The cross-cultural study of ritual 1
Usually, a ritual becomes the object of investigation only when it is perceived to be exotic, bizarre, nonsensical, or absurd. That is to say, when it is someone else’s ritual. The “someone else” has classically been an indigenous person; the investigators, in the main, Protestants. The distorting lens of Protestant-based theories of ritual is addressed in S. J. Tambiah’s book, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. He presents a thorough critique of scholars such as Edmund Tylor and James George Frazer, demonstrating the straitjacket that their theories constructed for analyzing indigenous rituals.
Despite decades of such critiques, the legacy of these scholars continues to shape debates about ritual. Tambiah’s elegant critique of much prior scholarship and his own influential observations about ritual demands careful consideration. In the first section of this chapter, I will address some of the theoretical problems Tambiah raises for us about comparing “Western” and “indigenous” rituals; in the second part, I will examine a test case, Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern scapegoat rituals, chosen because it intersects with material Tambiah discusses. We will see both the tenacity of and the distortions brought by Protestant-based theories of ritual, problems that are at the core of improving our study of indigenous religions. I will offer some suggestions about alternative terminology that can be used in the study of rituals.
Tambiah’s short book addresses what is often called the demarcation question, that is to say, how to distinguish between magic, religion, and science. In an attempt to avoid using Western notions of science to judge traditional/indigenous rituals, he delineates a variant of the now-common “relativist” position. According to relativist theories, the norms from one society for definitions of rationality should not be used to study, and judge, another culture. He posits that
it is when we transport the universal rationality of scientific causality and the alleged rationality of surrounding moral, economic and political sciences with the claims to objective rules of judgment…and try to use them as yardsticks for measuring, understanding and evaluating other cultures and civilization that we run into the vexed problems of relativity, commensurability, and translation of culture.