MRBlog | DISPATCHES. NEH Summer Institute on Problems in the Study of Religion (pt. 2) by Sarah E. Rollens

By Sarah E. Rollens

In a post last week, I reported on the first week of a three-week NEH Institute on Problems in the Study of Religion that is being held at the University of Virginia. I’ve had some great discussions in person and over email since, so without further ado, here’s what went on in Week Two!

This week, the Institute turned to how people can study the category of religion in times long since past, especially in the time before written records. Some scholars would argue that religion only exists at the discursive level, while others see religious tendencies as cognitive habits or dimensions of experience that are embodied in our animals selves. For the latter, things that indicate “religion” can be found among humans since the hazy period in which we differentiated ourselves as a distinct species. The three books that the Institute covered in Week Two looked at the distant past to try to discern these phenomena.

The first book of the week was Ian Hodder’s Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society: Vital Matters (2014). Unlike the other books in the Institute, this was not a monograph but rather a collection of interdisciplinary essays exploring the concept of “religion” as it pertains to the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. The archaeological site of Çatalhöyük is c. 9,000 years old and yielded a number of astonishing finds (such as specialized burial practices under the floors of the living space, the removal and plastering of skulls, and the placement of auroch bucrania within domestic space) that raised a host of questions about Neolithic social forms.

Bucrania from Çatalhöyük

Hodder, the primary archaeologist of the site, was able to invite (under the auspices of the Templeton Foundation) a group of interdisciplinary scholars to visit the site and to take stabs at studying “religion” in such a setting. It would take far too much space to explore all of the individual essays here, but in general, the questions that this collection engage with are essentially: what is religion and how is it a part of life? Unfortunately, the interdisciplinary range of the contributors (such as theologians, psychologists, and anthropologists) and the fact that most were not specialists on the ancient material did not result in an especially coherent collection. To highlight just one issue: contributors were working with a range of understandings of what religion is, from the basic human tendency to anthropomorphize to even more generalized notions of “vitality” and supernaturalism.

Moreover, for those of us in the Institute who have dealt with archaeological evidence in our research, we were rather wary of the confidence with which some contributors translated material evidence into religious systems of belief and practice. This is a notoriously tricky enterprise. To take one example, the presence of auroch horns (bucrania) in domestic space can be explained in numerous ways. Perhaps they were strategically placed to channel the animacy and power of the wild animal (as some contributors proposed). Or perhaps they were hunting trophies. Or maybe they were some other sort of decoration. Without any texts to test the contributors’ hypotheses, it seems that “religion” was easily found anywhere and everywhere. It was also startlingly easy for some contributors to imagine the “rituals” (a concept that is also undertheorized in this collection) that could have involved the material items. Furthermore, many of us were highly sensitive to the accidental nature of preservation. Material culture that survives, especially of such antiquity, often has no intentionality behind it, rendering it problematic to create complex systems of thought and practice based upon it.

Even so, the collection brings to light an important methodological insight: people who deal with material culture, whether or not we have texts to “check” it with, should be extremely cautious in how we try to make the material items fit into a particular portrait of religion—or even if it fits at all. Related, the studies of Çatalhöyük do push us to think deeply about what exactly material culture could represent and/or do for/to people.

Moreover, I wondered if the interdisciplinary nature of the project, seemingly self-consciously postmodern (i.e., all perspectives matter), is a much needed move in archaeology, maybe even a “coming of age” transition wherein key figures make explicit efforts to go beyond the traditional approaches. Perhaps the volume went a bit overboard in exploring so many perspective with such great confidence, but like postmodernism in the humanities, the pendulum will likely swing back in the other direction in subsequent work, ensuring that this shift develops into a productive dialectic.

We switched gears significantly with the second book: Robert Bellah’s treatise Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). Whereas Hodder’s collection was a diverse range of short pieces, this is the culmination of a lifetime of a single scholar. Bellah undertakes a massive project of “deep history,” examining the development of religion in human evolution alongside important changes in major religions in the so-called “axial age.” He evidently envisioned a followup book in which he would treat religion in modernity, but his passing in 2013 rendered it unrealized.

There are really two books in Religion in Human Evolution. The first two chapters explore different modalities of life that humans experience, which can help us think about what goes on in religious space, and the evolution of human life, which selected for certain faculties of perception and cognition that many are starting to use to explain religion. These chapters work well with the last chapter, which focuses in on the generative, imaginative space within human play. The second book, which seems to be embedded in the first, is a synthesis of historical and social accounts of four major regions that produced widespread religions in the so-called axial age: Israel, Greece, China, and India. In my and some others’ opinions, there didn’t seem to be much new in these chapters. They present relatively standard (almost textbook-like) representations of the emergence of major religions in these areas. If anything, they actually lack critical awareness of the multiple voices in these traditions, because they mostly focus on elite textual accounts. Moreover, these case studies were not well integrated into the rest of the book, especially when he pivoted back to his real interest (play) in his last chapter.

A painted vase from ancient Greece, characteristic of the so-called axial age
A painted vase from ancient Greece, characteristic of the so-called axial age

There are well-known problems with the categorization of “the axial age,” which emerged over the course of our group discussion. Bellah is aware that it is only “axial” from our perspective, but he nevertheless defines this period as one having a certain reasoned criticism and sophisticated ethical reflection that did not exist prior. Moreover, some of us were uncomfortable with his efforts to make the data from major “world religions” (a category never critically interrogated in the study) fit into his meta-narrative of tribal religions developing into axial religions, before they underwent important developments in modernity.

The Institute discussed extensively the notion of meta-narratives that are expressed this sort of scholarship. Bellah’s study certainly seemed to be driven by something, though we weren’t all on the same page about what it was. On one hand, he seems to be a champion of the critical thinking and reflection that emerge in the axial age, and so it is easy to see his work as a study of human progress. But on the other, he seems nostalgic for a certain kind of unmediated disposition toward the world that cannot exist in highly structured, hierarchical societies. This latter point was most apparent to me in his closing chapter, wherein he valorized the concept of “play” as a special field in which creativity and intellectual exploration can be carried out. This unique register of human existence seemed to be most common in very early group formations before more advanced social and political structures were imposed on larger populations. There is definitely an ethical project going on here, because it is clear that Bellah envisions an ideal social form that we can engender.

Many of us remained skeptical of meta-narratives, especially when they are so tidy. After all, who gets to write these sorts of meta-narratives? Who gets to decide which evidence is going to count for analysis? (It’s worth noting that Bellah’s evidence is almost solely textual, at the expense of material and other forms of culture.) Our skepticism was rallied once again in the third book of the week.

The final book of the week was another massive tome: Michael Witzel’s The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (2013). This work also elicited an invigorating discussion, spurred in part by Bruce Lincoln’s scathing review of it in Asian Ethnology. Before we entertain the critique, however, let me briefly outline what Witzel was trying to do in this book. As a philologist who has observed remarkably similarities among the world’s mythic tales, Wwireless proposes a method to work backward to uncover what the original mythic structure must have been at the dawn of human history. The method is not unreasonable, though; anyone who works on reconstructing the language families, early manuscripts, or hypothetical sources will acknowledge that this is a legitimate place to start to think through how related mythic phenomena end up in different places (such as flood stories found all over the globe or trickster figures in a variety of religious tales). Witzel matches this notion of cultural and linguistic spread to the genetic spread of human population out of Africa, which is where this proposal starts to get messy. He ends up with a bold thesis. He argues there are two basic mythic structures following two population routes out of Africa: Laurasian mythology that was fostered by the populations moving to the Middle East and Southwest Asia (and eventually into Europe and the Americas) and the Gondwanan mythology carried by populations moving into Sub-Sahran African, Australia, and Melanesia). While he can only reconstruct disconnected mythemes in Gondwanan mythology, Laurasian mythology is characterized by a narrative structure that reflects on the nature of human existence. Even further, he proposes we could push this “family tree” of sorts back to a common Pangean mythology that both depended on, of which he can only reconstruct a few features from the commonalities between Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology.

An “older” view of the world

The end result appears, for many, to be a highly racialized meta-narrative of how particular thought patterns are connected to certain groups of people. Even more unsettling is that the thought pattern that Witzel seems to evaluate as more refined (and better) is the Laurasian one—the one associated with light-skinned populations. He sees, for instance, the Laurasian myth structure as the world’s first “novel” (a label that imports notions of sophistication and complexity into the structure), whereas the Gondwanan one lacks a coherent narrative arc and any speculative philosophy. Bruce Lincoln’s review took this critique even further. Lincoln perused Witzel’s sources and discovered that he was heavily reliant on outdated, racialized scholarship that was produced by people with explicit Nazi sympathies. Lincoln is careful to note that the implication should not be that Witzel himself is a racist, but rather that, the scholarship upon which he relies leads to a problematic organization of world and can be highjacked by people who want to understand a very racially-determined view of the intellectual faculties of different human populations.

Participants in the Institute, despite all the problems in this book, were intrigued by Witzel’s effort to create such an all-encompassing meta-narrative to explain similar mythic structures. It is worth highlighting, in addition, that he is strongly focused on mythology, not religion—in fact, one participant noticed that “religion” never shows up in the book’s index. He is evidently interested in what he thinks of as something deeper, more originary to humanity than religion: the elements of thinking that are the building blocks for later religions. At the same time, this explanation of common origin comes at the expense of exploring other theories, such as cultural borrowing, divergence of patterns, or analogical emergence of similar ideas.

The thinking isn’t over yet though! In the final week, the focus will shift to modernity, where we engage with works from Saba Mahmood, Courtney Bender, and Thomas Lewis.

All pictures are from WikiCommons and are in the public domain. The views expressed represent author’s experience in the Institute and not necessarily those of the other participants or the directors.