Religion in Non-Western Cultures?

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  • Brief Communications


    University of Britislr Columbia I wish to suggest in this brief communication that

    most of the best-known anthropological writings on religion in non-Western cultures contain as their central assumption a proposition that is based on an error in reasoning. The proposition is that religion can usefully be thought of as existing universally, and the error in reasoning consists of an unacknowl- edged and apparently unrecognized switch of mean- ing for the term religion in the middle of the argument.

    My thesis may be summarized as follows: when the term religion appears in the ethnographies of non-Western peoples, there is always an implicit comparison with the West. But ethnographers use one set of criteria for determining religion outside the West and another set of criteria for determining religion in the West. If the ethnographer were to use the same criteria for the West that he uses for the non-West, the effect would he a serious undermining of current notions regarding the universality of religion.

    Let me now try to make a very brief inventory of the various ways in which the term religion is used in the social science literature. The one common denominator all usages seem to encompass is that of a relatively high degree of emotional investment on the part of the social actor. Following Howard Becker (1957), I shall call this the realm of the sa- cred? Within this realm there are two major types of action: what I shall call nacirema and sacred institution.

    nacirema My use of this wordis an adaptation of Horace

    Miners ideas as expressed in Body Ritual Among the Nacirema (1958). As everyone undoubtedly knows by now, the Nacirema (the capital N sig- nifies the original usage by Miner; the lower-case In signifies my extension of the term) live between Canada and Mexico and are more conventionally known by their anagram. In his tongue-in-cheek article, Miner discusses bathrooms as shrines for body ritual, shaving as a daily body ritual . . . performed only by men . . . [which] involves scrap- ing and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument, and still other rites . . . used to make womens breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large.

    In tribute to Miner, then, I classify as nacirema that large group of actions displaying the following charactehics. They are performed with a conspicu-

    ous sense of rightness or are avoided because of a simi- larly conspicuous sense of wrongness. They involve a relatively large emotional investment. However, these actions are not recognized by the actors as set apart from their other, ordinary activities. In fact, the emotional investment is not ordinarily apparent to the actors because these activities are so much taken for granted. Hence, the very quality that makes them nacirema-the emotional load that strikes the outside observer as curious-is generally not understood by the actors. For this reason, naci- rema is an obsetvets category. And once one takes an observers point of view, it is easy indeed to think of many other examples of Western nacirema: the lonely secrecy held appropriate for excretory activ- ity, the ritual segregation of toilets by sex and some- times by race and social class, the rituals of social etiquette, the propitiatory rituals involved in corre- spondence, and many others.

    Now as I have already suggested, much of the ethnography of non-Western religion describes the nacirema of these cultures and calls it religion. There is of course nothing whatever wrong with this proce- dure, since each author has the right to define the terms he uses as he sees fit. The difficulty arises from the fact that when reference is then made to Western religion within the same argument, the same writ- ers will refer to Christianity, or Catholicism, etc., rather than to Western nacirema. In other words, the standard for defining religion is switched without warning.

    I have diagrammed my statement here (Table 1). To express it in terms of the table, anthropologists generally use slot I as an operational definition for religion in non-Western cultures, and then switch to slot 11-A as a definition for religion in the West.

    Sacred Institutims In contrast to nacirema, which exists as a separate

    entity only in the mind of the observer, there are institutions that actors set aside from their other activities. Since at the moment we are concerned only with the realm of the sacred, we are speaking here of sacred institutions, which may be defined as circumscribed, consciously emotionally important activity. One good example is the Communist Party, which considers its activities to be very important, and which seems t o expect its members to be emo- tionally involved, at least in the sense of being de- voted. Another example is religion in the sense in which the actors use the word: a sacred institution involving ideas of the supernatural, ethical prescrip- tions, and ritual. Partly because the word itself does not occur in non-Western languages, and for certain other reasons as well, I have argued elsewhere


  • 74 American i l nthropologist [69, 19671



    Some Western


    Some Non-Western Illustrations

    NACIPEYA (sacred practice, not cir- cumscribed by institution category defined by the


    SLOT I

    toilet practices ritual segregation etiquette healing practices social taboos social graces etc.

    items similar to those

    most lay Hindu

    most lay Buddhist





    Use of word religion or equivalent by actor. ** For Islam, see note 3.

    that there is no religion in this particular sense out- side the West (cf. Cohn 1964).

    There are, however, sacred institutions elsewhere, of which I have given some examples in the bottom half of slot 11. These institutions (insofar as they are not directly influenced by Western missionary ef- forts) do not use the word religion or any reason- ahly equivalent term, nor do they involve that par- ticular combination of supernatural orientation, ethical prescription, and ritual (my argument that ideas of the supernatural are found only in the West is given in Cohn 1964). Nevertheless, they fit our definition of sacred institution because they con- stitute a consciously delineated set of activities that the actors consider emotionally involving. (It is of course to be expected that some actors are more emo- tionally involved than others in these sacred institu- tions. My suggestion is that the definition require that there be a general expectation of emotional in- vestment from the actors.)

    Problems of Comparisons Items in my slot I may be compared in accordance

    with whatever theories the social science observer develops. Since it is the observer in the first place who establishes these items by abstracting the be- havior from its social context, it is he who must determine their use in his theory. An example of this


    category circumscribed by the actors

    S L ~ T 11-A*

    political movements, e.g.,

    business enterprise medical profession

    organized sports organized education organized art etc.


    C h i r o p t a c t i C

    Buddhist orders of monks Hindu and Buddhist

    secret societies healing guilds etc.


    religion: Christianity

    Protestantism Catholicism etc.

    Judaism etc.

    Islam** religious groups influenced

    by Christianity, etc.

    kind of item (in a different, nonsacred field) is Idood types, The person who has, let us say, type 23-A blood, generally does not know it or care about it, but the man whose theory has such a type will be inter- ested in making comparisons in accordance with his theory.

    On the other hand, items in slot I1 (including sub- slot 11-A) have a somewhat different status. In and of themselves, these items are not scientific-observ- ers categories and therefore cannot directly serve for purposes of cross-cultural comparison. It is for this reason that the actors category religion (slot 11-A) cannot be compared cross-culturally. To do so, one would first have to establish scientific criteria for these categories and comparisons and so transpose them into scientific-observers categories.

    I am here suggesting such a criterion, viz., that of sacred institution (which itself is an observers cate- gory) as defined above. It is a rather broad criterion, but I contend that i t is in practice the one that an- thropologists have used to classify as religion those non-Western phenomena that I have entered in slot 11.

    Items belong in slot 11-A because the actors use the relatively narrow, Western, conventional defini- tion of religion. If this does not obtain, a sacred institution belongs elsewhere in the larger slot 11. If an ethnographer uses the larger definition to cate-

  • Brief Communications 75 gorize religion outside the West, he should use the Same definition in the West. Unfortunately, anthro- pologists generally tend to use only slot 11-A as their definition of religion in the West, but to use slots I and I1 as their definition elsewhere.

    Let me summarize my argument. I wish to suggest that the anthropological literature uses different standards for defining religion in the West than out- side the West. Outside the West, standards for the definition are taken from slots I and I1 of my chart, while references to religion in the West tend to use slot 11-A exclusively. The iniplkation of this error in reasoning i s the etknocentric suggestion that non-LYest- ern czdlzcres have religion in llie slot I I -A sense.

    Evidence The evidence for my assertions is being presented

    in a forthcoming publication (Cohn 1968). Here I can only outline the major bases for my assertions. My argument that the difficulties of which I speak are general in anthropology is based on my feeling that the literature I am about to cite is representa- tive. But on this point, of course, each reader must make his own judgment.

    I have examined the monograph by Clifford Geertz (1960) in the greatest detail. He speaks of three variants of Javanese religion: abangun, sun- h i , and prijuji. But the first of these is understood by the people themselves as meaning something akin to lower class, the second as meaning faithfulness to Islam, and the third as meaning something akin to higher class. By regarding all three as religious, Geertz shifts meaning from observers category to actors category and then back again. Moreover, in some parts of the abangsn section of the book, Geertz uses the word secular (e.g., on pp. 51 and 62) as if there were a Western-type, institutional difference between religious and secular, forgetting that religion here was constructed by himself, and does not indicate, in any case, standards for distinguish- ing the secular from the religious in the ubungun Javanese religion. The clearest clues that he thinks of Western religion as an actors category but uses an observers category in Java come in off-hand refer- ences to the West, as for instance when he refers to Western medical practices as apparently non- religious (pp. 103-106). Western medicine, to be sure, is not religious in the sense in which actors think of the term in the West, but if we were to use the criteria lor religion that Geertz uses for the Javanese, much of it, a t least, would be religious indeed I

    Bellahs monograph on Japan (1957) similarly uses different criteria for deciding the meaning of religion in the West and in Japan. For Japan, he uses a constructed (slot I) definition, mans atti- tudes and actions with respect to his ultimate con- cern (p. 6), and therefore, quite properly, selects aspects of Japanese life without regard to their insti- tutional context in Japanese culture. But in his refer- ences to the West, we find that he is thinking of an

    actor-defined, institutional, slot 11-A religion (e.g., Protestantism, pp. 70,195).

    In the volume edited by Edward B. Harper deal- ing with religion in South Asia (1964), the same error occurs throughout. For example, Ames constructs a religious system for Ceylon by using an observers category that cuts across the actors categories (in this case, a construction of elements of slots I and 11); but when speaking of the West, he uses slot 11-A actors categories like Catholicism (p. 37 and pas- sim).

    Radcliffe-Browns introduction to the monograph by Srinivas (1952) uses Christianity (pp. vii, ix) as the Western analogue of the Indian diffuse prac- tices and beliefs that Srinivas describes, despite the fact that these practices all but cry out for compari- son with Western nacirema. Similarly, in Nadels book on Nupe religion (1954), Christianity (pp. 2, 231, etc.) is used as the Western analogue when the proper ones would be nacirema and Western slot I1 institutions. The same error is committed by Evans- Pritchard (1956:315-316 and pmsim).

    Conclusions on the Use o j tlzc Word (Rdigim I n general, there are two requirements: the first is

    consistency, the other is usefulness. From the point of view of consistency alone, one may include in ones concept of religion anything one wants-the items of slot I, or those of slot 11, or those of slot 11-A, or any combination. However, one may not use one set of criteria in one culture and another set in another culture.

    If one consistently uses more than slot 11-A as ones definition of religion, the result is confusing, since slot I and slot I1 items in the West are not ordinarily thought of as religion. Any such definition would seem to be not very useful in any case, since it would tend to lump together too many types of items that could be better handled in smaller cate- gories. For this reason, I suggest that the use of the word religion be restricted to those items appear- ing in slot 11-A.


    1 Althouh I did not always o g r e with him, I am most in- debted to my colleague Michael Ama for many hours of very stirnulaw discuuion about the problems d i s c d here.

    W i l e my present w n m n is with the spedfic k u e of religion, the render may wiab to pursue the more general problem oi actor and observer catcgorica. He may be referred to Pkes discussion of emic and d c standpoints (Pike 1954:8-28), Levys warning against the confusion of concrete and analytic structures (1952: 88-100 and )orsint), and the phenomenological discussions of Schuta (1962, 1964).

    The literature ia full of other very general ruggations about how to characterize all that which can ever or by anyone be termed religion. I choose Bcckera notion of the sacred because it to make the fewest asaumptiom of what one might find in all cultures; in fact, all that it ~ ~ s u m e s ia that men everywhere will invest some activities with grater emotion than others. In contrast, suggestions about mens relationship to the super- natural falter, in my opinion, h u e the opposition between nature and supernature is peculiar to the Weat (d. Cohn 1964).

  • 76 American A nlhropologisl [69, 19671

    Similar objections apply to the idea that an analysis of belief in spirits is useful lor nowWestern cultures; this idea presupposes that the very complicated semantic problem of how to define spirit crm-culturally can find a satisfactory solution.

    I The extent to which Islam may he considered a religion in the slot 11-A sense-i.e., in the sense that the actors themselves think of it as a religion-is a complicated problem. The mcat knowl- edgeable srholar on these questions is probably Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and unfortunately his testimony is ambiguous. In his 1963 publication he tends toward regarding Islam as a religion in the actors sense (pp. 80 l.), hut in his 1965 paper (pp. 1 I and passim) he tends toward the opposite view. My own interpreta- tion of Islam as belonging in slot 11-A is basedpn Geertz (1960), Smith (19631, and Wolfson (1942-43).


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    1965 Traditional religions and modern culture. Mimeo-




    graphed. SRINWAS, M. N. 1952 Religion and society among the Coorgs of South India.

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    San Francisco Stale College

    The Annenberg School of Commicnicalions University of Pennsylvania

    An experiment in film communication that holds promise as a new method for investigating some of the questions currently being asked by anthropolo- gists, linguists, and communication researchers was performed this summer a t Pine Springs, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation.

    Six young Navajo bilinguals (three men and three women), who had previously been differentially exposed to film, and one monolingual (Navajo only), less acculturated Navajo woman of ahout 55, who had, professedly, never seen a film, were taught to conceive, to photograph, and to edit 16 mm silent film. The participants were instructed by Worth, assisted by Mr. Richard Chalfen, in the use of cam- eras and editing equipment. Insofar as possible (once the mechanics of the instruments had been ex- plained) we avoided influencing the Navajos in their selection and conceptualization of content and in their manner of using the equipment.

    One of our working hypotheses was that motion picture film conceived, photographed, and manipu- lated by a people such as the Navajo would reveal aspects of cognition and values that may be inhib- ited, not observable, or not analyzable when the means of investigation is dependent on verbal ex- change, and particularly when it is done in the lan- guage of the investigator.

    I t was further hypothesized that research on the methods of producing film images and then sequenc- ing them through the editing process might shed light on the Whorfian hypothesis, work on which has for the most part been limited to linguistic in- vestigation of cognitive phenomena.

    Since there exists another mode of communication -the visual-if we treat this visual mode as if it were a language, we can then compare two Iinguis- tic structures-one verbal and the other visual- making the same kinds of statements about cogni- tion and culture compared across two modes that we can make by comparing two verbal structures in a Whorfian manner. The use of both modes, conipared across cultures, should provide an analytic structure that would make it possible to place these deeply interrelated verbal, visual, cognitive, and cultural phenomena within one conceptual framework.

    The pilot phase of the field work reported here has made it clear that specific research testing these relationships cross-culturally is now possible.

    A third hypothesis was that comparison of the final edited version of the films with the original footage taken by the Navajos would reveal data of interest to the value theorists as well as important





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