Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

PART ONE
Colonialism and Postcolonial Legacies

It must be admitted, however regretfully and embarrassedly, that anthropology owes much to colonialism--to the efforts of Europeans during the last four hundred years to control the rest of the planet; to make off with the resources of others, to steal their lands, to force them to buy the goods manufactured in Europe, even to enslave them.

Indeed, the earliest accounts of the peoples of the world encountered by Europeans in their mercenary travels helped bring into very existence the discipline that was to call itself "the study of man." The increasing awareness of the variety of lifestyles--even before true data about those lifestyles were forthcoming--affected European versions of political philosophy (see Rousseau on the "noble savage") and literature (see Shakespeare The Tempest). And, of course, once a European power had actually "pacified the natives," anthropologists could venture forth and ply their work--usually with the blessings of some farsighted colonial officials who realized that data on technology, subsistence and trade, as well as on social and political structure and even on beliefs could only be of benefit to the new rulers; indeed, many of the officials themselves joined the ranks of anthropologists and made significant ethnographic and ethnological contributions to the new discipline.

At the same time, however, there were things about anthropologists and anthropological theory that made some of the other European scholars uneasy. There were intimations in even the earliest anthropological accounts of a kind of nascent "cultural relativism"--of a suggestion that perhaps all cultures and thus all religious systems, European and non-European, constituted equivalently complex and sound adaptations to diverse environments. This suggestion--however minimal, however muted--challenged the hierarchical model embedded within the prevailing theoretical concept of unilinear evolution so popular in late- nineteenth-centuryEurope and the United States that compared one culture to another along a scale of presumed technological and cultural complexity.

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