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Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality: Religion in a Pluralistic World

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"An important book which deserves the careful attention of serious students of religion." —Religious Studies Review

Anthropologist and spiritual explorer Felicitas Goodman offers a "unified field theory" of religion as human behavior. She examines ritual, the religious trance, alternate reality, ethics and moral code, and the named category designating religion.

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Chapter l. The Religious: Can It Be Defined?

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Magic versus religion. In contrasting the so-called “great religions’ and others, the term magic is often employed to describe the latter. In the past, this usage was popular because it seemingly supported the superiority of the “great religions.” There, a religious ceremony, so the argument went, was designed to elevate, to praise, etc., while a magical rite of savages was thought to be able, “falsely, of course,” to manipulate the objects and circumstances of the real world.

Even when a somewhat more balanced view of non-Western humanity began to dawn, the topic of magic proved to be surprisingly slippery, despite the fact that at first blush it seemed to represent an apparently neat and well-defined category. Recognizing the difficulty, social scientists tried repeatedly to redefine the difference between religion and magic. To the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, it lay in the fact that a religious rite was obligatory, while a magical one was optional. Frazer, also much quoted on the topic of magic, subdivided the category into types, such as “contagious magic,” “imitative magic,” etc. He considered magic “false science”: Science worked, magic did not. The British social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, consistent with his view that all cultural behavior was “functional,” i.e., directed toward the goal of satisfying physical needs, advanced the suggestion that magic had a definite practical purpose, while religious rites were expressive without purpose. Harking back to Frazer’s “false science,” he felt that magical practices attempted to bridge the hiatus between knowledge and practical control, so that magic was applied when the practitioner felt that there was an element of uncertainty involved. In a now-famous example (1954), he described how in the Trobriand Islands, where he did fieldwork in the first decade of this century, no fishing magic was used to enhance the catch and provide protection within the lagoon. Such rituals were carried out only on the high seas.

 

Chapter 2. Human Evolution and the Origins and Evolution of Religious Behavior

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In 1866, the Société de Linguistique of Paris banned all discussion of the origin and evolution of human language and speech. The argument was that nothing could be known about the topic, and thus its treatment was sheer conjecture and idle speculation. No such interdict was ever issued with respect to religion, although the disquisitions on its origins have equally been plagued with “sheer conjecture and idle speculation.” Take the French author Ch. R. de Brosses. He suggested in 1760 that humans first invented fetishism, that is, the worship of inanimate objects and of animals. Egypt, he thought, showed traces of such practices, which had also been reported by casual visitors to the West African coast. Fetishism gave rise to polytheism, and that in turn to monotheism. Subsequent speculation ran along similar totally unsupported and fanciful lines. Gradually, however, ethnography, archeology, prehistory, primatology, and even neurophysiology have greatly added to our knowledge about the cognitive evolution of humans, emboldening even the linguists to take a second look, more than a hundred years after the above quoted Paris decision.1 As we shall see, some of the suggestions that emerged from their renewed consideration of the topic supported the idea that there might possibly be some parallels in the emergence of language and religion. To understand this train of thought, let us take a brief look at the course of human evolution as reconstructed by modern science.

 

Chapter 3. The Independent Variable: Interaction with the Habitat

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In the course of the history of our species, a number of different adaptations have appeared vis-à-vis the habitat. Athough transition between them is fluid, anthropologists have been able to recognize five principal lifeways: hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, agriculturalists, nomadic pastoralists, and city dwellers. As an ideal type, each one of these adaptations correlates with a different religious behavior. It is important, therefore, to outline their special characteristics.

The hunter-gatherers.1 As we know, the exact time at which modern humans appeared is still a matter of debate. Most recently (see Science 237 (1987): 1292–1295) it has been suggested on the basis of new fossil evidence and molecular biological research that they arrived on the scene no earlier than 200,000 years ago. It appears pretty certain that their point of origin was Africa, and by 10,000 before our era they had succeeded in covering the earth.

In a very real way, the hunters and gatherers open the first chapter of our human history. And fittingly, this dawning was as close to paradise as humans have ever been able to achieve. The men did the hunting and scavenging, working for about three hours a week, and the women took care of daily sustenance by gathering vegetal food and small animals. It was such a harmonious existence, such a successful adaptation, that it did not materially alter for many thousands of years. This view is not romanticizing matters. Those hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into the present still pursue the same lifestyle, and we are quite familiar with it from contemporary anthropological observation. Despite the unavoidable privations of human existence, despite occasional hunger, illness, and other trials, what makes their lifeway so enviable is the fact that knowing every nook and cranny of their home territory and all that grows and lives in it, the bands make their regular rounds and take only what they need. By modern calculations, that amounts to only about 10 percent of the yield, easily recoverable under undisturbed conditions. They live a life of total balance, because they do not aspire to controlling their habitat, they are a part of it.

 

Chapter 4. Dependent Variables

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A ritual is a social encounter in which each participant has a well-rehearsed role to act out. It takes place within a set time span and in a limited space, and involves a predetermined set of events. Once initiated, it has to run its course to completion. In interaction with others, humans perform many rituals in everyday life. In our present context, however, we will concern ourselves only with those rituals that touch on the nonordinary, the religious aspect of human existence.

The number of religious rituals is legion, and social scientists have tried to categorize them in a number of different ways. The most successful attempt to date was made by the Dutch social scientist Arnold van Gennep. His slender volume, first published in 1909, went through many editions. His popularity resulted from the fact that he put forth a scheme that made a complex task appear deceptively simple. He proposed that the multitude of rituals reported from around the world notwithstanding, they all could be ranged into three types: those of separation, of transition, and of incorporation. Rituals, he pointed out, accompanied people throughout their lives. They marked situations of crisis, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, with proper solemnity, functioning to facilitate the passage from one social condition to the next. He coined the term rites of passage, without which hardly a writer could authoritatively discuss Johnny’s Bar Mitzvah or the president’s inauguration.

 

Chapter 5. The Hunter-Gatherers

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The bands, hordes, or groups of the hunter-gatherer type of society are usually small.1 Each one is associated with a particular geographic area, but they do not claim exclusive rights to it. The institution of chiefly power is minimal to nonexistent, and personal property is of modest proportions. Despite the geographic distance between bands, there is communication between them for the exchange of resources and women, and for passing on new religious material, such as songs or stories. Women are equal partners. There is sexual freedom and sexual variety, in addition to permanent marriages. A man is allowed to have several wives. He also has access to potential wives, that is, women whom he would be allowed to marry without violating incest rules, as well as to his brothers’ wives. Women in polygenous households may choose lovers among “permissible” men, as well as from among the husband’s brothers. In addition, a woman can expect to live with a series of husbands during her lifetime, for the marriage rules usually provide that the first husband be considerably older than his wife. Most adult men and also the women are “medicine” people, that is, religious specialists. Older women are especially valued for their knowledge of ritual and may function as advisers during important rites.

 

Chapter 6. The Horticulturists

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The history of horticulturalist settlements varies greatly according to geographic location. Judging from the archeological record, it flourished only briefly in Central Europe, and disappeared from the scene well over five thousand years ago. Traces of it can still be found in fairy tales and legends, but the absence of a historical memory of this cultural form contributed to the tragedy of native populations that got in the way of European conquest: It was not agriculture, and therefore it was despised as ignorant and savage. Only around the Mediterranean did some of the central concepts of its religion, especially that of metamorphosis, survive into the time of classical antiquity, as we know from ancient Greece and Egypt. But the ability of humans to change shape and become animals or plants was no longer generally accepted and became the attribute of deities in Greece. Zeus changes into a bull or a swan in order to further his amorous pursuits and seduce beautiful girls. And in Egypt, where many deities appear in a combined human and animal form, the entire metamorphosis complex apparently became part of the esoteric knowledge of the priestly caste. Japanese Shinto, the “Way of the Spirits,” is the only example of a large, modern industrial society retaining a horticultural religion. Horticulturalism as a way of life survived into the present in New Guinea, in parts of Southeast Asia, in Africa, and among Amerindian societies in both North and South America.

 

Chapter 7. The Agriculturalists

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The Agriculturalists as State Societies

The agriculturalist has assured subsistence. All good things come to him, as we read in the Popol Vub, as a blessing from the “House on the Pyramids,” from agencies “on high.” But in order to have them, he has to work hard, earning his daily bread “by the sweat of his brow.” To pay for those good things, all members of the group have to be drafted into a continued and sustained effort. There is no room anymore, as the Popol Vuh tells it, for the venturesome and the proud. What the tillers need to inculcate in their young is conscientiousness, compliance, humility, and obedience.

With permanent settlements, agriculturalists can no longer avoid the problems of conflict by picking up and leaving: Conflict resolution, in other words, cannot be brought about by fissioning. Chiefly, authority comes into being as one avenue of solution. There is more personal property, and the concept also intrudes into the position of women. A man wants exclusive rights to his spouse, and his elevated status leads not only to her eventual disenfranchisement, but also to her ritual inferiority.

 

Chapter 8. The Nomadic Pastoralists

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The adaptation of nomadic pastoralism arose so gradually within a number of different ecological conditions that it is difficult to make any general statements concerning its time of origin. Some forms antedate agriculture; others arose as an adjunct to it. At any rate, once an adaptation developed, it remained impressively stable. Take, for instance, the Evenk (Tungus), to be discussed later in this chapter. Archeologists have found traces of their way of life going back as far as the Neolithic, about 8000–9000 B.C., not too far from where they make their home today in eastern Siberia, in the region of Lake Baikal.

Comparing the subsistence activity of nomadic pastoralists, we can distinguish three subtypes:

1) those who combine pastoralism with hunting and gathering;

2) those who have ties to and obtain part of their subsistence in trade relations with agriculturalists; and

3) those who by virtue of a sexual division of labor are partially horticulturalists, a task that has fallen to the women, and partially pastoralists, the lifeway of the men.

 

Chapter 9. The City Dwellers

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Humans have lived in cities almost as long as they have in villages. But cities have probably been different from villages from the start. Since this point may not be generally accepted, and since what happens with respect to religious behavior in the city as the last of the human adaptations to emerge is of special interest to us as urbanites, I will include some references to ancient cities here as well. The difficulty is, of course, that no outsider, such as a foreign anthropologist, did any participant observation in the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, and what written records we have are for the most part boastings of the rulers, so I cannot quote any ethnographic material. But historians have made some educated guesses, which might be at least of some value within a comparative framework. We are better off with ancient Rome, where we have a wealth of manuscripts, political speeches, essays, personal letters, and literary creations that give us a pretty good idea about those topics that interest us here.

 

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