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January 21, 2011


michael reidy

It's always nice to know what an intelligent atheist makes of the sentiment of religion. You start from what you know, tentatively offering the notion of patination, the genuflexion before ancient texts (Philosophia Mystica) and the gnomic utterances within. Now the banal bricolage continues with Pitt Rivers patristics. (stand to the West when you say that pardner) The drawn purse of that shrunken head is not to be preferred to the enthusiasm of Prof. Dawkins.


Michael, I literally cannot make heads or tails out of what you've written.


There is informed anthropological and cognitive studies of religion, eg the work of Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer. Bruno Latour has written some interesting things on religion that you might find congenial, most recently the essay "Thou Shalt Not Freeze Frame" . I don't think anyone serious takes Dawkins seriously on this topic.

The relation between anarchism and atheism is suggestive, but actually kind of obvious when you think about how the authority of the state has been so often linked to the authority of god. They both suffer from being reactions and come up short on positive programs



I can see how you cannot literally make tails of Michael's writing, however his reference to shrunken heads may be worth something as far as the manufacture of said heads is concerned.


I rather think that trying to explain atheism to a hunter of the upper paleolithic would be as difficult as…well, trying to explain religion.

It’s pretty clear I think looking at the ethnography relating to extinct Southern African hunting and gathering people and Australian indigenes (if you're confident making conclusions based on comparison across tens of thousands of years) that ritual and myth were, among other things, practical tools essential to survival in inhospitable environments where survival margins were unthinkably narrow and extraordinarily close observation and interpretation of those environments was a survival imperative.

“Religion”, and the notion of “god”, even, are terms that are only thinkable when you’re comfortable enough to deserve gods with reasonably good manners. The San of Southern Africa were hilariously resistant to the missionaries. The ethnology is clear that they weren’t big on opposites and that they didn’t even distinguish between themselves and the plants and animals in their environment in terms that are easy to explain. Giving up their myth would have made survival in their place impossible.

We’ve been hunters and gatherers for 99% of our history as a species. The inheritance is difficult to lose, which, I suppose, could be the main reason it’s pointless arguing about the existence or non-existence of any god today: a believer will defend their belief as if their life depended on it because once upon a time, when myth and its attendant rituals were genuinely essential to survival, it did.

That might not make sense but it was fun to write.


Wow, I have no idea what your chain of reasoning is supposed to be. If atheism is just the "lack of belief in gods", which is really the simplest possible definition, then why on earth should you insist on differentiating between the Amazons' or Dawkins's atheism? Why should it have anything whatsoever to do with "the range of options one has in a particular time and place"? The fact that certain times encourage certain philosophies says nothing about the truth values of those philosophies. Of course I am showing the same blindness you accuse Dawkins of, but perhaps it's because I'm an outsider to the field that I have no idea why this position is not self-evident.


Incidentally, is it really news to you that the atheism of the New Atheists is in fact just naturalism/materialsm and not "just" atheism? The claim they make, therefore, is that there is no such thing as the supernatural, nothing outside the realm of physics as it is, if not physics as we understand it today. So we see the New Atheists equally concerned about the anti-vaxers, homeopathic medicine, chiropractors and so on.

michael reidy

Like the bricolage that Levi-Strauss speaks of in The Savage Mind the scholar bricoleur must cobble together his theories from what is to hand, he must make do with his mental equivalent of duct tape and casing wire and that jar of assorted nuts and bolts. Is a whimsical idea about monarchy adequate to the data? Is it to be preferred to the vivid outrage of Dawkins? I think not.


Please do continue on this theme. I wish to know what you consider the "range of options" we have in this time and place.

I come from the Mennonite tradition, a vaguely anarchic Christian denomination, though certainly more collectivist than individualist. "God as monarch" does not really apply. I think the same could be said of Jewish discourse. "Do you believe in God?" is not an ultimately meaningful question for either of these groups. 20th century Jewish thought (and I see a lot of my own tradition in this) finds God as the stuff of relationships, or more particularly, as a moment of radical receptivity to the other.

Maybe this is simply belief as a "private obscene secret" (so suggests Zizek in the first pages of The Puppet and the Dwarf), but maybe it reflects a different ethnographic option.

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