Anthropology and the Limits of Secular Reason

  • Joel S. Kahn


In a short passage in Triste Tropiques in which he describes a visit to a Buddhist temple while conducting fieldwork in the Chittagong Hills in the early 1950s, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote of his acute discomfort when his Burmese companion proceeded to prostrate “himself on the ground four times before the altar” (Lévi-Strauss [1955] 1974: 411).1 Worried that by not joining in he might offend the man, Lévi-Strauss was at the same time also reluctant to participate in a ritual that seemed to him to involve “bowing down to idols” and “acknowledging the reality of a supernatural order of things” (1974: 394). At what point, when faced with beliefs and practices with which one fundamentally disagrees, does the injunction to treat the subjects of one’s anthropological research with respect turn into hypocrisy? Does the call for tolerance when encountering “other” ways of thinking, doing, and being have limits?2 The best solution to the ethnographer’s dilemma that Lévi-Strauss could come up with on that day in Asia was to maintain a kind of embarrassed silence, standing passively by during the performance of a “ritual gesture” with which he profoundly disagreed (interestingly taking his lead from his companion, who advised him: “you need not do what I am doing”).


Native Theologian Ontological Assumption Religious Idea Institutional Reality Buddhist Temple 
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  1. 1.
    See also Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1952. “Kinship Systems of Three Chittagong Hill Tribes (Pakistan),” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 8(1): 40–51; Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1952. “Le syncretisme religieux d’un village mɔg du Territoire de Chittagong,” Revue de l’Histoire des Réligions 141: 202–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    As Slavoj Žižek asks, does the general principle of tolerating the construals of others mean that we are required also to tolerate intolerance? See Slavoj Žižek. 2008. “Tolerance as an Ideological Category,” Critical Inquiry 34: 660–682.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Recalling this rather negative response on that day in Burma, later on in the book he went on to observe that there is in fact no real gap between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy, writing that: “Between that form of [Buddhist] worship and myself there was no misunderstanding to get in the way. It was not a question of bowing down to idols, or of adoring a supposedly supernatural order of things, but simply of paying homage to decisive reflections which had been formed twenty-five centuries earlier … To those reflections my civilization could only contribute by confirming them … For what, after all, have I learnt from the masters I have listened to, the philosophers I have read, the societies I have investigated, and that very Science in which the West takes such pride? Simply a fragmentary lesson or two which, if laid end to end, could reconstitute the meditations of the Sage at the foot of his tree” (Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1974. Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Atheneum, 394). I will return to this alternative strategy for dealing with such encounters below.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    There are majority Muslim populations in Indonesia and Malaysia, significant Muslim minorities in Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand, and smaller minorities in Vietnam and Cambodia. Among these Muslim populations and groups, there are immigrants and their descendants from South Asia and the Middle East—but the largest part are Austronesian-language-speaking peoples of Southeast Asia who have styled themselves as “indigenous” groups like the Malays, Javanese, Sundanese, Minangkabau, Acehnese, Moro, and Cham. For a study of the dynamics of religious, ethnic, indigenous, national (and cosmopolitan) identities and sensibilities in insular and peninsular Southeast Asia, see Joel S. Kahn. 2006. Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World. Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Singapore University Press (Singapore) and NIAS Press (Copenhagen) (published in the United States by University of Hawaii Press).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    My use of the term is derived from Charles Taylor’s discussion of the phenomenology of belief (and unbelief). See Charles Taylor. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    In his critique of phenomenology Derrida argues, for example, that: “in phenomenology there is never a constitution of horizon [after experience], but [only] horizons of constitution” (Jacques Derrida. 1978. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 120). In this view, phenomenology (although it is arguable whether Husserl was indeed guilty of this) posits as primordial something that is inevitably grounded in something else, which it cannot itself question or talk about (Derrida, Writing and Difference, 157–159).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    For example, as Anthony Steinbock has argued, most phenomenologists accept only one kind of givenness, that which Husserl calls “presentation.” Although horizontality may be expanded in post-Husserlian phenomenology to include that which cannot be experienced, Steinbock’s argument is that experience/nonexperience may take place on an altogether different—vertical—plane, and that this is the case particularly with what is typically labeled mystical experience (see Anthony J. Steinbock. 2007. Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press). For a good discussion of the requirements of a phenomenology of religious experience, see also Jeffrey Wattles. 2006. “Husserl and the Phenomenology of Religious Experience,” in Eric Chelsom (ed.), Being Amongst Others: Phenomenological Reflections of the Life-World. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    The other person; the infinite (which can be experienced only through a sense of the “overflowing of experience”); see Emmanuel Lévinas 1998. “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press; and Michael L. Morgan. 2007. Discovering Levinas. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 88–94); and, of course, for believers in the divine. This critique of experience was shared with interwar crisis theologians like Barth and Rosenzweig, a connection to be explored later on. See Samuel Moyn. 2005. Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; and Benjamin Lazier. 2008. God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World War. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Unlike many anthropologists, Riesebrodt is not especially concerned with defending this definition against the criticism that the distinction between natural and supernatural is a Western one, and makes little sense in other cultural contexts. For a critique of exactly such unproblematic dichotomizing presented by an earlier anthropologist, see Melford E. Spiro. 2004. “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation,” in Michael Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 85–126. I will set this objection to one side for the moment, returning to it later on.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Neither is Riesebrodt especially concerned with the argument that religion may not be a universal category, a criticism one might expect from those of a genealogical bent; for an author who develops this theme, see Daniel Dubuisson. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology, trans. William Sayers. Baltimore, MD and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. I will also set this objection to one side for the moment to focus on the form of scholarly engagement to which Riesebrodt’s approach gives rise.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    I am referring here to the reductionist tendencies in ontology, psychoanalysis, theories of embodiment, linguistics, cultural anthropology, historicism, Gramcian-Foucauldian theory, and the neurosciences respectively. The term “brainhood” is borrowed from Fernando Vidal’s perceptive critique of the individualist ontology that underpins much of the contemporary neurosciences (Fernando Vidal. 2009. “Brainhood, Anthropological Figure of Modernity.” History of the Human Sciences 22(1): 5–36).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 14.
    See Dubuisson, Western Construction of Religion. He develops, without referring to them, some of the arguments previously advanced by Talal Asad on the Christian roots of the concept of religion (Talal Asad. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    These shortcomings are identified, for example, in the recent “genealogical” critique of secularity, in which the possibility of a secular public sphere from which all religious values, construals, and identities have been banished has been questioned. See, for example, Asad Formations of the Secular; Judith Butler et al. 2011 The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. New York: Columbia University Press; Saba Mahmood. 2006. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18(2): 323–347; and Armando Salvatore. 2007. “The Exit from a Westphalian Framing of Political Space and the Emergence of a Transnational Islamic Public.” Theory, Culture & Society 24(4): 45–52, among others.Google Scholar

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© Joel S. Kahn 2016

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