Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Fundamentals of Fertility: Cosmology and Conversion in a Southwestern Nigerian Town

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Fundamentals of Fertility: Cosmology and Conversion in a Southwestern Nigerian Town

Article excerpt

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth... (Genesis 1: 1).

Let us not mix up heaven and earth, the global stage and the local scene, the human and the nonhuman... (Latour 1993: 3).

The assumption that distinct dichotomies such as modern and traditional or secular and religious exist, parodied by Latour (1993) in his admonition that they should not be mixed, has recently been critiqued in several studies of religion and the nation-state (van der Veer & Lehman 1999). By presuming that secularism is associated with modernity -- whereby religious belief and practices are believed to diminish in importance in both public and private spheres -- social analysts have failed to realize the continuing impact of religion on political movements associated with the modern nation-state. Yet some political thinking is grounded in biblical texts, for example in narratives about chosenness, rebirth, and messianic deliverance. As van der Veer and Lehman (1999: 8) have observed, it is important 'to revitalize discussion of religion's place in modern society, which theories of secularization have brought to a dead end'.

This is a particularly appropriate subject for re-examination in many post-colonial settings as ideas about chosenness and messianic deliverance underwrote colonial activities in these places -- for both colonial officials and missionaries. Furthermore, in many African societies, reading and writing -- often initially of biblical texts (Peel 2000: 223) -- came to be a marker of a modern identity. This article examines the consequences of 'becoming modern' (or 'enlightened'; Peel 1978), which, in towns throughout southwestern Nigeria, has been associated with conversion to Christianity and with the acquisition of literacy. Yet while many women and men in southwestern Nigeria view conversion to Christianity as reflecting their sense of being 'modern', few would describe their religious practices as distinct from their individual social lives or from the public and political life of the villages, towns, and cities in which they live. These 'modern hybrids' (Asad 1999: 179) -- individuals who are both 'modern' an d religious -- cannot be characterized as reflecting a shift from communal 'traditional' religious beliefs and practices to 'modern' Christianity as both are (or have been) critical to the political and social life of their communities. Furthermore, these 'modern hybrids' should not be characterized simplistically as examples of religious syncretism (Shaw & Stewart 1994), since they represent neither a fixed blending of religious beliefs (traditional and Christian), nor a unidirectional trend from community-wide religious practice to private, secularized practice. As Hefner (1993: 27) has noted, the multiple consequences of the conversion process must be taken into account.

In considering the particular consequences of converting to Christianity and becoming 'modern' in southwestern Nigeria, I focus on one aspect of religious doctrine, specifically beliefs about the genesis of life. Beliefs about cosmology and fertility -- like religious beliefs more generally -- have been assumed to shift from spiritual, supernatural explanations to more secular, scientific ones. Like assumptions about modernization and nationalism which presume that citizens practise religion privately, distinct from public, political life, social analysts theorizing fertility transition (e.g. as described by Greenhalgh 1995: 5-8) have assumed that modern citizens with Western education will view fertility distinctly from religious beliefs. For them, fertility may be controlled through human agency, enabling women to have fewer children. This thinking is said to contrast with that of 'traditional' people, for whom fertility is believed to have a spiritual origin and is consequently outside of human control (C aldwell & Caldwell 1987). …

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