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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter One--The Cultures of Christianity

Today, I begin my trek through The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (ed. John W. Loftus). In my overview yesterday, I indicated that in my opinion this is the single best volume available today to debunk evangelical Christianity.

The first chapter is by Dr. David Eller, Professor of Anthropology at The Community College of Denver in Colorado. He is the author of six books: Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives ; Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the UltimateViolence and Culture: A Cross-Cultural and Interdisciplinary Approach; Natural Atheism; From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on Ethnic Conflict ; and Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker.

In the chapter entitled, "The Culture of Christianities" (pp. 25-46), Eller begins by saying: One of the great mysteries is why, despite the best arguments against it, religion survives . His answer is that religions, including Christianity, survive because they are integrally interwoven into the culture. What is culture?
It is the label anthropologists give to the structured customs and underlying worldview assumptions by which people govern their lives. Culture is a people's way of life, their design for living, their way of coping with their biological, physical, and social environment. It consists of learned, patterned assumptions, concepts and behaviors, plus the resulting artifacts (Charles Kraft cited by Eller, p. 27).
Eller writes:
Christianity, like any religion, is a part of culture. It is learned and shared, and it is integrated with the other systems of the culture, including its economics, its kinship, and its politics (p. 28). It organizes the lives and experiences of its followers--literally provides the terms in and through which they live and experience--and is seldom questioned by them (p. 29). He continues: the United States and the wider Western world are heavily saturated with Christianity throughout their many large and small cultural arrangements. Whether or not they know it--and it is more insidious if they do not know it--non-Christians living in Christian-dominated societies live a life permeated with Christian assumptions and premises. Christian and non-Christian alike are literally immersed in Christian cultural waters, and like fish they take for granted the water they swim in (p. 33).

Eller (pp. 33-38) shows that religion, and specifically Christianity in the United States, becomes intertwined into every aspect of life--vocabulary in the language, important life events such as births, deaths, and marriages, foods, children's names, clothing, institutions, holidays, and so on. It is literally part of almost every aspect of daily life.

Eller also points out that culture is a two-way street:
culture adapts to and is suffused with religion, but religion also adapts to and is suffused with culture (emphasis his). In other words, not only does religion replicate itself through the many parts of culture, but culture replicates itself through the religion, recasting a religion like Christianity in the culture's own image. . . . Since its inception, Christianity has accommodated itself to its cultural surroundings--and necessarily so, since a religion that is incompatible with its cultural context would be unintelligible and therefore unappealing to the people of that society. The consequence is that there is no such thing as a single, unified, global Christianity but instead many, different, local "Christianities," which often do not recognize each other, accept each other, or even comprehend each other (p. 39).
Christianity has been evolving from the beginning. As Eller points out, Christianity itself began as a modification and reinterpretation of Judaism. As it spread out through the Hellenistic world, it evolved further. When it became the official religion of the Roman empire more assimilations and modifications took place. As it has moved into other parts of the world, it has adapted itself to those cultures. American Christianity is thus not unique in its history of innovation, diffusion, loss, reinterpretatiion, syncretism, and schism . . . (p. 41). The freedom of religion in the United States has resulted in even greater innovation as multiple new sects of Christianity have been born (e.g., Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on). Christianity has shown a nearly infinite capacity to multiply and morph to fit its environment, it can accommodate or integrate almost any influence (p. 42). It has manifested itself in such diverse forms as the Ku Klux Klan and the Civil Rights Movement, the Prosperity Gospel and the Amish. Eller says there as many as 38,000 sects and denominations of Christianity in the world. Thus, there is really no such thing as Christianity but rather "Christianities."

Will the Christian underpinnings ever be removed from American or Western culture? Possibly, but it will be a very long and slow process. Its more likely that Christianity will keep reinventing itself to accommodate the changes within culture.

Why can't people see the fallacies involved in their religion and forsake them? Eller's answer is that
Like a pair of glasses, humans see with culture, but they do not usually see culture. Computers do not know they are running a program, they simply follow the instructions. Seeing your glasses, recognizing your program, is a rare thing, acheived by few individuals in even fewer societies. . . . culture provides us with a set of "frames" or "scenarios" with familiar and predictable patterns and outcomes. These frames or scenarios get the average person through the average life with little uncertainty . . . (p. 44).


  1. I don't dismiss Eller's argument, but I still think we're hardwired for it.

  2. Cipher,

    I agree. Look at the next post.

  3. Cipher, Ken,
    Do you think man is hardwired to believe in gods given that a great many societies have existed without gods or religions? Is what we construe as belief in gods perhaps more an innate tendency to submit to a socially accepted human authority figure who frees himself from the responsibility for making rational decisions by attributing whatever claims he makes to a god? Are we neurologically predisposed to play follow-the-leader?

  4. I don't know of a society that didn't have religion of some sort. Buddhists like to claim that Buddhism isn't a religion, but that isn't really the case.

  5. Cipher,
    Sure there are and always have been societies without gods and religions. Historically, our information about foreign societies have too-often come from missionaries who in their cultural ignorance and bias have erroneously interpreted most group activity as religious. These missionaries have taught us to misunderstand our fellow man.

    Today, there are as yet hundreds of non-religious societies, the Piraha in the Amazon, for instance. For me, the Piraha are particularly interesting in that they refuse to believe things for which the evidence isn't sound. The affixes in their language reflect the strength of the evidence: one ending says, "I saw it myself;" another says, "someone told me they saw it;" a different one says, "I heard it in a story;" and so on. The Piraha are also interesting in that due to their epistemic demands they have defied Christian missionization more than once.

    Tanzanian Hadza are another people having no religion and no gods. They, like the Piraha, are completely self-reliant and need nothing at all from modern civilization, especially Christianity.

    Where do we get the most reliable data for religion-free societies? Not from the religious, of course. We get it from academic linguists. Academic linguists require of themselves that they possess a thorough understanding of the conceptual matter comprising the entirety of the culture. They try not to skimp or cut corners. They demand of themselves the capacity to distinguish a rugby huddle from a prayer and a ritual dance from a worship service. Missionaries have no such dedication to truth.

    I hope this is in some way helpful, Cipher. Personally, I feel a real kinship with my fellow humans who have passed through the evolutionary gauntlet with reason intact. I feel a real bond with those who have not chosen the way of superstition for the basis of cultural norm.

  6. I just took a quick look on Wikipedia. It isn't always accurate, but I thought this was significant enough that it wouldn't be far off. For the Piraha, this is what I found:

    While the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god they do believe in spirits and that they can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.[5] Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.

    I also checked out the Hadza. There's too much to quote here, but they appear to have a mythology.

    Russ, I don't know how you're defining "religion", but again, I don't know of a single culture that hasn't had some sort of supernatural framework for reality.

  7. Cipher,
    I'll leave you to your interpretation, but I've heard Daniel Everett speak and he contends that the Piraha have no religion. There are many online lectures by Everett wherein he confesses his ignorance of what the Piraha meant when he thought they were making supernatural references. The Hadza have no concept for gods or the supernatural. The Hadza do not contend that they have a hotline through which they can convince deities to alter the course of events in their favor. If you choose to insist that any and all mythologies are suggestive of supernaturalism, then so be it, but mythology is not always supernaturalism and mythology is not always religion. Scholars like David Eller and Joseph Campbell make this clear. I've studied the linguistics and the cultural anthropology to a sufficient extent to be convinced of what I've claimed here.

    You said,

    I don't know of a single culture that hasn't had some sort of supernatural framework for reality.

    So be it. I graciously defer and leave you to the way you choose to see it.

  8. I was pointed to your blog from John Loftus "Debunking Christianity" blogsite. There is always the old debate-nature vs nurture. Nurture aka environmental, social and cultural influences, as well as parenting,are responsible for most of the religous "programming" in the individual.
    If religious beleif is hard-wired, how do you account for countries such as Sweden where 90 percent of the population are atheists?
    Most of you are writing from a U.S.A perspective where Christian culture in very prevalent. Even in Britain where the Christian culture includes the births, deaths and marriage ceremonies,most people have only a vague wishy-washy idea of Christianity. Church of England bishops have stated that the Bible is full of metaphors- not to be taken literally. Same with concepts of Heaven and Hell- metaphors for good things and bad things. The superstitions have more or less disappeared, except in a few fundamentalist churches.

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