May 29, 2014

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.


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