1. Anthropologists and the Bible: The Marett Lecture, April 2012
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1 1 Anthropologists and the Bible The Marett Lecture, April 2012 I A young philosophy don, a Jerseyman at Oxford, Robert Ranulph Marettwasintriguedbythesubjectsetforthe1893GreenPrizeinMoral Philosophy: “The ethics of savage races.” He immersed himself in the literature on primitive religion, won the prize, and was befriended by the only anthropologist at Oxford University, E. B. Tylor. Tylorwasthefatherfigureofthenewanthropologythathademerged in the 1860s. It was a baggy, ambitious discipline, and Tylor himself wroteaboutraceandtechnologyandlanguageandmarriage,butespecially about religion, and this became Marett’s main interest too. The first objective of the anthropology of religion was to characterize the earliestcreedsandrites.Theanthropologiststhenexplainedtheadvance of humanity from the long dark age of magic and superstition to the sunny uplands of a more spiritual religion; or they showed how metaphysical error gave way to rationality and science. In any case, they took it for granted that religion, technology, and the social order advanced in lockstep through a determined series of stages. At each stage, the beliefs and customs of societies at a similar level of development were essentially the same. So contemporary primitive societies could be treated as stand-ins for past societies at an equivalentstageofdevelopment.ThenotionsoftheAmericanIndians, perhaps, or, at a higher level, the Tahitians provided living instances of conceptionsandbeliefsthathadoncebeenverywidespread.Toknow onewastoknowall.CaptainCookhadintroducedthewordtaboofrom Tahiti. Soon taboos were being discovered all over the place. Other exotic terms were soon taken up—mana, another Polynesian word, Adam Kuper 2 Adam Kuper totem from the Ojibwa, potlatch from the Kwakiutl of British Columbia , voodoo from West Africa. All were elements of a universal primal religion. So Victorian anthropologists could write about Australian totems and American Indian taboos. They could even identify totem and taboo in ancient Israel. Such beliefs and practices may once have been universal, but they were surely irrational. How could so many people have believed so many impossible things for so long? Some missionaries saw the hand of the Devil here, but the anthropologists argued that there was something about the ways of thinking of primitive people that led them to make mistakes of perception and logic. After all, Darwin had shown that human evolution was paced by the development of the brain. It was widely assumed that the brains of the various races developed at different rates. The smaller-brained savages, and indeed the early Israelites , were simply not capable of thinking very clearly. Sohowdidtheythink?Tylorarguedthatprimitivepeoplesreliedon “analogyorreasoningbyresemblance”(1881:338).ForFrazer,such“reasoning by resemblance” accounted for the belief in magic. Robertson Smithagreedthatforthesavagemindtherewas“nosharplinebetween themetaphoricalandtheliteral,”andheblamedthe“unboundeduseof analogy characteristic of pre-scientific thought” for producing a “confusion between the several orders of natural and supernatural beings” (1894:274). Prescientific thinkers were particularly likely to get into a muddle when it came to causality. Robertson Smith found that primal religion was characterized by “insouciance, a power of casting off the past and living in the impression of the moment” that “can exist only alongwithachildishunconsciousnessoftheinexorablelaws thatconnect the present and the future with the past” (1894:57). Tylor supposed that the very earliest religion arose from a misapprehension . People everywhere have dreams and visions, but primitivepeopleconfusedreamswithrealexperiences .Whentheydreamof the dead they imagine that the dead exist somewhere else, in another state, the state that living people experience in dreams, trances, and fevers. And so “the ancient savage philosophers probably made their firststepbytheobviousinferencethateverymanhastwothingsbelonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom” (Tylor 1871, 2:12). They then Anthropologists and the Bible 3 generalized this conclusion to embrace the rest of the natural world. Even trees and plants, even the planets, had souls. This was what Tylor termed “animism.” Rituals soon developed, notably sacrifices. In primitive animism, offerings were made to the spirits of the dead after they had appeared in dreams. In what might be called the higher animism, sacrifices were also made to “other spiritual beings, genii, fairies, gods.” These sacrifices were gifts: “As prayer is a request made to a deity as if he were a man, so sacrifice is a gift made to the deity as if he were a man” (Tylor 1871, 2:375). Sacrifices took the form of burnt offerings, because spirits demandedspiritualfood,thesoulsofanimalsorplants(Tylor1866:77). Vestiges of the primitive cult, which Tylor called “survivals,” recurred in the ceremonies of the most advanced religions. In 1899 the young Marett achieved a certain notoriety by challenging Tylor’s thesis that animism was the primeval religion. Marett identified a preanimistic religion based on the Polynesian belief in mana, which he took to mean a sort of psychic energy and power. Mana was inseparablefromtaboo.“Altogether,inmanawehavewhatispar excellencetheprimitivereligiousideainitspositiveaspect ,taboorepresenting its negative side, since whatever has mana...


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