If religion is based on anything, it is the dead.

I was trying this concept out on someone this afternoon. I think the idea has merit. The theory runs like this:

If religion can be defined at all, it seems that it must include a central reference to non-materially-experienced entities and powers. We have to be so vague about what these entities are and aren’t, since some ‘religions’ are largely atheistic, and animism challenges the entire notion of gods and spirits by making them ubiquitous. All religions of which I am aware exert special authority over the rituals of death. Indeed, for Buddhism, that’s the only ritual at which Buddhist monks must be present. It is at this point – religion’s special authority over the dead – that religions separate themselves dramatically from almost all other forms of collective social action. The necrophiliac memorial cultures of nationalism (and, it should be pointed out constantly, many pre-‘modern’ cultures) are something of an exception to this generalized statement, but in precisely a way that tends to confirm the logic of the idea. Why is this important? Because it indicates something crucial about religion: religion, and the clerical classes, derive their authority from the dead, and the dead provide them precisely with the imaginative and creative possibilities of talking about that which is not currently in evidence.

In short, religion is based on the dead.

Jolly Roger Image Ganked from the very cool Anthropik Site - Go visit now.


5 thoughts on “If religion is based on anything, it is the dead.

  1. Very interesting. I especially like this as a way to discuss ‘religion’ in my Intro to Cultural Anthro classes. All societies have the dead; all have to deal with that concept in some way.
    But thinking of one of the groups I’ve researched with (Kwaio, Malaita, Solomon Islands), I do think that this definition can also become, well, thin. The Kwaio practice ‘ancestor worship,’ but of course the ancestors are everywhere all the time, as are the dead. But not all dead are ancestors in the same way. As you can imagine, there’s a telescoping process going on over time. Only a few of the dead get remembered as ancestors and are thus recipients of ritual sacrifice, believed to have power over the living, etc. People have a strong emotional attachment to the recently dead — those you knew and loved in life. In some ways, this emotion is transferred to the more distant, powerful dead. One of the ways that the power of the ancestors is evidenced in life is breaking into tears at a ritual. That’s sign that the ancestors have heard.
    But the key element underlying all of this is power. In particular, the underlying religious concept is mana. Yes, THAT mana. Ancestors can fa’amangaa (imbue with power, bring power to, make powerful, fruitful, productive). They punish people for not following the taboos; but they can also fa’amangaa things and people. But, to the best of my remembrance, the ancestors are by no means responsible for or the originators of or the holders of mana. Mana just is.
    How will you deal with things like mana?
    Not trying to be difficult here. I found this fascinating and, again, I REALLY like this.

  2. erikwdavis says:

    Wonderful, Kate! Thanks for commenting here. Yes, the definition becomes thin (to the point of transparency and uselessness) in various settings. But, in a humble defense, I think that is true to some extent of anything that intends to be expansive and encompassing.

    The question of dealing with mana or power is a particularly difficult one for me. I try to avoid dealing directly with ‘power,’ not because it’s an unimportant thing, but because it seems so difficult to pin down (I’m reminded of Sahlins’ point [paraphrasing here]: power is not the answer, it is the question). But obviously there are real, embedded, cultural notions of ‘power’, like mana, which need to be addressed.

    In my own work, on Cambodian Buddhism, this power is very diffuse: the ancestors have power, especially over fertility, rain, and the ability to cause illness for infractions against morality. But there is also no single word (of which I’m aware) to describe this power. The power of death is more easily visible in the human interactions with the dead: especially in the person of the Buddhist monk, to whom is attributed the power to transmute/transmit gifts and merit to the dead, to ‘squash’ ghosts, and to ‘set right’ the geographical and social relationships between the dead and living (in a housewarming ceremony, e.g.).

    Do you have suggestions on how to deal with mana? Not worried about you being ‘difficult’ – I only put these things out there to receive precisely to receive the sort of response and challenge that you’ve offered. Thanks for that!

  3. Actually, it’s funny that I haven’t thought about mana much — my more recent field research was on political ecology in northern Thailand. From what I observed of how people talked about it among the Kwaio, it was a force, not a thing (early observers thought of it as a quality) — things can be actively imbued with mana, mana makes things happen. In that sense, it seems to fill the role of a ‘natural law,’ rather like Dharma. So for adherents to these beliefs systems, there’s no separation between a natural and a supernatural world. All works according to these laws. The main difference between these universal laws and those we find in contemporary science is that we can’t test the action of mana or dharma in the same way. It comes down to belief. Is that, then, the core of religion? Belief that isn’t ‘tested’ in a scientifically rational way, but is upheld by everyday discourse about what happens in the world, a discourse that comes to the fore at death (or times of severe illness and accident that could lead to death).
    As you can see from this, I’m more intrigued by belief! BTW, have you seen Steven Carlisle’s 2008 Ethos article “Synchronizing Karma: The Internalization and Externalization of a Shared Belief, Personal Belief” (36[2]). It was interesting.

  4. Tom Borchert says:


    There is much to be said for what you are saying here. The question I think is how far do you want to push it. Not putting the dead at the center of what religions are doing would be stupid (as much of your blog shows).
    However when I think of Chinese popular religions and/or Taoism, there is a problem. These religion complexes are about controlling invisible populations, and the dead, whether in the form of ancestors or ghosts make up an large portion of that. But the various forms of gods are incredibly important, and while some of these are thought to be former living beings, Guandi for example, or in the imperial period sometimes members of the “celestial bureaucracy,” just as many are not. Yes, the Daoshi derives much of his authority over his ability to deal with ghosts or pissed-off ancestors, but the religious complex is not based so much on the dead as on invisible beings of various sorts.

    The comment that I find suggestive here, though is your comment about the necrophiliac memorials of nationalism. Indeed, though they don’t derive the same authority from dealing with the dead, nor is the challenge posed by the dead the same for the two kinds of institutions, their mutual concern with the dead (ancestors, ghosts, subjects, comrades or citizens) may be one of the more useful ways to talk about the links between religion and nationalism.

  5. erikwdavis says:

    Tom, you are absolutely correct about the problem that is embedded in this definition: as you point out, the definition is useful, as long as it’s not taken far too seriously. I was somewhat aware of this issue when I posted it, which is the reason for my aside about animism and the wide variety of different types of spirits available in different religions. But being aware of a general logical problem is different from successfully addressing it, and I’m grateful for the more concrete examples from Chinese religion.

    I have been trying to think of a way to preserve the definition in the face of this challenge, and have not yet successfully formulated one. The options I have considered are all unsatifactory for different reasons. Simply insisting that all spirits are transformed ancestors has the disadvantage of clearly being unfactual, while arguing for the privileged place of the dead in human ritualization of invisible spirits (including the dead) potentially leaves out the importance of the ritualization of spirits which are clearly not those of dead humans. There are other options I’ve thought up, most of which are even less appealing.

    As you can see, I’m leaning towards the second, but can’t confirm it without more details on the types of religions (including the Chinese) and their historical development that you describe.

    My argument, by the way, relies on a type of reasoning that privileges historical development, such that it is possible to argue that if ancestor worship of some variety is witnessed first in religious development, the latter development of more specialized, non-dead invisible spirits could potentially be understood as the elaboration of the former.

    I don’t want to pursue this potentially reductive argument too strongly in the absence of real data and analysis, but would truly welcome further thoughts from you and other readers on this topic. As should be clear, some version of this argument is indeed very very important to me and my work. So, it’s important that I work it out properly.

    As for the idea of the necrophiliac cultures of nationalism, that idea directly arises out of my argument that religions are essentially about dealing with the dead. There is an embedded argument there (drawing on Durkheim, I suppose) that nationalist attempts to do this – to ‘love the dead,’ or in a previous formulation of mine, to appropriate the power to speak to and for the dead – necroventriloquism – is a Hans Blumenbergian appropriation by the secular of the ‘answer position’ posed by religion.

    Anyhoo – appreciative of your conributions! Thanks!

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