Belief and the reason to be

March 7, 1997

Raymond Firth is the last grand old man of British social anthropology. His classic monograph on an atoll people of Polynesia, We, the Tikopia, was published in 1936. This volume republishes six essays on themes of belief and ritual, sandwiched between an introduction and two concluding chapters, previously unpublished.

Firth addresses issues of belief, of relationships between religion and politics, of the human construction of gods and God, and of "paradox" (better read as "contradiction") in religious systems. He also contrasts offering and sacrifice; and takes up Malay spirit mediumship and village "magic''. Firth throws his net wide and is well-versed, at times erudite, in the particulars of religions.

He describes himself as a neo-empiricist (one who acknowledges that the unreality of sensory experience is a logical alternative) and a humanist (one who comprehends the realities of religion as human constructs that respond to basic human dilemmas). In keeping with this, he argues that, "A humanist approach to religion, within an anthropological frame of enquiry, means that rational study can go much further than religious people are often prepared to allow.'' Few anthropologists would take issue with this contention. Firth is a reasonable man, a pragmatic thinker, matter-of-fact and to the point. Thus, humans are rational beings who suffer because of the character of their life courses and circumstances. In response, they look for ways to alleviate their pain and sorrow by seeking coherence in meaning through belief. Thus they create and use religions. In his reasoning, Firth often seeks a close fit between problems in the workings of societies and their religions as responses to these dilemmas. Yet he also soars, for example, in arguing for religion as human creativity, as musical composition or art, whose truth values are not at issue. Instead, it is the beauty, power, and aesthetics of such cultural compositions that move humans. Still, because religions depend on nonempirical beliefs, their premises are absolute and unchallengeable. As such, religion "becomes the art of the implausible". At base, religion is enchantment.

For an anthropological volume on religion, there is a serious epistemological problem in Firth's conception of "religion". He writes that a definition of religion should include the following beliefs: the existence of a transcendent element that is endowed with sacredness; the existence of a spiritual aspect of the human being that endures after death; and communication between the human and the transcendent realms. In other words, Firth treats "religion" as a self-evident, universal social category that exists as one among others such as politics and economics. There is no mention of religion's potential to encompass and therefore subsume all other categories of being. If there were times and places when the ideation of "religion" holistically encompassed all other social and cultural categories of being, then religion itself did not exist as such a category. This is because for persons living within such social orders there was no external perspective from which to grasp "religion". Religion was a higher-order category than, say, economics and politics. And indeed, there were periods when the great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam organised social and cultural order. Each became a religion only when its holistic encompassment was shattered. Then religion existed as one category among many, and other categories could be given primacy over that of religion. This argument, of the French anthropologist, Louis Dumont, has much greater explanatory power for the organising force and persuasiveness of religion than those of Firth.

There are risks in republishing essays that were written over a span close to half a century; but this book does not suffer by such comparisons, since Firth has not changed his basic positions on the study of religion. He was and is a logical positivist who reasons that there is a close fit between human dilemmas and social explanations. As far as it goes, this approach has its interesting moments.

Don Handelman is professor of anthropology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Religion: A Humanist Interpretation

Author - Raymond Firth
ISBN - 0 415 12896 X and 12897 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 243

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