Biology Magazine

Learning the Summer Course

By Cris

The past 7 weeks have been something of a (hot) blur. Two of those were spent preparing to teach an anthropology of religion course and the next five were spent teaching. I have often heard it said that in teaching a course, the instructor learns as much as the students. If the course isn’t canned and it is the first or second time teaching it, I can see how this might be the case. But if you’ve taught the course several times, the odds of learning as much as the students seem a bit diminished. Certain things can be done to counteract this: critique the course, revise the syllabus, change the readings, and prepare fresh lectures. You can also hope that the students engage with the course, challenge the materials, and proffer keen insights. If it all comes together, you’ll have learned some things.

Having done all this, and had good students this summer, I’ve learned some things. In the process, I haven’t been writing much and can feel my muscles are weak. Or I’m just feeling lazy. Either way it seems a good idea to get back to things, or at least warm up a bit, by writing about the things I learned. I’m going to take this slow and build this post over the next several days as I ruminate on the course. As the bits and pieces come together, I’m hoping that something more sustained — substantive and disciplined, will result. By the time it’s done, the mere thought of writing may not be so tiring. Without further ado, I’ll be developing these ideas and others over the next few days:

Not All Animism is Created Equal: We are accustomed to thinking about animism in more or less standard Tylorian terms. That is, we tend to essentialize animism as the promiscuous attribution of agency, force, or spirit to anything and everything — rocks, animals, plants, landscapes, weather, etc. This is just isn’t so. Almost by happy chance, I changed the syllabus so that for the same day of class we read an article on Ojibwa ontology and another on Lakota belief. The contrast between the two kinds of animism, which I hadn’t noticed previously, was remarkable. The Ojibwa are quite particular about what and how they animate. They animate only those things with which they need to interact. The Lakota, on the other hand, animate on a much larger and more mysterious scale. I suspect there are functional and historical reasons for these differences, and that animism varies (perhaps even systematically) in accord with these reasons.

Tool-Making and Mimesis Played a Major Role in the Rise of Ritual: After reviewing the literature on ritual, which I previously had set to the side as chaotic and opaque, I’m warming to the idea that whatever else ritual might be, at a basic level it entails learned repetitive action. Before language, such learning would have occurred through observation and mimickry — a sequence which surely constituted the way in which hominins passed stone knapping skills from one generation to another for millions of years. If birds can develop complex repertoires of rituals or displays when it comes to mating, it seems likely that hominins would have developed even more complex rituals surrounding lithics. This makes the Middle Stone Age assemblage at Rhino Cave in Botswana even more intriguing than I previously thought.

The Byproduct versus Adaptation Debate is a Canard: For a variety of reasons, I’ve long thought that the parties to this debate either were talking about entirely different things, or that they were using this debate as scientific cover for their personal opinions about religion. Because cost-benefit analyses are used to determine whether some trait, feature, or behavior is adaptive, it’s not hard to focus on costs or benefits to achieve one’s desired result. Costs and benefits are so subjective, and so dependent on time-scale and local conditions, that manipulating them is an easy task. Let’s face it: there are times and places when “religion” looks adaptive and others when it doesn’t. As far as I’m concerned, they more or less cancel each other out.

I’m almost tempted to say that the animism which forms the heart, if not soul, of all religions is much like language. Asking whether it is adaptive really doesn’t get us too far. On the one hand, it’s obviously adaptive. On the other, it looks like a byproduct of various abilities (such as causal sequencing, agency attribution, theory of mind, and pattern imposition). In certain settings (or when used certain ways) the costs are considerable. Just because language can be costly or detrimental, we don’t say it is maladaptive. The same goes for the epistemology and ontology of animism and what later became “religion.”

The byproduct approach to religion assumes, incorrectly, that various mental faculties or modules at some magical point gave rise to supernatural ideas or religious beliefs. It’s akin to the idea, from the Terminator movies, that at some point Skynet became intelligent, subjectively aware of itself and conscious. But when we are talking about the varied and various aspects of mind that support supernaturalism, there was no singular point in time when they all came together or became operative. Each aspect of mind supporting this complex phenomena was long developing, and each works in conjunction with everything else. Isolating a particular faculty or “module” and saying it (or they) are responsible for the “supernatural” or “religion” is artificial, perhaps even a reductive fiction. Animisms do not revolve around specific ideas or substantive beliefs. Animisms are much more; they are worldviews — ways of seeing, perceiving, being, constituting, interacting, and relating. In this larger, richer, and altogether more integrated context, talk about byproducts or adaptations don’t make much sense.

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