"Anthropology of Religion and Belief" by Lionel Obadia

Lionel OBADIA, Professor, Director, Anthropological Research and Studies Centre, Lyon II - Lumière University.

Self-knowledge, Belief of the Other, Belief in the Self, Knowledge of the Other: an ethnological overview on the Anthropology of Religion and Belief

 

What have the stakes of the formation of anthropological knowledge since Frazer and Taylor been? L. Obadia postulates the existence of an anthropological approach characterised by four points: empirical, inductive, differential and comparative. This approach is synoptic, so in a way reductive.

Studies on belief were at the heart of the project of cultural and social anthropology , which attempted to analyse the diversity of ways of thinking. Indeed anthropology is first of all an empirical science which seeks to approach belief in the plurality of its forms. However, the term «belief» was clarified only a few years ago, roughly in the nineteen eighties, in Britain and France. Until then, the usage of this term was purely nominal. Belief was empirically undetermined and ideologically over-determined. The term was theorised by the Functionalists, notably by Edward Evans-Pritchards, who called its universality into question. He proposed to distinguish «believing» and «knowing» in Western History. From the XIXth century to World War I, belief was not properly an object of study, but subjected to the interpretations of other sciences. For instance totemism was understood by anthropologists to be mainly a tool for analysing social classifications. Frazer thought that there was always an internal rationality in beliefs, explaining and explained by social forms and systems. The psycho-emotional feature was considered to be irrelevant. The major issue is to figure out to what extent the concept of belief is a product of anthropological science itself. Anthropological science has always found it hard to get rid of its ethnocentric basis. Social scientists always considered that primitive societies were dominated by a homo religiosus, whereas modern western societies were predicated as rational. The positivist postulate was coupled with an orientalist standpoint. For all that, is homo religiosus a homo credens? Westerners apprehend «primitive societies» under the form of an inverted mirror of their own rationality, deducing that the latter were thus fatally over-determined by belief. Nevertheless, Pritchards demonstrated that 90% of human activity in primitive society was linked with economic and social production and that religion was surprisingly marginal. The historical persistance of rites does not imply the constancy of beliefs, which have always evolved with the course of time. «Primitive peoples» are sceptical, distanciated, rather human beings endowed with floating religious beliefs than real devotees or even credulous. Therefore, is there still in fact a relevant difference between modern and primitive societies?

Belief cannot be restricted to the religious context. What do people believe in? Why do they believe what they believe? How do they believe? What does believing mean? The issue of believing implies raising questions about the historical context of its emergence, its object, its field.

The controversial background of anthropology has made its vocation uncertain. The issue of the relation to the Other remains indubitably the proper object of anthropological knowledge. Nowadays, anthropology is torn asunder between cognitivism, which has again adopted the thesis of the universality of belief and its internality, and pragmatism which considers that there is no absolute truth, but rather only practical phenomena to be observed. This is related to the antithetical notions of emic and ethic. Actually, it appears that only an emic account can truly exist.

A knowledge of the beliefs of the Other is possible, but if and only if anthropological science breaks free from its own beliefs and its irreducible culturalism and historicity.

An «emic» account is a description of behaviour or a belief in terms meaningful (consciously or subconsciously) to the actor - i.e, an emic account is culture-specific, whereas an «ethic» account is the description of a behaviour pattern or belief by an observer, in terms that can be applied to other cultures; that is, an ethic account is «culturally neutral».

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