What are “Indigenous Religions”?

November 19, 2010 - anthropology / experience / linguistics / publishing / religious studies / the academy

As I browse publisher’s web sites for forthcoming volumes on religion, anthropology, sociology and other topics relevant to my research, I’m struck by one of the categories frequently used: Indigenous Religions.  Listed with categories for books on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Comparative Religions, etc. this Indigenous genre stands out.

Korean Christians

The other genres are, for the most part, what have been historically called “World Religions.”  This category sometimes refers to the many “religions of the world” as in Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions” but usually it mean something more like “religions of the majority.”  Tomoko Masuzawa (University of Michigan, and currently a scholar at the IAS School of Social Science) problematizes the construction of this category in her book “The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism.”  The book has been waiting on my shelf for a careful reading but I’ve had a quick look at the introduction in which she notes “everybody, in effect, seems to know what ‘world religions’ means, more or less.”  Discussing the role of the phrase in the academy, she observes that the list of  world religions “almost invariably include Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, and also typically count among their number Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto . . less typically but still very frequently included are Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Sikhism.”

North African Judaism

Masuzawa argues that the demarcation between “Eastern” and “Western” religions is “articulated from the point of view of the European West.”  An observation that while seeming initially quite obvious, has a profound consequence when you consider, say, a Buddhist in California talking about their practice in an “Eastern religion” from a geographic position in which Asia lies directly to their West.  Of course, they might practice in a line that considers itself rooted more in Colorado than India. But clearly “Eastern” means something else here. Masuzawa proposes this positioning is rooted in the nineteenth-century origins of early linguistic studies (philology), which identified the “Semitic”, “Aryan” and “Oriental” languages as matching up with contemporaneous “racialized notions of ethnic difference.”  Amazingly, these divisions persist in religious studies departments (and publishing houses), without much attention to their  basis in colonial logic.

And so, returning to the “Indigenous” question: with this oddly positioned binary of religious categories in hand, the academy categorizes everything else – whatever doesn’t fit in East or West – into “Indigenous” or “Tribal” religion.  This includes the “animism,” shamanism,” and any other practice once called “primitive religion.”  What do we make of the essentialism and universalism of this category? Certainly it persists in part because of the continued centering of Mircea Eliade (and Émile Durkheim, and others) in religious studies curricula.

ISKCON in London

After all, Eliadean methodology attempts to locate “original,” “archaic,” and “primary” religion in historical or existent “primitive man” and extrapolate a broader understanding of all religious belief and practice from the resulting monolithic construction. Eliade names this monolith “archaic religion” and his dialectic places it in opposition to the “highly evolved” religions.  I’ve been working on a critique of the Eliadean Community of Practice from linguistic anthropology, especially considering Joseph Errington‘s notion of a “Colonial Linguistics.” Reviewing the literature, I’ve found a range of critiques of Eliade which I’ll include here.

Previous critiques of Eliadeʼs dialectic of binary oppositions include feminist (Christ 1991, King 2002), postcolonial (Kehoe 1996, Bilimoria 2000, Joy 2001), theories of religion (Smart 1978, Alles 1988, Segal and Wiebe 1989), postmodern (Olson 1999, King 2002), and methodological (Leach 1966, Strenski 1973, Allen 1978, Werblowsky 1989).

In a feminist critique, Christ points to Eliadeʼs practice of giving grandiose names to male gods but referring only to unspecified (and lower-case) “goddesses” (1991:84) and draws attention to Eliadeʼs valorization of the “Indo- European” conquest over “sedentary populations,” a conquest Eliade compares to “carnivores hunting” (1991:88). Christ uncovers gendered features of Eliadeʼs discourse, the particular (female) versus the universal (male), and Eliadeʼs claim that hierarchical relations of the sexes are an essential characteristic (1991:93). Christ (1991:93) and King (2002:373) both argue that Eliadeʼs history of religion is flawed by its dualism and universalization of male experience.

In a postcolonial critique, Kehoe accuses Eliade of cultural imperialism and labels his “new humanism” as a “very old primitivism” (1996:377). Kehoe takes issue with Eliadeʼs labeling of contemporary societies “archaic” and his misrepresentation of those peoples (1996:383,384). Eliadeʼs primitivism, in Kehoeʼs view, is a “yearning to shed bourgeois clothing and partake” of the “archaic ecstasy” (1996:388). In Kehoeʼs reading, Eliade may lead an “inauthentic [life] of spurious culture” (Sapir 1924) but by constructing the “primitive shaman” he can reassure himself that “archaic ecstasy” is still possible (1996:38). Bilimoria (2000:171,198) and Joy (2001:177) both critique Elaideʼs binaries (true/false, transcendental/totemic, belief/myth, sacred/profane).

In a theories of religion critique, Smart proposes a “grammar of religion” to replace Eliadeʼs sacred/profane polarity (1978:176). Alles sees Eliadeʼs dialectic as a totality, and calls on Saidʼs (et al.) critique that totality is “an instrument of Western colonial domination and cultural imperialism” (1988: 115,117). Segal and Wiebe critique Eliadeʼs claim to the sui generis character of religious phenomena (1989:600).

Olsonʼs postmodern critique draws from Foucault (1967:189) to dispute Eliadeʼs assertion that history is a “body of facts” arguing that there is no untainted “primal” historical material (Olson 1999:360). Olson contrasts Eliadeʼs linear, hierarchical hermeneutics with Deleuze and Guattariʼs de-centered rhizomatics (Olson 1999:366,383). King is critical of Eliadeʼs “transcendental pretense of modernity” which she says universalizes thinking and attempts to impose that system on others (2002:371).

Leachʼs critique of Eliadeʼs methodology points out the use of “exotic ethnography” in order to construct Eliadeʼs notion of “archaic religion” (1966:279). Strenski criticizes Eliade for searching for “higher,” “trans-historical,” “primary,” “original” “prehistoric” meanings (1973:303-306). Strenski argues that Eliadean methodology makes religion “independent of culture” (1973:310). Allen argues that Eliade seeks an “invariant core,” an “essential meaning” of symbols (1978:273). Werblowsky critiques Eliade for finding commonality disparate non- western, non-modern experiences (a “paleolithic hunter and the Buddhist monk” for example) (1989:297).

All references can be found in my Critical Reading of Eliade bibliography.