Atheism among the Navajo/Diné
Atheism and its cultural anthropological context|
by R. Pinxten
Bevoegdverklaard Navorser N.F.W.O.
After a short period of belief in the exclusive restriction of atheism to the
western context, we now move rapidly into the consciousness that the phenomenon
has a worldwide spread. More importantly, perhaps, we come to think of both
religiosity and atheism in terms that differ neatly from those we used to apply,
since the widening of the horizon necessitates a redefinition of the categories
implied. All this is too much of a program to deal with in a short article, but
some of it will be of importance as a general context of both the more general
issues raised in the present paper and the ethnographic case study we draw upon
profusely, namely the study of Navajo Indian religiosity.
In the present paper we draw upon some general work on religiosity in other
cultures, and we present specific and particular evidence from the cultural
belief system of the Navajo Indians. Once more, we feel compelled to voice our
deep gratitude to the Navajo informants who allowed us to enter into their belief
world and thus influenced our thought in ways yet not fully explicated.
Furthermore, it should be made clear from the beginning that we will not treat
Navajo religion (neither religiosity) in general in any sense in the present
paper, but rather restrict ourselves to some aspects of it that speak about the
polarity between religiosity and atheism in the western context. We have the
strong conviction that this polarity is not acknowledged in Navajo culture and
that the data presented may add to its questioning.
1. The field work for the present article was done among the Navajo Indians
of the USA, thanks to grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the American
Council on Education. Their help is gratefully acknowledged.
104 R PINXTEN
1. Religiousity and atheism.
Anthropologists have been concerned with problems of religiosity, namely with the
notion of religiosity itself, in varying ways. While the phenomenon is 'reduced'
to a mere by-product of ecological and economical laws by some (eg, recently by
Harris, 1974), it is considered to be the behavioral pattern 'par excellence' for
the study of cultural systems by others (eg, Geertz, 1971, Dolgin et al., eds.,
1977). Atheism, on the other hand, has only had scarce attention in
anthropological literature. My aim in the present article is to defend a
re-interpretation of the latter through its possible connection with the former.
The argument may be feasible in a western European context, but it hardly appears
as such in other cultures. Nevertheless, this is precisely what will be aimed at:
more particularly in a basic aspect of Navajo religious beliefs and practices,
evidence can be found to make out the case.
But before going into the analysis itself, some observations from a general
anthropological origin can be mentioned. They do not really offer a substantial
frame for the analysis of these concepts, but will create a minimal,
knowledgeable context to talk about these difficult issues.
Mary Douglas (1970) argues in favour of the opening up of the categories used
hitherto: 'The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is
nonsense.' (1970, p.36). And: 'The truth is that all the varieties of scepticism,
materialism and spiritual fervour are to be found in the range of tribal
societies.' (idem). The conclusion which springs to the fore from this position
is that, although on a phenomenal level a religious attitude may be observed in
other cultures (people act in a way understood to be in tuning with religion in
the eyes of the observer), on the conceptual level this attitude may either
vanish from the scene or take on-particular forms which are not so easily
recognized in the observer's outlook.
The main point of interest here is that a reference to scepticism (atheism in a
traditional sense?) is understood to be as valid in the description of other
cultures as one to patterns that can be recognized by the western observer as
'more genuinely' religious. It is this possibility of the peculiar form of
'sceptical religiosity' which will lead us further on.
Is there anything of the sort to be found in other cultures, or is there just
religiosity versus atheism (as it came to be understood in nineteenth-century
Europe) ? How are these alternatives to be described ?
Another African scholar, Calame-Griaule, gives one possible lead to an
alternative interpretation of the problems under discussion. She states that
Dogon culture and religion should be viewed from the angle of 'humanism' rather
than spiritualism or religiosity in order to be understood properly: "Elle est
donc cu.ture vecue, fondee sur l'homme et sur sa vie prise dans tous ses aspects,
et non pas seulement dans son aspect spirituel: c'est dans ce sens que nous
l'appellerons humanisme.' (1958, p.9). In another work she painstakingly analyses
the use of language (a particularly creative force in Dogon tradition) in
religious practices: through the use of language the world is influenced,
rendered to the service of man by the speaker, and in terms of the latter's needs
and wishes (1968, ch. IV). The forces of the universe exist through and for the
use of man, more specifically in linguistic performances. The tradition in French
anthropology on which Calame -Griaule feeds her theory is that of the school of
Griaule and Dieterlen. Although some of their work has been the object of severe
criticism, the now published 'magnum opus' of Dogon mythology (Griaule and
Dieterlen, 1965) seems to be widely accepted. It carries the same basic message
on Dogon religiosity. This is all the more important, since the distinguished
scholar on African religions, D. Zahan, extrapolates similar conclusions to black
Africa in general: 'On voit dans ces conditions qu'il s'agit ici, en definitive,
d'une sorte d'humanisme qui, partant de l'homme pour revenir a lui, saisit sur
son trajet tout ce qui n'est pas lui-meme, et qui constitue son depassement.'
(1970, p. 13). And further on: 'L'Africain est avant tout un terrien obstine...'
(idem, p. 237). What we can learn from these observations, in terms of the
discussion in the present context, is that religiosity can be directed toward a
supernatural being or force (the western tradition) or . . . indeed anything
connected with the human being himself. In the latter case, the affinity of all
religious activities to man and man's aspects may leave us without a frame to
consider whether it is religion or a-theism we have in hand here. It may be clear
from this brief exposition that a restriction of the ranges of religiosity and
atheism to supernatural forces or beings is untenable. At least this
content-directed [end 105]
circling the Navajo territory). The world is dynamic: the primal material of the
universe are not objects or atoms but rather events, processes, changes, short-
and long-term occurrences. In language and in practice the reference is always
made to events rather than to occasional invariants (our 'object' notion). Rocks,
clouds, winds and the like as well as rivers, human beings and plants are
conceived as complex processes of growth and decay, as changes in various
respects with occasional configurations or patterns which have a place in a
continuous and universal overhaul of material and 'spiritual' aspects: the basic
substance is the pool of life-forces that is located in or near the Sacred
Mountains and that pours into natural phenomena at any level (in particular
animals, in particular plants, rocks, etc.., in particular human beings) in an
eternal process of recycling. Finally, the universe is harmonious.-This is a very
difficult concept (cfr. Haile, 1943; Witherspoon, 1977). It may suffice -for the
time being to refer to it as: 'everything in the universe is in place, in an
orderly way, in a beautiful way, and in a harmonious interrelationship with
everything else in the universe.' I will have to come back to this notion further
on. Within this universe there is one category of beings that is not completely
and unalterably 'placed' or determined: human beings. (Cfr. Pinxten, 1979 and in
press on all these concepts).
Murray (1977, p. 207) gives a comprehensive description: ' "Nature" becomes an
all-inclusive organizing device: a fusion of natural, supernatural and human or
social elements. ' This characteristic is furthermore stressed by the similarity
in substance of everything in the universe :all phenomena in the Navajo universe
have, apart from their actual material form, an element of n~ch'i (air, spirit:
Young and Morgan, 1942; wind: Mc Neily, 1975; breath: Murray, 1977, id. ) within
them. All have either a n~ch'i bii'histiin ('inner form': Haile, 1943, p. 72) or
a ni˘l'ch'i bii'siziini ('in-standing one,' Haile, 1943, p. 73) within them,
which keeps them erect, living, surviving. In another place, I likened this
concept to the one of 'vital force' (or breath) in the western tradition, with
the basic difference that everything in the Navajo universe is inhabited by such
a force (Pinxten, in press).
In a hierarchical schema of ever more abstract and/or more fundamental forces
both the Sun and Changing Woman (or the Earth) are the original and highest
'beings' or powers (Murray, 1977, p. 208; Werner et al,
in press). From them originate First Man and First Woman, the ancestors and
prototypes of human beings. Most scholars speak about these and other named
nil'ch'i as 'Gods' or 'deities' (Murray, Reichard, etc. ) while others will speak
about anthropomorphic life forces (Haile, 1943). The latter is, in my opinion, a
more genuine interpretation. A delicate and masterful explanation of one
consultant (R. W., Navajo traditional medicine man of Lukachukai, 65) points in
this direction: he likened First Man and First Woman, when asked if they could be
compared to Adam and Eve, to the figure Americans have in George Washington. He
explained: they were the ones who placed things, who organized the world. The
ancestral rather than the deity aspect is emphasized on purpose. I will therefore
refrain from using the term 'God' or 'deity' in speaking about Navajo religion,
and will rather stick to concepts like 'life force' and 'principles of order.'
Further information on the crucial terms concerned will add to this
Man, the not-fully-defined being in the Navajo universe has to watch all living
beings in the world with extreme care and attention. This is not because they are
in some sense superior or godlike, but because they can teach him about their
fitness, about "their being placed" in the natural order. It is from this
knowledge that man can profit to better his position, to learn to use the power
in these beings (and to consume the beings themselves, eventually) for his
subsistence. It is in this pragmatical sense that other living beings have
knowledge' or 'can tell you things': they exhibit a natural fitness that man, the
ill-defined, lacks to some extent. It is in this sense, and for this-purpose,
that everything in nature should be respected. It is a further conviction of the
Navajos (shared by several Indian peoples) that some sort of wisdom is the best
means human beings have to come.to understand and to use to their benefit the
property of the well being placed of everything in the universe. Navajos stress
the fact that human beings have their mental powers (a combination of rationality
and heart) to come to understand and thus use the order in the natural world.
Their strong belief in the basic and indeed exclusive status of mind in the
processes of choice and decision has earned them the epitheton of 'amoral' people
from one of the best scholars on Navajo traditions (Haile, 1943ç) . moral rules
of good and bad behavior have no sense at all, references to guilt or goodwill
are devoid of meaning
end p 109
in any of these ways, the patient (or the people in the surrounding of a young
dead person) is advised to go and have a specific "song over him or her:" the
diagnostician suggests to go and have a ceremony of a specific kind, with a
medicine man specialized in that particular ceremony. Medicine men specialize in
two to three particular ceremonies, because the totality of Navajo ceremonial
practices is beyond the reach of any individual practitioner. Through the
ceremony the patient is then treated in such a way that he 'delearns' the
acquired view on natural order and is able to 'start anew' (up to some limit of
course) with the minimal knowledge on the structure of the world that was offered
to him in the ceremonial: the structure as displayed in the ordering of figures
and forces in the sand-paintings of the ceremony, the role of the legendary hero
(played by the patient himself during the ceremony, in the middle of the universe
depicted on the sand-painting) as detailed in the songs of the medicine man
during the-ritual process. (cfr. Pinxten, in press bis, for a more detailed
analysis). Murray has a strong point, I gather, when stating that the whole
process has a strong logical coherence once the sort and cause of illness has
been determined: since this specific illness is concerned, the patient can only
choose between a limited set of ceremonies which would be appropriate, and thus
is held to consult one of a small range of medicine men who are specialized in
the ceremony involved (1977, p. 210). Navajo ceremonial life now counts some 36
different chants, each concerned with specific constellations of forces and
figures, each with their specific sand-paintings and songs, and their particular
set of herbs and other paraphernalia (information from the Navajo Community
College, Tsaile). Some of the chants are not used anymore since practitioners did
not continue their performance (eg, Owl Chants), while others are now very hard
to get since only one or a few medicine men still know them (eg. Red Ant Way,
Wyman, 1965). Apparently, discussions have been going on recently on newly
created chants as well (Frank Harvey, personal communication).
With this set of informations we can now proceed to discuss problems of
religiosity and atheism in the Navajo tradition.
3. Theism of some sort or not.
In a thorough attempt to apply the christian categories of henotheism, polytheism
and monotheism on Navajo religion, Ed Garrison (1975) comes to the conclusion
that all these concepts are in one sense or another quite inappropriate for the
purpose. On the one hand, the basic notion of 'sa'ah naa~hafbik'eh hozhoon' may
point towards a monotheistic interpretation: this expression is very difficult to
translate, but is most commonly rendered as: 'towards a long and strong life by
means of beauty-harmony-orderliness.' (Garrison, o. c.; Witherspoon, 1977; Haile,
1943). It is impossible to go into detail on the notion here (but cf. Pinxten, in
press). It suffices to say that the expression renders the basic principle of
man's understanding of the good or proper order in the field of forces that is
nature. As such it also expresses the general goal of a beneficial and
intelligent way of living for Navajos themselves. Since this principle is unique,
and exemplified by all phenomena in the Navajo world (everything has its proper
and ideal age and its proper best way of surviving), it may be considered to add
to an interpretation of monotheism with the Navajos. The general term
'haashch'eeh' (often translated as God or supernatural) would thus amount to be a
name for this general principle. Unfortunately, haashch'eeh is never used as
such, but in conjunction with specific colors or qualities: one is black, another
is white, still another is darkness, and so on. This then, in turn, may be
interpreted to point to a polytheistic system. The fact that all beings and
phenomena of the Navajo universe have a n~ch'i bii!histii~ or-a n~ch'i bii'
siziini (cfr. above, sub. 2) may add to the latter interpretation: there seem to
be a multitude of spirits or holy beings around. Finally, the fact that human
beings take the natural order in the universe as a (sacred) model for themselves
and thus concentrate their ceremonial life on the persistence of themselves,
mapped onto an ideal model in nature, may point towards a henotheistic religion
Garrison claims that none of these perspectives indeed tells the whole truth and
that one is left with the feeling that they are all inappropriate for the task.
He concludes: 'It is confidence in ideas per se (and the states of the universe
which they denote), rather than 'trust' or 'loyalty' with the supernatural
beings, which formed the crux of Navajo religion.' (1975, p. 2). I fully
subscribe to that interpretation: the ceremonials
only have a sense in the practical and indeed deep praxiological status they
display in Navajo social life, when interpreted in this way. The ceremonials are
set up to correct a wrong interpretation of the world, to 'debuild' and 'delearn'
a disharmonious or disequilibrated relationship. But, this relationship could and
can only be built or reached by any individual Navajo as a result of his or her
thought. And he is bound to use his mental capacities to define man's place in
the universe which is said to be ordered in a certain (not fully known) way. When
'restoring' a patient to a position of health/saneness one evens out the
disequilibrium and learns (a) not to follow the way he worked out for himself
(because it proved wrong, stupid) and (b) to start anew from the basic knowledge,
the symbolic bits and pieces offered about the structure of the world in yet
another (although less-developed) piece of interpretation of the world, ie, the
sand-painting and the stories about legendary actions as told in the songs. All
this adds up to the conclusion that what is revered in the Navajo tradition is
indeed the worldview, the picture of the world that Navajo tradition built up,
rather than any deity or god. All this is remarkably close to an attitude we came
to grow into in the West: the scientistic picture of the world. This problem will
not be gone into here, but at least will serve as a starting point for further
investigation on the notion of atheism.
4. Moral and theological interpretations of religion.
A further possible ground of comparison between Christian and Navajo -religiosity
should be sought in any form of revelation. The supernatural can reveal himself
in some form or other, thus establishing sufficient ground for further ceremonial
life (eg, in the Christian tradition). Again, this is not known in Navajo
religion. Instead, the insistence on the use of rational means refrains people
from sticking to any possible aprioristic knowledge in this sense. It is the
creativity of the mind, particularly in careful and trained people (ie, the old
people, who 'proved' to be able to survive through their mere life), which is the
sole way to 'salvation' for Navajos. In this respect nothing of the former or the
present traditions can be held to be sacred, since only the survival value will
decide. Thus traditions may well serve a role to survive, but should be
reconsidered or altered if they prove maleficent to the present generation. Any
interpretation by man, including
the reference to tradition, is risky and implies possible misinterpretation
(resulting in illness or other calamities). Finally, Navajos are really forced to
think, re-think, and thus take risks, since they can only survive by using their
mind and thus come to a better integration (or a worse one) with the natural
network they are embedded in.
Finally, a moral justification, in separation from metaphysical or natural
philosophical interpretations of the world is inconceivable for the Navajos.
Where the Christian tradition (especially since Paul) could always draw on moral
dictums of a solid sort for part of the religious beliefs and ceremonial
practices; this is impossible in Navajo culture. As mentioned before, morality in
the presumably universal sense which is known in the western tradition, is
ununderstandable for Navajos: when something goes wrong, the person in charge
acted stupidly, misunderstood, took risks without thinking, etc.., but no labels
of 'good' or 'bad' are appropriate here. Basically, deficient actions result from
a wrong or stupid interpretation of the relationship between human beings and the
natural order they are embedded in.
I claim that we thus have reached the end of the list of possible interpretations
and insights concerning religiosity in the tradition of Christianity. Since
Navajos 'flunk the test' on any of the criteria offered thus far, it should be
concluded that they are not religious, ie, in the sense that Christians would
talk about religiosity at least. On the other hand, apart from these rather
mythological (or myth-based) interpretations of religion, one could point to the
clearly developed ritual aspects (from sacred places over incantations to
specialist-confined activities) which are found in the Navajo tradition: medicine
men serve a role which is clearly comparable to the one of a priest (cfr.
Franciscan Fathers, 1910), and Navajos concentrate themselves on relationships
with 'supernatural' or 'superhuman' forces (haashch'eeh) during lengthy
ceremonies. Indeed, healing ceremonies take from five till nine days each, during
which period a large part of the community concerned is uniquely involved in the
ceremonies. It seems we can only understand the ambivalence of the phenomenon in
the Navajo culture (and in other cultural traditions probably) when we would be
prepared to reconsider our aprioristic conception of religiosity. It is useful
for this purpose to introduce some of the concepts of atheism as it is
interpreted by Apostel (cfr. article in this volume).
5. Atheistic religiosity.
Apostel's analysis of atheistic religiosity, more specifically the one
concentrating on ritual (cfr. present volume), stipulates that the usual criteria
for religious behavior should be fulfilled:
- uniformity of the behavior: the ritual should be prescribed in great detail
and should be performed in a uniform and highly standardized way;
- disfunctionality: the ritual should be such that it can serve no immediate
goal; it should have a transcendental reference of some sort;
- collective: the ritual is essentially the behavior developed and performed
by a group of people, instead of a sole individual;
- communication centered: the ritual is meant to install (among other things)
a communication or interaction with others and/or their mental products;
- exclusive: the ritual behavior can only be performed or conducted by some
specialist(s) and should not be delegated to every possible member of a group. A
difference, however slight, between layman and specialist is involved;
- constitution of the sacred: through the ritual the members of the group, the
instruments and the time and place of the gathering obtain a special symbolic
meaning, which is neatly differentiated from the surrounding world.
The atheistic religious act, then, would be this sort of religious
activities where the participator analyses and extrapolates the meanings
involved. Eventually, the meaning substantiated in the process is demolished in a
ritual way and substituted by an equally provisional one. The emphasis is on the
continuous renewal of symbolic meaning, investment and the detachment from any
definite and eternal symbolization through constant revolution of meanings and
What can we do with all this in the case of Navajo religiosity?
I will not try to pin down the eventual atheistic aspects in any concrete or
particular ritual in the Navajo tradition, but rather will try to extrapolate the
view offered to speak about religiosity and atheistic aspects in general in the
I will stick to the interpretation of ritual in particular (instead of trying to
incorporate myth or mystique as well), because the clearly praxiological
interpretation that Navajos themselves give of thought and religion finds its
closest correlate there. Contemplation of a picture-like world is senseless to
Navajos (cfr. Pinxten, in press), whereas nature and anything in it is regarded
as process-like and involved in continuous interactions. Religion, then, is a
specific way of interaction between man and the rest of the universe. Moreover,
religion is a collective sort of behaving. In consequence of all this, I feel
driven to draw upon the characterization of ritual offered by Apostel rather than
upon any other aspect of western religion interpretations.
Navajos subscribe to the first criterion offered by Apostel: religious activities
should be very standardized and uniform for all members of the Navajo people.
This is so much so that any specific detail of any particular ceremony is highly
prescribed and that medicine men, trained for years in two or three ceremonies
only, risk to make the total performance meaningless or even harmful by omitting
or misrepresenting some detail in it. The medicine man is the only one in the
ceremonial endeavor to master the whole performance, to know and sing the songs
or prayers, to conduct his helpers while constructing the different sandpaintings
in any minor detail, and to use and display the herbs and paraphernalia needed by
that particular ceremony. It is well known that each ceremony ends by singing the
Blessingway chant in order to protect both patient and audience and the
practitioner himself in case of possible omissions or mistakes. The latter
practice alone already points to the high degree of uniformity and
standardization invested in ceremonials by Navajos.
The ritual is collective in a very definite way, since the ceremonials are
considered to be a major occasion for the relatives at large to gather. Moreover,
by the end of the ceremony (ie, usually on the fifth, resp. ninth day) all
members who assisted the doings are invited to take part in it by touching some
part of the sacred soil where the curing took place. It is communication or
interaction centered, since it is believed that both the people gathered for a
ceremony get into contact with the supernaturals through the help other medicine
man, and the coercion (through mere presence) of intentions and cares of all
gathered will be beneficial to the curing process of the patient. Finally, in
minor religious activities (like the blessing of houses or other properties by
the female elder of the family) the same emphasis on unison of all involved in
the one and unique Navajo universe of natural and supernatural forces is standing
out clearly. (On all these aspects of religiosity information was gathered in the
field, mainly from F. Harvey).
The exclusivity is, of course, installed through the status and role in religious
life of the medicine men (and the diagnosticians). Finally, the sacralization of
place, time and people is such an important feature in Navajo tradition that the
hooghan, the traditional building, is said to be constructed the way it is,
precisely because of its structural similarity with the total universe: this is
especially symbolized during a ceremony through the construction of
sand-paintings (representation of the universe) and the displacements of the
activities of the medicine man. Whenever ceremonies are to be held for a person
who lives in a modern house, a hooghan is prepared for the occasion. Rich Navajos
often live in a western style house and build a hooghan next to it for
festivities and religious practices. The instruments used by the medicine men are
exclusive for the occasion (medicine pouch, praying sticks, etc.).
The only criterion which is not fulfilled (in the list offered by Apostel) is
that of disfunctionality. It may be clear that any religious activity of Navajos
serves to reintegrate and/or emphasize an individual's network into that of the
natural order which is understood as typical for the total universe. The
restoration or reintegration can be situated either on a very concrete level (eg,
get rid of the consequences of a tabu breaking act) or an a more abstract one
(eg, redefine Navajoness after contact with other peoples). From the standpoint
that any particular ceremony is an instatiation of some specific re-ordering of
the view of the world through religious means, it can be said that Navajo
religiosity is always concerned with the general strive of Navajo people to grasp
and regrasp a view of 'natural order' and their place in it, and to resituate
human beings in the total network of forces that make up the universe.
The latter point is particularly important, I conjecture, since it can be
considered to be a fair characterization of the meaning and status of Navajo
religiosity. It states that Navajo religiosity has a particular
status in the cultural system which is theirs: religion is a means or a type of
activity for man to interact with the rest of the universe (particularly the
forces concerned with the cause of illness). This cannot be explained solely in a
functional way, however, since religion is of course part of the total scenery of
forces and interactions as well: it is introducing an interpretation of the
harmony of forces (thus, it is an act that differs from the one introduced
through the maleficient act (of the patient), or it is emphasizing and
strengthening an interpretation of the universe which is deemed to be safe or
beneficial. The latter view holds for all religious activities of the Navajos:
the blessing of a house strengthens a common view on interrelations in the Navajo
universe by pointing to the house's position vis-a-vis mountains, etc., but the
performance of a healing ceremony can be thought of to emphasize a system of
relations for the patient and everybody gathered which is more conventional and
in a sense more conservative than the one previously thought and acted upon by
the patient. It is in this sense, the reference to conservatism, I think, that
the notion of 'restoration' should be understood.
When we would agree on this view of religiosity for the Navajo (again, cfr.
Garrison, 1975, and Witherspoon, 1977), it is time to try and understand why
there is a definite element of atheism in religiosity with the Navajos. Atheism
is not primarily used here in the traditional meaning that refers to a lack of
gods or deities in the eventual performance of religious practices. As pointed
out before (sub. 3) it is highly questionable in what way Navajo tradition should
be understood then. I want to look at it from the perspective Apostel offered
when speaking about 'religious atheism.'
Reiterating, it is clear that Navajos conceive of themselves as part of a
universe of force-inhabited phenomena, where everything has a definite place,
except Navajo people themselves. A particular aspect of the knowledge of people
then is that they should survive and that they can only do so by trying to come
to understand the structure or the order in the universe, and act according to
this understanding. Any such attempt to know or understand involves the risk of
misinterpretations, which result in illness, calamities or death. The latter are
the only definite criteria, and a posteriori ones of course, which could
be depended on. Tradition³including religious traditions³can only be adhered to
'for want of better' since it proved up till that point to serve as a rather safe
guide for acting. The basic fatality of the Navajo view then (cfr. Fabian, 1979,
'fatal logic' in religious systems, is that man is bound to think and act in
order to survive, and that he will thus better or worsen his living conditions.
The means for the confrontation of the task of defining or 'filling in' his own
role in the network of forces,is wisdom or the use of mind and heart capacities.
Now it is clear that religion is basically integrated in this general scheme, and
precisely so in its avenue to 'restoration' or continuation and that it acts as a
particular, conservative, presumably rather safe and non-obstructive 'filling in'
of the definition to some extent. The risk involved with any such traditional
system of thought and action is believed to be less, but it is not absent:
religious practices display or illustrate a commonly shared and collective way of
defining a minimal 'placement' of man in the universe. This is not the true
interpretation, but rather a means to allow speculations from a relatively safe
and minimal common interpretation, complemented with a host of practical recipes
about both herbs and social phenomena. In other words, since man is bound to use
his capacities to go beyond the knowledge he gathered from tradition and to take
risks through further and new interpretations on the order in the universe and
man's place in it; specifically religious activities (recognizable in rituals,
ceremonies, etc..) are part of the scene as a tentative and commonly agreed
'first step' in the endeavor. In this sense it can be understood that myths (also
those sang out in the ceremonies) are considered to be but simple and provisional
tales referring to some aspect of the commonly and institutionally known
recognition of man's 'definition.' In the same way, it can be understood why the
introduction of occasional new ceremonies in the Navajo tradition is feasible
Apostel speaks about atheism as the mentality (in religious or ritualistic
context) to continuously reconsider, demolish and reconstruct the building which
is part or even object of reverence . It is in this sense that I understand
Navajos to be atheists in a sense. Their view on knowledge and on man-the-knower
is such that continuous demolition and reconstruction are a fatal necessity for
survival. Risks are implied but cannot withhold people to go into the endeavor:
they are bound
to it. Specifically religious practices and beliefs can only be considered to be
part of the building, namely that part that is safeguarded more than some others
and that serves to enable renewal of relations on a more conservative, but still
provisional interpretation of the same problem area. The fact that the acts of
demolition and renewal are built in the total perspective in such an unavoidable
way leads me to liken the whole enterprise to the atheism-paradigm as introduced
before. More strongly still, the fact that the Navajo worldview or knowledge
system itself is the actual object of religious practices and beliefs (cfr. eg,
Garrison and Witherspoon, o.c.) strengthens this interpretation of Navajo
religiosity as penetrated with atheistic aspects. Indeed, at the limit the Navajo
is compelled to consider and reconsider the total construction (including
particular religious activities or beliefs) because of this open-endedness of the
'defining process' he is involved in vis-a-vis the unknown 'natural order' he is
One final warning should be added. It appears that the interpretation given of
Navajo religiosity and of its atheistic aspect is bound to result from a rather
specific circumstance here. Indeed, it was only possible to come to this
interpretation through the particular combination of several specific factors in
play: Navajos take their world view as the final object of religious activity
(very broadly speaking), and religion plays a very specific role in this object
as well as in the act of continuing and implementing of this world view.
Moreover, Navajos built into their world view the mechanism of being bound to go
beyond any particular level or form of understanding of their place in the
universal order because of their initial and pervading ill-definability in the
context of this order. Finally, it is only through wisdom (a combination of
meticulous exceptional reasoning and feeling) that 'understanding' can be
reached. All these elements combined and built into the global construct of
'Navajo world view' led me to the interpretation of atheistic aspects in the
religious and indeed general cultural life of Navajos. It is striking to what
degree parallels can be seen with the impact of critical appraisal on the
traditional nineteenth century form of atheism in our part of the world by
scientifically minded people. These parallels cannot be gone into here. A
separate article would be necessary to try and investigate if and to what extent
there would be grounds for serious comparison. I think the Navajo example might
prove to have several highly specific
conditions, one of them being an impossibility to distinguish mystic and ritual
aspects, and another one being a distinct interpretation of rationality or
critique. Nevertheless, I hope to have been able to point to sharp and surprising
points of recognition at least. Moreover, if this analysis would prove to hold I
think its main purpose will have served when westerners would learn to look at
non-westerners with the refreshing attitude of learners. The notion of atheism
would then have gained more force since it would prove to be both universal in
the sense of transcultural and in that of being religious, while the notion of
religiosity would share a quite similar fate.
Upon finishing this paper I came across the beautiful little book of Helene
Clastres (La terre sans mal) where she describes the prophetic rites of the
Tupi-guarani, a South-American tribe. The Tupi case is relevant here, since it
states what may amount to be another example of atheistic religiosity in
non-western societies. They have been described by numerous travelers and
missionaries as a people without the proper, ie, detectable, care for the
religious aspects of life. Yet, upon critical examination, Clastres found that
rites and moral statements of a religious order are fully and consciously
safeguarded by the Tupi and allow for a more or less atheistic ritual and
mythological life . It remains to be investigated in what sense and to what
degree similar types of religious activity could be found in other
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