Monday, May 11, 2009

Evolution and functionality of religions

Here is a nice overview lecture by Jared Diamond on the evolution of religions (tip from Open Culture):

The lecture is about 40 minutes long - but the Q&A is long and fantastic [Also see a related lecture by David Sloan Wilson: Evolution & Religion]. There were many excellent questions, but let me point out one that stood out for me: Has there ever been a religion that caused a society to collapse? (about an hour and 8 minutes into the video). Interestingly, Jared Diamond pointed to the Mahdiyah society of Sudan in the 19th century. For a while they were successful against the British, but then at the battle of Omdurman, the fighters were told that they were immune to bullets - and they were wiped out by the bullets of Kitchener's army. I didn't know about this group and about their particular belief about bullets. But then I discovered this news item about an uprising in Chad from last July:
Independent accounts of the fighting are not available, but Chad’s security minister described Bichara’s followers as “intoxicated by indescribable extremism… almost mad” as they “threw themselves” against the fire of security forces in the belief they were immune to bullets (Reuters, July 2). The “clubs, poisoned arrows and swords” used by Bichara’s followers proved to be of little avail against the gunfire of government troops, nor did the amulets that were supposed to provide protection from bullets save those who were hit. The use of such amulets in the region goes back to the very first encounters with firearms—despite a distinctly poor track record in deflecting lead they continue to find a place around the necks of local fighters. The number of dead was given variously as somewhere between 66 and 72, with over 50 seriously wounded.
Interesting to know that these battles are still taking place in the 21st century. By the way, can we also convince the Taliban that they are immune from the bullets and that they can charge without weapons full speed ahead. This is mean - but then I'm referring to those idiots who have been flogging women, beheading people in public squares, and blowing up schools.


RBH said...

I have a faint memory of a similar belief associated with the Lakota Sioux version of the Ghost Dance religion in the late 19th century in the U.S. As I recall it from anthropolgy taken more than 40 years ago, the belief was that "Ghost shirts" would shield against bullets.

Salman Hameed said... remembered well from your anthro class (from the wikipedia entry on Ghost Dance.

An alternate interpretation of the Ghost Dance tradition may be seen in the so-called Ghost Shirts, which were special garments rumored to repel bullets through spiritual power. It is uncertain where this belief originated, although some observers such as James Mooney have argued that the most likely source is the Mormon endowment garment (which some Mormons believed would protect the pious wearer from danger). Despite the uncertainty of its origins, it is generally accepted that chief Kicking Bear brought the concept to his own people, the Lakota Sioux, in 1890.

RBH said...

I did some field work among the Ojibwa of Minnesota back in the 1960s, and very late at night after a tourist pow-wow at Red Lake reservation, a group of Lakota Sioux men showed those Ojibwa how to dance. It may have been there I first heard about the Ghost Dance movement.