Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger are two Marxist historians famous for promoting the concept of the ‘invention of tradition’. This concept is based around a Marxist inspired analysis of traditions which questions the validity of any assumption that they are timeless edifices created organically and haphazardly. Instead, Hobsbawm and Ranger contend that in reality ‘traditions’ are often relatively modern constructions created in the service of specific agendas and hence are ‘invented traditions’.
This concept was originally applied by Hobsbawn, Ranger and their co-authors in 1983 to the ‘invention of traditions’ in an European and, in particular, a British Colonial setting. In 1998 however the Mirror of Modernity edited by Stephen Vlastos was published which comprised of a collection of articles looking specifically at the ‘Invented traditions of Modern Japan’. There were many interesting and quite suprising topics covered in the articles and I hope to address several of them in future posts but the one I am interested in examining now is Inoue Shun’s examination of Judo and it’s role in ‘the invention of the martial arts’.
My recent post discussing the Dalai Lama reminded me of an interesting article I read a number of years ago about a rather unusual category of monks that existed in the monasteries of Tibet- the Ldab Ldob (dabdos) or, as they have also been called, ‘Punk monks’. These monks, who were an established and accepted part of the monastic community earned the moniker ‘punk because there time in Tibetan monasteries was spent engaging in violent duels, competing in intermonastery sporting events and rather infamously kidnapping young boys for sexual pleasure.
As such, they don’t just contradict the romanticised image of Tibetan monastic life but they grab that image, beat it senseless, steal all of its belongings then kick into a ditch and tell it not to come back and bother them again. They also illustrate how the real situation is often far more interesting and complex than any simplistic fantasy version can be.
Since this blog was created with the intention of addressing the weird and the wonderful in both anthropology and religion I’ve decided it would be a good idea to start producing reviews of interesting research.
My areas of ‘expertise’ are in the literature from the academic ‘study of religions’ and from anthropological studies (i.e. ethnographies) focusing on religion & East Asia so you can expect most of the material for these reviews to be drawn from those sources.
Now, to get things rolling, the first article I’m going to examine is a recently published article by John K. Nelson, a scholar specialising in Japanese religion, examining how the marketing of household altars in Japan reflects the changing attitudes towards spirituality and religion found in modern day Japan. The article is titled ‘Household Altars in Contemporary Japan: Rectifying Buddhist “Ancestor Worship” with Home Decor and Consumer Choice’ and was published in 2008 in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (incidentally, for anyone interested, the article can be viewed online, for free, here).
Images used in study; Secular to the left, Religious to the right
The final talk at the God in the Lab event was by Dr. Miguel Farias discussing his research into how religious beliefs can effect individuals state of mind and, in particular, how they influence responses to pain. A Times article amusingly described his research as “People are to be tortured in laboratories at Oxford University in a United States-funded experiment to determine whether belief in God is effective in relieving pain.” Sounds promising, eh?
Dr. Farias’ presentation, and his research in general, present something of a paradox; on the one hand, they involve investigating religious belief from a very novel perspective and present interesting findings. But on the other hand, his findings aren’t that convincing and they are significantly hampered by glaring problems besetting the methodology used in his study.
The third talk in the God in the Lab event was by Dr. Justin Barrett, another researcher from the Oxford Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, who was discussing the evidence for the theory that children are ‘born believers’, in that they possess a strong natural receptivity to religious beliefs.
Dr. Barrett, as befitting someone whose research involves developmental psychology with children, is an incredibly expressive speaker (with a strong American accent) and is particularly good at relaying how important intonation is when dealing with children (or at least I got that impression from his reconstructed dialogues). His talk started off with him identifying a number of recent researchers who have published books and articles detailing strong evidence that religion is a natural belief that the human mind is naturally receptive to, especially in childhood.
Yesterday I spent an enjoyable morning and afternoon attending a series of four talks organised by the London Centre for Inquiry titled ‘God in the Lab‘ (for the event website take a look here). As the title of the event suggests the talks were each based around the theme of researchers exploring religion from scientific perspectives. Each of the talks covered a different area and they were all very interesting (though some, it must be said, were presented more interestingly than others) and I thought that a good way to commit the event to my long term memory would be to write a review of it. Since each talk was on a different topic and included a heap of interesting research, I also thought it would be a good idea to write a seperate post reviewing each talk individually, rather than a mega post covering all four at once. Below then is the first of a four part review of the event.