The Supernatural, Ritual and Uncertainty

Despite the apparently enormous variation of what goes, somewhat intuitively, by the name of religion, and despite the statement by Maurice Bloch that anthropologists have found it impossible 'to ... isolate or define ... religion' (Bloch 2008), I think that cognitive anthropologists and psychologists have demonstrated that a common core does exist. The cognitivists are dealing not with institutionalized religion but rather with how we invoke and mobilize the supernatural or how the supernatural is built into our evolution. This is manifested in popular religion, not in institutionalized religion. Popular religion does have common features across cultures and through time, because of its deep involvement with curing or preventing illness, with warning of and warding off rumor and gossip, with divining and controlling the future and with life after death. Cognitive psychology, as applied to religion in the work of Boyer and Atran (Boyer 2004, 2001; Atran 2003; Lehmann 2005) tells us that these accounts rely on several evolved modes of operation of the mind: one is the inclination to search for agency in explaining obscure and disconcerting phenomena: this is essential to enable us to survive but it can also be excessive, as in paranoia. Alertness to danger/risk which leads us to associate strange or threatening noises and visions with agents like ghosts or with a warning from a supernatural godlike agent. The need to know what is going on in other people's minds - as in the 'theory of mind' which to varying degrees is recognized to be lacking in autistic individuals (Baron-Cohen 1995) - is also an essential feature of human interaction which leads us to look for all-knowing entities like an omniscient God or, in more everyday terms, to consult a shaman or witch or therapist who has privileged knowledge and offers to diagnose plots against us and to provide weapons to counter them. Risk plus uncertainty plus information combine with plausible advice in areas where certainty is not available. (The shaman is powerful because since everyone consults him he has privileged information and may provide the right advice. The trouble is that one cannot always trust the shaman to be impartial, and we shall see that this issue of trust is important to the demarcation of institutionalized religion in the Abrahamic traditions.)

The cognitivists do not claim that the bundle of ideas and behaviors we intuitively describe and package as 'religion' make a coherent or homogeneous whole; rather in Atran's words, religion as we know it encompasses 'a variety of cognitive and affective systems, some with separate evolutionary histories, and some with no evolutionary history to speak of. Of those with an evolutionary history, some parts plausibly have an adaptive story, while others are more likely by-products' (Atran 2003: 265). The line between features with an 'original' adaptive function and others which are 'exaltations', by-products, is somewhat notional, but for our purposes the point is that they have come to form common underlying features of the popular religion which is at the heart of all religion, despite the diversity of its institutional forms across time and space.

Dealing with the uncertainties of gossip, illness and death requires experts and specialists, and so individuals carve out or inherit expert roles with esoteric knowledge and access to the supernatural realm. But there has to be some sort of 'system' for building trust in individuals who help us to cope with uncertainty, who cure illness and who manage the transition from life to death and communication with the dead, even while also protecting us from confidence tricksters. And so we must add ritual and exchange to these psychological propensities to look for solutions. Ritual institutionalizes or essentialists a practice, marking it as standard procedure but also introducing extensive elements which are not present for any practical reason related to the context, but fix social roles in relation to the procedure: ritual should induce trust and it also should confer privileged knowledge on the part of the person performing it.

Exchange is deeply embedded in our evolved psychology from the exchange of glances in recognition, to sex, to economics and guilt - the guilt we experience when we do not fulfil the obligations of reciprocity. In our relationship with the supernatural the exchange is also ritualized so that the successes of the past can be repeated and the failures explained. In explaining how religion - which has ritual as an indispensable component - manages hope and hopelessness, ritual and exchange are intimately connected. Such ritual exchanges depend on the meticulous fulfillment of esoteric procedures, yet they remain bedeviled by uncertainty - and the word 'bedeviled' is probably appropriate in this context. In Dan Sperber's words: 'only misfortune always begs for an explanation': if things go fine then questions are not asked. But 'when failure to adhere to the practice is followed by misfortune, it may appear to have caused it' (Sperber 1996: 51-2). Sperber's formulation includes the words 'strict adherence' (my emphasis), reflecting the ritual character of these procedures, and that is in turn related to the belief in their efficacy. They do not claim to be 100 per cent successful, but that is not the point: the point is that (1) if you haven't performed the ritual and the misfortune arises you could be held responsible; (2) that it ties people in to a social network of responsibility who might hold you responsible or, alternatively, forgive you - or indeed be grateful if the ritual is perceived to have had the desired effect, and (3) it allows for mistakes to explain failure. So long as you have performed the ritual, the system is set up so that even if it does not achieve the desired or anticipated outcome you will not be held to account.

The ritual distributes roles, thus evoking reciprocity in others, be they those who suffer the misfortune directly or those who are linked to the sufferers. It also creates a set of idealized, 'essentialized' figures (Bloch 2008) who act in the name of supernatural powers and incur costs on their own behalf (the accoutrements of ritual, renunciation of their daily needs) but attract donations, reciprocity, from those who stand to benefit from their renunciation. The stricter the requirements of the ritual the higher the cost, but as the ritual becomes more costly so more participants are required and more people can join in support. If the central figure is a celebrity, enjoys a cult of personality, then people may be prepared to pay a higher cost, even pay with their lives, but more usually the cost is low because of the uncertain outcome, balanced by the comfort of shared reciprocity.

In a ritual involving exchange with a supernatural agent there is always an intermediary: a medium, or an institution - the Church. These exchanges have to be public: just as a Pentecostal cannot claim to have received the Holy Spirit in private, a vision of the Virgin Mary is of no value if it is not recognized, and an exorcism, for example has to be witnessed.

In non-institutionalized religious cultures the intermediary wields real, sometimes frightening power. Geschiere (1995) describes the sorcerers and witch-hunters who are indispensable associates of Cameroonian politicians: the mystery surrounding them is whether they are themselves responsible for the possession which they diagnose. Likewise neo-Pentecostal churches (of which more later) practice exorcism to help their followers recapture a lover or expel drugs from their households: if it doesn't work then the sufferer is told that the procedure had a defect or the exorcist him/herself was possessed or was an agent of diabolical forces, or the sufferer has not tried hard enough. There is always an answer and reassessments go round and round in a never-ending circle. So paranoia is fed, but so also social actors in the long run have an incentive to try to create trust and institutions.

It is precisely the uncertain efficacy of these procedures that cultivates their ritual character - the 'strict adherence' in Sperber's formulation. The managers of the supernatural in non-institutionalized religious possession cults manage a relationship of exchange between their devotees and the supernatural and between themselves and their adepts, keeping initiation for themselves, thanks again to elaborate esoteric rituals. And so this sort of religion handles, manipulates and perpetuates the hope and hopelessness of individuals. It was classically described by Evans-Pritchard for the Zande, though he studiously avoids mentioning emotions such as hopelessness at all: for the Zande, in his account, witchcraft is an everyday matter of social and physical explanation. But the ambiguity is patently present, as when he describes how oracles may lie - and how everyone knows that they are lying - in circumstances when to do otherwise would create social tension (Evans-Pritchard 1965: 77). A similar pattern appears in Joel Robbins' account of the conversion and subsequent religious life of a tiny community in Papua New Guinea - the Urapmin - who had converted en masse to evangelical Christianity. The Urapmin confessed innumerable sins in extended and very frequent public meetings in their church building, but these were mostly trivialities. When a transgression was serious and affected the stability of their own social relationships, for example an extra-marital affair, then they waited for it to pass or the personal conflict to be resolved before confessing it (Robbins 2004: 276).

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