2010-03-24

201 Toolkit: Wayne Proodfoot

One of the least favored authors from the Religion 201 syllabus among my classmates was Wayne Proudfoot, whose Religious Experience takes a somewhat cynically empirical view of religion and the experiences people attribute to religious causes. Sometimes an empiricist myself, I have found Proodfoot useful since my first encounter with his book, and often invoke his central argument in my own analyses.


This argument is exemplified by a rather memorable parable of sorts. I'm walking in the woods with a friend. My friend has moved ahead, and is struck with fear when he glimpses a bear near the trail around the next bend. He runs back and tells me there is a bear ahead. However, the woods and the features of the trail are familiar to me, and I know that there is a log by the trail up ahead which resembles a bear. I reassure him, yet he insists that he saw the bear, and wouldn't have gotten so worked up over a log. Nevertheless, we proceed around the bend and my friend discovers upon closer examination he had indeed taken the log for a bear.

In a word, Proudfoot contends that religion is so much taking of logs for bears. He points out that people will seek explanations for psychological and physiological states whose causes aren't readily apparent, and that having religious concepts around beforehand can provide a convenient source of explanation.

I found particularly compelling Proudfoot's reference to the experiments of Stanley Schachter, which he mentions in his third chapter. Schachter predicted "that if a person were to find himself in a state of arousal for which no explanation or appropriate cognition were immediately available, he would feel pressured to understand and to label his feelings. He would require some way to account for what was happening to him." (Religious Experience, p. 99) Schachter administered injections of adrenaline to his subjects, telling some what to expect from the injection, giving others misleading information, and leaving others completely ignorant of the nature of the injection. A confederate in the experiment would be placed with the subject, sometimes acting jovially, sometimes angrily, and so on. Schachter found that subjects who hadn't been briefed on the effects of the injection "tended to experience the emotion portrayed by the confederate." (Religious Experience, p. 100) Meanwhile, those who knew what to expect from the injection were less likely to reflect the confederate's mood. In a word, finding their autonomic nervous systems aroused, subjects with no explanation for that arousal tended to take the cues given by their environment to explain their condition.

Proudfoot astutely applies this psycho-physiological insight to some of William James' examples of conversion experiences from his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience. Proudfoot notes some of James' accounts which mention reading scripture or thinking on a sermon before falling asleep, then waking in the night to unexplained heart palpitations or other physiological agitations which are taken to be signs of visitation by Christ or the Holy Spirit. The close association of pre-existing religious concepts with an unexplained physiological disturbance would seem to make Proudfoot's Schachterian analysis a strong one indeed.

Beyond psycho-physiological abnormalities, religious concepts which already lie close at hand may be drawn upon to understand other phenomena for which ready explanation is lacking. Another of Proudfoot's examples is Nichiren Buddhism, a sect with which I happen to have some experience. A Japanese Mahayana offshoot, Nichiren takes the Lotus Sutra as the central and ultimate scripture, but even more than this takes adoration of the sutra as a primary practice. Nichiren Buddhists practice chanting the mantra "namu Myouhou Renge Kyou" — "Hail the Lotus of the Wonderful Law." This chanting is usually carried on for at least an hour, morning and evening, every day, accompanied by drums (either large taiko at a temple, and/or small handheld drums).

As Proudfoot notes, reading of the sutra itself isn't encouraged among new adherents, much less required of potential converts. Instead, people are invited to simply join the congregation in chanting, with little or no justification for doing so. Proudfoot recounts how

At one session we attended, the leader invited a new prospect to chant for just one hundred days and see what would happen. Chanting involves, initially, an hour or more both morning and evening. If the prospective convert decides to try this "experimentally" for one hundred days, the rearrangement of his life and the persistent chanting, which cannot be justified on any other grounds, present a surd that is quite salient for him. It is likely that before the experimental period has elapsed the potential convert will be attracted by a set of beliefs which give meaning to the apparently meaningless activity in which he has been engaged and around which he has reordered his life. ... [C]ommitment to a regimen of such exercises can lead to the adoption of beliefs that justify that regimen and the resultant feelings. (Religious Experience, p. 112-113)

Or, we might say: orthopraxy precedes orthodoxy. Adherents, Proudfoot would say, are likely to be doing something before they believe something.

(As an aside, Proudfoot's point here dovetails nicely with Roy Rappaport's notion of performative indication — something we've yet to discuss in this series of articles. In ritual, the participants' very participation indicates acceptance of the conceptual hierarchy which the ritual encodes. That outward indication of acceptance, even if it is purely superficial, may suffice to lodge the encoded concepts in the mind of the participant, which could lead to them becoming belief.)

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