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Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days 
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The Pope of Literature

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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
Saint Gasoline: Mad, I have to disagree with you that the situation between modern prayer and rain dances is not analogous.

I'm going to need more than disagreement to change my mind. The analogy falls apart at several points which are germaine to our discussion:

1) On the proportion of risk between the two. Prayer involves almost no risk, so it isn't terribly difficult to account for its survival. The rain dance involves an almost incommensurable amount of risk -- the entire society in which it is practiced could collapse as a result of the risk to which the rain dance exposes it. If the production of rain is the primary reason for the dance, the benefit of the dance itself is entirely to low to account for the persistence of such a risky ritual. Dennett's suggestion that disproportionate risk might be an selective adaptation seems dubious altogether dubious to my mind, but it's especially iffy here. We're talking about a ritual that exposes the culture to actual annihilation -- the dance is so exhausting, and the society so small, that they leave themselves open to attack and the inability to do work necessary to maintain their survival. The demands are so high that they're likely burning away any stores of food and potable water they may have in order to provoke rain. Even assuming that the rain will come, the ritual makes no guarantee as to how long it will take to produce it, so the avowed purpose of the ritual does nothing to assuage that risk. It would seem that genetic selection would displace memetic selection at this point -- those tribes that didn't involve themselves in the rain dance would be more likely to survive than those who did, so the meme's genetic fitness would be moot. It's easy to account for prayer's survival in those terms -- it created very little risk, though the potential rewards seem great by comparison -- while it's much harder to account for the rain dance's.

2) On the nature of the claim. The basic, most fundamental claim of prayer is only that it provides for communication with God. And any religion that treats that God as a volitional being is more consistent if it posits prayer as a psychological rather than mechanical process -- that is, that God answers prayers not as a matter of course, but rather in accordance with God's own will. So while there may be some who make prayer a test of God, most believers make that, at most, a secondary concern. The normative prayer situation is that the person praying already believes in their God and prays only to make contact with that God. And for that claim, there is no clear confirmation. But the rain dancers are apparantly making an explicit, confirmable claim about natural phenomenon -- this dance produces rain. Even if there were a concerted effort to make that claim self-confirming, happenstance would likely create a situation which disconfirmed it.

3) On the relation to the structure of each to the other. As I understand your comparison, these are really two different structures anyway -- the one claim is supposed to be self-confirming, the other either retreats from the need for confirmation or ignores disconfirmation. The rain dance neither retreats nor ignores, and prayer does not structure confirmation into the ritual itself.

4) On the ease of accounting for the development of each. If we commit ourselves to the sincerity of the avowed claim, it's difficult to account for how the rain dance would develop the sort of structure you say it has. Meanwhile, given the the volitional character of the Christian God as inherited from the Judaic tradition, it's not at all difficult to account for a ritual structure that incidentally provides no means of confirmation.

Of course, no analogy achieves total 1:1 correspondence, and it's unreasonable to demand so much. The problem is, that these are the terms where your analogy is supposed to be most operative. You could try to find some way to resolve those problems, but really, why insist on prayer at all? If this sort of structure is so common to religion, then surely you can find a closer analogy than prayer.

When I speak of prayer, I am referring to the type of prayer that many modern people practice, wherein they ask God for a certain outcome, be it the curing of a disease or the end of a certain ill-effect. To deny tha people make prayers that claim a CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP with tangible effects in the world is just silly.

But it isn't directly causal. Even when they're praying for something explicit, most people still hold that they're petitioning God, and that the ultimate result is entirely dependant on God's will. Not receiving what one has prayer for, then, is not disconfirmation of the claim. If the claim were that prayer always, or even reliably, resulted in having their request fulfilled, you'd could construe it as a self-confirming structure. But with this structure the way it is, the person could pray every day their whole life, never get what they ask for, and still believe in the efficacy of prayer. Why? Not because they take the successes as confirmation (there are no successes in this case) but because they require no confirmation to support their belief.

As I've tried to point out before, there's so little investment in prayer that most people who pray don't really require confirmation. They have their religion confirmed to them in some other way (perhaps by the effect belief has on their own behavior, or by the perception that their co-religionists are more moral than people of other faiths), and take the efficacy of prayer as part of the package.

That isn't really the case with the rain ritual. So much depends on the advent of rain, but that doesn't cancel out the advantage that the society would have if the people weren't running themselves ragged in the meantime.

If we could so easily distinguish the two types of prayer -- let's use "contact prayer" for prayer which claims only to allow for direct communication with God, and "causal prayer" for prayer that seeks to achieve the fulfillment of a request -- then the analogy would be simplified. But none of the major traditions provide an easy way to distinguish between them. Causal prayer is almost always contact prayer. If a religious person did insist on causal prayer to the exclusion of contact prayer, they'd quickly find their claim the subject of disconfirmation -- unless, of course, it turned out they were right. But there aren't, to my knowledge, many, if any, people engaging in exclusively causal prayer; contact prayer is always the underlying structure of their prayer. There are examples of people who attempt to hem God into a corner, to demand confirmation through prayer, but those are usually people who are willing and ready to part with their faith.

They say that they pray in order to heal the sick or end terrible problems, yet the prayer has a self-fulfilling structure and it seems obvious that there is no connection between the two.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean by "self-fulfilling structure." You could argue that this sort of prayer has a structure which shields it from disconfimation, but that isn't the same as guaranteeing confirmation. We could call it self-fulfilling if they could somehow gerrymander prayer such that the requests made in prayer were always fulfilled -- maybe they only pray for things they know they'll get, or they pray continuously until they get what they want. That would make the situation "self-fulfilling" in the same sense as the rain dance. But the rain dance doesn't shield itself from disconfirmation by making its results uncertain or by positing an intermediate decision-making. If it is shielding itself from disconfirmation, it's doing so by claiming to produce something it is entirely within that culture's expertise to know comes as the result of seasonal change, by beginning the ritual at an approximate time, and prolonging it until the terms of the claim are met. These are two entirely different structures; if prayer and rain dances are shielding themselves from disconfirmation, they're doing it by radically different means, and that's a real problem for any attempt to learn about one by studying the other.

Why don't you argue that this should lead you to think the people who practice this form of prayer are only avowing this falsely?

Let's get back to the idea of false avowal. I've tried to explain that I don't mean that the rain dancers are making an avowal they know to be false, and there are ways of accounting for the claim that don't make liars of the participants. One particularly important thing to bear in mind is that, if their mythology does posit a rain deity, then the production of any ekstasis that brought them into contact with that deity might well be considered by them a kind of experience of rain. As such, the natural phenomenon of rain would be little more than a physical instantation of something eternal and supernatural. It is entirely possible that the ritual could end in ekstasis long before the first drop of rain fell, and the dancers might still consider themselves to have produced Rain. So a very important question is that of what, precisely, they mean by producing rain.

That's one reason that I insisted on the term "misdirecting avowal." It is misdirecting in as much as it directs our attention to what we, as outsiders, understand as rain. It may also direct their attention to the physical phenomenon of rain, such that they don't consciously anticipate the onset of ekstasis. But that doesn't necessarily make the avowal false -- to them, in a very real sense, the physical rainfall may only be the vehicle which brings Rain into their midst. That by no means precludes their conceiving of rain as a natural, seasonal phenomenon. They could easily fail to achieve ekstasis, at which point the arrival of rainfall would signal to them that they had failed to "produce rain" -- that is, produce a direct experience of their rain god. But so long as they had experienced ecstasis in previous rain dances, this wouldn't matter as much as failure would if they really held the rainfall to be dependent on the success of their dance.

Again, this is the sort of feature of ritual that shows up with a great deal of frequency in mantic religions, and it would, by no means, be out of place here.

Both have elaborate mythologies that back-up the claims of their avowals.

That mythology precedes ritual is still an argument that you've failed to elaborate and demonstrate. Demonstration, in this case, is particularly important, since the rigorous opinion of most anthropologists, sociologists and historians of religion is that ritual almost always precedes mythology, and that mythology typically arises as a way of explaining and reinforcing ritual.

Me: The primitive society will not know the scientific models which explain rainfall, but that does not warrant the conclusion that they're ignorant as to the status of rain as a natural phenomenon.
Gasoline: Of course this does not warrant that conclusion. What warrants that conclusion is the fact that they explicitly SAY that they believe that their rain dance can produce rain, and that they possess an elaborate mythology that says this as well.

That does not warrant such a conclusion. Many anthropologists have shown -- and Paul Veyne has persuasively demonstrated the same of the Greeks and Romans -- that religious belief is often parenthetical -- that is, that believers hold it to be true in one context while acknowledging in other contexts a different set of technical principles. The Native Americans might fully acknowledge during most of the year that rain is seasonal, correlated with the presence of clouds, even that some natural phenomenon causes rainfall to evaporate and reside in the air again, but still maintain during the ritual itself that they can produce rain. A lot depends on how you understand their claims, but a culture that lives so close to the phenomenon, and depends so much upon the natural process, is almost sure to recognize it.

Thu Sep 21, 2006 11:13 pm
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The Pope of Literature

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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
While I'm waiting for you reply to my last message, I thought I'd throw in another support for the view I espoused, which is that it accounts for more of the features of the ritual than the defense you've made for the "self-fulfilling structure". In particular, I think your view makes it difficult to account for the development of the ritual, which isn't terribly difficult to account for it we posit that the Native Americans responsible for the ritual's final form were looking for a way to regularize sporatic instances of ekstasis; the self-fulfilling structure assumes an elaborate mythology without accounting for that mythology's development, whereas, if we take rain to be the catalyst for ekstasis, it's reasonable to expect the subject of ekstatic experience (some divinity) to take on the characteristics of the natural phenomenone, thus resulting in a rain god; the self-fulfilling structure doesn't account for the specific character of the ritual, specifically the dance itself, which in your scheme must be considered incidental or explained by some feature other than the avowed purpose of producing rain, whereas some sort of prolonged physical exertion is perfectly explicable in a ritual intended to provoke ekstasis; and if it is admitted that ekstasis probably is characteristic of rain dances, then we find that insisting on the production of rain as the primary purpose of the ritual allows for that characteristic but fails to integrate it into the purpose of the ritual -- it remains peripheral and extraneous in the context of the ritual's avowed purpose -- whereas assuming ekstasis as the primary purpose of the ritual does allow us to integrate the avowed purpose into the whole ritual.

Taken all together, I'd say those considerations are a good holistic support for the ekstasis model. That it accounts for more as a theory is one of the arguments for the acceptance of Darwinian evolution over its competitors; my proposal is nowhere near the scale of Darwin's (and we until we know more about the actual rain dance itself, we can only maintain the analogy in regards to the elaboration we've supposed from a few third-hand details), but I do think it has the strength of including and explaining more features than its competitor.

It looks to me as though you're sacrificing a lot of explanatory power, and complicating a lot of other explanations, in the interests of maintaining the primacy of an avowed causal relationship: something rather small in the scheme of the whole ritual. Dennett does the same thing, and I think his reason for doing so is that he wants to maintain that sort of causal, explanatory naivity as a feature of religious belief -- not because the evidence points to it, but because it justifies a conclusion he's already drawn, namely his skepticism of religious belief.

I don't want to presume too much, but my advice is that you be careful to avoid falling into that trap.

Fri Sep 22, 2006 6:54 pm
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