ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(Plen04)

Natural religion

Location Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 16:00

Convenor

Johan Rasanayagam (University of Aberdeen) email
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Summary

Two anthropologists and two theologians will discuss how anthropology can engage with Christian thought and practice.

Long Abstract

‘Natural Religion’ refers to the 18th century debates as to whether an empirical study of the natural world provides evidence for the objective existence of the Christian God, and the extension of demonstrative reasoning beyond pure mathematics to the areas of morals and metaphysics. The question of religion, science and rationality is not new to anthropology. But rather than address the rationality of religion, the panel will interrogate the rationality of our own discipline. How can anthropologists, based in secular intellectual and institutional locations, engage with Christian conceptual spaces.

In recent years, anthropologists of Christianity have questioned anthropology’s relation to theology. Joel Robbins has challenged anthropologists to go beyond a critique of the Christian roots of the discipline, or treating Christian thinking as ethnographic data, to be open to the possibility that Christian theologians might get some things right about the world that anthropologists get wrong. This concern is part of a larger discussion of how to ‘take seriously’ the people we write about. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (at another ASA themed ‘Anthropology and Science’) advocated placing anthropology as a meaning-making practice in ‘epistemological continuity’ with native discourses. Others have advocated a renewed engagement with ‘native ontologies’ as a basis for anthropological theory.

The potential for the panel to take this discussion forward would be in providing an opportunity for anthropology to be in a direct dialogue with theology. Anthropologists working in the areas of Christianity will be in dialogue with Christian theologians, followed by an open discussion.

Chris Brittain (Senior Lecturer, Divinity, University of Aberdeen) will respond to the papers presented by the other three participants.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Anthropology and theology

Author: Douglas Davies (Durham University)  email

Summary

Both anthropology and theology are, in effect, an exercise of reflection upon experience under the tutelage of distinctive traditions. A fundamental issue concerning each is the interplay of 'academic' perspective and existential commitments, an issue pinpointed in the difference between 'academic' theology and 'confessional theology', a distinction that asks after such a parallel in anthropology. One might say that Anthropology is a tradition of primary observation of others described through received theories of society, with a secondary consideration of self as the participant in observation. Accordingly, Theology is a tradition of primary observation of self, and self in a distinctive religious grouping, described through received theories of divinity. This duality involves potential conflict in terms of primacy of identity when considering anthropology and the social construction of cultural realities in relation to theology and the notion of divine revelation. 'Projection' versus 'revelation' is one way of putting it, and rapid or slow 'conversion' either way is possible. Ensuing issues concern the role of practice (fieldwork on the one hand, liturgy on the other - and a form of ethics in each) in developing selfhood; of cultural competence in seeing the way things are, of seeing-through them, and in decision making amongst optional perspectives. Issues of reciprocity, merit, and one's standing in peer-communities, are also germane.

Long Abstract

None provided.

Exchanging words: anthropology and theology

Author: Matthew Engelke (London School of Economics)  email

Summary

Anthropologists and theologians don’t interact as much as they might. One reason is because they speak in different registers; they use different words, and those words have histories and effects and affects that matter. It might make sense for these registers to be kept distinct—at least most of the time. But when might words be exchanged, not in frustration, but in anticipation of something gained? In this short presentation, I’ll make a few suggestions where the exchange of words could be a good idea—good to think, maybe, or even revelatory.

Long Abstract

None provided.

Rituals of savings groups and the ethics of anthropology

Author: Maia Green (University of Manchester)  email

Summary

This paper uses approaches derived from the study of religion to explore the proliferation of small scale savings and loan groups in sub Saharan Africa. Savings groups replicate themselves through highly ritualized practice and the enactment of separation between  every day transactions and the special practice of group saving.  Recent moves in the social sciences and in anthropology which destabilize the analytical uniqueness of the religion are productive in explicating a range of social phenomena.  The analytical equivalence of religious and non religious phenomena  supports  Hume’s fundamental  insight that  religion is best approached as a  political institution. A key aspect of religion for Hume was that it enabled social life through the inculcation and sharing of  moral codes.  Hume’s commitment to the enlightenment project did not  lead him to the denunciation of religion but to a recognition that extreme skepticism could compromise ethical social practice. Hume’s insights shed light on contemporary relations between anthropology and religion and between the practice of anthropologists and theologians. The emphasis in anthropology on critique as practice reveals the social constitution of the objects of anthropological attention with little attention to the social contexts of the production of anthropological knowledge and hence to the ethics of anthropological practice. The practice of theologians, in contrast, is self determinedly focused on ethics as constitutive of the domain of religious interest. Despite these apparent differences the two disciplines may have more in common as theological practice is marginalized and the practice of anthropology confined to the academy. The politics of authoritative knowledge making as ethical claim is not restricted to religion but applies to all disciplines.

Long Abstract

None provided.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.