20 February 2008

Goat Theory: Part II

In a previous post, I mentioned Goat Theory, and promised to elaborate.

In order to explain Goat Theory fully, I would essentially have to explain everything I've learned in my five years of studying religion, so I'll be as brief as possible in three easy steps:

1) Modern religion is not representative of religion as a whole as it has been practiced throughout human history. The modern "world religions" are what we call "confessional" - i.e. they postulate divine being(s) who are intimately concerned with the content of your character, your emotional states, and your internal life. They are intimately concerned with professing "belief" - whereas most religious systems have tended to be tacitly accepted, absorbed along with the rest of a cultural apparatus in the socialization of childhood. Confessional religion is a relatively late development in the history of religions, and one that is entirely historically conditioned (by the Protestant Reformation, specifically, which in turn exported the confessional mindset to other religions touched by colonial expansion).

2) The vast majority of people are secular. This is not to say that they are irrreligious - merely that they are predominantly occupied in mundane pursuits. We tend to forget, lounging on the sofa in our post-industrial world, that the time we spend doing things like contemplating ultimate truth, engaging in philosophical debates, and blogging, has traditionally been devoted to less frivolous pursuits like agricultural labor, warfare, fighting predators, cottage industry, and so on. Until the modern democratization of religion, theology remained the purview of priests and theologians - special castes of people who were only able to confront theological issues because their livelihoods were secured by the material support of the pious masses. The vast majority of people, on the other hand, have been far too occupied with securing the means of their own material welfare to worry about issues of heavy theological importance.

3) Therefore, when an average person engages in religious activities, he does so for mundane reasons. His prayers are for a successful crop; his magic is directed toward averting plague. He is concerned about the effect of jealousy in invoking misfortune; he worries about witchcraft; he propitiates his deity and makes donations to his religious establishment in exchange for a guarantee of divine protection. He probes his dreams for advice and warnings. He participates in religious activities to show solidarity with his community. He wears talismans to ensure longevity, fecundity, to ward off injury and harm. And in religions that posit a pleasant afterlife (and there are many that don't), the average person does what he can to ensure that he goes there after death. People don't always engage in these activities out of an abnormally high level of conviction; they do them out of the tacit assumption that this was the way to ensure the good life, the fear that failing to do these things might have disastrous consequences, and the unwillingness to run the risk of testing the phenomenon.

And, to come full circle, although I mentioned in the beginning that modern religion is an exceptional case, I ask the reader to take a look at the list above and tell me that it doesn't apply to the modern megachurch-goer as much as it does to an aboriginal Australian. These are universal concerns that do not go away no matter how complex or convoluted the religious tradition. Modern religions are only exceptional in their emphasis on "spirituality" "personal relationships with the deity" and other such hogwash - and it's something I keep trying to bring up in the theological debates I keep getting roped into over at the Div School. People there are always honking on about "Free Will this" and "Transubstantiation that" and "Predestined somethingorother" - and all I have to say is "yeah, sure. But what about my goat?" Because at the end of the day, people really still just care about their goats.

This, then, is what I mean when I talk about Goat Theory. I'm not implying that religious people have an unhealthy fascination with members of the species Capra aegagrus hircus (although I'm sure there were many ancients who felt about their goats the way PZ feels about his squids), but the security of their livelihoods, the soundness of their bodies and minds, the happiness and fecundity of their families, and freedom from physical harm. And that, Charlie Brown, is one of the most overlooked and most crucial aspects of religious life.

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