Debate Magazine

Horton Hatches Spirit Eggs

By Cris

In a 2012 Current Anthropology article with a daunting title (“A Hyperreal God and Modern Belief: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind”), Stanford professor Tanya Luhrmann has provided us with an excellent summary of Robin Horton‘s work. Because some readers do not have access to the article and others may not have time to read the whole thing (it’s one of those long feature articles with Comments followed by an author Reply), I want to share her précis of Horton:

In a famous series of papers, the anthropologist Robin Horton contrasted African traditional thought with Western science. His first goal was to rescue African religious thought from the charge of irrational confusion and incoherence that generations of interpreters, some of them anthropologists, had laid at its door. They are brilliant, audacious papers, laying out side by side with ex nihilo grandeur what Horton took to be the basic principles of African traditional thought and Western secular scientific philosophy. He pointed out that neither the African accounts of gods, ancestors, and spirits nor the Western scientific accounts of atoms and electrons are commonsense models of the world.

Take the exasperated, wondering puzzlements of Levy-Bruhl over his “primitive mentality.” How could primitives believe that a visible, tangible object was at once its solid self and the manifestation of an immaterial being? How could a man literally see a spirit in a stone? . . . Yet these questions of Levy-Bruhl’s have a very familiar ring in the context of western philosophy. Indeed, if we substitute atoms and molecules for gods and spirits, these turn out to be the very questions . . . posed by modern scientific theory in the minds of Berkeley, Locke, Quine and a whole host of European philosophers from Newton’s time onwards. (Horton 1967:52)

Both African gods and Western atoms, he argued, are explanatory theory, and they function to articulate unity beneath apparent diversity, simplicity beneath apparent complexity, and order and regularity beneath disorder and anomaly. Anthropologists, he argued, had not noticed how the gods worked as theory for Africans because they had no more understanding of basic chemistry than a cat. Horton was not saying that traditional African religious thought was a kind of science. He was saying that it was a theory and that the correct question to ask about such seemingly strange ideas as water spirits was not whether they were sensible in the abstract but how and why they were used. As theories, he argued, they come into play when common sense fails us, and they work—as above—to unify, order, and structure our chaotic world.

Of course, the religious thinking of traditional Africa and the theoretical thinking of the modern West, including science, were different, but their difference, he argued, could best be captured by what he called the “open” and “closed” predicaments, a simplification of Karl Popper’s account of the social conditions necessary for the emergence of science. “What I take to be the key difference is a very simple one. It is that in traditional culture there is no developed awareness of alternatives to the established body of theoretical tenets; whereas in scientifically oriented cultures, such an awareness is highly developed” (Horton 1967:155).

And he sketched out the consequences that followed from such awareness of alternative explanations and such tolerance for ditching a less adequate explanation for one more compelling: a nonmagical attitude toward words, the abstract systematization of ideas, reflective thinking, a clarification or streamlining of explanatory motives. Horton develops the contrast in Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (1993).

The contrast left to one side the nature of Western religion. If Horton had considered it, he probably would have identified liberal Protestantism—perhaps Unitarianism—as the natural outcome of faith in a scientific society. He would have anticipated a church retracting its claims to supernatural miracles, pulling back its commitments to swift creation in the face of geology and evolutionary theory. He would have expected the church to narrow down its theoretical domain to the spirit rather than allow it to serve as a general purpose theory of the world. In a throwaway line he said as much: “When we hear a western theologian proclaim loudly the ‘modern discovery’ that the essence of religion has nothing to do with explanation and prediction of worldly events, but is simply communion with God for its own sake, we are only partly right when we sneer at him for trying to disguise retreat as advance” (Horton 1967:165). Horton would predict that in an open society, Jesus would become a wise but human teacher whose life story became cloaked by myths that the naive take to be history but that are in fact no more than metaphor and symbol.

And from that perspective, of course, Horton would be dead wrong. There are pockets of liberal Christianity left in America and Europe, but Christianity around the world has exploded in its seemingly least liberal and most magical forms: in charismatic Christianities that take biblical miracles at face value and treat the Holy Spirit as if it has a voltage. Moreover, theologically conservative Christians are found not only in Africa and Melanesia but in the heart of the open, pluralistic, science-oriented societies we call the “West.”

While Luhrmann has superbly summarized Horton’s theory in the first part, her second part claim that Horton did not consider these issues, and that he would be “dead wrong,” is not quite correct. Horton often observes in his essays that highly intellectualized or abstract forms of Christianity — those focused on communion with an inscrutable God — are highly peculiar and mostly moribund. These forms, sometimes designated as liberal, progressive, and ecumenical (see the Huffington Post religion section for examples), have ceded “explanation, prediction, and control” to science and thus hold little or no appeal for the majority of people in the world. Most people, Horton observes, prefer traditional forms of religion, with robust spiritual agencies that materially influence world events and directly influence, or even control, peoples’ lives. This includes “modern Americans” and other westerners who acknowledge the practical utility of science but reject the “open” scientific worldview (Horton 1993:257). With considerable prescience, Horton later observes:

all vigorously flourishing religious traditions include a strong emphasis on explanation, prediction, and control of worldly events. [Q]uite a few such traditions seem to get along very well without any accompanying emphasis on the communion [or contemplative] aspect…We do not come across flourishing religious systems in which there is a strong communion emphasis with no accompanying emphasis on explanation, prediction, and control.

At this point, I can imagine an indignant shout from some Christian scholars, to the effect that modern Western Christianity is in fact a religion in which the communion aspect remains supreme, and from which the “superstitious” element of explanation, prediction, and control has been successfully jettisoned. My answer to such scholars is that, whilst their characterization is perfectly apt to certain strands of contemporary Western Christianity, these strands, precisely as a result of their one-sidedness, have never flourished. Rather, their cutting off of the explanation/prediction/control aspect can be compared in its effects to the cutting off of air supply to an underwater diver. After it, a lot of noisy, desperate gasping goes on, but the long-term prospects are not good. [Because liberal-intellectual Christianity eschews invisible agents or "spirits" that are vigorously, materially, and causally active in the world, its demise will be] accompanied by a steady slide, either into atheism, or back into religious traditions that have not made the mistake of jettisoning the concern with explanation/prediction/control (Horton 1993:373).

As should be evident, Horton was far from being “dead wrong.” We have not seen any widespread slide into atheism, but we have seen — around the world — a resurgence of religious forms variously characterized as literalist, conservative, and fundamentalist. These, of course, are the forms which take seriously the idea that the world is populated by invisible agents that are actively intervening in world events and substantially influencing peoples’ lives. The fastest growing and “vigorously flourishing” forms of religion are those which enable explanation, prediction, and control.

Here in the United States, those forms are evangelical or charismatic, and these are the forms that Luhrmann has been studying. She has, as a result of fieldwork among evangelicals in California and Illinois, written several articles and a book. While I always find these illuminating, I can’t help but wonder to what extent her analyses of subjects such as “hallucinations” and “play” have been affected by her choice of field-sites or churches. When I read Luhrmann’s descriptions of beliefs and practices from those sites, I am struck by the fact that the California and Illinois churches are so tame and this tameness, in turn, allows Luhrmann to analyze those beliefs-practices in ways that make sense to academics and scientifically-inclined outsiders. I was raised among evangelicals oriented toward the deep south (i.e., Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas), where people don’t play or pretend when it comes to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, and demons. Most will tell you that they actually see and literally talk to these gods and spirits on a daily basis. There is nothing playful or make-believe about it. If we accept the truth of what they tell us about their experiences (as Horton rightly insists we should when dealing with informants), we would be hard-pressed to make academic or scientific sense of it. We could of course just call them crazy, but that would never do or pass peer review.


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