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against the world
Sunday, 13 June 2010
Neither a Bokononist Nor a Mercerite Be [1]
The Pirahã, a people who live in a handful of villages along the Maici river in northwest Brazil, have no religion as we know the concept. They believe in energy within living things that translate generally as “spirits” but their daily lives are built around an idea called xibipíio, what author and Pirahã expert Daniel Everett [2] describes as experiential liminilality, that is, limiting their interaction with the world to direct experience. They have no origin story for themselves or the world, and have no real concept of the universe, because such things would lie outside personal experience or the experience of, say, a grandparent or parent who could tell such tale [3]. They have no real connection with the past, but don’t need one. They simply don’t experience the world the same way we might. So, they do not need to “meditate on positive imagery” to get the neurological benefits of religion, as described by “neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, therapist Mark Robert Waldman, and their research team, [who] have concluded that active and positive spiritual belief changes the human brain for the better” [4]. The Pirahã can simply laze about in the shade or play tag with river dolphins—yes, they actually do this—to escape the rigors of daily life. We need religion. Religion serves many purposes for us: it provides escape and comfort and meaning, it helps us have a sense of continuity with the past and the future, it helps form our identity and expand it into community solidarity and a cultural identity, it provides a ready ethical guide for behavioral control, and it justifies consumption and negative actions taken against those outside our religious community.


Religion provides escape and comfort and, most importantly, meaning, by providing a cosmology to explain the structure of reality, giving us a way to transcend the quotidian and find purpose in the everyday. The walls of religion are “familiar / comforting” [5]. Even when our religion has “been remodeled time / and again… the basic structure / remains the same” [6]. We know it; we find it comforting, our sense of understanding of how everything works. Religion serves as explanation, as bastion of order. Geneticist Dean Hamer has suggested that “humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual—to reach out and look for a higher being” [7] and it is in this predisposition—which, even outside of genetics, makes logical sense, as every society throughout human history has included some sort of religion, even if only in the form of civil religion—that we can see a piece of the fundamental nature of mankind. We want to know how the universe works, and when the explanation does not present itself, we invent one to fit. And, we invent religion to separate us from the day to day, to help us transcend the mundane. The New Horizon Sanctuary addition to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia was specifically designed (with African cultural history in mind, tying into a point to come below) as a place of beauty separate from the city around it, an escape from the outside world. Similarly, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California stands out from its surroundings, a beacon of something (supposedly) higher and brighter and better than the surrounding cityscape [8]. This separation from the everyday is vital. As Sita Wiener describes it, “as I sat there and meditated, I had the experience of transcending my body and mind, realizing myself as Omnipresent. I forgot my individuality” [9]. Finding explanation that brings us up away from the chaos of the quotidian can bring us out of ourselves, and can help us find our personal identity, and can lead to the continuity and community to be described below, all these purposes crisscrossing, fueling one another.

It is also important to realize that religion can reduce stress and anxiety. As Andrew Newberg and his colleagues found, “just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process” and “contemplating a loving God… reduces anxiety, depression, and stress and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love” [10]. In fact, prayer and meditation have been found to “permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality” [11]. Meditating on the cosmology in which one believes, even only inasmuch as one might meditate on it in a weekly (or less often) church meeting, can permanently alter our brains so that not only does the cosmology we’ve accepted make even more sense to us, but we can become better people… in theory.

It is worth noting (even in getting ahead of the current point) that, even as we believe we can be better people, we often “believe ourselves to be members of a race that is fundamentally flawed and inherently doomed to suffering and misery…

[We] expect wisdom to be a rare commodity, difficult to acquire… [we]’re not surprised to be living in the midst of poverty, injustice, and crime, not surprised that [our] rules are self-serving and corrupt, not surprised to be rendering the world uninhabitable for [our]selves. [12]

It helps that, through religion we have a certain arrogance of knowledge, the oft referenced “holier-than-thou” attitude, arising from the comfort and order we find in cosmology. This arrogance of knowledge adds to the altering of the physical brain; in believing that the foundations of our religion is given by a God or comes from some superior (but not necessarily supernatural) intelligence, we fuel a psychological sense that our beliefs are good and reasonable and worth keeping. And, the longer such beliefs remain, the more ingrained they can become, physically and psychologically, and the more worth keeping they seem—after all, if they lasted as long as they have, they must be working.


Religion it helps us have a sense of continuity with the past and the future. Seeking the holy, aside from the obvious comfort described above, is about finding continuity in addition to order. We want a connection to the past [13]. We want to know that the church we are attending—the physical structure, like the Old Ship Meetinghouse [14] in Hingham, Massachusetts, the oldest meetinghouse in continuous ecclesiastical use, having been originally built in the 1600s; or the idea structure, like Hinduism, often recognized as the oldest living religion in the world—has survived generations before us. We want to know that it will survive after us.

It is because of this need for continuity that the selection of the next Dalai Lama is such an important one for Tibetan Buddhists, “more than a matter of life and death” [15]. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th. His position has existed longer than some other religions have. His reincarnation keeps the religion going, keeps the order and comfort going. For Tibetan Buddhists, the selection of the next Dalai Lama, which Communist China threatens to influence, is “about who controls their future” [16].

Of similar importance (but not so contemporary) is the promise in Jeremiah, the promise that God “will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob… the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be” [17]. The passage refers to a specific people, a specific time and place, but later Christians have applied it to themselves. They reinterpret it to fit with their own cosmology, their own eschatology. It furthers their religious comfort (reiterating the first purpose of religion described above) with the notion that if they believe in God, they will be saved and receive an eternal reward. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says the Lord. “Again I will build you, and you shall be built” [18]. The key here is that it goes beyond the comfort of the religious belief. This promise deals with putting something back that once was, connecting the future with the past through the present belief structure. It creates a bright-line through history and forward, relying on and refueling our beliefs. It is worth noting that any religion that has an eschatology—that is, a specific belief about the end—there may even be a sense that, since we are near the endtimes, certain progress is, even if potentially positive, unnecessary. Science, modernity, and progress—these are living, evolving ideas whereas religion and tradition—these are dead notions whose very stillness is what makes them so comforting and so timeless.

Another way to understand the importance of continuity in belief systems is to look at where continuity has deliberately been broken. The Tana Toraja of Sulawesi had their tao-tao effigy building practice altered by Christian missionaries to change them from seeming idols (containing the souls of the dead) to being more specifically representative statuary, more like photographs than vessels for the dead themselves [19]. Similarly, in the residential schools, a Native American boy, before even being taught one lesson in how to be a good (Christian) American, had his hair chopped off, and his name replaced with a good Christian name. Before he could be taught a new tradition, his connection to the old one had to be torn away.


Religion helps take our individual identity and expand it into community solidarity and a cultural identity. “Being part of a community with its own history, convictions, customs, and values can add richness and meaning to life,” says Judith Plaskow [20]. Finding likeminded individuals, people who believe what we believe—this extends the comfort and continuity further. It acts as evidence, as well, of our rightness, adding to our arrogance of knowledge and our sense of order.

Modern religion often makes the continuity link and the community link concurrently and deliberately; for example, the main front page [21] of website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, includes family history links, making personal history and church history interconnected. The website [22] for the Episcopal Church emphasizes one’s public role with links for advocacy, community, and networking. By linking the personal with the communal, religion dictates all of our interactions with the world. Practitioners of a particular religion find that their beliefs color everything, altering the way they see the world, a la Andrew Newberg above; they see everything through the eyes of the community. “God is present—immanent—in community and is experienced in community” [23], says Mary Farrell Bednarowski in The Religious Imagination of American Women. Tying back again to an earlier point, the togetherness of community provides comfort even without the unified beliefs, simply by providing a sense of belonging, as described in the following passage from Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America:

We know what we’ve got to do… to pay respect to the Buddha and his teachings, to respect the adults and their wishes… [to] take care of the temple as if it were our home, and to take care of the younger generations in hopes that they too will see what we teenagers of Wat Dhammaram realize now. And what do we realize now? What we realize is that the temple is not [just] a place of worship, but a place where we have made lifetime friends.... We will always come back to it because at one time or another, it was our second home. [24]

Houses of Worship, specifically, maintain connections between practitioners of a given religion. They can also connect religious immigrants to one another, upon arrival in a new country, and also to practitioners back home. They come to a new country, “wishing to transfer their native heritage to their offspring to educate them about the history, culture, language, values, and religion of their homeland” [25]. They want to bring the community they had with them, to be maintained even as it is merged with a new community. What they do not want is to be isolated from either.

Connecting back to the point on continuity, to the promise of the future in a belief system’s eschatology, The Ghost Dance movement of 1890 “prophesied the imminent coming of an age when the dead would return, the whites would be eliminated in a cataclysm of selective destructiveness, and the lives of all Indians would be returned to a state of bounty and pristine purity” [26]. In the face of cultural genocide and assimilation, this Ghost Dance movement drew together previously disparate indigenous tribes into one community, giving them solidarity in hope for a better tomorrow.


Religion provides a ready ethical guide for behavioral control and consensus within the community. Emma Goldman suggested that “most theists see in god and devils, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, a whip to lash the people into obedience, meekness and contentment” [27]. And Napoleon is said to have called religion “excellent stuff to keep common people quiet” [28]. Even Civil Religion, absent the usual institutions of religion, has as one of its primary dogmas the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice [29]. Religion not only defines the boundary between the known and unknown, the knowable and the unknowable, but also the acceptable and unacceptable. It sets down specific moral guidelines and rules to live by, dictating how practitioners (and often, non-practitioners, making for much conflict) should act from day to day and moment to moment. Classical theism, according to Bednarowski, consists of an omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging monarch who rules his creation from a distance” [30], a God who sees what we do and demands that we do it a certain way.

In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Protestantism fueled the rapid development of modern capitalism in the West by “legitimating individualistic profit seeking [and] justifying capitalist exploitation” [31]. Because of a resulting sense of duty toward profit seeking, the potlatch gifting ceremonies among Native Americans were seen as a cultural affront to Americanism, a “denial of the thrift and progress of an expanding economy, of the virtues necessary to build a nation” [32]. Thus, the potlatch necessitated governmental response, laws passed against such wasting of personal property. Religion (like Protestantism), even Civil Religion (like Americanism), demands adherence to the community’s rules. “By setting down an underlying theoretical matrix centered on biopower, a perversely modern style and strategy of ‘disciplining the body and of regulating populations,’ I can more from the realm of the singular body and subjectivity to that of the body politic and nation imagined” [33]. On the note of biopower, in modern biomedicine, there is “religio-magical management of the body,” in which “the doctor takes the place of priest” [34].

Rules to live by certainly make daily life easier for many, putting boundaries on action that provide as much comfort at times as cosmology does in putting order upon the universe. But, inevitably, one finds himself in conflict with the rules, or finds the rules changing over time. And, in the face of the community’s rules, an individual cannot often exercise much power. “Civilization is aggressive, as well as progressive—a positive state of society, attacking every obstacle, overwhelming every lesser agency, and searching out and filling up every crevice, both in the moral and physical world; while Indian life” and, really, all individual life “is an unarmed condition, a negative state, without inherent vitality, and without powers of resistance” [35].


Finally, religion justifies consumption and any negative actions taken against those outside our religious community [36]. As noted above, Protestantism promoted capitalist development in the West. While many, obviously, subscribe to capitalist ideals, at least in part, even some of those who adhere to capitalist notions understand that modern global capitalism does damage in one part of the world often to balance out progress in another, keeping some nations on the periphery of the World-System so that other nations can remain in the powerful core. In addition to this, and noting the aforementioned problem with religious eschatology and progress, certain religions would have no reason to try to fix any problems in the world, to curb consumption for example for the sake of the environment, because the end of time is near and all will be well long before we destroy the planet.

But, beyond consumption, religion also justifies conflict in discrimination, violence and war, relying on the “castigation of anyone who does not accept or fit within the monolithic moral order [and] justification for stigmatizing and suppressing religious heresies… brutal oppression found in colonial movements of conquest” [37]. Given the order of cosmology, the arrogance of knowledge, the justification from continuity and community, one cannot help but, in the face of differing beliefs, act to alter them or, worse, destroy them. Tolerance is “an attitude impossible for those whose personal religion is strong… no really religious man can pass the unbeliever by and do nothing” [38]. And so, we change the religious beliefs and practices of others as much as we can. It can be as simple as the aforementioned altering of the tao-tao effigies of the Tana Toraja, or the cutting of the hair of the Native American in the residential school. It can come down to laws passed, like those against the potlatch, or the Ghost Dance, all because a people are different from us and inherently, pose a threat; as Claire Boothe Luce pointed out:

Having too many Asians Orientals in her words posed a particular threat, because their ways differed substantially from those of the majority culture in the United States: We are utterly justified in controlling and keeping low Oriental immigration in terms of numbers, because of the fact that they in too great numbers may undermine our way of life, our living standards, our form of religion. [39]

We fear the alien and want to extinguish it, by either “extinction or assimilation into [in this example] American society. The powers of Progress and Improvement were seen to be such that no primitive race could survive intact” [40]. These primitive races are ones, like the Hopi, who have sacred places they do not even bother to mark, like those at Woodruff Butte (Tsimontukwi), making the bulldozing of them that much easier [41]. If their sacred places cannot be easily identified, if they don’t build stone churches on them, if they don’t worship how we worship, then such places are not worth preserving.

And, of course, it has always been this way. As St. Augustine said, “God’s providence constantly uses war to correct and chasten the corrupt morals of mankind” [42]. And, even in the Bible, we have example—many, actually—of one people warring against another in the name of God and religion:

They warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males… burnt all their cities… and… took all the spoil, and… Moses said unto them… now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. [43]

How different is this from, say, the massacre at Wounded Knee? Men and women and children, prepared to surrender, were under the watchful eye of four Hotchkiss machine guns. When one of them, allegedly, took out a rifle and fired it at the American soldiers, the Hotchkiss guns “opened fire and sent a storm of shells and bullets among the women and children…. The guns poured in 2-pound explosive shells at the rate of nearly fifty per minute, mowing down everything alive” [44]. Men, women and children mowed gathered together and gunned down because they were different, because they retained their indigenous ways instead of subscribing readily to Americanism and Christianity. “You slaughter living beings and call it religion / hey brother, what would irreligion be?” [45]

It was not all active slaughter, of course. White Americans [46] put natives into schools where they could be indoctrinated. They sought to “improve” these primitive peoples’ lives. But, “those actively trying to improve Indian lives [were] without an explanation for the self-destruction of native communities through addiction, violence, and suicide” [47]. In the face of cultural genocide, Native Americans could choose annihilation or assimilation, destruction or self-destruction. Niezen argues that European monotheism was “willing to struggle violently in both the Old World and the New against local versions of the faith in which orthodoxy was compromised by specific idols or witchcraft or creative interpretations of the origins and nature of good and evil” [48]. Native traditions were an affront to Christianity simply by existing [49].


Obviously, religion is not all bad. Nor is it all good. When comfort from cosmology and continuity leads to a community that operates in control and conflict, the math of it is so simple that one can easily blame religion itself.

Whenever we fail to take a full look at the worst, whenever we deny the imperfections of our belief system, whenever we deny the evils our theologies have created and perpetuated, whenever we deny the abuse we ourselves have caused and suffered in the name of our Christian beliefs, we risk, at the least, perpetuating the present violence and at the worst, causing more harm even inadvertently. [50]

But, it is necessary to understand that war is the product of mass action, the “cultural genocide, like the social injustice of racism, is a cumulatively created product of the many” [51]. Edward Lazarus, in Black Hills, White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the United States, 1775 to the Present, suggests a different angle to the problem: “what the country lacked, what perhaps any democratic country subject to the pressures of popular opinion would have lacked, was the will and self-discipline to curb its own people” [52]. The Community—the group mind—makes its moves in the name of good or bad, of charity and intolerance equally. And, the people cannot necessarily keep the community from acting. Often, as part and parcel of the community, they will cheer it on, even when its actions are destructive, because what other choice do they have? To stand up to the community, to the religion, is to find one’s self alone, separated from the community and the continuity and the comfort.

Coming back to the Pirahã, they not only have no religion, but they have virtually no violence and no war. But, there are only about 300 of them left. Such a small group would not have the control urge a larger group would. It would not feel the need to make others live as it does [53]. In the eighteenth chapter of the Zhuangzi, the Marquis of Lu provided wine to a seabird, fed it meat from a slaughtered bullock and had music played for it. But, the bird was dazed and too timid to eat or drink and died in three days. The Marquis’ error was in treating the bird as he (the Marquis) would have wanted to be treated, not as a seabird would. You cannot put (by force) upon others what you think is beneficial or deleterious, as their views of such will differ from yours; there is no universal value system (yet). Until there is, we have religion to keep things going by giving us comfort and meaning, a sense of continuity, solidarity with our community, rules to live by, and justification for our consumption and any actions we take against those who are not a part of our community. It gives life structure, order. It makes life worth living, even on the worst days.


  1. Bokononism is a fictional religion, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a religion deliberately built on foma, harmless lies that can make one a better person. Mercerism is another fictional religion, notably featured in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and also in his short story, “The Little Black Box.” I invoke fictitious religions here to draw a parallel between all sets of beliefs, however real, in connecting people and providing some semblance of connection and control and understanding.
  2. Though I am not making specific citations, all this information can be found in Everett’s book about his experience with the Pirahã, entitled Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.
  3. Their grammar and way of life is limited to experience “seen or recounted as seen by a person alive at the time of telling,” as Everett describes it in “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” Current Anthropology, August-October 2005.
  5. Pam Wynn, “Religion,” 8-9.
  6. Ibid, 12-4.
  7. Laura Sheahen, “The Brain Chemistry of the Buddha,” beliefnet, It is also notable that, as Paul Henri Thiry said in Good Sense in 1772, “the brain of man, especially in infancy, is like soft wax, fit to receive every impression that is made upon it.” When we are taught religion, generally, we are not in a position, psychologically speaking, of really knowing what it is we are receiving, regardless of how predisposed our brains may or may not be to accepting it.
  8. These two church examples taken from the documentary America’s Houses of Worship.
  9. Sita Wiener, Swami Satchidananda, New York: Bantam, 1970, 88.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael, New York: Bantam, 1997, 40.
  13. I have a teddy bear manufactured the month I was born and gifted to my mother just before my birth, not because I require the physical comfort of a stuffed animal, or even because I necessarily have specific memories of the bear from when I was very young, but simply because I have always had the bear, and it serves as a simple constant in my life even when so much else may change, sometimes drastically, over time. For some, going to church, something they may have done every week since they can remember, is just as easily a constant regardless of any specific fondness or direct comfort a church service has ever given.
  14. America’s Houses of Worship.
  15. Richard Spencer, “Dalai Lama and reincarnation by referendum,” Telegraph 1 Dec 2007.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Jeremiah 30:18.
  18. Ibid, 31:3-4.
  19. As described in the documentary Around the World in 80 Faiths.
  20. Quoted in Mary Farrell Bednarowski, The Religious Imagination of American Women, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999, 19.
  23. Bednarowski, 66.
  24. Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul David Numrich, and Raymond B. Williams, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America: A Short History, New York: Oxford UP, 2001, 35. (note: page numbers for this book come from the eBook edition on a Nook reader, so will differ somewhat from those in the paperback)
  25. Mann, Numrich and Williams, 12.
  26. Ronald Niezen, Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in the Age of Nation Building, Berkeley: U of CP, 2000, 131.
  27. Emma Goldman, “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Mother Earth Journal. 1916.
  28. This line has been quoted by so many sources that finding the original source, be it in writing or in some speech of his, is seemingly impossible.
  29. As outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract.
  30. Bednarowski, 50.
  31. Quoted in Timothy C. Lim, Doing Comparative Politics: An Introduction to Approaches and Issues, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006, 107.
  32. Niezen, 140.
  33. Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 79 (Feb 1999), 52, citing Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality volume 1 and his concept of biopower, governmental control over not only our actions but our bodies, justifying laws dictating how we live on a very focused level, leading to legislation on abortion and many month long debates on governmental control over healthcare. Additionally, and relating to the fifth and final point to come, biopower justifies any action the government may take in destroying or protecting our bodies; that is, biopower, inasmuch as we as a community allow for it to dictate policy, justifies everything from jail sentences and the death penalty to wars abroad fought in our name.
  34. First quote, Bryan Turner quoted by Niezen, second quote Niezen himself, in Niezen, 95.
  35. Lewis Henry Morgan, quoted in Niezen, 51-2, and obviously interrupted by me.
  36. The latter, on our behalf, justified by the notion of biopower specifically, and religion generally.
  37. Arthur Kleinman, Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine, quoted in Niezen, 92.
  38. Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee, quoted in Niezen, 1.
  39. Quoted in Mann, Numrich and Williams, 31.
  40. Niezen, 162.
  41. As described in the documentary In the Light of Reverence.
  42. Quoted in Niezen, 13.
  43. Numbers 31.
  44. James Mooney’s reconstruction, quoted in Niezen, 135.
  45. Kabir, “Song of the Saints of India,” 8-9.
  46. Not just in the United States, but also in Canada, as described extensively in Niezen.
  47. Niezen, 3.
  48. Ibid, 221.
  49. A similar problem can be found in the lumping together today of all of Islam whenever fundamentalists commit acts of violence. But, if the whole cloth of a religion can be blamed for the acts of extremists under its aegis, then what of Christianity in the face of the Crusades, the Inquisition?
  50. Sheila Redmond, quoted in Bednarowski, 41.
  51. Niezen, 227.
  52. Quoted ibid, 153.
  53. Of course, the Pirahã do not make any effort to learn English and effectively insist that any researcher coming to them learns their language to get by, so even in such a small group, there is at least some semblance of control over outsiders.

Posted by ca4/muaddib at 9:32 PM PDT
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