Religion is more than the faiths most of us grew up with. Christianity, Judaism, Islam — these represent only one family branch of religion. If we want to understand “what religion is” and explore why it is that religion is so pervasive among humanity then it’s a good idea to have as complete a picture as possible of this thing called “religion” and not limit ourselves to just one part of it. Remember the parable of the blind men describing the elephant.
Here are some reminders of why we should not limit our view of religion to certain features of Christianity or the Muslim faith. They are taken from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001.
Supernatural agents can be very different
Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies. These may be one unique God or many different gods or spirits or ancestors, or a combination of these different kinds. Some people have one “supreme” god, but this does not always mean that he or she is terribly important. In many places in Africa there are two supreme gods. One is a very abstract supreme deity and the other is more down-to-earth, as it were, since he created all things cultural: tools and domesticated animals, villages and society. But neither of them is really involved in people’s everyday affairs, where ancestors, spirits and witches are much more important.
Some gods even die. Boyer reminds us that many Buddhists think gods themselves go through the cycles of reincarnations. The only reason generations of humans worship the same gods is because the gods take a lot longer to get around to dying.
Many spirits are really stupid
We think of religion as devotion to an all-knowing and all-wise being and perhaps his angelic agents. But
In Siberia, for instance, people are careful to use metaphorical language when talking about important matters. This is because nasty spirits often eavesdrop on humans and try to foil their plans. Now spirits, despite their superhuman powers, just cannot understand metaphors. They are powerful but stupid.
In places in Africa people guard against praising the good looks or good nature of children by telling their parents how ugly or unpleasant they are. The idea is to keep their attributes secret from witches who would otherwise try to eat them. Sometimes children are even given names with disgraceful associations for the same reason.
In Haiti one of the worries of people who have just lost a relative is that the corpse might be stolen by a witch. To avoid this, people sometimes buried their dead with a length of thread and an eyeless needle. The idea was that witches would find the needle and try to thread it, which would keep them busy for centuries so that they would forget all about the corpse. People can think that supernatural agents have extraordinary powers and yet are rather easily fooled.
Salvation is not always a central preoccupation
Now, in many parts of the world, religion does not really promise that the soul will be saved or liberated and in fact does not have much to say about its destiny. In such places, people just do not assume that moral reckoning determines the fate of the soul. Dead people become ghosts or ancestors. This is general and does not involve a special moral judgement.
I understand that Christianity’s Christmas celebrations began this way, as an amalgam of Christian ideas and pagan customs. One thing I notice when traveling through south-east Asian countries is how different Buddhist customs can be from place to place. Sometimes I am not sure if I am looking at a Hindu or Buddhist temple, but then have to concede that I am looking at a bit of both.
Official religion is not the whole of religion
Wherever we go, we will find that religious concepts are much more numerous and diverse than “official” religion would admit. In many places in Europe people suspect that there are witches around trying to attack them. In official Islam there is no God but God; but many Muslims are terrified of jinn and afreet—spirits, ghosts and witches. In the United States religion is officially a matter of denomination: Christians of various shades, Jews, Hindus, etc. But many people are seriously engaged in interaction with aliens or ghosts. This is also among the religious concepts to consider and explain.
You can have religion without having “a” religion
For Christians, Jews or Muslims it is quite clear that one belongs to a religion and that there is a choice, as it were, between alternative views on the creation of the universe, the destiny of the soul and the kind of morality one should adhere to. This results from a very special kind of situation, where people live in large states with competing Churches and doctrines. Many people throughout history and many people these days live in rather different circumstances, where their religious activity is the only one that is conceivable. Also, many religious notions are tied to specific places and persons. People for instance pray to their ancestors and offer sacrifices to the forest to catch lots of game. It would not make sense to them to pray to other people’s ancestors or to be grateful for food that you will not receive. The idea of a universal religion that anyone could adopt—or that everyone should adopt—is not a universal idea.
We find this idea that the worship of certain deities is limited by place and ethnic groups is a common feature of religions in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds.
You can also have religion without having “religion”
Another feature we come across when studying ancient religions is that there is no equivalent word for our “religion” among those cultures.
That people do not have a special term for religion does not mean they actually have no religion. In many places people have no word for “syntax” but their language has a syntax all the same. You do not need the special term in order to have the thing.
You can have religion without “faith”
And finally . . . .
Many people in the world would find it strange if you told them that they “believe in” witches and ghosts or that they have “faith” in their ancestors. Indeed, it would be very difficult in most languages to translate these sentences. It takes us Westerners some effort to realize that this notion of “believing in something” is peculiar. Imagine a Martian telling you how interesting it is that you “believe” in mountains and rivers and cars and telephones. You would think the alien has got it wrong. We don’t “believe in” these things, we just notice and accept that they are around. Many people in the world would say the same about witches and ghosts. They are around like trees and animals—though they are far more difficult to understand and control—so it does not require a particular commitment or faith to notice their existence and act accordingly.
In the course of my anthropological fieldwork in Africa, I lived and worked with Fang people, who say that nasty spirits roam the bush and the villages, attack people, make them fall ill and ruin their crops. My Fang acquaintances also knew that I was not too worried about this and that most Europeans were remarkably indifferent to the powers of spirits and witches. This, for me, could be expressed as the difference between believing in spirits and not believing. But that was not the way people saw it over there. For them, the spirits were indeed around but white people were immune to their influence, perhaps because God cast them from a different mold or because Western people could avail themselves of efficient anti-witchcraft medicine. So what we often call faith others may well call knowledge.
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