second Law." (Asimov 1972: 171-172)
Rifkin notes (1980: 35) that work can only be accomplished when energy passes from a state of high concentration to a state of lower concentration or from a high temperature to a lower temperature. More importantly, each time energy passes from one level to another, the result is that less energy will be available to accomplish work at a later occasion.
If one observes for example, a quantity of water going over a dam and falling into a lake, the water, in falling can be used to turn a wheel and subsequently to accomplish some form of mechanical work. Once in the lake, however, the water is incapable of performing any useful work. Its kinetic energy is spent. Man can intervene and store the energy of falling water under one form or another (battery, spring, etc.), but he can only slow down the process resulting in the fact that in the long run in entropy or unavailable energy becomes maximum.
It must be pointed out that since its development in the context of classical thermodynamics the concept of entropy has been borrowed and applied in two other distinct fields of research. First of all, in statistical mechanics (developed principally in relation to the kinetic theory of gases) entropy is a measure of disorder or growing probability in the structure of a system and, more recently, in the theory of information where entropy is used as measure of information loss which occurs in the transmission of any coded message. In each case entropy is understood as an irreversible process, notwithstanding intervention from outside the system.
Asimov explains entropy in the following manner:
"It is also possible to view entropy as having something to do with "order" and "disorder". These words are hard to define in any foolproof way; but intuitively, we picture "order" as characteristic of a collection of objects that is methodologically arranged according to a logical system. Where no such logical arrangement exists, the collection of objects is in "disorder".
Another way of looking at it is to say that something which is "in order" is so arranged that one part can be distinguised from another part. The less clear the distinction, the less "orderly" it is, the more "disorderly"." (Asimov 1976: 176-177)
"As nearly as can be told, all spontaneous processes involve an increase in disorder and an increase in entropy, the two being analogous. It can be shown that of all forms of free energy, heat is the most disorderly. Consequently, in all spontaneous processes involving types of energy other than heat, some non-heat energy is always converted to heat, this in itself involving an increase in disorder and hence in entropy." (Asimov 1976: 179)
Concerning the relationship between probability and disorder Emmet L. Williams makes the following comments (1981: 19): "The second law of thermodynamics is an empirical law, directly observable in nature and in experimentation. This law implies that the direction of all natural processes is towards states of disorder. From the standpoint of statistics, natural operations proceed in a direction of greatest probability. The most probable state for any natural system is one of disorder. All natural systems degenerate when left to themselves." If we consider the definition of entropy as it is found in the theory of information (where it is understood as a form of "noise" in a communications channel) Joël de Rosnay notes:
"L'information qui circule dans une voie de transmission se dégrade de manière irréversible, Elle offre en cela une très grande analogie avec l'énergie, laquelle se dégrade, comme on l'a vu, en entropie. Par exemple, si l'on prend le moule d'une statue et que l'on coule, à partir de ce moule, une autre statue dont on prendra également le moule, il est fort probable qu'au bout d'une vingtaine d'opérations successives, la forme finale de la statue sera complètement dénaturée. Autre exemple, un négatif photographique servant à faire des agrandissements à partir desquels on tire de nombreux clichés: la moindre rayure dégrade irréversiblement l'information originale." (de Rosnay 1975: 171)
In statistical mechanics and in the theory of information one also encounters the term negentropy (or negative entropy) which is expressed as a reverse form of entropy. It generally corresponds to a form of order (a structure) or information. It should be noted that in each of the previously mentioned areas of research there are innumerable mathematical expressions used daily by engineers applying these principles in their field of work. One observes that in the natural sciences the most important criteria permitting the valid extension (through analogy It should be noted) of the concept of entropy from one field to another is the demonstration of mathematical equivalence of two definitions.
One must point out that in many texts, scientific or non-scientific, the word entropy is used in a general manner without specifying which of the three definitions is being used. For example, often one will see affirmations such as "in all X, Y, and Z cases entropy increases"... without specifying which form of entropy is involved. In the case of a human society, the situation as regards entropy becomes considerably complicated, as all three forms of entropy can be seen in action, and often at the same time. First of all there is a continuous effort, in all societies, to provide energy in order to ensure the day to day operation of the basic production mechanisms (entropy = dissipated energy). Secondly, this same society must provide supplementary energy (and information/intelligence) in order to maintain the structural integrity of the basic production mechanisms in proper working order (entropy = disorder). And last of all, a society must provide a context or institution where it can maintain and reproduce its knowledge, whether it be ideological, technological or artistic knowledge (entropy = loss of information). In the West this institution is the school. Actually, it is quite likely that a close examination of any social production or reproduction process over time will reveal our three forms of entropy in action simultaneously.
If we go back to our example of the school, we can see that, first of all the school requires a continuous input of energy which is used to maintain the institution's basic operations and which appear in the form of heating and electricity bills, expenses for teaching materials and personnel salaries. On a second level a school requires an input of energy which is employed to maintain the structures of the institution, that is for repairs and the upkeep of buildings, replacement or maintenance of teaching materials, etc... (entropy = disorder). Lastly, a school serves as transmitter of information, which as a cybernetic system (by means of feedback reactions) must evaluate if the transmitted information has been correctly received or not (entropy = information loss due to noise).
Religion: a cybernetic definition
Let us now proceed, first of all, to present the cybernetic definition of religion, then to make explicit relations between the religious phenomenon and entropic processes.
Taking into consideration the constraints put upon human society by the laws of entropy, religion then is firstly a cultural anti-entropic mechanism, supplying a cosmology, that is a conceptual framework, an "order" in which the world which surrounds us can be interpreted and understood. Secondly, a religion supplies a strategy or a specific logic, coherent with the presuppositions underpinning it's cosmology, permitting it to deal with the various disruptive entropic processes. Religion would then be understood here as a cultural system supplying order/meaning to existence and also a strategy enabling individuals (and/or societies) to deal with the entropic processes in various ways, either in "fighting against" or in "accepting" them. In individual cases some religions will appear to provide more meaning than others. This will be discussed in greater detail further on.
In order to fill out the various aspects of the entropic processes and their interaction with a religious system we will begin our analysis with a list of phenomena which will allow us to cover a number of points of contact between entropic processes in a society and a religion. It should be noted that the four "fields" of the following table (and the sub-fields which they comprise) are only arbitrary categorizations; other categorizations might work as well. The reader will likely notice that these categories overlap to a certain extent, but this is inevitable to a certain extent as the objective here is not creating watertight categories but illustrating processes.
1- Physical a- (nature): diseases; famines; disabilities; epidemics catastophies and death.
b- (cultural): the destruction brought on by wars and all violent human conflict.
2- Social a- (structural): degradation or elimination of various cultural institutions such as languages, belief systems, economic, administrative or political systems.
b- (inter-individual): animosities, lies, adultery, blasphemy, murder, rape, treason, etc.
3- Intellectual a- a lack of knowledge in relation to various human problems; the realization, by the individual, of the lack of meaning of his/her existence.
b- the loss of information with the passing of generations.
4- Psycho-emotional: feelings of insatisfaction, of hatred, of love, of worry and also depression, joy and psychosis.
Before going any further, it would be appropriate to note that it will be postulated below that a religion, as a system of beliefs, is a form of order, and because of this basic fact it must battle the entropic tendency and its resulting increase of disorder and loss of meaning. These points will be covered in a more detailed manner in the following pages.
1- Physical a- (nature): diseases; famines; disabilities; epidemics catastophies and death.
When discussing entropic processes, a number of phenomena could be enumerated that contribute in divers manners to the degradation of the order and information which are present in a society and in the physiology of the individuals which form it. I expect it will not be necessary to emphasize the fact that the physical disappearance of the members of a religious system or of a society constitute one of the most serious attacks that can be sustained by a religion and this forces this system to develop mechanisms which will allow it to survive the passage of generations (by means of various methods of recruitment, initiation ceremonies and funerals) It is generally admitted today, for example, that death constitutes an important increase in the entropy (disorder) of a living organism. Léon Brillouin makes the following comments on the subject.
"Cependant, la vie présente un second aspect qui semble bien plus important. Laissons de côté le problème complexe de la naissance et de la reproduction. Considérons un spécimen adulte, qu'il soit une plante, un animal ou un homme. Cet individu adulte est un exemple extraordinaire de système chimique en équilibre instable. Le système est instable, sans aucun doute, puisqu'il représente une organisation très détaillée, une structure très improbable (c'est donc un système qui possède une entropie très basse d'après l'interprétation statistique de l'entropie). Cette instabilité se manifeste encore plus quand la mort arrive. Alors, tout à coup, la structure entière est abandonnée à elle-même, privée de la force mystérieuse qui la maintenait; dans un court espace de temps l'organisme tombe en morceaux, pourrit et retourne (les Saintes Ecritures nous fournissent l'expression) à la poussière dont il était sorti." (Brillouin 1959: 48)
1- Physical b- (cultural): the destruction brought on by wars and all violent human conflict.
Wars and armed conflicts in general usually bring in their wake major increases in physical disorder affecting in an obvious manner the infrastructure of a society (political and economic aspects). In some cases the superstructure of a society will be affected too. This can be true for example in the case of an invasion where annexation of territory is not the sole objective.
Perhaps it would be appropriate here to explain why point 1 has been sub-divided into two levels, even if the processes in question all bring about a physical increase in entropy (disorder). The reason is the following: in the first case the increase in entropy is simply the result of natural processes, whereas in the second the entropy results from the encounter of two social systems with antagonistic objectives.
2- Social a- (structural): degradation or elimination of various cultural institutions such as languages, belief systems, economic, administrative or political systems.
As in the preceding cases, the collapse or elimination of social institutions constitutes an increase in entropy (primarily as a loss of information) but there is a difference. In the preceding cases, the total destruction of a society can lead to a permanent and irreversible increase of entropy, but if we consider the disappearance of a language, for example, the entropy increase is not so obvious as it generally is coincides with the imposition of another, dominant, language. One may be tempted to thing that perhaps there is no real increase in entropy here, just an exchange of communication codes, one order replacing another ??
Let us take a hypothetical case. Group A speaking an unwritten language x is defeated in a war with Group B speaking language y and its territory invaded. After a certain period of acculturation, language x is totally eliminated, no "xphone" speakers remain. If one were to consider the language itself as an anthropomorphized entity, the loss of information entailed by its elimination would have to be considered just as irreparable as if all the individuals speaking x had suddenly died in a nuclear blast or from a plague. It should be noted that in the theory of communication, entropy has been generally understood as a measure of the noise level in a channel used to transmit information. The theory of communication also postulates (Weaver 1966: 17) that the transmission of any message requires a code, and one might consider that if the code should itself be eliminated by a "certain event", this "event" will have contributed to increase the entropy of the system in a manner incomparable to that of a little "noise" in a channel.
In the same way, if in a grocery store X a bag of apples rots, this represents an increase of entropy (probably a measurable increase too) and an economic loss for the owner of the grocery. However, if a "certain event" occurs which entails the destruction of the distribution system which this grocery store relies on for its supplies this "event" will bring a much greater increase in entropy (and probably impossible to measure). The same could be said of the other social institutions mentioned above.
2- Social b- (inter-individual): animosities, lies, adultery, blasphemy, murder, rape, treason, etc.
Here we find ourselves getting away from physical entropic processes as such and approaching the processes of creating order operating in religious systems. Religions in the processes of creating (social) order can be observed to forbid certain behaviours and to prescribe others. One might say all religions involve prescriptions and taboos. The importance of this process can be explained by the central fact that religion is and projects an original form of order and as such must, to maintain itself, establish categories of behaviour compatible (prescribed or allowed) with its particular order and those which are considered incompatible (forbidden) otherwise in the long term behavioural "noise" in society will eventually destroy it. Discussing this problem, Mary Douglas points out the implications for "primitive" societies.
"Everything that can happen to a man in the way of disaster should be catalogued according to the active principles involved in the universe of his culture. Sometimes words trigger off cataclysms, sometimes acts, sometimes physical conditions. Some dangers are great and others small. We cannot start to compare primitive religions until we know the range of powers and dangers they recognize. Primitive society is an energised structure in the centre of its universe. Powers shoot out from its strong points, powers to prosper and dangerous powers to retaliate against attack. But the society does not exist in a neutral, uncharged vacuum. It is subject to external pressures; that which is not with it, part of it and subject to its laws, is potentially against it. In describing these pressures on boundaries and margins I admit to having made society more systematic than it really is But such an expressive over-systematising is necessary for interpreting the beliefs in question. For I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exagerating the difference between, within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created." (emphasis mine) (Douglas 1966: 4)
As Douglas indicates in the first lines of this citation, each religious system breaks down the spectrum of human behaviour according to its own principles. Thus behaviour which would appear reprehensible or depraved in one religion would appear in another... insignificant. From the preceding citation I believe one must primarily retain the idea that reality in itself is un-ordered and meaningless and that it is only due to the previous elaboration of a cosmology that one can attempt to make any sense of it at all. In an essay on the concept of entropy in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mauro W. Barbosa de Almeida discusses the implications of this concept for the study of human behavior (1990: 375):
"Time is irreversible because as time passes entropy increases. Conversely, machines that preserve some symmetry, reversible machines, require the arrest of the processes of entropy. Without this violation neither life nor culture would exist. The physicist James Clerk Maxwell represented this violation anthropomorphically as a demon placed in the doorway between the two compartments, opening and shutting the door depending on what it sees (Wiener 1961 : 56-57; Monod 1972: chap. 3; Prigogine & Stengers 1979). In other words, Maxwell's demon is guided by information, and it uses this information to preserve improbable states. Thus by shutting the door most of the times an object tries to escape from compartment A into compartment B and opening it most of the times an object tries to return from B to A, it keeps A "marked" and B "unmarked". By preserving a discrete and improbable state in this way, the demon prevents the increase of entropy. Maxwell's demon is a machine for cancelling time in the only form in which its direction is recognizable: the increase in disorder, or entropy.
We may imagine Maxwell's demon (in society - PG) assuming the form of a variety of mechanisms: repression, collective conscience, tradition, voting, constitutions, rules, taboos, preferences, maps, styles, and cosmologies. An antientropy machine restricts the universe of possible worlds, introducing constraints on the to-and-fro movement of objects. This is just what happens with marriage rules and taboos in small-scale societies or with customs and immigration regulations, educational systems, and even styles in large-scale ones."
David Moyer, in an essay on the 19th century Sumatran legal code, examines the English word "law" and points out the fact that judicial systems can be conveniently analyzed in terms of mechanisms developed to combat entropy (disorder).
"An anthropological notion of legal reform presupposes an adequate conception of the term law. Most western European languages have two distinct terms that bissect the domain of the English term law. French, for example, has the word "droit" and "loi", both of which in some contexts must be translated by the English term law. This French distinction is useful in helping to clarify the plurality of ideas and phenomena associated with the English word "law". In the first instance "droit" implies "right", and by implication "justice". In anthropological terms one might argue that "droit" implies the entire system for maintaining social order and dealing with disturbances to the social order. In Lévi-Strauss' terms "droit" can be viewed as a process for dealing with events (événements). "Loi" on the other hand, implies structure and involves the definition of the nature of society." (emphasis mine) (Moyer 1978: 181)
One must expect some form of feedback relationship between the "definition of the nature of society" and the "system for maintaining social order" where the definition of society (which will inevitably refer to a myth or ideological discourse) will serve, within the system of order maintenance, as a standard permitting the evaluation (acceptance or rejection) of human behaviour in that society. In order to better understand the processes whereby order is created in the realm of behaviour and social attitudes it must be pointed out that a society must first of all elaborate a cosmology containing a definition of human nature (individual and/or collective), then it can begin to distinguish between forms of behaviour and attitudes compatible or contributing positively in some way to the form of order implied by the cosmology and those which would be incompatible or contributing to the disintegration of the order implied by the cosmology. Using this observation, we may go on to explore an ancient ideological dichotomy which may, in a number of cases, be useful in understanding the process whereby social and ideological order is created... that is the good - evil dichotomy.
Good <-> Evil
According to Monica Wilson (1957: 3), the concept of evil is, while expressed in diverse manners, a reality encountered in all cosmologies. In the following examples of the good/evil dichotomy we will be able to observe the feedback relation between specific cosmological conceptions (concerning man and nature) and the creation of social order. Here we can see the form taken by this relation amongst the Tangu of New Guinea.
"For among the Tangu, as indeed elsewhere, while the 'good' may be allowed to take care of itself, the 'bad' or evil hangs broody, moody, and wild. The good man emerges from a proper ordering of social relations, the good is a function or product of that ordering, conformity with the implications of the ordering of the moral community implies the good man, restraint and a sense of obligation define what is meant by moral. The problem of the singular, on the other hand, must command constant attention. And since among the Tangu, expressions of the singular are almost always regarded as 'bad', the attention that they give to the bad often looks like worship. Lacking those necessary rituals which tend to exclude what is 'bad' in the singular by bringing what is 'good' into cognizance, Tangu cannot but be more concerned with the 'bad' than they are with the 'good' which would transcend a current balance of reciprocal arrangements. It is not only the Tangu who jump at the conclusion that an act of self-willedness is probably 'bad' rather than 'good'. Evil is wild and unordered, may make its presence evident anywhere at anytime. So that while happy conformists are 'good' because they make no trouble, non-conformists are apt to cause trouble and therefore 'bad'." (K. O. L. Burridge 1969: 467)
In Africa, other formulations of this dichotomy may be found.
"For the Nyakyusa, evil is chiefly, but not exclusively, a quality of the living; essentially it is witchcraft which resides in anger, jealousy, hatred and anti-social sentiments generally (1957: 35). Much the same interpretation prevails among the Lugbara. 'The distinction between good and bad is a moral one; Lugbara imply this when they use these terms' (Middleton 1960: 250). The quality of 'badness' residing in the immoral and anti-social appies not only to living persons but also to aspects of nature and divinity and to mythical time and space (1960: 250). Fortes (1960: 45, 46) distinguished Evil Destiny from Good Destiny among the Tallensi: Evil Destiny 'serves to identify the fact of irremediable failure in the development of the individual to full social capacity'; 'The notion of Good Destiny, on the other hand, symbolically identifies the fact of successful individual development along the road to full incorporation in society.' In a recent account of the Zulu world-view, it is shown that Zulu terminology equates evil with enemy, so that it is associated with hostility and illegitimate anger in social relationships. A distinction is made between evil incarnate (the witch) and evil embedded in matter (i.e.-sorcery) (Berglund 1976: 236, 266). Evil is therefore predominantly translated as an anti-social capacity of social persons and is ideally personified in the witch." (J. P. Kiernan 1982: 283)
Amonst the Lele one may find a formulation which, on a number of points, approximates that of the Zulu described above. Douglas, in the following quotation, underlines the importance of mythical conceptions and/or cosmologies vis-a-vis the formulation of the good - evil dichotomy and the subsequent ordering (of human behaviour) that this formulation permits.
"It is often said that in this African tribe that the people do not recognize the possibility of natural death. The Lele are not fools. They recognize that life must come to an end. But if matters were to take their natural course they expect everyone to live out his natural span and sink slowly from senility to the grave. When this happens they rejoice, for such an old man or woman has truimphed over all the pitfalls that lay in the way and achieved completion. But this rarely happens. Most people, according to Lele are struck down by sorcery long before they reach their goal. And sorcery does not belong in the natural order of things as Lele see it. Sorcery was a late-coming afterthought, more an accident in creation. ... For the Lele evil is not to be included in the total system of the world, but to be expunged without comprise. All evil is caused by sorcery. They can clearly visualize what reality would be without sorcery and they continually strive to achieve it by eliminating sorcerers." (emphasis mine) (Douglas 1966: 171)
It should be noted in the quotation by Kiernan that one case, that of the Tallensi, which does not appear, at least at first glance, to be analyzable in terms of behaviours/attitudes compatible with a particular ideological-social order. The concepts of "Good and Bad Destiny" cannot actually be related to forms of behaviour or attitudes, but seem to refer to a mysterious "something" whose powers surpass those of the individual (and, possibly, those of the group). This "something" is capable of impeding the full participation of an individual, even against his/her will, in the social order. This particular postulate can be better understood not as a directing principle for individual behaviour or attitudes but as a segment of the general religious cosmology, specifically the segment having to do with human nature and the factors that may influence it. It would be quite reasonable to expect, on another level, beliefs concerning good and evil amongst the Tallensi, beliefs which would direct the behaviour and attitudes of individuals and those of the group relative to an ideal social order.
We may close this section in indicating that one should expect an intimate relation between concepts of human nature which can be found in the various cosmologies of particular societies and the manner in which these same societies break down the spectrum of human behaviour
3- Intellectual a- a lack of knowledge in relation to various human problems; the realization, by the individual, of the lack of meaning of his/her existence.
Here again we find ourselves moving away from physical entropic processes and beginning to touch the structural aspects of religious systems themselves. Following the postulate presented previously (with the definition of religion) that religions are, in general, attempts to impose meaning and coherence on reality, we will now turn to the implications of such an observation in a situation where fortuitous events expose structural weaknesses in the religious order, that is a lack of information or deficiency of meaning. Pierre Maranda, in an essay on metaphor, explains what the battle against entropy can involve for a mythical discourse while noting that this process actually affects all cultural texts.
"The challenge is always the same. How to defend oneself, individual or society, against what we call "entropy"; how to persist through time keeping uncertainty below a culture-specific threshold; how to preserve stability and quietness - i.e. predictability - despite growing disorder all around; how to keep the feeling that one's powers of ordering experience are adequate ? We can say of any "text" what I wrote elsewhere about myth: " The life of myth consists of reorganizing traditional components in the face of new circumstances or, correlatively, in reorganizing new, imported components in the light of tradition. More generally, the mythic process is a learning device in which the unintelligible - randomness - is reduced to intelligibility - a pattern: 'Myth may be more universal than history'"." (Maranda 1980: 192)
If, in effect, it is agreed that religion is basically an attempt to impose meaning on reality. If an event (or series of events) appears to bring into question the value of this meaning, then one can suppose that such an event will constitute a major source of anguish and stress, especially if it brings to the surface doubts as to the validity of the entire structure of meaning as supplied by a ideological-religious system. Geertz, observes in his essay "Religion as a Cultural System", that there are three types of situations which can bring into question the meaning of the world around us, three situations where chaos may annihilate the structure of meaning erected by an ideological-religious system. They are the following (Geertz 1973: 100):
1- Situaltions where humans come to the limit of their analytic capabilities.
2- Situaltions where humans come to the limit of their physical endurance.
3- Situaltions where humans come to the limit of their moral insight.
Geertz notes that if one of these situations occurs in a particularly intense fashion or if it lasts a long time, this situation can give rise to the doubts about the idea that life is comprehensible and that thought is sufficient in orienting ourselves in it. Further on, Geertz describes the discovery of a major deficiency of meaning in a ideological-religious system and the impact that such a discovery can have.
"Any chronic failure of one's explanatory apparatus, the complex of received culture patterns (common sense, science, philosophical speculation, myth) one has for mapping the empirical world, to explain things which cry out for explanation tends to lead to a deep disquiet - a tendency more widespread and a disquiet rather deeper than was sometimes supposed since the pseudoscience view of religious belief was, quite rightfully, deposed. After all, even that high priest of heroic positivism, Lord Russell, once remarked that although the problem of the existence of God had never bothered him, the ambiguity of certain mathematical axioms had threatened to unhinge his mind. And Einstein's profound dissatisfaction with quantum mechanics was based on a - surely religious - inability to believe that, as he put it, God plays dice with the universe." (Geertz 1973: 100-101)
Another author, Thomas O'Dea, who defines the situation of lack of meaning as a "breaking point", provides a list of certain issues which can bring an individual to the discovery of a lack of meaning in his/her ideological-religious system and points out what may be the result of such a discovery (O'Dea 1966: 5-6). "Why should I die? Why should a loved one die, and in unfulfilled youth? Why did that venture, in which our heart's desire reposed, go awry? Why illness? Such questions demand meaningful answers. If they are found to be without meaning, the value of institutionalized goals and norms is undermined. How can morale be maintained when disappointment lurks at every step, and death, the ultimate disappointment, strikes at our defenselessness in the end?"
O'Dea also underlines the vulnerability of meaning structures implied by all ideological-religious systems.
"Life and thought propel men to the limit-situation, push them to breaking points that go beyond established relationships and accepted answers to significant questions. Although religions emerge out of such experiences and responses, and embody the answers evolved in such confrontations, religion once established does not provide secure and permanent answers. Life and thought continue to drive men beyond the established institutionalized answers and their representation in religious forms. Doubt comes into existence as a fundamental breaking point within the religious context itself." (O'Dea 1966: 27)
Lauriston Sharp, in a classic essay on the Yir Yoront (an Australian aboriginal group), explains what effect of the encounter with white culture had on a neighbouring group and, in doing so, gives a glimpse of what the consequences of a total collapse of an ideological-religious system can be.
"The aboriginals to the south of the Yir Yoront have clearly passed beyond this stage. They are engulfed by European culture, either by misson or cattle station sub-cultures or, for some natives, by a baffling, paradoxical combination of both incongruent varieties. The totemic ideology can no longer support the inrushing mass of foreign culture traits, and the myth-making process in its native form breaks down completely. Both intellectually and emotionally a saturation point is reached so that the myriad new traits which can neither be ignored nor any longer assimilated simply force the aboriginal to abandon his totemic system. With the collapse of this system of ideas, which is closely related to so many other aspects of the native culture, there follows an appallingly sudden and complete cultural disintegration, and a demoralization of the individual such as has seldom been recorded elsewhere. Without the support of a system of ideas well devised to provide cultural stability in a stable environment, but admittedly too rigid for the new realities pressing in from outside, native behavior and native sentiments and values are simply dead. Apathy reigns. The aboriginal has passed beyond the realm of any outsider who might wish to do him well or ill." (Sharp 1952: 22)
Actually the reaction described by Sharp here is an extreme case of loss of meaning, other reactions are possible following such an event, amongst which that described by O'Dea in the previous quotation (development of a new religion). The potential disrupting effect an event may have will vary in relation to a number of factors, such as the event's capacity to directly expose a weakness in the structure of the ideological-religious system, its novelty, its persistence and the degree to which the ideological-religious system has penetrated the culture. If no adequate explanation of the disrupting event is possible within the old ideological-religious system and if there isn't one around that could be borrowed, then the sages will, of necessity, have to invent one. In some cases, where an adequate answer in a particular ideological-religious system seems impossible, it may be tempting or useful to simply ignore the phenomena. Again, in Sharp's essay, we find the description of a situation which coincides perfectly with the preceding observations.
"At a later stage of the contact situation as has been indicated, phenomena unaccounted for by the totemic ideological system begin to appear with regularity and frequency and remain within the range of native experience. Accordingly, they cannot be ignored (as the "Battle of the Mitchell" was apparently ignored), and there is an attempt to assimilate them and account for them along the lines of principles inherent in the ideology. The bush Yir Yoront of the mid-thirties represent this stage of the acculturation process. Still trying to maintain their aboriginal definition of the situation, they accept European artifacts and behavior patterns, but fit them into their totemic system assigning them to various clans on a par with original totems. There is an attempt to have the myth-making process keep up with these cultural changes so that the idea system can continue to support the rest of the culture. But analysis of overt behavior, of dreams, and of some of the new myths indicate that this arrangement is not entirely satisfactory, that the native clings to his totemic system with intellectual loyalty (lacking any substitute ideology), but that associated sentiments and values are weakened. His attitudes towards his own and towards European culture are found to be highly ambivalent." (Sharp 1952: 22)
Maranda illustrates the fragility of belief systems in the following manner "A belief system can therefore be defined as a "machine" that works as an interpretation, storage and retrieval unit. In principle, it can receive any input, absorb it by mapping it into a system of categories, and it is never wrong, until it is destroyed by an input too strong for the system capacity." (Maranda 1979: 225):
Syncretism and Exclusivism
In societies where more than one ideological-religious system is accessible, borrowing may be one of the ways of resolving a crisis caused by disrupting "events", thereby diminishing the chances of a collapse as described by Sharp above. Two possibilities appear: If the two systems present are basically syncretistic, in general transposition of an explanation/resolution of an event can take place with relative ease. In the case of systems with a basically exclusivistic outlook (that is each system considers itself an absolute form of knowledge or truth) certain concepts or dogmas can be transposed, but if a new element is found to be in conflict with major beliefs or dogmas of the system then transposition will generally not take place. In addition, in such circumstances an apparently superior explanation (or belief) on the part of system X for example will be considered (or at least for propaganda purposes) as proof of superiority relative to other systems present in the same society (which may be unable to produce a satisfactory explanation or belief). A long-term inability to produce satisfactory explanations on the part of an ideological-religious system can have various effects on individuals or groups: the development of cynicism, or of a relativistic attitude towards religious knowledge, insanity, suicide or perhaps conversion to another system offering alternative explanations, when such a system is available.
Concerning the distinction made above between exclusivistic systems and syncretistic systems, there are no doubt intermediary cases which will be situated somewhere between the two extremes. Some groups develop systems which are exclusive mainly at a technological level. Sharp's data seems to indicate that this would be the case with the Yir Yoront A number of Christian denominations, such as the Hutterites and the Amish, also seem to have developed similar characteristics to a certain point. Other systems may be exclusive in ideological matters but not at a technological level. This situation corresponds with that of the West (mostly Christian) during the 19th century industrial revolution or to that of most countries behind the Iron Curtain up until autumn 1989. In other cases, we may be confronted with groups with exclusivistic tendencies at the technoligical level and syncretistic at the ideological level, where new technology will be regarded with suspicion but the addition of a new deity, saint or ancestor will cause no trouble other than that of finding a group to support the new deity's cult. J.-P. Dozon, in studying such matters, notes (1974: 84) that syncretism can also operate at an institutional level and relative to symbolism.
It has been observed above that amongst syncretistic systems elements of dogma and ritual can readily be exchanged. These systems see themselves as basically complementary and not as competitors. When a syncretistic system and an exclusivistic system (both at the ideological level) meet, a strange fact appears, namely that all systems are exclusivistic or intolerant "in the last instance". In reality, the only element that cannot easily be absorbed by a syncretistic system, is another belief system which puts itself forward as an absolute truth or form of knowledge because this will, in fact result in the elimination of the syncretistic principle itself. If the syncretistic view is taken, imposition of a truth criteria will appear as an aberration seeing as, a priori, all ideological-religious systems have equivalent epistemological value. We find this view expressed in the following fragment of an interview with a Malaitian reflecting on White religion (Christianity) and that of Malaita.
"Ensuite, nous nous disons ceci. Bon, ils ont leur récits fantastiques. Ils ont des généalogies (dans la Bible-P.G.). Très bien. Mais nous aussi nous avons des récits du même type et des généalogies, qui sont bons pour nous. Nous les comprenons, nous savons comment tout cela sert à nous faire mieux vivre notre vie. Mais nous n'avons pas la prétention de croire que nos traditions à nous devraient être enseignées et imposées aux Blancs. Ils ont les leurs, leurs traditions à eux, leurs généalogies, qui sont probablement bonnes pour eux; nous avons les nôtres, nos traditions à nous, qui sont bonnes pour nous. Nous, nous n'essayons pas de convaincre les Blancs d'abandonner leures idées pour adopter les nôtres. Pourquoi eux veulent-ils tellement nous convaincre d'abandonner les nôtres pour adopter les leurs?
Voila comment nous pensons." (Maranda 1979: 19-20)
Thus, in contact situations, a certain tension will always be present between systems characterized by exclusivism and systems characterized by syncretism. Systems characterized by syncretism will have a tendency to incorporate exclusivistic systems as just 'one more form of discourse', especially if for some reason they are popular or prestigious. On the other hand, systems characterized by exclusivism will operate basically by elimination mostly rather than addition or absorption.
b- Loss of information over time.
We shall now examine entropy as an information degrading process, affecting not only religion, but culture as well. A number of researchers are of the opinion that the possibility of extending the concept of entropy as developed in the context of the theory of communication to activities related to the production of knowledge and human communication in general should be seriously taken into consideration. On this point Léon Brillouin notes:
" ... Weiner indique nettement la nécessité d'étendre la notion d'entropie: "l'information représente de l'entropie négative"; si nous adoptons ce point de vue, comment pouvons-nous éviter qu'il s'étende à tous les types d'intelligence ? Nous devons certainement être prêts à discuter l'extension de l'entropie à la connaissance scientifique, au savoir-faire technique et à toutes les formes de pensée intelligente." (Brillouin 1959: 56)
A. E. Wilder-Smith remarks on this issue:
"The human mind gives itself expressions in creations, in which order is increased and entropy reduced. But, just as the expressions and creations of our individual minds are fleeting and imperfect, they reflect us, the fleeting and imperfect ones. We are bound up by the second law of thermodynamics. Our entropy is steadily increasing up to dissolution at death, physically speaking, so that the fruit of our thought will be truly expressed in the fleeting temporary nature of all we produce." (Wilder-Smith 1970: 176)
Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen brings up two important technical points which give a solid basis to the idea of extending the concept of entropy to all forms of human communication.
"That there are some connections and similarities between negentropy and information as understood as a piece of useful knowledge is beyond question. First, there is the fact, expressed by our relation (15), that no information can be obtained, transmitted, or received without the expenditure of some free energy. Second, like free energy (negentropy), information is subject to degradation. If transmitted, it may become garbled in part; if received, it may be marred by errors of recording; if stored, it is gradually eroded by the inevitable entropic degradation of ordered structures." (Georgescu-Roegen 1971: 405)
It must be fairly obvious by now that an ideological-religious system, like any other form of cultural information or order, cannot avoid being affected by the processes described above. The problem, basically, is to insure the retransmission of religious and cultural information beyond the passing of generations. As we all know our memory faculties are not only subject to degradation over time, but eventually the organism that supports this faculty will die. Generally the problem is resolved in a rather simple manner in that societies, if they are to survive, must all supply contexts (formal or otherwise) where this information can be duplicated and re-transmitted. In Western societies the school accomplishes a large part of this task (though the family cell contributes in many ways too). In numerous non-Western societies (before contact with Whites) this task of information re-transmission was performed by rites or ceremonies which, usually, have primary functions other than pedagogy: healing rites, dramatic celebrations, exorcisms, initiations, pilgrimages, etc...
4- Psycho-emotional: feelings of insatisfaction, of hatred, of love, of worry and also depression, joy and psychosis.
Like the human behaviour we examined in point 2-b, feelings and emotions constitute a form of 'raw material' with which part of the structure of meaning of an ideological-religious system can be erected. Geertz, on this point, writes:
"Despite the somewhat intellectual tone of these various examples, the extrinsic theory of thought is extendable to the affective side of human mentality as well. As a road map transforms mere physical locations into "places", connected by numbered routes and separated by measured distances, and so enables us to find our way from where we are to where we want to go, so a poem like, for example, Hopkin's "Felix Randall" provides, through the evocative power of its charged language, a symbolic model of the emotional impact of premature death, which, if we are impressed with its penetration as with the road map's, transforms physical sensations into sentiments and attitudes and enables us to react to such a tragedy not "blindly" but "intelligently". The central rituals of religion - a mass, a pilgrimage, a corroboree - are symbolic models (here more in the form of activities than of words) of a particular sense of the divine, a certain devotional mood, which their continual re-enactment tends to produce in their participants." (Geertz 1973: 215-216)
Claude Lévi-Strauss discusses how, in the case of shamanistic healing rites , this process of ordering emotions and sensations can take place.
"The cure would consist, therefore, in making explicit a situation originally existing on the emotional level and in rendering acceptable to the mind pains which the body refuses to tolerate. That the mythology of the shaman does not correspond to an objective reality does not matter. The sick woman believes in the myth and belongs to a society that believes in it. The tutelary spirits and malevolent spirits, the supernatural monsters and magical animals, are all part of a coherent system on which the native conception of the universe is founded. The sick woman accepts these mythical beings or, more accurately, she has never questioned their existence. What she does not accept are the incoherent and arbitrary pains, which are an alien element in her system but which the shaman, calling upon myth, will re-integrate within a whole where everything is meaningful.." (Lévi-Strauss 1963: 197)
Exploring these questions Thomas Luckmann explains how, in general, these ordering processes can operate and give rise to "the meaning of things".
"Subjective experience considered in isolation is restricted to mere actuality and is void of meaning. Meaning is not an inherent quality of subjective processes but is bestowed on it in interpretative acts. In such acts a subjective process is grasped retrospectively and located in an interpretative scheme. Such "meaning" as may be superimposed on ongoing experiences is necessarily derived from prior - eventually habitualized - interpretative acts. In other words, the meaning of experience depends strictly speaking, upon one's "stopping and thinking"; that is, acts by which subjective processes are located in an interpretative scheme. The interpretative scheme is necessarily distinct from ongoing experience." (Luckmann 1970: 45)
Ideally, an adequate ideological-religious system will be capable of responding to the basic cognitive, psychological, moral, aesthetic or other needs of its adherents. In the real world however, ideological-religious systems are not all adequate. As we have indicated previously, they sometimes conceal weaknesses or contradictions in their structure of meaning. When these weaknesses are recognized as crucial by the adherents of a particular system, this recognition can give rise to reactions such as anguish, worry, insatisfaction, etc... Thus, our previous discussion seems to allow the conjecture that the various human psychic states can be categorized in three groups relative to an ideological-religious system. First of all, these emotions or sensations may be integrated to the system, that is they will serve as "raw material" which is integrated in the course of initiations, ceremonies, etc. The second possibility is that these diverse psychic states may be non-integrated into the system and, as such, they may end up, in the long term, giving rise to doubts as to the validity of the system and, eventually, contribute to its final disintegration. The third possibility is that certain psychic states may be the consequences or 'symptoms' of a lack of meaning. For example, as individuals we all have a mental image and expectations vis-a-vis the social and physical reality which surrounds us, but if at certain points in time, it becomes obvious that there is an important discrepancy between our image of reality and that which it is, then frustation, insatisfaction, etc. will result.
Religion: a total social fact.
Let us take into consideration a point briefly brought up with the presentation of the definition of the religious phenomenon, that is, potentially, a religion can supply meaning to all the divers aspects of life in society. This phenomenon is especially significant in non-Western societies with a low level of technological development and it is in these societies that religion constitutes a quasi-archetypic example of a "total social fact" as first defined by Marcel Mauss.
"Les faits que nous avons étudiés sont tous, qu'on nous permette l'expression, des faits sociaux totaux ou, si l'on veut - mais nous aimons moins le mot - généraux; c'est-à-dire qu'ils mettent en branle dans certains cas la totalité de la société et de ses institutions (potlatch, clans affrontés, tribus se visitant, etc.) et dans d'autres cas, seulement un très grand nombre d'institutions, en particulier lorsque ces échanges et ces contrats concernent plutôt des individus. Tous ces phénomènes sont à la fois juridiques, économiques, religieux, et même esthétiques, morphologiques, etc." (Mauss 1960: 274)
That religion, as a "total social fact", is encountered most frequently outside of the West does not imply that it does not exist in this form here. Religion can most certainly become a "total social fact" in the West as well and it is most obvious in cases of groups with an intense community life (i. e. the Ammish communities of the American Mid-West). As an aside however, one must point out, concerning the cultural penetration of a religion, that in its initial stages a religion may only exist in the head of its founder. Obviously much development and recruitment will be required before it becomes a "total social fact", but each religion, even in its initial stages, must be considered as having the potential to become a "total social fact".
The political realm.
Considering religion as a "total social fact" has the advantage of permiting the analysis of certain data which often come to the attention of anthropologists in the field, data which the traditional monographic categories (economics, politics, law, religion, etc.) are incapable of coming to terms with. Raymond Firth, in an article on the domains of religion and politics exposes a number of facts that confirm the notion that these two "domains" (religion and politics) are hardly water-tight compartments and, in some cases, the two are inextricably bound together. Here is one example (Firth 1981: 588). "A guiding theme of all the 'religions of the Book' has been their holism - what may be called the alpha and omega view of religion. The religious canons are believed to contain within themselves all the rules necessary for the life and salvation of the believer, including all provisions for his political behaviour." (emphasis mine) Islam is an excellent example of this type of phenomenon.
"But from the central postulate of God as the supreme, ultimate, blinding reality come propositions about man as the servant of God, about nature as symbols reflecting the divine reality, and about the law (Shari'a) as expressing the will of God and covering all aspects of human life. It is a neat and logical faith. For Muslims, there is no ultimate distinction between divine law, and human law. So every act, including every political act, has a religious dimension and should have a demonstratable religious sanction." (Firth 1981: 589)
Further on in the article, discussing the traditional Marxist position on religion, Firth makes the following remarks:
"Religion can be a very powerful political instrument. But the strength of conviction of its followers, their certainty of the legitimacy of their premises, can lead to innovative action, to political challenge instead of political support. If in a broad way we can divide religious followers into moderates and extremists, it is among the moderates that Marx's propositions about religion as the ideology of the capitalist system have historically applied. Among the extremists, the zealots, the fanatics, God and Caesar are either unified or irreconcilable. A religion can then offer a revolutionary alternative to an established political system such that which would define the relative powers of church and state. More generally, it might be argued that some of the most important religious movements, at their beginning, have been as much challenges to the established political and economic order as escapes from it." (Firth 1981: 593)
Discussing the relation between politics and religion in Ancient Greece Richard Olson notes:
"(...) in Homeric society, as in ancient Near Eastern society, religious perceptions pervaded all aspects of life, from the interpretation of natural phenomena to the sanctioning of political and social arrangements. But within Greek society none of the Eastern corporate specialities, such as priesthood or scribe, overlay the common perceptions. Thus, an almost complete fusion of religious, political and physical understandings was a central feature carried into classical culture by the Homeric tradition. Lowes Dickinson has expressed the situation very nicely
“If there was no separate church, in our sense of the term, as an independant organism within the state, it was because the state, in one of its aspects, was itself a church, and derived its sanction, both as a whole and in its parts, from the same Gods who controlled the physical world.”" (Olson 1982: 65)
Jonathan Friedman in an article entitled "Religion as Economy and Economy as Religion" supplies evidence supporting the fact that religion can, at times play an important economic role (see also note no.19??).
"The categories economy, religion, social structure, are not obvious enough in their meaning to enable us to analyse any society. I have tried here to show that the specificity of the social organization of production and reproduction cross-cuts boundaries that have been traditionally drawn between supposedly discrete levels in all societies. If a relation to the supernatural can be called religious in content, then we must still contend with the fact that it can determine in a large measure, and in a systematic way, the goals of production and distribution." (Friedman 1975: 59)
Friedman's final position is fairly radical and, in my view, it precedes an approach such as Augé's which considers religion a "total social fact".
"But this is not enough, for if religion is an essential infrastructural element, it is itself but part of a larger cultural structure which organizes affinal relations as well as relations to the supernatural. It is this structure which defines the nature of ritual activity, dominates the internal functioning of the economy and determines the direction of the evolution of the social formation. There is no culturally defined economy, nor is there a culturally defined religion. As institutional categories, these belong only to our own and perhaps a few other kinds of society. If we are to explain the functioning and evolution of social systems, it is necessary to discover the specificity of their internal structures. We must accept from the start that the structure which organizes material production and reproduction may also organize other activities in a way that no cultural distinction can be drawn between the economic and the non-economic." (Friedman 1975: 59)
Cases where religions play 'extra-religious' roles are legion and can be found in many anthropological works. Geertz, for example, in Ideology as a Cultural System underscores, in a section on political life in Indonesia (1973: 220-229), the sometimes frenetic interaction that can occur between religious and political ideas in a situation where syncretism is a basic cultural fact. Another example we might think of is Judaism and the Exodus account where Jehovah becomes a political liberator ! Since it must be obvious by now that religion as a "total social fact", is capable of playing roles considered specifically political (at least relative to our Western categories), it would appear reasonable to continue in this vein and ask the reverse question: Is it possible that our own political ideologies (especially when they proclaim themselves Truth or sole objective discourse on the reality of social relations), might only be, unpalatable though it may appear, Western forms of religion whose only particularity would be of having a materialistic cosmology (generally) and a preoccupation/obsession with the taking and the maintaining of political power in a State. ?
It must be admitted that comparisons between political ideologies and religions have appeared in the social sciences for some time now but in general are of little use as they proceed in a fairly superficial manner, content only in alluding to the emotional aspects of both belief systems. Lévi-Strauss, who avoids this tendency somewhat, has put forward the following comments relative to the cognitive functions carried out by the two systems.
"(...), a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place long ago. But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future. This can be made clear through a comparison between myth and what appears to have largely replaced it in modern societies, namely, politics. When the historian refers to the French Revolution, it is always as a sequence of past happenings, a non-reversible series of events the remote consequences of which may still be felt at present. But to the French politician, as well as to his followers, the French Revolution is both a sequence belonging to the past - as to the historian - and a timeless pattern which can be detected in the contemporary French social structure and which provides a clue for its interpretation, a lead from which to infer future developments." (Lévi-Strauss 1963: 209)
Obviously we can always suppose that it is possible to maintain the distinction between political and religious behaviour in the West, and perhaps (theoretically) relative to certain non-Western peoples too, but too often authors are content to slice the Gordian knot in imposing our categories of behaviour on the ethnographic data and pay little attention to the questionable results which such analysis produces... as one can see in the case of the following quotation.
"The differential characteristics of religious, compared with other types of instrumental, behavior consists in an attempt to enlist the assistance, or to execute the will, of superhuman beings. Indeed, by what other criterion could religious, be distinguished from non-religious, behavior ? Surely not in terms of ends: with the exception of mysticism (confined to religious virtuosos) the range of mundane ends for which religion, cross-culturally viewed, is conceived to be instrumental is as broad as all the range of human ends. My argument, then, is not that political power is disqualified as a religious end, but that any attempt to achieve this end by means which do not entail a belief in the existence of superhuman beings is disqualified as religious means. A Kachin headman may attempt to manipulate myths and nats in order to validate his, or his clan's claim to power and authority; but this political behavior is to be distinguished [at all costs!?!?] from his religious behavior, which consists in his belief in the existence of nats, and in his propitiation of them, both at local shrines and during manaus. Indeed, only because Kachins do believe that the verbal symbol 'nat' has reference to an existential being - and is not merely a social structural symbol - is it possible to manipulate this belief for political ends." (M. Spiro 1966: 105-106)
Unfortunately such analysis adds little to our ethnological knowledge and appears more like a last-ditch effort to validate our own behavioural categories. If one examines data put forward by Henri Desroches in a study on the 'prehistory' of 19th century socialist movements, the distinction between political and religious movements is not easier to discern in the West than elsewhere. (Desroches 1974: 168)
"Dans le champ de l'utopisme vécu, il est assurément commode de distinguer ce qui relève d'une religion non-conformiste et ce qui relève d'un socialisme non-religieux. Pourtant, par les échantillons retenus précédemment, on a pu voir déjà la relativité d'une telle classification. Dans la conception d'un Münzer, ce qui est encore dissidence religieuse est déjà anticipation socialiste; et Engels peut noter - à propos de ce même Münzer - que sa théologie du "Saint-Esprit" "frisait" l'athéisme moderne, au même titre que sa théologie du Royaume de Dieu "frisait" la conception à venir d'une société sans classes. Au contraire, dans les conceptions d'un Weitling, ce qui est déjà préface au socialisme européen est encore une sorte de postface à une tradition de dissidences chrétiennes. On retrouverait une ambiguïté analogue dans l'univers mental d'un Cabet, cet autre communiste "religieux" du XIXe siècle."
Discussing the universality of myths, Pierre Smith criticizes superficial comparisons between ideologies and religious or mythical discourse and puts forward particularly interesting remarks on the profound implications of the universality of mythical (or religious) thought. (Smith 1974: 261)
"Si la fonction des mythes est bien celle qu'on vient de désigner, elle est évidemment universelle et rien ne permet de supposer qu'aucune civilisation puisse se dispenser de mythes ou de leur équivalent. Pour le repérer, on peut d'abord, dans une civilisation complexe comme le nôtre, se référer à la relativisation des positions qu'opère chaque sous-culture face aux autres en les accusant de s'abondonner à des mythes: ainsi le marxiste face au chrétien, l'artiste face à l'homme d'affaires, une génération face à une autre, et réciproquemment. Il faut ensuite considérer que les mythes s'inscrivent toujours dans un système de genres écrits ou oraux qui diffère selon les cultures et qui influe sur la forme particulière qu'y prennent les mythes eux-mêmes. Les sociétés qui se concoivent comme immuables et ne retiennent rien de leur histoire auront une mythologie dont l'axe se situe autrement que dans une société où l'histoire est mise en premier plan. Tous les genres, aussi bien les genres littéraires que l'histoire, l'idéologie politique, la philosophie, etc., entretiennent un rapport direct avec la pensée mythique qui façonne les significations dont ils sont porteurs."
As Smith points out, one must agree that superficial comparisons between political ideologies and religious systems must be avoided. However, picking up the idea put forward by Smith above relative to the universality of mythico-religious thought, I believe we can arrive at a deeper understanding of these two systems if they are compared on the basis of their cognitive functions. Starting from the definition of religion proposed previously in this essay, one can consider that Western political ideologies as "partially successful religions". Perhaps an explanation would be in order here...
First of all, it must be pointed out that Western political ideologies operate, as do all the traditional religions, on the basis of certain irrefutable (and usually implicit) metaphysical conceptions concerning man and society, and that these conceptions serve as a form of cosmology and reference point permitting the critique and modification of individual behaviour or certain aspects of social relations. Marxism, for example, analyzed from such a perspective, will produce the following results.
"Comment parler d'une perte de l'homme dans son travail ou d'une humanité rendue étrangère à elle-même, si l'on ne possède par devers-soi l'idée d'un vrai être de l'homme ? Appliqué à Marx cette réflexion - ironie imprévisible de l'histoire des idées - ne viserait rien de moins qu'à le remettre sur ses pieds. (...) ...c'est parce qu'il (Marx-P.G.) part de l'idée d'une certaine relation de l'homme à l'homme et d'un certain type d'activité humaine, que le travail dans la société capitaliste lui apparaît comme aliénée, qu'il peut établir une contradiction entre la socialisation du travail et le monde privé de la production, qu'il peut dénoncer un déchirement fatal entre le travail mort et le travail vivant, qu'il peut enfin juger la constitution politique, le droit, la religion ou d'autres sphères d'activités comme des expressions de l'aliénation. "Sans la notion du vrai être de l'homme, la critique de la réalité existante doit donc rester inintelligible et n'est qu'un reproche vide de sens, une querelle de mécontents"." (Lefort 1955: 36)
On this subject Joachim Israel notes:
"Thus, contrary to such authors as Althusser, we reach the conclusion that Marx's theories contain normative elements even after he rejected the philosophical ideas which mark his earliest works. Adam Schaff points out that each humanistic system has its own theory of happiness. Such a theory may be developed in two ways: either in a positive way by describing the preconditions for human happiness; or in a negative way, by indicating the conditions for the abolishment of man's unhappiness. Contained in Marx's theories are both the positive and negative elements. But, more than that, there is a mixture of sociological-economical analysis and of normative-ethical discourse." (Israel 1971: 79-80)
But what exactly is a "successful" religion ? Does it have to do with religions that are "functional", that is having capable leadership and recruitment potential ensuring their long-term survival ? Does it involve a judgement on the ethical or epistemological value of a belief system ?
The answer to both questions is no. Success, in the present context, is evaluated strictly on the basis of cultural penetration. For the individual, judgements on the ethical or epistemological value of a belief system are useful and in fact unavoidable, but they are of no use for anthropological analysis. For our purposes here then, religion can be successful if it is capable of providing meaning to fields of activity as diverse as politics, psychology, technology, health care, economics, nutrition, the natural sciences, law and the arts. A religion will become successful in 'permeating' all of these aspects of social life. The more successful a religion becomes, the deeper its penetration of the most intricate details of everyday life. Concerning fig. 1 The Domains of a Successful Religion (see following page) it should be pointed out that the arrangement of the various domains in no way presupposes a form of hierarchy of human activities. This arrangement was selected simply because it illustrates the fact that emotions, language, and cosmology are involved in all aspects of culture. That emotions appear in the centre is simply an arbitrary choice and implies no preeminence. It should also be noted that if Ritual does not cut across Politics this should not be taken as an indication that in real life there is no interaction between the two.
A good example of a successful religion we might consider is Québec before the "Révolution Tranquille" (the "Quiet Revolution" of 1960-70) where Catholicism gave meaning (or more precisely the meaning) and, in fact, managed human activities such as education, health care, attitudes towards sexuality, worker's movements and exerted great influence over politics, the arts, literature (both through censure and promotion) and demography in this society. Going on, we may now explore a concept logically derivative from that of "successful religion", namely incomplete religion. Catholicism, in Québec since the "Révolution Tranquille" again provides us with a good illustration. An incomplete religion is an ideological-religious system which provides meaning to only a few areas of human activity, it has only partially succeeded in penetrating and impregnating its host culture. It still has a long way to go before becoming a "total social fact". Catholic religion in Québec since the sixties has in fact much less influence on the major social institutions and to a large
The Domains of a Successful Religion.
extent has been reduced to a moral discourse aimed at individuals. But let us go back to political ideologies.
To say, then, that Western political ideologies are incomplete (or partially) successful religions implies that they supply meaning, but only in a limited manner (in comparison to a successful religion). Generally they produce a discourse (and 'responses') relating to man's collective life and the struggle for power, but pay little attention to problems in the family or with individuals. They do not provide meaning to these aspects of human life. Psychiatric problems that might be treated without too much difficulty within the context of a successful religion, in the context of a political ideology will have to be treated 'outside' by specialists operating in other paradigms (or sub-cosmologies) more adapted to these particular problems. There are obviously a few cases of political ideologies which are more successful than others. In Cold War era China and USSR one could find for example "science for the people", "education for the people", "sports for the people" and "arts for the people", etc. though socialist morale is not what it used to be. Given a little time however, perhaps even a political ideology may become a successful religion
The philosophical realm.
In this section we shall take a look at the categories of knowledge designated in the West by the terms philosophy and metaphysics. If viewed from the same perspective given above relative to political ideologies it is unlikely we shall cause much consternation in indicating that these two categories of thought should be considered specifically Western forms of religion. On this question Jan Van Baal indicates:
"One of the more serious objections usually raised against our definition [of religion ] is that it is too wide because it includes magic as well as an important part of metaphysics. One might be inclined to reply: so what ?; but that is a crude and rather unsatisfactory answer. Nevertheless, as far as metaphysics is concerned, would it do any harm if we admitted that metaphysical concepts are religious when they refer to a non-empirical reality ? Is there any sense in denying that metaphysics and religion repeatedly go hand in hand ? Often metaphysics is simply religion, even if it is religion in a very specific, intellectualized and speculative guise." (Van Baal 1971: 5-6)
Just as Desroches established above that there was a time when religion and politics were inextricably intertwined, Henri Rousseau has studied the same fact relative to religion and philosophy. Discussing the original expansion of Christianity and its first gentile converts, Rousseau notes (1973: 15-16) : "Mais il en est autrement des convertis (Grecs ou Romains-P.G.): pour nombre d'entre eux, la conversion au christianisme était l'aboutissement d'un itinéraire philosophico-religieux. Il ne faut pas oublier qu'à l'époque il n'existait pas de distinction radicale entre philosophie et religion; toutes deux étaient étroitement imbriquées dans une recherche de la sagesse, de la connaissance vitale, de la gnose." As Van Baal has pointed out above, philosophy is generally characterized by specialized and abstract terminology and by a low level of institutionalization and/or ritual. Because it tends to be less accessible to the masses, it is usually less complete (or successful) than political ideologies or traditional religions except for a few exceptions such as Existentialism and Confucianism which have had a fairly large impact outside the ranks of professional philosophers. One could say that these two latter philosophies have been more successful than most.
In the process of writing this essay I submitted the idea presented above to two anthropologists that if one observes religions in a number of non-Wester oral societies to amount to what Marcel Mauss calls "total social facts" and often fulfilling functions that we Westerners would consider specifically political, then it seemed to me that one had to seriously consider the possibility that our own political ideologies might only be religions whose forms are particular to the West. To this, I one reader objected, "but as you see it, in the case of non-Western oral societies, the concept of religion becomes almost impossible to distinguish from the wider concept of culture, .... which serves only to confuse things in the long run."
At the time, this remark did not strike me much, but later as I reflected on the question I realized that when a religion is successful on large scale, that is, when it touches and brings meaning to almost all the aspects of social and individual life as it is often the case in our classic precontact non-Western societies, religion does in fact become the equivalent of our concept of culture. and in such situations the two cannot be easily distinguished. Edward Sapir provides clear evidence to this characteristic of religion in "primitive societies".
"The sharp distinction between religious and other modes of conduct to which we are accustomed in modern life is by no means possible on more primitive levels. Religion is neither ethics nor science nor art, but it tends to be inextricably bound up with all three. It also manifests itself in the social organization of the tribe, in the ideas of higher or lower [ideological, social?] status, in the very form and technique of government itself. It is sometimes said that it is impossible to disentangle religious behaviour amongst primitive peoples from the setting in which it is found. For many primitives, however, it seems more correct to say that religion is the one structural reality in the whole of their culture and what we call art and aesthetics and science and social organization are hardly more than the application of the religious point of view to the functions of daily life." (Sapir in Mandelbaum 1958: 355)
Augé, in discussing symbolic practices in the West, has also taken up the idea that religion and culture can in some cases be identical.
"Sans doute serait-il très difficile, mais non entièrement vain, de chercher à mettre en évidence les liaisons subtiles entre les divers pratiques symboliques parcellaires qui constituent pour une partie importante des sociétés modernes une manière de religion sans foi ni culte unifié. Un projet de ce genre impliquerait une démarche inverse de celle de l'anthropologie religieuse, notamment telle que la définit une de ses théoriciens les plus avertis, Clifford Geertz: "The anthropological study of religion is therefore a two-stage operation: first an analysis of the system of meanings embodied in the symbols which make up the religion proper, and, second, the relating of these systems to social-structural and psychological processes." (Geertz 1966, p.42). Car ce serait alors moins la religion qu'il s'agirait de définir comme un système culturel que la culture, appréhendée dans ses manifestations les plus contrastées, qu'il faudrait tenter de cerner comme un ensemble virtuellement systématique et implicitement religieux." (Augé 1982: 320)
As I developed my own position on this question, I noticed a surprising convergence between certain definitions of culture and the definition of religion that I have proposed above. The most striking case was a definition of culture elaborated in relation to Structuralism in an essay by Maranda.
"Thus, cultures are seen as logical mechanisms for reducing the randomness of history. Unexpected events occur which have to be faced, defined, integrated into a world-view, or else the society disintegrates and/or has to be revamped. Actual solutions [for entropy reduction] vary from society to society, but because the mechanisms are essential and universal features of mankind they remain constant. " (Maranda 1972: 330-331)
O'Dea, for his part, sees in religion a mechanism having many properties parallel to those of culture.
"Religion is a central and fundamentally important aspect of culture
and, like culture as a whole, its concrete content may be in harmony or
in conflict with situations existing in, or transformations in progress
in, the society. A consideration of religion as a core element in culture
will help us summarize the human significance of religion. Like culture,
religion may be described as a "Dramatic Design", serving "to
redeem the sense of flux by investing passage and process with the appearance
of aim, purpose and historical form." ... Like culture, religion is
in one important respect a "Defensive System" - that is, it is
composed of "an array of beliefs and attitudes which help to defend
us against vexing doubts, anxieties and aggressions"." (O'Dea
"Thirdly, like culture, religion is also a "Directive System". It is made up of normative elements which shape and form our responses on many levels of thinking, feeling and acting. It makes us "perceive, feel and think in desired ways". Finally, like culture, religion involves a "Symbol Economy". It involves the allocation of symbolic values of varied worth." (O'Dea 1966: 114)
If one can then admit to considering successful religion as conceptionally equivalent to our idea of culture one must, however, be aware of the fact that certain phenomena do not, at first glance seem to fit with this perspective. In all societies and, even in the case of successful religions, there is a day-to-day fluctuation of technological, ornamental, linguistic and other elements whose meaning is not provided in any obvious way by the existing ideological-religious system. These are elements whose meaning 'escapes' the obvious control of the system; yet generally would be considered part of the notion of culture, at least in usual anthropological practice. How can this discrepancy be explained ?
"Top" and "Bottom".
From the perspective adopted in this essay, this discrepancy can best be explained by the fact that in ideological-religious systems we find, to some extent, a hierarchy of meaning or belief. The closer we get to the "top" level, the more precise and sacred meanings or beliefs become. At the "top", belief cannot be left to improvisation or the discretion of individual whimsy. The conceptual framework of a religion or its Weltanschuungen, for example, will always be localized in the inner core. The closer we get to the "bottom" level, the chances of encountering polysemy increase. Basically, one might say that an ideological-religious system will be closed at the "top" and open at the "bottom". Another important point which should be remembered in this discussion (and which Augé has already made) is that beliefs, wherever they appear, can be held unconsciously. Considering cognitive systems in general, Roy Ellen makes the following remarks on the limits of their integration and/or development.
"It is reasonable to assume that the classification systems of all societies tend toward integration, economy and structural conformity between historically unique events. This is a feature of most social systems and sub-systems about which we are knowledgeable. But, equally, no system or sub-system can ever be a single, integrated totality; there will always be behavioral traits that do not "fit". This is both because socialization is never perfect - there is always a large element of individuality - and because societies and their environments change. And so we have the paradox that integration takes time, but time itself disintegrates." (Ellen 1979: 22)
If one agrees with Ellen that individual behaviour can be an important source of 'disorder' (from the system's point of view), one must nonetheless add that the degree of liberty or constraint available will vary to a great extent from one ideological-religious system to another as well as the 'locus' of this liberty or constraint. That time should be both a factor necessary for the integration of an ideological-religious system and also one contributing to its disintegration constitutes a paradox more apparent than real. The paradox disappears if one takes into account the fact that time in itself cannot be considered a cause of anything. However, time + human efforts + a strategy (or blueprint) can easily be understood as integrating factors. And again, time + a lack of human efforts + an inadequate strategy (or blueprint) can just as easily be understood as factors contributing to the ultimate disintegration of an ideological-religious system.
Perhaps we may turn now to an example drawn from a study done by Martin Southwold on a Buddhist group which, in a limited manner, illustrates the difference (relative to cognitive attitudes) between "top" and "bottom" levels in an ideological-religious system.
"As I have indicated, within one community different persons may have different cognitive attitudes toward religious tenets. The same person may have different attitudes in different situations and contexts.... And there may be different attitudes to different tenets: thus among the Sinhalese I found it not uncommon for people to express dissent from some tenets, whereas there were other tenets which no one told me, or even showed me, that he doubted. These unquestioned articles of faith were, unsurprisingly, those which are logically basic to pratical Buddhism: those to deny which would carry away a large part of what is characteristically Buddhist." (Southwold 1979: 632)
On this same issue Ernest Gellner remarks:
"I can divide the stock of my ideas and convictions into those which can be denied or replaced without significantly disturbing my total picture and composure, and those which can only be budged at the cost of a wide dislocation and disturbance. If, for instance, I discover at the last moment that the train on which I was relying to reach home is no longer running, this is a considerable inconvenience - but, without claiming any remarkable impertability I can say that my general composure remains unaffected. If, on the other hand, a man one day becomes convinced that the identity of his parents is other than he had been brought up to believe; or that the political movement he had supported all his life is in fact criminal and immoral; or that the interpretation of recent history officially put forward by his nation is fraudulent - discoveries or conversions of this kind cannot leave him unmoved. So much else is implicated in these crucial, favoured, so to speak entrenched convictions, that if they go, much else will topple too." (Gellner 1973: 177)
There are obviously constraints and taboos which apply even at the "bottom" of the hierarchy of meaning, but nonetheless one will still find more freedom (a directed 'freedom' to be sure) and flexibility there than anywhere else. At the "bottom" one will also have more opportunities to borrow, innovate or modify elements. This freedom is possible at the "bottom" of the hierarchy of meaning because, as Gellner has pointed out above, modifications at this level generally have fewer repercussions than they might at the "top" of the hierarchy. Modifications made at the "top", if they are too radical, risk bringing the whole structure down. Allowing this, one should also take into consideration the fact that each ideological-religious system may have its own quirks. Each systems imposes, in some domains, taboos and in others, freedom. A group of elements, which in one system may be part of the "top" of an ideological-religious system, may not have the same importance in another. Though we have pointed out that the "top" level of an ideological-religious system will generally be closed, this does not mean that it is immutable or totally impervious to change. It only means that change at this level will be opposed vigorously in most cases and may have enormous repercussion on the credibility of the system in general whereas the effects of change at the "bottom" will be much less traumatic.
Other researchers in the social sciences have studied parallel issues. A few anthropologists using the ethnoscience approach such as Black and some of the Russian semioticians seem to agree that the "top" and "bottom" (Black speaks in terms of micro and macro levels in belief systems, see Black 1973: 514-515) are linked logically due to the fact that they are formulated by means of a particular natural language. In my opinion one cannot really expect to find a logic or coherence linking both the "top" and "bottom" except in situations where groups have been subjected to or chosen various forms of isolation, whether geographic, linguistic, ideological or others, and this over a prolonged period of time. Such groups will have more opportunities (especially if their isolation was self-imposed, rather than the result of a historical accident) of developing a "bottom" which is visibly integrated to the "top". The Yir Yoront which we have mentioned previously are a striking example of such a well developed integration (see note #26), however it would seem that such a level of integration leaves a society more vulnerable when confronted with novel cultural elements which cannot be easily integrated nor avoided or ignored. A high degree of integration will also have the effect of making such ideological-religious systems particularly difficult, if not impossible, to export to other socities, as they will have become inextricably bound to their social and physical/ecological context. Concerning the Tikopia Firth remarks:
"Tikopia paganism was an exclusive religion, not with the proud assertion of a "chosen people" but with the humility of a small-scale local environment. On Tikopia it could be offered to strangers as a gesture of courtesy and they were readily incorporated if they showed concern. But it was not an export religion; it could not be effectively practised in an alien environment. Minimal rites such as wind-abating at sea or invocation of an ancestor for protection on a foreign shore could be practised, individually if necessary. But the major group rites, with the participation of substantial sectors of the Tikopia community, were inapplicable in an external situation." (Firth 1970: 417)
If one considers the great world religions (Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others) which through the centuries have been exported to numerous different societies, once 'transplanted' in this manner one can no longer expect to find an obvious coherence between the 'top' and the everyday cultural elements found at the 'bottom'. If one takes for example Jews and their religion, though a large number of elements from the 'top' of their belief system have survived many centuries of exile and persecution, one cannot expect to find today, but a very limited number of the original links between 'top' and 'bottom' (of their ancient pastoral-agricultural culture). This would seem to imply that the 'top', or the 'macrosystem' as Black calls it, can form a distinct cognitive unit which can be 'torn' out of a specific social, technological, linguistic, etc. context and 'transplanted' into another and, with time, will take 'root' there. That is it can eventually produce an original integration of the 'bottom' elements in its new environment. One should note the fact that some ideological-religious systems seem to survive better than others the process of exportation to another cultural environment. It appears even in some cases that the integration of the 'top' and the 'bottom' can be too successful and in such cases a radical change in technology or in the environment may cause the total collapse of the system.
Cosmology and strategy.
In order to explain a few concepts involved in the definition of religion given previously I will now elaborate on the terms cosmology and strategy for treating entropic processes.
In an article by Suzanne Lallemand the major elements involved in the cosmology concept are exposed as well as the more restricted term cosmogony.
"Les concepts de cosmologie et de cosmogonie ont des champs sémantiques d'ampleur inégale, le premier de ces termes tendant à englober le second. En effet, l'anthropologie peut définir la cosmologie comme un ensemble de croyances et de connaissances, un savoir composite, rendant compte de l'univers naturel et humain; quant à la cosmogonie (partie de la cosmologie centrée sur la création du monde) elle expose, sous forme de mythes, les origines du cosmos et le processus de constitution de la société. Ainsi, la cosmologie - à laquelle nous nous intéressons de manière prioritaire - se présente comme une exigence de synthèse, comme la recherche d'une vision totalisante du monde; réductrice, puisqu'elle dégage et privilégie certains éléments perçus comme constitutifs de l'univers, elle est aussi explicative, car elle ordonne et met en rapport le milieu naturel et les traits culturels du groupe qui l'a produite." (Lallemand 1974: 20-21)
A cosmology supplies in effect a conceptual framework or, to employ a more metaphorical language, a "stage" where the events of the "theatre of life" may take place. One could also say, using the terms provided by Thomas S. Kuhn, that the cosmology of an ideological-religious system provides an ultimate paradigm in which the events of life, the environment's characteristics, social relations, etc..., can be integrated and given meaning. Successful religions generally provide, in their cosmologies, data on the origin of man (in general and/or that of a particular human group), that of the cosmos and, related to this data, beliefs concerning human nature and what might be considered the ideal human relations, etc. Another element frequently found in cosmologies is a story explaining the origin of human alienation (broadly taken), either relative to death and disease, or then again perhaps relative to the relations and antagonisms existing between the sexes or various human groups.
In a number of ideological-religious systems, origins myths often constitute, especially when combined with ritual, excellent cognitive mechanisms for creating order and, by themselves, efficient storage devices for fundamental cultural information. Obviously such observations do not conflict with the idea, presented above, that religion is, in general, an anti-entropic cultural mechanism. In itself, the theme of 'extracting' order from chaos, from formless matter, without name nor category, is very explicit and frequently encountered in origins myths the world over. For example, in the Genesis narrative one finds God creating time (day, night and the first week), light, the stars, living organisms and man. Towards the end of the narrative, God gets man involved in the creation process in allowing him to name the animals. According to Lévi-Strauss the 'extraction' of order from chaos is also a fundamental theme in Pawnee cosmology "...; all of Pawnee metaphysical thought in effect is actually based on the idea that at the time of the creation of the world, antagonistic elements were intermingled and that the first work of the gods consisted in sorting them out." (Lévi-Strauss 1963: 234) One must note that a certain number of origins myths pay little or no attention to the origins of the physical world, being more preoccupied with the origin of the various social groups or social relations in their immediate environment. In fact, the elements which will be considered meaningful will vary significantly from one cosmology to another. The content of an origins myth may not be prejudged. Origins myths provide large amounts of information on the order contained in (and to be imposed on) reality which surrounds us as one can see from the following remarks by Burridge relative to Tangu mythology.
"The major theme running through the [Tangu mythological] narratives is the condition and development of man, 'being and becoming': how culture originated, how it starts again with each succeeding generation; how culture and moral community are maintained and continued; how men, the culture bearers, may mature and be so qualified to fulfil their roles that culture and the moral community may be sustained; how metamorphoses in cultural and biological being relate to the origin, growth and preservation of culture." (Burridge 1969: 457)
According to Mircea Eliade (in Beane and Doty 1975: 3-4), myths tell a sacred story: they describe how a thing has come to be part of the reality which we now know. Thus myth describes the intrusion of the sacred into the world and it is this intrusion which establishes the reality we know. All in all, myth provides the why of things, crucial information for the structure of meaning of any cosmology. Barbara Sproul simply indicates:
"The most profound human questions are the ones that give rise to creation myths: Who are we ? What is the purpose of our lives and deaths ? These are central questions of value and meaning, and while they are influenced by issues of fact, they are not in themselves factual questions: rather, they involve attitudes towards facts and reality. As such, the issues that they raise are addressed most directly by myths. Myths proclaim such attitudes toward reality. They organize the way we perceive facts and understand ourselves and the world. Whether we adhere to them consciously or not, they remain pervasively influential." (Sproul 1979: 1)
André Reszler, who has spend much time studying the myths of Western political ideologies, makes the following comments.
"A l'individu, le mythe offre une vision cohérente de la société (de son passé, son présent et son avenir) et l'intégration de ses aspirations dans une finalité collective transfigurée par le "merveilleux" d'une vaste entreprise commune.
Aux gouvernements et aux gouvernés, le mythe permet d'établir la grande hiérarchie des faits - valeurs, événements; de séparer l'accidentel et le trivial du vital et de l'essentiel; de transformer en absolu la relativité éphémère du contingent." (Reszler 1981: 216)
One should note however that the common view of myth, that is a narrative, written or oral, concerning the activities of gods or cultural heroes in times past, is only one pedagogic vehicle amongst others which may be used to transmit the information contained in a cosmology. It is not necessarily universal. In some cases rituals, ceremonies or feasts can provide 'packaging' just as appropriate for this information. One still should be aware of the fact that the narrative format as found in myths is a particularly popular form of cosmological information 'packaging'. Perhaps this is due to the efficiency in storage, transmission and accessibility (comprehension) when information is presented in this form. Beyond this, if one considers some anthropologist's astonishment at encountering societies with no elaborate mythological system to speak of, one might be inclined to think that this is the result of Western biais producing in his/her mind the expectation that all ideological-religious systems 'should' use the same 'packaging' methods (as the ones we are already familiar with) or else... he/she will find that something 'odd' is going on.
Another point we can usefully make is that the beliefs involved in cosmology can often be implicit and may be transmitted at times in a completely unconscious manner. Dorothy Rowe, a psychiatrist, remarks on this subject:
"Tony saw himself as a thinker and he wanted to share his thoughts with me, but even he found it difficult to reveal to me, and sometimes to himself, his basic beliefs, the structure which supported and surrounded him. We do not display our set of basic beliefs any more than we display our skeleton. Yet, just as our skeleton determines whether we spread our fine bones in the shape of a hand or a wing, whether we stand upright or pad along on all fours, so our beliefs determine whether we shall act upon the world with mastery, or soar freely and confidently through life, or stand upright against life's buffeting, or plod through life's weary ways. We do not state some of our beliefs, or even bring them to mind, since we regard them as totally obvious and axiomatic. We hide our beliefs from others to prevent them from laughing at our childish faiths, or belittling our deepest fears, or chiding our foolish optimism. Or simply not understanding what was being told." (Rowe 1982: 15)
Now a look at the strategy concept. A strategy for the processing of entropic phenomena is a group of well-known means of action and/or attitudes by the adherents of an ideological-religious system allowing the imposition of a certain type of order on a stubborn reality (human or physical). One should distinguish between primary and auxiliary strategies. Primary strategies are characterized by a wide cultural impact and can be generalized, that is, are applicable by individuals or groups in a wide variety of circumstances, thus supplying a logical basis for ritual technology. Auxiliary strategies, however, have a more limited application and often contribute, though sometimes indirectly, to put into action the primary strategy and usually can be recognized in the more specialized secondary rituals. Depending on which fundamental beliefs are involved in its cosmology (materialism, monotheism, polytheism, personal god, impersonal supernatural forces, reincarnation, economic determinism, etc.) each system takes a different approach vis-à-vis the entropic processes. It will define in an original manner what it considers as alienating phenomena or which should be considered incompatible with itself and consequently, elaborates attitudes and/or means of action which are coherent with the rest of the system. For example, Dorothy Lee brings to our attention the fact that the Hopi believe that alienation or evil is the result not of an original Fall from Grace, nor of an individual's unresolved sexual frustrations, but rather as the result of deviance from an inner transcendental order.
"Perhaps the view of what constitutes the good is natural and applicable in a culture which also holds that man was born in sin, whether in Biblical or psychoanalytic terms. But should we, who believe that other cultures should be assessed according to their own categories and premisses, impose upon them our own unexamined conceptions of the good [=order], and thus see them as striving to remove or avoid ills ? It seems to me that, when we do not take this negative view of the good for granted, other cultures often appear to be maintaining "justment" rather than trying to attain adjustment. For example, for the Hopi, the good is present and positive. An individual is "born in Hopiness" so to speak, and strives throughout life to maintain and enhance this Hopiness. There is no external reward for being good, as this is taken for granted. It is evil which is external and intrusive, making a man kahopi, or un-hopi; that is un-peaceful, un-good." (Lee 1954: 72-73)
Maranda makes the following general remarks. " "Belief... puts us in such a condition that we shall behave in a certain way, when the occasion arises." Occasions are encounters, dreams, ordinary or extraordinary events, routine or exceptional behavior. An adequate belief system will respond to most if not all inputs by an appropriate output, having interpreted the event in a way consistent with its structure." (Maranda 1979b: 255) Strategies, then, are beliefs usually coupled with modes of behaviour, whose characteristic is that of forming a 'defence mechanism' to protect the ideological-religious system from things defined as 'foreign bodies' (events, attitudes and/or doubts), that is elements which are in contradiction with basic aspects of the system and which, if left unattended, might cause its breakdown. Though the strategies of various ideological-religious systems can be hard to recognize, they supply nonetheless an important reference point to society in that they allow us to understand how these systems break up reality and also the different reactions which the adherents (of various systems) may have when confronted with human problems. R. A. Rappaport, who has spent much time studying the ecological implications of various cosmologies (R. uses the term "cognized model"), points out the different attitudes towards the environment which result from the beliefs implicit in different cosmologies.
"All cognized models encode values, but all do not value the same things equally, and we may inquire into the adaptiveness of different set of evaluative understandings. A model dominated by, let us say, the postulates of economic rationality would propose that an ecosystem is composed of elements of three general sorts: those that qualify as "resources", those that are merely useless, and those that may be regarded as pests, antagonists, or competitors. In contrast, the Ituri Pygmies take the forest encompassing them to be the body of God. These two views of the world obviously suggest radically different ways of living in it." (Rappaport 1979: 101)
Perhaps it might be appropriate at this point to go over a few brief examples of primary strategies. Christianity, for example, minimally implies the recognition of Jesus as God, Saviour of humanity and source of salvation. Beyond this, the various forms of Christianity diverge and a number of different strategies can be uncovered. The more traditional types are oriented towards the accomplishment of a birth to death cycle of ritual duties which, if properly performed, is understood to ensure entrance to heaven. In more contemporary variations, Christianity finds itself often reduced to the status of moral discourse directed at all 'men of good will' and, again ensuring entrance to heaven to complying and sincere adherents. The typical evangelical view, specifies that humans are a fallen race and that salvation can be recieved through an act of will (conversion) in which the individual admits his/her's sins against God's law, accepts God's grace (through Christ's sacrifice on the cross) and submits his/her life to Christ and asks for grace to live a life reflecting that of the Saviour. In the case of Marxism, the primary strategy revolves around a collective political project involving, amongst other things the seisure of political power by the proletariat (socialist/communist party), the abolition of private property and the management of the economy by a more or less centralized government. In Theravada Buddhism human suffering is a central theme (Gananath Obeysekere 1968: 7). Buddhist cosmology proposes the notion of karma which involves the idea that the happy or unhappy condition of man is the inevitable result of actions committed in preceding reincarnations. The individual can better his/her future fate (and the state of his/her karma) in following the prescribed measures by the rules of Buddhist life. He/she knows that when calamity strikes he/she is reaping a just reward for actions committed in a previous life. Obeyesekere notes:
"In Buddhism, on the other hand, I cannot know what the future holds in store because I do not know what my past sins and good actions have been. Anything could happen to me: sudden changes or alterations of fortune are to be expected, for my present existence is determined by past karma (regarding which I know nothing). I may be a pauper today, tomorrow a prince. Today I am in perfect health, but tomorrow I may be suddenly struck down by fatal disease. It is my fault that this is so, but my conscious experience cannot tell me what this fault is." (Obeyesekere 1968: 21)
In Buddhism, in fact, we find ourselves with two primary strategies of almost equal importance. Obeyesekere points out the ultimate state attainable in Buddhism is the nirvana, a state where all suffering is eliminated. This state can be attained by following a number of rigorous ascetic practices destined to eliminate all desire and attachment to this world. In practice, only Buddhist monks, who renounce the world completely and follow the 227 precepts (Obeyesekere 1968: 34), have a chance of breaking the grasp of karma and attaining nirvana. This is the first primary strategy of Buddhism. In the case of lay Buddhists, a second strategy is proposed as nirvana is conceived as being unattainable by non-monks, a secondary compensation is proposed in the form of a temporary heaven after death and of a good subsequent reincarnation if they observe at least the basic Buddhist precepts. If these are not observed then it is thought that the individual concerned will be punished in subsequent reincarnations by appearing in animal forms.
In numerous Amerindian and aboriginal religions the primary strategies frequently revolve around a ritual cycle meant, not to ensure entrance to heaven in the afterlife, but rather to restore the order of nature and of society as it was established in the mythical times at the beginning when culture heroes and gods were active. In fact, all ideological-religious systems which propose a desirable state, for the individual or for society (which involves the elimination of suffering, injustice or psychological frustrations), must supply strategies making the attainment of this state plausible. In certain ideological-religious systems, entropy processing strategies will in no way resemble a form of salvation or a utopia such as one may encounter in the West, but rather will be limited to an explanation resolving the entropic attacks at a cognitive level only. The resulting explanation often takes the form, in such cases, of a fatalistic discourse declaring for example that suffering and hardship are inherent and inevitable elements in this life which must be accepted for one reason or another (the economic climate, destiny, Allah's will, the god's whim, etc...). Obeyesekere comments on this point: "Many present-day religions in primitive Melanesia do not have a notion of salvation at all. Some have concepts of the other world which offer no radical solution to the problem of suffering, even though they may, on the cognitive level, provide a meaning for suffering." (Obeyesekere 1968: 14)
Let us briefly go over the points covered in this essay. First of all the definition of the religious phenomena itself. In this essay we have proposed the hypothesis that ideological-religious systems are forms of order in interaction with the diverse entropic processes occurring in nature (and in society). Ideological-religious systems can also be considered cybernetic systems involving first of all information concerning (in the case of a 'successful' religion) all aspects of human life. This information gives meaning and context to self, to other living beings and to the environment. This constitutes the cosmology of an ideological-religious system. Next a religion supplies a number of means of acting upon reality such as ritual, meditative, revolutionary or ascetic and other practices which allows the creation and/or maintenance of the order proposed by the cosmology. These are what I call the strategies of an ideological-religious system. In my opinion an ideological-religious system must be considered a cybernetic system (involving feedback and response) because it is not a static form of order, passively subject to the passing of time, but it is (if one includes the human factor, the adherents of a beliefs system) active, operating on (living and non-living) nature and on other forms of order having objectives incompatible with its own. This perspective should prove useful in allowing us to more fully understand various events in the life of an ideological-religious system such as it's birth, confrontations with other systems, systems propagation, conversion from one system to another and causes for the disintegration of such systems. Futhermore, we break here with the 'rigid' (and basically ethnocentric) view of religion which links religious phenomena with one or more Western cultural traits: presence of a church-type organisation, origins myths, beliefs in supernatural beings, etc... The universal must take precedent over the particular.
As it is understood here, religion is related to a basic need for meaning of the same type as postulated by Geertz and Augé. This need/capacity for/of meaning would seemingly be linked to a fundamental cognitive structure 'printed' into the 'circuitry' of the human brain. Such a structure would explain how, amongst other things, the passage from one ideological-religious system to another can occur. If one accepts the idea proposed here that a successful ideological-religious system which has proven capable of permeating and giving meaning to almost all aspects of human life will in effect be equivalent to our concept of culture. In such cases one must then reverse Geertz' definition (Religion as a Cultural System), as Augé points out, and culture becomes a religious system. Geertz' definition does, however, remain appropriate in cases of partially successful religions.
I would like to underscore the fact that the approach developed above does not presuppose some form of determination of the infrastructure by the superstructure (or the reverse; as in Marxist theory). I have yet to come across data which would lead me to believe that ideological-religious systems are something more than just one influence (though it may be important) amongst others in social praxis. These other influences; economic, linguistic, physiological, etc. are all necessary in one way or another for the maintenance of life in society. As I understand them (and on this point I agree with Augé and others) then, ideological-religious systems are both cognitive, that is involving stories, beliefs, prescriptions, taboos, etc... and material, that is involving relics, writings, monuments, sacred vestements, temples, sacred places, etc... They give meaning (or at least attempt to) to a social, physical and psychic reality. Without these elements no society, small though it may be, would be conceivable on a long-term basis, but then again without this raw matter to 'work' with, no ideological-religious system would be logically conceivable either.
As we have seen in this essay, the development of the idea of a successful ideological-religious system (understood in terms of cultural penetration) establishes an important reference point giving rise to a renewed and critical perspective on political ideologies in the West and, potentially, on the complex problem of the separation of Church and State. In the previous pages we have also studied the effects of entropic processes (naturally or socially based) on culture and, particularly, on ideological-religious systems. This study enables us to draw a clearer and more detailed portrait of what are the 'responsibilities' of a successful ideological-religious system. Surprisingly, the analysis of the interaction involved in such systems sheds new light on an ancient ideological antithesis, that of Good and Evil. Such a 'discovery' would seem worthy of more elaborate study even though such a question has been touched (indirectly) by researchers such as Douglas.
[*] - Paul Gosselin is the author of the French series Fuite de l'Absolu (or Escape from the Absolute). Volume I explores postmodernism from the Social Anthropologist's point of view, that is, as a belief system and, in volume II, pursues the issue in exploring origin myths in the West and looks at the cosmology that modernism and postmodernism has used as a basis for it's worldview.
- In this essay, the term "religion", "ideology" and "belief system" are used interchangeably. The term "ideological-religious system" is used to underscore the fact that all human belief systems are alike in that they cater to the basic need for meaning, irregardless of whether or not they involve a reference to the supernatural.
- Unless otherwise indicated, emphasis in quotations is always original.
- Anatol Rapoport explains the process involved in the case of extending the concept of entropy to information theory:
"The mathematicians who derived the formula for the amount of information soon noticed that it looked exactly like the formula for entropy in statistical mechanics. Mathematicians are often excited by such analogies. There is an important difference between a mathematical analogy and an ordinary "metaphorical" one. [... Rapoport illustrates how the latter is generally faulty by discussing the application of the logic of natural selection to international relations, or justifying capital punishment by comparing it to the treatment of cancerous tissues. Rapoport procedes with the following - PG] A mathematical analogy, however, is quite a different matter. Such an analogy is evidence of similar structure in two or more classes of events, and a great deal can be deduced from each similarity. For example, because both electrical and mechanical oscillators can be described by the same kinds of equations, it follows that a great deal of reasoning which applies to one applies also to the other. Since the analogy between information and entropy is a mathematical analogy, it too may be symptomatic of a structural similarity in the events involved in the determination of physical entropy and those involved in the measurement of information." (Rapoport 1966: 51-52)
As Rapoport mentions briefly here, mathematical equivalence is not a magical formula explaining everything. It remains that good common sense and the observations of the scientific community serve also to establish the limits of a particular analogy. Looking at the question from a cynical point of view one might get the impression that the preoccupation with establishing at all costs a mathematical equivalence derives from an incapacity to conceptualize a relation between two domains unless a mathematical equation can be supplied to express it. (See also on this point Georgescu-Roegen 1971: 79-83).
- Example: transportation, industry.
- As Williams points out, this is true for any manufacturing process in any society.
"All aging or wearing out processes are toward a state of maximum entropy. Consider an article of clothing. As it is worn it fades and becomes threadbare. The original garment represents a low entropy compared to the final worn-out garment. Much energy was expended to take the cotton or wool from its original form until it was formed into a complete garment. As this energy was utilized, much energy waste occurred, increasing the entropy of the universe. The cotton or wool fibers did not spontaneously form a dress; they were mechanically formed and chemically treated and forced into the article of clothing.
As the garment deteriorates, it is increasing in entropy. No matter how the garment is cleaned and restored, it never can maintain its "newness". The cleaning and restoring processes are inefficient and no amount of energy output will keep the garment in its original state. Eventually the garment will reach a state of maximum entropy when it has degenerated into dust (a state of high disorder)" (Williams 1981: 18)
- Perhaps it is not too obvious that salaries represent an energy expenditure, but it does if we suppose our school were operating in the context of a barter economy where salaries would be paid in gallons of gas or with bags of groceries.
- Or at very least, attempting to supply order.
- Here we are relying on the definitions of entropy as provided by statistical thermodynamics and information theory.
- Perhaps it might be useful at this point to clarify a little further what is meant by the concept of order, especially when discussed in the context of social studies. To some it may bring to mind notions of "Law and Order" and the "American Way of Life" or rigid Right-wing regimes. In this essay, I will be approaching the question from the point of view that the forms of "order" that are devised in the context of various human belief systems. As such specific variations these forms of order may take are only limited by human imagination. That which may appear as order to one group will be seen as a form of disorder to another. (Or what is music to one ear will be "noise" to another.) A striking example of this phenomenon are the Avlekete priestesses (Togo) whose only taboo is that of never respecting the taboos of other cultural groups (see Augé 1977: 114-115). At first glance that which might seem an invitation to total liberty or disorder, in final analysis one' finds an order in reverse as the Avlekete priestesses must always do the opposite of others, not just what they might feel like doing !! Augustine, (who lived during the decline of the Roman Empire) discussing his own reflections on the creation of the world and matter, adroitly expresses the basic subjectivity (or the inevitable anthropocentrism) of conceptions of order and disorder.
"... my mind revolved in disturbed order foul and horrible "forms", but yet "forms"; and I called it formless, not that it lacked form, but because it had such as, did it appear, my mind would turn from, as unwonted and incongruous, and at which human weakness would be disturbed." (Augustine 1927: 308)
It would appear that such considerations have also been recognized in the area of physics.
"... entropy is an anthropomorphic concept, not only in the well-known statistical sense that it measures the extent of human ignorance as to the microstate. Even at the purely phenomenological level, entropy is an anthropomorphic concept. For it is a property, not of the physical system, but of a the particular experiment you or I choose to perform on it." [Jaynes 1965: 398]
- On this question Braines and Svetchinsky note:
"So, studying the processes of life of an integral organism, we must take into consideration the interrelationship and interaction of three basic components; material, energy and information flows. Transmission and processing of information are no less important for understanding the mechanism of life activity than the exchange of matter and energy, for it is the former that provide for the integrity of the organism, in fact for its very existence." (Braines & Svetchinsky 1975: 143-144)
Further on, I admit, it would appear rather probable that the same would be true of any form of cultural exchange or communication, that is involving necessarily energy expenditures, material structures and an investment in information.
- Here is a partial list of authors who concur with this point of view. It must be pointed out however that since the metabolism and the aging process of living organisms is still incompletely understood, various approaches appear in the literature covering the effects of entropic processes on living organisms, which eventually result in death.de Rosnay (1975: 229)
Hershey & Wang (1980: 28)
Williams (1981: 18)
Wilden (1972: 364-365)
Schrödinger (1967: 76)
Chambdal (1963: 210)
Wilder-Smith (1970: 133)
- ie. belief systems
- Despite the fact that the manner of compensating obedience, expressing the taboo and punishing transgressors will vary considerably from one belief system to another.
- I suspect this problem can be avoided if one postulates (as my definition of religion does) that religion is an attempt (more or less successful) to impose order on reality. This explains, for example, the gap often noted between prescriptions/taboos and observed behaviour. Another point that can be made inthis matter is that the lack of coherence of religious or ideological discourse can, in some cases, be due to the presence of unrecognized systems of thought having a logic running counter to that of the official or orthodox view (see B. Morris 1982 on this subject). In theological language these 'unrecognized systems of thought' may be called heresies.
- In real life things become even more complex if one considers that in each specific religion (and potentially, each judicial system) certain behaviours will be condoned or accepted under special circumstances and rejected in others i.e. the taking of a human life (ex. murder or execution).
In times of war (and if the life taken is that of an enemy) such an act will be seen as acceptable. In times of peace (if an act of vengeance is involved) the act will be punished in most societies. The classification of behaviour in human societies will not operate like an inspection stop on an assembly line with a simple binary result: object accepted or rejected. The question of context intervenes, both enriching and complicating the process of classifying behaviour.
- Fortes indicates (1959: 53) that the Tallensi consider evil behaviour or attitudes those which threaten kin relations (including neglect of duties towards parents and dead ancestors). In the following quotation we find an example of individual behaviour incompatible with the Tallensi system, it's consequences and it's resolution (integration)
"The point I am concerned with here is well illustrated by the story of Pu-en-yii. Tempted by the opportunity of gain, he deserted his own patrilineal kin to ally himself with a rival lineage. Then, at the height of his prosperity, he was involved in a lorry accident. Luckily he escaped with [only?] a badly injured leg. On consulting a diviner he learnt that his mishap was brought about by his lineage ancestors. Deserting his paternal kin was a sin, for it meant that he could not join with them in true amity in sacrifices to his fathers and forefathers. This was tantamount to foresaking his ancestors and in their anger they meant to kill him. However, said the diviner, his Destiny was propitious and had interceded to save his life. He must apologize to his lineage elders, and make a sacrifice of thanksgiving to his Destiny. He must also forthwith give up his association with the rival lineage. Pu-en-yii was a sophisticated, much-travelled and commercially minded man; but he immediately complied, believing that death would be the penalty of refusing." (Fortes 1959: 54-55)
- R. B. Lindsay establishes an explicit relation between entropy and human behaviour described as "anti-social". (Lindsay 1963: 290-298). Unfortunately, Lindsay, at the time of writing did not note that the concept of "order" may vary from one society to another. This oversight causes Lindsay to run into serious problems when he attempts to erect as an ethical principle the idea that mankind must continually combat disorder or entropy. The obvious problem here is that he neglects to specify just what kind of "order" must be preserved !!
Nevertheless, relative to our subject, the following text by Lindsay is worth being brought to the reader's attention.
"We recognize that destructive tendencies are exhibited by many human beings, and to this extent they are entropy producers rather than consumers. We think at once of arsonists and murderers, the former destroying by fire what was carefully and slowly constructed by human labor and thus producing a vast increase in entropy in a short time, and the latter reducing in an instant the highly complicated but very orderly arrangement of molecular constituents we call a human individual to the equivalent of a heap of disorderly rubble with a similar enormous relative increase in entropy. We call such people criminals and enemies of society, precisely because they sin against the aim of man to produce and maintain order in his affairs. On a less tragic scale, it is not without significance that we attach the word disorderly to the alcoholic and the drunkard. They are nuisances to society in that they produce more than their fair share of the disorder in a social milieu which strives for entropy consumption [that is, reduction]. Everyone can think of other illustrations of such nuisances. Even the thoughtless litterbug who strews the landscape with his rubbish is in his lowly way an unnecessary entropy producer." (Lindsay 1963: 291-192)
- Victor Turner has observed similar phenomena amongst the Ndembu of Zambia.
"When norms conflict; where values are discrepant, and respectable persons find themselves compelled by circumstances to become rule breakers; where the very axioms of society appear to be ineffective in preventing the outbreak of bitter disputes - then people experience a sharp sense of insecurity, even panic. In this social atmosphere charges of witchcraft and fears of ancestral wrath are generated and proliferate." (Turner 1972: 105-106)
- Another interesting case of an ideological-religious system collapse (accompanied by a subsequent revitalisation movement) has been described by A. F. C. Wallace (1961: 144-146). which happens to be that of the Seneca of the late 18th century.
- The greater the degree of penetration, the greater the disruption once the system begins to fall apart. More on this point further on.
- Apparently this can even happen in the domain of the "hard" sciences.
"Scientists have thick skins. They do not abandon a theory merely because facts contradict it. They normally either invent some rescue hypothesis to explain what they then call a mere anomaly, or if they cannot explain the anomaly, they ignore it, and direct their attention to other problems. Note that scientists talk about anomalies, recalcitrant instances, not refutations." (Lakatos 1978: 4)
It appears that the rejection of inconsistent or 'dangerous' phenomena is a rather common human trait. Solzhenitsyn, in the course of his stay in the Gulag, seems to have encountered this strategy among certain communists who also happened to find themselves imprisoned there.
"What does the loyalist's lofty truth consist of ? Simply that they do not want to renounce a single one of their former values or accept a single new one. Let life gush over them, surge over them, and even roll over them with wheels - still they won't let it into their heads ! They won't accept it, as though it weren't happening at all ! This reluctance to change anything inside their own brains, this simple inability to make a critical assessment of their life's experience, is what they pride themselves on ! Prison must not influence their world outlook ! Camp must not influence it ! What they stood upon before, they will continue to stand by now ! We... are Marxists ! We... are materialists ! How can we possibly change because we landed in prison by sheer chance ? (How can our consciousness change if existence changes, if it manifests new aspects of itself ? Not for anything ! Even if that existence falls through the floor and disappears, it won't determine our consciousness ! For, after all, we are materialists!....)" (Solzhenitsyn 1974: 336)
- Or as the American landing on the Moon was ignored (and censured) by the media in USSR for over 10 years...
- It must be noted here that the present essay in no way supports the technological determinism put forward by Sharp relating the collapse of Yir Yoront culture to the introduction of one simple Western product: the steel axe. As the citations presented here show, Sharp's own material tends to contradict such an analysis. Actually the evidence points in the opposite direction, demonstrating that this collapse must be related to a the appearance and imposition of a group of new attitudes, customs, technology, etc. and the loss of political autonomy which coincided with the acculturation process in the case of the Yir Yoront.
- This is especially characteristic of the major Western ideological-religious systems: Judaism, Christianism, Islam and Marxism.
- Here's an interesting example drawn from his essay.
"Among the bush Yir Yoront the only means of water transportation is a light wooden log to which they cling in their constant swimming of rivers, salt creeks and tidal inlets. These natives know that tribes 45 miles further north have a bark canoe. They know that these northern tribes can fish from midstream or out at sea, instead of clinging to river banks and beaches, that they can cross coastal waters infested with crocodiles, sharks, stingrays, and Portuguese men-of-war without danger. They know that the materials of which the canoe is made exist in their own environment. But they also know, as they say, that they do not have canoes because their own mythical ancestors did not have them. They assume that the canoe was part of the ancestral universe of the northern tribes. For them, then, the adoption of the canoe would not simply be a matter of learning a number of new behavioral skills for its manufacture and use. The adoption would require a much more difficult procedure; the acceptance by the entire society of a myth, either locally developed or borrowed, to explain the presence of the canoe, to associate it with one or more of the several hundred ancestors (and how to decide which?), and thus establish it as an accepted totem of the clans ready to be used by the whole community. The Yir Yoront have not made this adjustment and in this case we can only say that for the time being, ideas have won out over very real pressures for technological change." (Sharp 1952: 22)
It should be noted that technological exclusivism does not imply also the concept of truth or of absolute. Another example of technological exclusivism, from the West in this particular case, is that of the Catholic Church relative to contraceptives.
- These denominations appeared in 18-19th century Europe and function as rural communities in the Western United States and Canada. To a large extent, they have preserved the rural life-style of the time of their founders (excepting perhaps agricultural technology in some cases): clothing, architecture, music, language, etc.
- A. F. C. Wallace remarks that in certain groups the means by which a new element is introduced will considerably affect its chances of being accepted, that is, it will serve as an admissibility criterion.
"Furthermore, societies may be congenial or uncongenial to innovation, depending on the cognitive process by which the innovation was accomplished. Thus, for instance, seventeenth-century Iroquois culture highly encouraged religious (ritual and mythological), political, and even economic innovation if the cognitive modality was hallucinatory (Wallace 1958b). In our own society, scientific, technological, religious, and artistic innovation is readily rewarded, irrespective of the cognitive modality by which it is achieved, but political and economic innovation is far less so, and has virtually no chance of success if the cognitive modality is known to be hallucinatory." (Wallace 1961: 126)
- Here are a few historical examples which highlight the diverse attitudes that syncretistic and exclusivistic systems can take in contact situations.
"The Semitization of the Greco-Roman oikoumene , which was accomplished in the fourth century by the victory of Christianity, marks the most drastic change of world-view, both among intellectuals and among the common people, that, before our own time, has ever been experienced by a major culture. In China the indigenous Confucian-Taoist symbiosis was supplemented, not displaced, by Indic Buddhism. In India itself, Vedic Brahamanism slowly broadened and diversified to engulf all rivals except the Islamic intrusion that was totally unassimable and which produced two societies in tragic confrontation." (White 1978: 252)
- The following is an example which illustrates this difference in epistemological strategies which exists in a contact situation between a syncretistic system; Hinduism in this case,and an exclusivistic system; Christianity, which exposes the basic exclusivism involved in both ideological-religious systems.
"It is quite plain that, if treated fairly on its own premisses, Christianity excludes the full truth and final validity of other religions. If Christianity is true, Hinduism cannot be true in the sense it claims. Even though on the surface it appears that Hinduism is more tolerant, both finally demand an ultimate choice. Many Indians admit this. Some speak of the subtlety of Hindu tolerance as "the kiss of death". Radakrishnan has described it as "being strangled by the fraternal embrace". The initial tolerance disguises an encroaching framework of truth which finally overpowers all other presuppositions. The best way for Hinduism to contain the rampant reform movement of Buddhism in India was to declare that the Buddha was only a further avatar of Krishna. Buddhism's uniqueness was then "strangled by the fraternal embrace". ... The difference between the ultimate intolerance of the East and the intolerance of Christianity can be illustrated as follows: Christianity stands accross a man's path like a soldier with a drawn sword saying "choose or refuse", "life or death", "yes or no"; the choice and the consequences are extremely obvious. The subtlety of Eastern religion is that it enters like an odorless poison gas, seeping under the door, through the keyhole, in through the open windows so that the man is overcome without his ever realizing there was any danger at all. In Rishikesh I shared a room at the ashram with a friend of Fredrico Fellini. This man reminded me ad nauseum that he was still very much an atheist and an Italian and not a Hindu. But after only a week with him, I could see that all his views of man, morality and life were thoroughly Hindu in timbre, though not in name." (Guiness 1973: 229-230)
- The degradation of information transmitted in a channel, caused by the channel's background noise.
- Firth makes the following comments on the problems this causes in the case of the Tikopian cosmology.
"To keep this large mass of spirit entities in being as intellectual constructs demanded some mechanism of transmission of information about them, and also some regular modes of demonstration of their existence - gods about whom people are never taught and who are never celebrated do not last long." (Firth 1970: 128)
- The moment of death seems also another important point in time where a form of "control" over sensations and emotions by the ideological-religious discourse is exerted as observed by Raymond Lemieux here.
"Toute société cherche sans doute à contrôler l'acte de mourrir. Les procédures médico-sociales ne sont pas foncièrement différentes des autres (les rites religieux-P.G.), dans leur visée. La conception de l'ordre qui les détermine, de même que leurs définisseurs, ont simplement changé. Ils sont passés du groupe naturel, affectif, dans l'organisation de sa fidélité (dont l'Eglise pouvait se porter garante), à des agents techniques, dans l'organisation de leur efficacité. Quand l'Eglise autrefois psalmodiait ses rites au-dessus du lit du moribond, sans doute l'appelait-elle également à une certaine désappropriation de sa parole. Elle tenait, en tous cas, parole à sa place, évitant au moins partiellement le risque d'avoir à écouter l'inentendable de sa souffrance, ce en quoi celle-ci n'aurait pas eu de sens. L'enjeu est donc toujours le même: le contrôle d'une parole possiblement perturbatrice, cette parole qui à travers l'anarchie des symptômes et la violence du mal risque de violer l'ordre social, échappant au corps du mourant comme ce dernier est en train d'échapper au contrôle de cet ordre." (Lemieux 1982: 29)
Victor Turner, writing on the Isoma ritual amongst the Ndembu, notes:
"The symbols and their relations as found in Isoma are not only a set of cognitive classifications for ordering the Ndembu universe. They are also, and perhaps as importantly, a set of evocative devices for arousing, channeling, and domesticating powerful emotions, such as hate, fear, affection, and grief. They are also informed with purposiveness and have a "conative" aspect. In brief, the whole person, not just the Ndembu "mind", is existentially involved in the life or death issues with which Isoma is concerned." (Turner 1969: 42-43)
- Discussing this matter from a psychological point of view, Gregory Bateson illustrates what the effects of such a process can have on the ego.
""I", however, exist in the communicational world as an essential element in the syntax of my experience and in the experience of others, and the communication of others may damage my identity, even to the point of breaking up the organization of my experience." (Bateson 1972: 251)
- p. 11, in L. Dickinson: The Greek View of Life. U. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbour 1959
- In this regard, Western political ideologies can be distinguished only with difficulty from certain religions such as Islam which also demonstrate a central preoccupation with questions of political power, but which happen to be equipped with a monotheistic, rather than materialist cosmology.
- The following brief remarks by Pierre Smith are particularly useful in regard to this discussion.
"The paradox is illustrated by the fact that the word "myth" has become in our languages synonymous with error while in cultures where it is operative, myths are considered the basis of truth itself. This shift in meaning shows to what extent the myths to which we refer are always those of others and how the mythical basis of our own thought always remains out of the analytic grasp of consciousness." (translation mine) (Smith 1974: 260)
- For maximum effect in the following citation displace the term 'normative' by 'religious'.
- Van Baal's definition is as follows.
"..., we can define religion or the religious as: all explicit or implicit notions or ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically." (Van Baal 1971: 3)
- Though a close study of philosophical associations might disprove this...
- Some coming into existance or being imported from elswhere and others dying off.
- Especially if they have been developed in the context of completely different conceptual frameworks and subsequently imported.
- It should be noted here that though the "top" and "bottom" concepts may seem to imply hierarchy they are only used as a means of illustration. The metaphor of a hierarchy of meaning or belief could be replaced by a systems approach to ideologies or religions. One could then, speak of primary, secondary and tertiary beliefs or concepts, etc... rather than "top" and "bottom".
- D. Rowe (quoting Danto) provides a couple of interesting examples of the unconscious status of certain fundamental beliefs and of their tenacity.
"It is a striking fact that karma is almost never defended or attacked in Indian philosophy. It is taken for granted. One of the fundamental presuppositions of Indian reflection, karma is accepted as a fact of nature, like the ebb and flow of the tides or the wheeling of the planets, except it would be difficult to find a natural fact that plays so profound a presuppositional role. Perhaps the belief in the regularity of nature in Western science would be a functional analogue, in the sense that it is difficult to formulate conditions under which we would give it up even if we could give it up, since it is exactly this belief that defined the conditions under which beliefs are given up in science. To help give it up, though it would be factual, would be like giving science up, and there is no scientific way of doing that. Like the concept of the uniformity of nature, the theory of karma becomes so intimately co-implicated with a wide class of practices which are perhaps co-extensive with the way of life that has evolved in India over the millenia." (Rowe 1982: 24)
- Mary Black, discussing the works of W. Goodenough, notes that G. establishes three categories of truths or belief. First of all "self-evident" beliefs, secondly "inferred" (which are deduced from the "self-evident" beliefs) and thirdly "unifying" beliefs. Black remarks on the latter.
"We are most reluctant to question the truth of these last (unifying-P.G.)beliefs, because of the chaos or vacuum in which disbelief would leave us, for a change in one such belief could have the effect of destroying nearly the whole system." (Black 1973:513)
- More specifically Black notes:
"If the individual needs economy, he also needs coherence. Goodenough's (1963) belief levels - self evident, specific and unifying - are presented from the point of view of the individual believers and their need for a "cognitive organisation of experience". While these assumptions may be carried too far- and people's "plans" may turn out in actual fact to be less elegant than the blueprints anthropologists have drawn for them - it could safely be proposed that the dynamic source of belief system is in the individual's need for coherence and that the macrosystem stems from the individual's articulations of microsystems." (Black 1973:562)
The Russian semioticians for their part indicate:
"..., culture might be considered as a hierarchy of coupled meaning systems whose correlation is actualized through the mediation of a natural language system." (translation mine) (Ivanov et al 1974:147)
- It appears to me quite likely that the proselytism tendency, that is the proclivity to 'export' a religion or win converts is linked not only with human enthousiasm but to a larger extent with the presence or absence of the concept of truth or absolute knowledge. Buddhism may be a possible exception to this 'rule' though.
- One could mention in this respect the case of the Plains Indians whose way of life was for all practical purposes destroyed when the buffalo herds were decimated.
- This term (myth) is admissible, in my opinion, only if its definition is taken in an extended sense as understood by authors such as P. Smith (1974), E. MacCormac (1976), A. Reszler (1981) and others. This extended definition of myth would not necessarily require a story of past events involving supernatural beings or forces, but would be understood simply as a pedagogic vehicle (or form of packaging) permitting the transmission of cosmological data.
- With it's costumes, backdrops and props...
- Here are a few comments by Gregory Bateson on this narrative.
"The extraordinary achievement of the writers of the first chapter of Genesis was their perception of the problem: Where does order come from ? They observed that the land and the water were, in fact, separate and that species were separate, they saw that such a separation and sorting in the universe presented a fundamental problem. In modern terms, we may say this is the problem implicit in in the Second Law of Thermodynamics: If random events lead to things getting mixed up, by what non-random events did things come to be sorted ? And what is a "random" event ?" (Bateson 1972:343)
- One finds this theme also in Hindu cosmology too. Jaki notes:
"Thus, in India it was the astrologer that determined the exact spot where the cornerstone of a building was to be placed. The mason in turn drove a little peg into the ground in the belief that it would hold the head of the snake motionless. The snake was the ancient Hindu symbol of chaos and the mason's action repeated the feat of Indra who overcame the serpent with his thunderbolt, securing thereby stability and timelessness to what had been formed from the chaotic." (Jaki 1974: 2)
- Taking this fact into account one can enlighten situations such as the following observed by V. Turner among the Ndembu.
"Now let us turn to the rites themselves, and consider the interpretations of symbols in the order of their occurrence. These will expand our picture of the belief structure, for Ndembu, who, as I said, have remarkably few myths, compensate for this by a wealth of item-by-item exegesis." (Turner 1969: 20)
- This is true in most cases except with systems characterized by gnostic tendencies where the more important beliefs or doctrines are known only by a select group of initiates.
- Raymond Firth notes on this point:
"Finally, there is an order of meaning which considers the relation of the most general characteristics of a religious system to major issues of the social life and individual participation in it. It is in this sense that it can be said that religion is man's ultimate answer to the problem of meaning. Yet issues of human frailty and human destiny, of the nature of man and the nature of life, of good and evil and their consequences are as much raised as answered by religion.Religions deal differently with these issues, and it is important to discover what are the issues on which a particular religion appears to 'make sense' and those which it appears to leave open or - like the problem of theodicy among the Tikopia or the Nupe - it appears to ignore. " (emphasis mine) (Firth 1964: 232)
- One may quite logically ask "Is there a simple way of discovering what are the most important beliefs involved in an ideological-religious system ?". I, myself am inclined to answer simply "No". Ernst Gellner makes the following remarks on this sort of question.
"It is an interesting and important sociological truth that there is no a proiri way of delimiting the area in which these crucial, entrenched convictions are to be found. Of course, one can do it by means of a camouflaged tautology, which boils down to the assertion that what is important is what is important. But there is no non-question-begging way of doing so from the outside, so to speak. In other words, there is no special, privileged type of basket into which all societies place their most valuable eggs. You cannot say, for instance, that in any society the world-foundation story, or the rule of selecting political leaders, or theology, the rules governing sexual behaviour, will be singled out for special reverence and cross-tied by so many firm links to all other institutions, that they cannot be shaken without everything being shaken. Some areas are, indeed, more plausible candidates for the location of the sacred than others; but no area is necessarily predetermined for it, and no area is excluded from it. The sacred may lurk in the most unexpected quarters. The surprising quality of its choice of incarnation does indeed sometimes seem to be one of the devices for ensuring impact." (Gellner 1973:177-178)
- Obeyesekere remarks that the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism recognize that even the gods are caught in the grasp of karma (1968: 22).
- Obeyesekere indicates:
"... these texts themselves explicitly recognize the necessity for the laity to conduct themselves righteously according to the fundamental precepts of the doctrine.(...) ? This doctrine denies to the laity the practical possibility of salvation through the Noble Eightfold Path, but at the same time it it prescribes for the laity a special code of ethics. Instead of the primary compensation of nirvana (salvation), the laity are offered the secondary compensation of heaven and a happy rebirth." (Obeyesekere 1968: 28)
- Maranda makes the following comments on this point:
"The longing for systems, for organized knowledge, for "cosmos" has long been recognized as a basic human characteristic by philosophers, historians of ideas and religion, and thinkers in other fields. No further elaboration is necessary here." (Maranda 1979b, 254)
A hypothesis which is beginning to take shape in the social sciences, and which appears plausible, postulates that diverse cultural phenomena such as religion owe their existence to a very flexible mechanism enabling the acquisition of culture, a mechanism similar to that postulated by Chomsky for language acquisition. Gregerson explains:
"If indeed a biological basis for language exists - which of all cultural traits has been held to be unambiguously arbitrary (an essential feature of de Saussure's structuralism) - then biological programming for the rest of human cultural traits seems plausible. This is the thesis of Tiger and Fox's The Imperial Animal. Although their linguistic statements are a trifle off at times, they are correct in their reading the Chomskyan line that there is a language acquisition device and argue from this that "We have a CULTURE-ACQUISITION device constraining us to produce recognizable and analysable human cultures... however varied the local manifestations must be" (1971: 13). The rest of their book is an attempt to spell out the biological program (in their terms, the "bioprogrammar") that human beings are wired for." (Gregerson 1977: 93)
Kenneth L. Pike has also explored similar ideas in discussing his concept of "Hypermeanings" or a hierarchy of meanings built up from words and categories of words (see Pike 1967: 614). In the same way one can conceive of an inherent capacity for language acquisition, one could suppose that there is a need/capacity for formulating or learning an ideological-religious system and which would be 'printed' into the basic 'circuitry' of the human brain. The various ideological-religious systems would then constitute, in a manner of speaking, 'programs' which can be 'entered' into the culture acquisition mechanism, each 'program' proposing its own strategies attempting to explain or resolve the universal tendency towards disorder. In the absence of such a 'program' an individual (or group), with the help of this mechanism (and a little luck) and using the cosmological elements available in its environment, should be able to put together an original ideological-religious system. Cargo cults in Melanesia would be a typical example of this process.
- A. M. Greeley remarks:
"Almost any intimate community man has ever known has been structured around a set of convictions about the nature of reality.... To have intimate community without a shared world-view is, humanly speaking, just about impossible. If one wants to rationalize or justify one's departure from the ordinary norm of human interaction - as do the new communitarians- then one must certainly appeal to some higher and more or less sacred interpretation scheme to justify one's deviation." (Greeley 1972: 146)
Greeley also notes that many attempts in the 60's to establish communes failed because of a lack of a viable ideology which might have united such groups and supplied prescriptions and taboos with which disputes might be resolved and direction given to the life of these mini-societies.
- Though another, less politically correct, term might be used: "functions".