Thursday, February 8, 2007

Fundamental Religion as a Return to Orality

(Updated below)

Fundamentalists are an example, under secondary orality, of an instance when a literate tradition succumbs to an electronic influence. As an organized religion, fundamentalists present a paradox. They wish to interpret "literally" the recorded residue of oral culture storytelling. But in doing so, they betray the influence of a pre-literate and/or secondary orality world view. Lévi-Strauss noted that a difference in world views between pre-literate and literate cultures is a difference between a synchronic or a diachronic view of existence.

For a pre-literate culture, there is no real history. There is the "before" time and the "now." Time is not a line, it is a circle, with the current people in its center. When ask to explain the existence of a ritual, an animal species or a belief, pre-literate peoples will describe a before time when an ancestor brought about a change to the way things have been ever since. That is a synchronic world view.

Writing and printing allow for concise record keeping, create archives, provide artifacts from times other than our own and therefore encourage the view that time is linear, with a past, present and future. There is a history, a logical sequence of events, and a realization that certain documented causes have led to certain discernable effects. Things that exist now have evolved over time, perhaps a very long time, and have been subject to historical and natural influences. This is a diachronic world view.

In our electronic culture the speed of transmission encourages a return to a synchronic world view. When fundamentalists tell us the world is only as old as the Bible says, approximately 6000 years, they are attempting to bend history to a synchronic viewpoint. Archeological evidence is not important. The scientific demonstration of the mechanism of evolution over millions of years is only a "theory." By denying historical evidence, fundamentalists are attempting to redefine time as circular, with themselves at its center.

That is why fundamentalists appear to be more tolerant of other religions. The distinction they draw is between a synchronic and a diachronic world view, and not between the any particular religious doctrines


The following critique was posted concerning the above discussion:

I think you are entirely wrong on this point. The conflict is between two diachronic viewpoints, one that dates creation 6000 years, and one that pushes it back into the billions. It is the very existence of a diachronic worldview that makes this disagreement possible. That one side is based on scientific fact as it appears in print media, and the other on religious fact as it appears in the book of Genesis, is besides the point. both groups have a historical view. From a synchronic perspective, the moment of creation exists outside of historical time, it's a sacred time that all times connect to rather than a profane time (as per Eliade), and therefore the profane counting of years just would not matter. That's why fundamentalism is a literate phenomenon. Oral cultures are homeostatic and flexible, not rigidly adhering to a fixed text.

Point taken. I think a good case could be made that fundamentalists have abandoned a diachronic, historical perspective in favor of a faith-based synchronic one. There is an old "Beyond the Fringe" skit where a group of unlikely characters gather on a mountaintop to witness the end of the world. They chant "Now is the End. Perish the World!" and nothing happens. As they're leaving one of them says, "Same time tomorrow? One's of these days we'll get it right."

Even though the stories of the Bible can be placed in historical time, adherence to the Bible as a historical chronology effectively removes fundamentalists from historical time and places them in sacred time. The Bible discusses a creation and delineates the descent of mankind from Adam and Eve. Some fundamentalists would claim that within the Bible is the prediction of the "Rapture" and the end of times. This is not history as I understand it, and therefore does not represent a diachronic viewpoint.

Lévi-Strauss states:

"I have suggested elsewhere that the clumsy distinction between 'peoples without history' and others could with advantage be replace by a distinction between what for convenience I called 'cold' and 'hot' societies: the former seeking, by the institutions they give themselves, to annul the possible effects of historical factors on their equilibrium and continuity in a quasi-automatic fashion; the latter resolutely internalizing the historical process and making it the moving power of their development.


It is tedious as well as useless, in this connection, to amass arguments to prove that all societies are in history and change: that this is so is patent. But in getting embroiled in a superfluous demonstration, there is a risk of overlooking the fact that human societies react to this common condition in very different fashions. Some accept it, with good or ill grace, and its consequences (to themselves and other societies) assume immense proportions through their attention to it. Others (which we call primitive for this reason) want to deny it and try, with a dexterity which we underestimate, to make the states of their development which they consider 'prior' as permanent as possible." (The Savage Mind, 1966, pp. 233-234)

What I find fascinating in all this is whether we, being ourselves in a transition period between literacy and secondary orality, can draw parallels between pre-literate societies (where there was no possibility of literate influences) and post-literate societies (where literate influences can be assumed). Can the definitions and characterizations Claude Lévi-Strauss assigned to the "savage" mind (what we would call "oral" or "pre-literate") provide guidance to the nature of this transition? Is the "secondary orality" mind "savage" or not?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)