Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Materialist myths: Primitive people are religious, modern people are secular

One of the enduring implicit myths of pop media on the subject of religion is that way back when - when people didn't know anything about how the world worked - they were religious, but nowadays we are much smarter. As Mario Beauregard and I show in The Spiritual Brain, people have always been religious or spiritually minded - or not, as the case may be.

So I was really intrigued when, at a recent lecture in Toronto, a distinguished clergyman drew the class's attention to the work of anthropologist
Mary Douglas, on the "myth of the pious primitive":
Secularization is ... an age-old cosmological type, a product of a definable social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or modern science ... The contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatever to do with the contrast with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense.

Traditional societies have always known this, of course. She goes on:
The truth is that all the varieties of skepticism, materialism and spiritual fervour are to be found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segments of London life. The illusion that all primitives are pious, credulous and subject to the teaching of priests or magicians has probably done even more to impede our understanding of our own civilization than it has confused the interpretations of archaeologists dealing with the dead past.

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