Monday, September 3, 2012

Studying religions and spirituality

I remember my first Anthro lecturer told me that studying spirituality is a no-go grey area. I told her that studying religions without having spiritual experience yourself is like studying a TVset without ever having watched a programme. Naturally, we never saw eye to eye.

This is what Roy Willis of Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology has to say on the subject:

"Inspired in some case by the controversial works of Carlos Castaneda, which introduced readers to the ‘separate reality’ supposedly known to the Yaqui Native Americans of the Mexican Highlands, certain anthropologists have written of magical phenomena as objectively real, even if inexplicable in terms of Western scientific knowledge. An early example is Michael Harner’s account of the magical world of Conibo and Jivaro *shamans of South America. Other recent examples of this school are the works of Stoller and Olkes, de Surgy and Edith Turner, all based in African field experience. Michael Jackson, another anthropologist of Africa who also adheres to this approach, has dubbed it ‘radical empiricism’.

A further notable contribution to this postmodern rehabilitation of magic is Jeanne Favret-Saada’s ([1977] 1980) study of ‘magic force’ in a community in rural France. Taking issue with Evans-Pritchard (1937), Favret-Saada states her aim of taking magical forces seriously, and not being content to describe it as ‘a logical error, or someone else’s belief. 

A more recent study (Luhrmann 1989) describes the apparent ‘conversion’ to belief in Renaissance-style ritual magic of a group of prosperous middle-class English people in the town of Cambridge. Luhrmann identified four ways in which these converts rationalized to themselves, and to outsiders, the validity of their practices. One category she calls ‘realists’, those who argue that there are precepts and assumptions that differ from those recognized by orthodox science, but which can be empirically proven to be valid. Others argue for the existence of ‘separate realities’, physical and spiritual, which are governed by different laws. Another category are the ‘relativists’, who argue that there are different ways of knowing the same underlying reality, with no one way having absolute worth. Yet others, who espouse ‘metaphorical’ explanation of their magical practices, emphasize the subjective value of their experiences rather than their objective validity.

The recent shift in anthropological approaches to magic has been summarized by Winkelman (1982). The ‘traditional’ assumption has been that magical beliefs are empirically untenable and that there can be no such cause-and-effect relations as these beliefs imply. An impetus to the reformulation of theories of magic that takes account of their possible empirical validity has come from laboratory research in parapsychology. This research, Winkelman says, has produced support for some of the phenomena claimed by magical traditions. Thus, it has been shown that human beings can exercise psychokinetic influence on radioactive decay, on computerized random number generators, on the growth rate of plants, fungi and bacteria, and on healing in animals.

Other commentators draw attention to the apparent congruence between traditional magical philosophy which posits an organic universe in which human beings play an actively creative role and theories of the New Physics on the unity of mind and nature (Roney-Dougal 1991)."

As a teenager I was also profoundly impressed by Carlos Castaneda's revelations just as reading Freud's essays on religion shattered my fledgling religious inclinations.

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