Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Religion, Violence and the Vitalistic Economy

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Religion, Violence and the Vitalistic Economy

Article excerpt

In early January 2002, Pope John Paul II convened a synod at the Vatican that included leading clerics of some twelve faiths, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism among them. At the conclusion of the synod, the Pope issued a proclamation that apparently had the unanimous support of his guests. Perhaps the most notable and timely of its clauses was one declaring that "whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion's deepest and truest inspiration" (Tagliabue 2002: A4). One can hardly object to the spirit of such an article of no doubt carefully considered faith. Indeed, most of us who more or less contentedly inhabit the secular orders of the contemporary world would hope, would expect, would insist that the properly religious, the really and truly religious, recognize that spirit and its attendant article as their own. Good that the Pope and his fellow clerics should see fit to appease us. It could nevertheless unsettle us-if not as happy secularists, then as anthropologists-that the terms of that appeasement come precipitously close to relegating a vast number of religious proselytizers and the even more vast number of their followers, present and past, to one or another level of an analytical purgatory, there to join the company of all those others among us, present and past, who are or have been errant, confused, seduced, drugged literally or figuratively, manipulative, manipulated, corrupt, decadent, devious or deviant as the case may be. It could also unsettle us-precisely as anthropologists-that so many of the terms that we ourselves might bring to the analysis of religion, violence, and religiously justified violence (which I'll denote in shorthand as "religious violence" henceforth) come perilously close to effecting the same result. I think that there is no time better than the extended present through which we have been living since September 11, 2001 to aspire to less presumptuousness and greater discernment. In what follows I do not pretend to do anything more than proceed even halfway toward fulfilling such an aspiration. I have no grand theory to unveil. I will instead draw a few partial connections-and leave to my readers to judge whether the indulgence that the editors of Anthropological Quarterly are affording me is entirely in vain.

Matters of Definition

Not the least of our anthropological problems with religion (not even to mention violence) is definitional, as Jack Goody's now classic essay acknowledged in its title some time ago (Goody 1961). Goody's solution to that problem lay in abandoning the presumption that religion or religiosity was bound to be found in every human society and that the ethnographer's task thus lay in determining which symbols or actions gave it expression. He favored instead the stolid empirical nineteenth-century presumption that religion was at base supernaturalism and so present in a society when the belief in supernatural agencies or forces was present, absent when the belief was absent. Jacob Pandian has recently advocated a similar definitional strategy in the pages of the Anthropology News (2002) for reasons that Goody could easily endorse. That a people or many or some among them believe in the existence of supernatural agencies or forces has for Pandian the virtue of being a direct and simple criterion of religious commitment. It is, moreover, easy enough to determine, and it allows us to proceed straightforwardly from what we can already recognize as religious to what we may not have thought to be religious without risking axiomatization of the even greater array of ethnocentric criteria that a more holistic or hermeneutical or systematic starting-point would be all too likely to require. For my purposes, the definition itself has the further virtue of highlighting that religious ideation is centrally concerned with power or powers. Yet, its shortcoming is that it highlights very little else. Here as elsewhere, simplicity is a cautionary virtue but a heuristic liability. …

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