On the Return of the Savages


by Craig Martin

The New York Times recently reviewed Jared Diamond’s new book on “tribal” societies, The World Until Yesterday. Among other things—according to the review—we learn:

The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. We generally don’t see them trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. It’s possible they do not conceive of life in this individualistic way.

As I and my friends noted on Facebook, this is a repackaging of Durkheim’s “primitive savages,” which we all find objectionable for reasons that appear obvious.

I would argue, however, that we see a homologous collectivist/individualist distinction made by supposedly more academic scholars—who should know better—when talking about “institutional religion” and “spirituality.” According to this distinction, some people are slaves to religious tradition, while free individuals make their own spirituality for themselves—and the latter is presented as more “free” than the former. Consider Heelas and Woodhead’s The Spiritual Revolution:

Some hundred years ago, Durkheim drew a distinction between ‘a religion handed down by tradition’ and ‘a free, private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs and understanding.’ (148)

Or David Lyon’s Jesus in Disneyland, which privileges the individual religion of “advanced” societies:

[I]t has become a truism that religious activity is, increasingly, subject to personal choice, or volunteerism, and that, increasingly, for many in the advanced societies, religious identities are assembled to create a bricolage of beliefs and practices. (Lyon 2000, 76)

[W]here we once would have identified ourselves in terms of the villages or clans we came from, and located ourselves within a social hierarchy stretching down from prince or president to pauper, now nothing is fixed. … The realm of choice has opened up tremendously for most people in the affluent societies, giving us unprecedented opportunities to choose lifestyles and beliefs from a range of options. (91)

If the distinction between “primitives” and “moderns” is objectionable, why isn’t the homologous distinction between “institutional religion” and “individual spirituality” equally so?

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012). Craig’s research interests concern social theories of religion and ideology, particularly how “religion” is imagined in modern thought and popular discourses.

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One Response to On the Return of the Savages

  1. I think David Brooks wrote in this review at the NYT that one of the problems with Diamond’s book is that the author he doesn’t ever let any of these “primitives” speak for themselves. It’s easy to immerse a person or group of persons in the collective when you don’t let individuals speak for themselves. This was the basic complaint about the field by my friends in Anthropology already back in the 1990s. Nice to know that nothing gets learned in the interim.

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