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

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

cal perspective, Lowie's statement that it is the responsibility of the fieldworker to understand the "true inwardness" of the beliefs and practices is more appropriate. Lowie asserts ( 1963:533),

. . . I have known anthropologists who accorded a benevolent understanding to the Hopi but denied it to Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, or Mohammedans. This dichotomy of viewpoint strikes me as ridiculous and completely unscientific. I will study as many religions as I can, but I will judge none of them. I doubt if any other attitude is scientifically defensible.

Burridge ( 1978:10) mentions an anthropologist who was in the habit of smoking on the premises of a missionary organization that had strict regulations against the use of tobacco or alcohol within its compound. In fact, he even urged some of the people living there to accept free gifts of cigarettes. One wonders if he would just as inconsiderately have offered pork chops to the caretaker of a mosque or eaten hot dogs in a Hindu temple.

I suspect that, in at least some instances, the antipathy of anthropologists toward missionaries lies in the fact that missionaries take seriously and teach other people religious beliefs which the anthropologists have personally rejected. It would be difficult for most people to maintain a positive (or even neutral) attitude toward a position they had personally rejected as being either invalid or meaningless. As Burridge ( 1978:8) suggests,

Somehow, whether the person was a physician, an agricultural expert, a technician, a schoolteacher--whatever--the fact that he or she was also a missionary seemed to neutralize the expertise being proffered. One was left with the impression that it was the rarely articulated "Christian" in the general label "missionary" that was the prime target of objection.


Conclusion

Although early anthropologists relied heavily on missionary publications and there have been many missionary ethnographers, 6 the general attitude of anthropologists toward missionaries has been negative. It would be simplistic to suggest that this attitude is entirely due to the acceptance of one (or both) of the presuppositions I have discussed. However, the positions that cultures are organic wholes which should not be disturbed and that religious beliefs are essentially meaningless would certainly contribute to such an attitude. Another contributing factor that has been suggested ( Salamone 1977:409) is that anthropologists and missionaries are actually similar, both believing they have the truth, being protective of the people among whom they work, and opposing that which they define as evil. Burridge ( 1978:5) argues that Malinowski's diaries display an animus toward missionaries which has overtones of an unresolved Oedipus problem: "Missionaries had fathered the work to which he was dedicating himself with typical missionary zeal--on the other side of the fence."

-18-

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