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Philosophie, Religionsphilosophie


Sidky, Homayun


Religion. An Anthropological Perspective.


New. York u. a.: Peter Lang 2015. XIV, 279 S. m. zahlr. Abb. = American University Studies. Series 7: Theology and Religion, 348. Geb. EUR 74,90. ISBN 978-1-4331-2917-9.


Mara G. Block

This volume’s opening premise lays out its general significance. An anthropological perspective, Sidky argues, shines a unique and in­dispensible light on the vast and shifting constellation of »reli-gion.« The book’s primary purpose is to introduce students and general readers to the fruits of a sustained effort to understand even the most challenging phenomena from a practitioner’s perspective. This dovetails with a second goal meant to persuade new readers and fellow anthropologists alike: S. seeks to establish an approach that holds tight to modern scientific rationality and that, at the same time, offers insight into why people believe the (seemingly inexplicable) things they believe.
S.’s opening chapter culminates with an intervention in the »methodological stance[s]« that the field of anthropology takes to study religion (12). He presents these stances as a fraught triangle of approaches: the first uses the metrics of modern scientific ra-tion­ality to falsify religious beliefs (13–14), the second indiscriminately embraces them by »what in the 1960s was called ›going na-tive‹« (14), and the third »bracket[s] out questions of truth and fal-sity« (14). To S. it seems obvious that the first two stances yield limited intellectual gains, and so he directs his critical eye to the third (and most common). Juxtaposing local rationality and logics with scientific epistemology, he argues, places them on equal grounds and therefore results in an »epistemological relativism« that »compromises the intellectual integrity of anthropology as a discipline« (14). To subvert this pitfall, S. takes as a starting point the premise that »religion is irrational« from »the scientific perspec-tive« (14), and then seeks to reorient inquiry from questions of whether religious claims are true or false to the question of why people believe them anyway. He puts it as follows, »The real ques-tion is: why do hum­ans, the world over, ardently espouse beliefs in ir rational counterfactual entities and concepts, such as ghosts, goblins, devils, angels, deities, life after death, heaven and hell, virgin births, resurrection, and so forth?« (15).
The book’s strategy for addressing this question is not to give a single answer but rather to amass an impressive (if at times dizzying) array of examples, all of them grounded in concrete morphol-ogies of lived religion. It proceeds through sixteen illustrated chapters, each of which focuses on a different topic or theme. Across the chapters, S. draws together a broad range of literature from the fields of anthropology and the study of religion. Some will find this helpful for introducing readers to definitions and debates, al-though S.’s own voice is frequently drowned out by strings of block quotations that leave readers to synthesize the material and to infer general points.
As a teaching tool, this volume will be useful for showing the complexity of religion, and its focus on challenging material is sure to provoke lively conversation and debate. The book has little in-ter­est in mainstream religion and so would be less useful for en-gag­ing ordinary and everyday instances than for thinking through less familiar and more extreme examples. S. offers much to think about through grounding some of the »stuff« of religion (rituals, pilgrimages, relics, myths, symbols, sounds, time and space) in phenomena like witchcraft, spirit possession, shamanism, mass suicide, and religious violence, and in practices like using entheogenic drugs, religious healing, and sacrifice.
The book makes a compelling case that starting with what people actually do illuminates a wide range of phenomena that might otherwise be overlooked. In doing so, the book makes its most important contribution: to provoke readers to reconsider what counts as relevant for understanding religion. But the book’s second goal – to explore why people »ardently« believe in the »irrational« and the »counterfactual« – leaves this reader with a ques-tion. What assumptions are presupposed (and overlooked) in cling­ing to this purportedly obvious metric of the true and the false?
Language of faith in the factually false is all over the book: witch-es are »creatures that exist in a nightmare world; they do not exist in the real one« (72), belief in ghosts is »based on the contradictory premise that non-physical entities create manifestly physical ef­fects« (108), believers in UFOs have offered »not a single incontrovertible case that holds up to scientific scrutiny« (113), and Sioux »spirit dances« seek miracles that »have never come to pass, not even once« (205). This kind of unwavering certainty and quick judgment takes a particular style of reasoning for granted, and in doing so forecloses a deeper understanding of these forms of religious life – and of the categories used to make sense of them.
As a reader I am missing a more critical and self-reflexive ac­count of these assumptions and the concepts that guide them. Take »belief,« for example. S. presents many dimensions of what might count as religion in different contexts, but belief is the main category of analysis used to frame the project and to work through the material. This might indeed be a useful framework for the project, but the book gives little reflection on whether and to what extent belief is the most meaningful category for getting at how »insiders« experience religion, and to that end, the book offers little in the way of phenomenological accounts of how belief is inhabited. Engaging the limitations of a distinctly modern Western term and its historically and culturally specific assumptions might have enabled a more dynamic analysis of both the material and the style of reasoning used to make sense of it.
Even further though, one wonders whether these quick desig­na-tions of the »irrational« and the »counterfactual« in fact preclude deeper and more productive engagement with the material at hand. Several recent works have sought to think through the fruitful challenges posed by the presences and holy figures that many hold to be both real and true (Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús 2015, Amy Hollywood 2016, Robert A. Orsi 2016). These works show that this stance does not necessarily impede critique (which is what is at stake in S.’s concern about collapsing into »epistemological relativism«), and that it might not only yield better understanding but also illuminate the ontological presuppositions of modern Western thought.
S. presents many important questions here, but I take issue with his willingness to situate any belief, practice, or pattern of thought in the context of culture except his own tenacious naturalism, which presumes the natural world explains all things and that empirical truths are the only one ones worth counting. At the end of the day the book offers more in the way of explanatory models than interpretative frameworks – but isn’t that precisely what is needed to cultivate the kind of robust understanding that the book champions most?