Religion Or Technology In The Rain-Forest

It is an old joke, but also a true observation, that whenever archaeologists unearth an object of unknown purpose, they designate it as “cultic”. This is a serious matter, for it exemplifies a regress: if we interpret everything in sight as being religion, then the proposition that man is a religious being becomes irrefutable, because it is wholly tautologous. The more unknown objects we classify as cultic, the more we are obliged to conceive of the excavated society as profoundly religious, and the more we do that, the more certain we become that the whatever-it-is that we have just dug up must have been a religious object – and so on round the mulberry bush.

When, therefore, we read of “nature-worshipping” forest-dwellers – an update of the Noble Savage used now, as then, to beat our contemporaries over the head with – we really ought to ask ourselves whether their ecologically sound practices are truly “religion2, or deliberate and reasoned communal policy. If we decide that it is the same thing, then to be consistent we ought to denote our own attempts at sustainable development by the name of “religion”; which somehow we never do, other than polemically.

What is worse, if a set of injunctions and procedures designed to prevent ecological disaster, and succeeding in this purpose, is to be called “religion”, then by rights we should extend the name to all other successful technologies; for why should the ecological sciences be thus privileged? Lifting a rocket into orbit would then be “religion” too; which is not a conclusion that most of us would wish to accept. We might then attempt to escape this conclusion by making a distinction between a forest community “worshipping Nature” and a forest community consciously deploying a set of sound algorithms for ecological survival. In what might that distinction then consist?

One approach might be to ask whether they have forgotten the reason for all their injunctions and prohibitions. It might not be easy to ascertain whether this is the case for a given tribe: if you ask them why they do not cut all their trees down, poison their drinking water and do all the other things customary in civilised society, and they reply that the Great God(dess) would be angry with them and kill them or make them sick, well, that looks rather like a personification of scientifically sound causality, shorthand for what will indeed happen. We might perhaps make a distinction between tribes who can describe why, without reference to the God(dess), it is a bad idea to cut all your trees down, and those who cannot, calling solely the latter religious. Which is which in the Amazon is an empirical question to which I do not know the answer.

Now, if you ask Jews why Torah says not to eat pork, some may tell you that it was to save them from trichinosis. Similar scientific reasons can be given for many of the dietary rules, though not (presently) for all. Other Jews, however, say that they do not eat pork because God told them not to, period. If we apply our Amazonian model and say that it is “religion” only when you don’t know or care why you have to do what you are told, then we would have to conclude that the second category of Jews are “religious” but the first are not. This would cause great offence, so the model must be faulty.

Another approach might be to say that technology should only be called religion when it doesn’t work; or better, perhaps, when there is no reason for it to work, since faith-healing and so forth does sometimes work, presumably by suggestion, and medical science sometimes fails to work. A believer, however, would retort that the “no reason” variant is a tautology, as we have decided a priori that religion does not achieve its object. He would say that he sees good reason why prayer should work, even when it doesn’t. This argument is especially cogent when the object of religion is to grant the believer eternal life, as its failure to do so cannot actually be proven.

Yet another distinction might be made between a person proposing to change his physical or social environment to suit his needs and wishes, and a person proposing to change himself and his needs and wishes to suit his environment – or simply because he thinks it right. The main problem here is that the first category includes not only what we call our technology but also the vast bulk of the practices that are called religious. Never mind what the religions say, just count and classify their prayers. Furthermore, changing oneself is often technique-based and thus arguably technology.

So where does all this leave us? We seem to have ended up with no distinction between religion and technology: both seem to be shorthand for “the stuff people do to get what they want”. This is a distressingly jejune conclusion. This section will nevertheless lay the question aside in order to look at religion as a set of technologies, asking what in fact it is that people want and which they employ religion to gain.

Posted on June 30, 2009 at 08:20 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Worldly Toolbox

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