Variations on a Prayer

Praying, praying, praying

An interesting study (available online here) by a group of Danish researchers provides strong evidence that different types of prayer activate different areas of the brain and that some specific types of prayer activate areas of the brain usually associated with social cognition.

This may seem like fairly straightforward conclusions to begin with however the authors of the study point out “in fact most studies of the relation between brain function and religion assume the hypothesis that religious experience is fundamentally a uniform category of human experience” and illustrate this by pointing to examples such as the well publicised work of Dr. Persinger who claims to be able to be able to reproduce religious experiences by stimulating the temporal lobe.

To provide a more nuanced perspective and highlight the variability within the category of ‘prayer’ the authors designed a study to test whether different types of prayer were producing different patterns of neural activity. In order to discover this they took twenty young devout Christians from a Danish Lutheran sect, put them in an fMRI scanner and while they performed different types of prayer they collected images of their brain activity.


The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 2

Death of Cook

Having introduced the main players in the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate in my previous post it’s now time to turn to the main arguments, rebuttals and accusations that kept Captain Cook’s death as a hot topic in anthropology during the 90s.

A chronology of the relevant books/articles might be a good place to start:

1985– Marshall Sahlins publishes Islands of History which includes his discussion of Captain Cook’s death and how it is attributable to the mythical worldview the Hawaiian islanders subscribed to.

1992– Gananath Obeysekere publishes The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. This contains a searing attack on Marshall Sahlins’ (and other scholars) theories relating to Captain Cook and his interaction with the Hawaiian islanders. Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of having bought into a myth, by accepting colonial accounts at face value and failing to read the accounts critically.

1995– Sahlins publishes How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook for examplea book length point-by-point rebuttal to Obeyesekere’s attacks on Sahlins’ research. Sahlins counterattacks Obeyesekere’s alternative account, claiming that he has cherry picked sources to support his theories, invented a universal ‘native’ mindset (based on Western values) and included errors which demonstrate clearly that he lacks important contextual knowledge about the region and the historical period.

1995– Obeyesekere publishes Cannibal Talk: The Man Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas, a work that further promotes his theory that most colonial stories about foreign cultures are myths, which have been uncritically accepted by scholars and the public in the modern age.

1995– The famous American Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes an account of the debate, describing it as part of the ‘Culture Wars’, in the New York Review of Books.

1997– A new edition of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook is published with an extended afterword in which, Obeyesekere offers some rebuttals to criticisms from Sahlins but primarily contends that Sahlins criticisms indicate that he has misunderstood his arguments.

1997– Robert Borofsky writes an excellent article in Current Anthropology summarising the debate and the issues surrounding it, which is followed by a number of short responses from various other anthropologists, including Obeyesekere and Sahlins.

These are the bare bones of the sources I’m drawing from and I would recommend that anyone really interested in the debate should really think about having a read through at least some of them. However, in case you can’t be bothered, what follows is a summary of some of the juicy bits and my thoughts about them.


Japan’s Pick and Mix Religions

Explained below...

Explained below...

One of the first statistics that someone who is researching religion in Japan will come across is that when statistics are collected the total membership of the main religions when added together equates to almost double the population of Japan. So for instance, in 2006 the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs reported that there were 106.8 million Shinto adherents and 91.2 million Buddhists while the total population of Japan was 127.8 million people.

The explanation for these strange statistics is very straightforward- in Japan most people do not regard religions as exclusive and this includes the various temple and shrine authorities who collect the statistics. This attitude is illustrated quite nicely by the fact that it is common in Japan for a person to have Shinto ceremonies shortly after they are born and at certain ages (3, 5 and 7) throughout their childhood, have a Christian wedding when they get married and have a Buddhist funeral after they die. It is also relatively common for individuals to be unaware of what Buddhist sect they and their family belong to until after a close relative dies and they need to contact a temple and summon the relevant priests.


The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 1

Artistic representation of Cook's final moments

Artistic representation of Cook’s final moments

When the famous British explorer Captain James Cook was killed on a Hawaiian island in 1779 the Hawaiian tribesmen responsible removed his body from the beach, disemboweled it, baked it and then distributed the bones across a variety of their villages. These actions are not disputed by historians and were also not motivated by spite. They were, in fact, the traditional mortuary rites performed on the island for those of high status.

Unsurprisingly, these actions were interpreted by Cook’s crew as something entirely different. Rather than seeing the actions as displaying respect for a revered leader they regarded them as a hideous attempt to desecrate the remains of a fallen enemy. This difference of perception very nearly caused more bloodshed as, in the face of growing tension and a barely contained fury, Cook’s crew attempted to negotiate with the islanders for the return of his body, so that he could receive a traditional naval burial. The volatility of the situation is evident in the accounts written at the time, which contain reports describing how a number of the crew favoured attacking the islander’s villages and taking the body back by force and accounts of islanders performing a range of provocative acts on the shore directed towards the crew.

A large scale and bloody battle was avoided however as, after a few days and a number of minor skirmishes, the Hawaiians relented and returned enough of Cook’s remains to satisfy his furious crew (although there remains some doubt as to whether the remains returned were actually authentic). With the return of Cook’s remains to his crew the first (very literal) battle for Captain Cook’s corpse came to an end. After performing a Christian burial for Cook’s recovered remains his crew finally departed the Hawaiian islands to return to England and report their captain’s death.

Cook’s physical remains were now lost to the sea (or preserved in Hawaiian villages), yet this not be the final battle that his corpse was involved in.


Hiatus coming to an End!

The End is NearI believe the traditional way of announcing a hiatus is to do so before it is due to happen rather than when it is about to end and I also believe that there are many self evident good reasons for sticking to that traditional order.

Nevertheless, throwing caution to the wind, I am now announcing the end of my non-announced hiatus!

So that schedule of a new post every 3-5 days I mentioned about a month ago will now be kicking in.


Dr. Monster and making Buddhism a Religion

NetsukeAfter a number of posts covering skeptical issues I thought it’s about time to examine another study on the topic of religion.

This time the study title is “When Buddhism Became a ‘Religion’: Religion and Superstition in the Writings of Inoue Enryo” published in 2006 in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies by Jason Ananda Josephson.

If the title sounds confusing don’t worry, the basic premise of Josephson’s article is that it was not until the Meiji period and the arrival of foreign influences that the concept of ‘a religion’ developed in Japan and as such prior to this period Buddhism was not ‘a religion’. Josephson argues that in seeking to make Buddhism fit with the ‘Western’ category of religion a number of practices and beliefs particularly those relating to demons and magic which had previously been central to Japanese Buddhism were eliminated.