Readers of these Chronicles know that the originary event is the hypothetical origin of all the categories of human culture and, most particularly, of language and religion. In The Origin of Language, the symmetry of these two fundamental human institutions was articulated in the opposition between “formal” language and “institutional” ritual as commemorations of the originary event. The fact that language and religion are found together in all human cultures would seem to make obvious the need to combine both in any theory of human origin. Yet with the exception of a few hints in Terrence Deacon‘s The Symbolic Species,discussed in Chronicle 168, no serious scientific treatment of this joint origin exists. While the origin of language, once rejected for scientific study as an unproductive distraction, has come to provide a useful focus for research into the structure and evolution of the brain and of human society, the origin of religion seems stuck in the time-frame of hazy and suspiciously “colonialist” nineteenth-century speculation. As the recent series of Chronicles showed, language origin is a booming field of study. In contrast, I have been unable to find a single recent work on the origin of religion. (The one partial exception is a book about writing about the origin of religion.) “Religious studies” is flourishing, but its increasingly severe self-imposed limitations make it ever less capable of taking a critical position toward any religious practice. This is, as we will see, inherent in the subject-matter itself.
Language has an objective correlative in the brain, a set of neuronal connections that has now emerged from the black box of Chomsky’s “language acquisition device” to be explored in detail. But not since the demise of phrenology has anyone attempted to find in the brain anything like a “religion acquisition device.” If language is a synchronic symbol system that we grasp as a system before considering its possible origin, religion is a diachronic or narrative symbol system whose originary focus so overwhelms its systematicity that it appears to evade scientific study altogether.
Recent works on religion are so concerned to avoid asymmetry in dialogue with the “Other” that they voluntarily abandon any claim of scientific method. There is a blanket presumption of moral equivalence that puts the most inhuman practices off limits to ethical judgment so long as they are situated within a religious framework. This neutrality is all the more questionable when, as in Ninian Smart‘s Dimensions of the Sacred (Harper-Collins, 1996), the term “religion” is rejected as too limiting and replaced by “worldview.” If the “worldviews” of Nazism and Communism are rightly understood as secular equivalents of religion, must we then discuss them in such a way as to avoid offending their “believers”? Like all expressions of what Hegel called the “beautiful soul,” such reasoning abandons to violence–ultimately, to war–the power to determine the superiority of ethical systems.
Yet there is a strange logic in these arguments, one that sheds light on the still unresolved phenomenon of Political Correctness that reigns in no other domain so absolutely as in that of religion. Our need to expel PC, either by denying its existence or by ridiculing it, is a sign of its persistent force. PC is so easy to satirize only because it is so close to our intuition of the symmetry of human dialogue. Its extension from racism to weightism, from the visually challenged to the sartorially challenged, merely extends ad absurdum the list of specific asymmetries to guard against. PC obeys the letter, if not the spirit, of the Christian injunction to make the moral model of reciprocity–which is in the first place linguistic reciprocity–into an ethic. Indeed, there is nothing absurd about the injunction to treat all others with equal respect even when they are overweight or poorly dressed. Such consideration becomes PC only when it emphasizes castigating others over reforming oneself or when it inconsiderately abandons the criteria of social judgment on which civilized life depends. I have seen several university functions disrupted when obvious vagrants were welcomed as guests in misguided efforts to transcend look- and smellism.
To exclude someone from a given dialogue, one needs objective criteria. As we descend from “harder” to “softer” subjects, the question of who is qualified to participate becomes increasingly open. That it is nowhere more open than in the domain of religion reflects the fact that religion is the commemoration of the originary dialogue. If religion excludes us from its dialogue, it excludes us from humanity itself–something no postmodern Westerner, Christian or not, can accept. PC in religious studies is the naïve expression of an important insight; it is, so to speak, the negative image of Generative Anthropology.
Once we begin to understand religion as the mode whereby we recreate the originary reciprocal exchange of signs that made us human, its “objective” study becomes a problematic operation. To study religion is by definition to externalize it, to exclude its discourse from our own dialogue. But since the ultimate end of such study is to enlarge the context of reciprocity recreated by individual religions, the most radical solution is to immolate “etic” study altogether to “emic” dialogue. No statement about a given religion is permissible unless verified by a practitioner of that religion; indeed, the assertion should ideally be not merely verified but initiated by the practitioner rather than the nonbelieving scholar, whose analyses even if accepted may prove misleading. This ideal, even when not fully carried out, puts into question the ethic of religious studies and, by extension, that of all social science. The latter can only begin to defend itself by formalizing within its explanatory model the intuitive understanding of religion-as-dialogue reflected in the the ideal itself. But such a model is beyond the reach of those who treat all religions as equal in their difference, let alone of those who view religion as a set of consoling fictions and unenlightened social practices.
René Girard rightly notes that treating all religious practices as “different” amounts to the same thing as treating them as the same. Religious dialogue can productively respect the differences among religions without trivializing them only if it demonstrates the filiation of each religion from a common source. All religions, even that of the Aztecs, are ways of fulfilling the fundamental purpose of culture to defer internal violence. Even when we find the practices of a religion morally unacceptable, we must at least grant their functionality for maintaining a social order.
So long as we are unable to refer the idiosyncratic terminology and practice of the different religions to a common model, we must choose between the unpalatable alternatives of subsuming them within our own religious tradition or simply taking them at face value. In contrast, a minimal generative framework unencumbered with the particularities of any religion liberates us from our own tradition to examine how all religious practices have developed from their common root. For example, we need no longer simply contrast Buddhist godlessness as the “Oriental” alternative–whether better, worse, or equally good–to God-centered Western religions. The originary hypothesis empowers us to trace the negation of being in Nirvana to the same source as the Christian soul’s preservation in God; the two religious traditions emphasize different elements–the sign’s abstraction, the sacred center’s symmetric Otherness–of the same originary scene.
But inasmuch as we can trace all religious phenomena to their common hypothetical source, we are also given a criterion by which to evaluate them: the moral model of human reciprocity, as exemplified in the symmetrical exchange of signs that defers violence in the originary event. Religion founds an ethic, but it also implies morality; while ethics everywhere differ, morality is always the same. Hence we can admire the achievements of Aztec or Greek civilization without closing our eyes to the affronts to the moral model occasioned by human sacrifice or slavery. What differentiates this critique from the sanctimonious moral condemnations that PC reserves for our own society is that it is grounded in an explicit anthropological universal. Violations of human reciprocity are factors of social instability and ultimate social change because the moral model is universally present in all speakers of human language; everyone, slave or victim, feels resentment at unequal treatment.
Tracing diverse descendants to a common ancestor is the way of biology. The study of religion, increasingly paralyzed as a “conversation,” would be a good place to put into practice, on the basis of the originary hypothesis, a little of that shared scientific rigor that Edward O. Wilson calls “consilience.” But the sort of rigor available to the study of religion is not that of the natural sciences. Our only possible consilience must first pass through the acceptance of the “little bang” of the originary hypothesis.