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Religion as Ecological framework

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An intriguing aspect of Rappaport's work is his argument that religion is best understood within an ecological framework, as an adaptive characteristic of the human species. Do you find this position convincing?


Alexandra Gagne

Rappaport makes an interesting argument with regards to religion and ecosystems stating, "the operation of ritual among the Tsembaga and other Maring helps to maintain an undegraded environment..." (p.308). His idea seems to be that these religious rituals serve a functional purpose. Such purposes are greatly ecological.


His study of the Tsembaga people is highly influenced by biology. I think it is important to note that Rappaport tends to regard people as just another animal- he does not try to differentiate us from other species that have been studied. Therefore, his outlook on culture is bound to be rooted in ideas of subsistence practices. In particular, the kaiko practice helps to regulate relationships between neighbooring groups in terms of land. The planting of "rumbim," establishment of new or old boundaries, and the slaughter of pigs are all part of this cyclical ritual.


Rappaport's argument is interesting, and I do buy into it to some extent; however, I can not seem to get past the lack of structured and extended fieldwork. Having not witnessed one full cycle, I can not whole heartedly believe that what he noted is substential enough to build the argument that religion is an adaptation to the environment.

I think it is plausible (I am even inclined to think that it is likely) that religion is just man's answer to dealing with his environment, but I believe that Rappaport ignores other factors. While I like his argument, he does not really touch on the unifying properties that such rituals have. While he says that they create peace, he also observes that the allow for war. Somehow, his theory about this ecological framework seems limited, therefore I do not find myself convinced by this article.


Mark Smith

Rappaport's argument has its pros and cons. Rappaport presumably ignores history, except for a small paragraph describing the Tsembaga's past. Rappaport instead focuses the majority of his attention on a materialist, science based ecological framework.


Rappaport's statistics and calculations are impressive for anthropological fieldwork. He works hard to emphasize the amount of calories yielded from produce as compared to the amount of calories used in maintaining crops. While this is indeed interesting and valid, it is only one aspect of the culture.


In reference to the cyclical ritual of pig slaughter, Rappaport does not explain why the Tsembaga do not just go ahead and kill pigs as needed when the population gets out of hand. Instead it is made into a complex ritual--that cycles. I am somewhat unsure of the extent to which this ritual is cyclical considering that Rappaport did not stay long enough to make it through a complete cycle.


Granted, ecology and the environment do play a key role in shaping culture, yet this is only one aspect. I believe that it is possible for the ritual to follow cultural patterns free from ecological influence. It just so happens that the environment is used in the cyclical rituals. This does not necessarily mean that the ritual should or has to be attributed to an ecological framework, though. An argument could me made that the ritual revolves around the usage of the environment, but then again an argument can be made that environment shaping is an epiphenomal cultural by-product of distinct ritual traditions and patterns. Here, I think history plays a key role. We need to know more about the Tsembaga past before we can even hypothesize the significance of the cyclical ritual.




I agree with Mark that environment is one aspect and history is also needed to understand the ritual better and more accurate. I think in most of the religion, history is important and history is what tells us the importance and the meaning of the rituals, customs, rules, taboos etc. For example, Easter is a Christian celebration of Jesus rising from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. If we didn’t know the history of what happened to Jesus, the importance of celebrating Easter would be unknown and lost. (Indeed in some places the importance is already lost but in many Latin American they still celebrate it religiously). Hence, I wouldn’t say that environmental framework can best explain the religion.


Tyson Johnson

I find Rappaport's position that religion is best understood as an adaptive characteristic of the human species interesting, but I do not find it convincing. Religion is a highly subjective and variable element of culture. It is difficult to pinpoint the factors that affect the development and evolution of a religion. However, there is a distinct human element in the creation of religion that removes it from an ecological framework. For example, it would be difficult to explain religions that have one central prophet or figure in terms of ecological adaptation. In order to explain the Christianity one must reference Jesus Christ, the teachings of Muhammad form the cornerstone of Islam, and a discussion of the origins of Buddhism would have to include the name of Siddhartha Gautama.


Religion often serves some functional purpose in society. The food taboos and prescriptions for hygiene that exist in many world religions have been effective in the prevention of the spread of disease. However, the functional purpose of a religious system does not form the entirety of its foundation and it does not negate its cultural significance. Furthermore, the ecological adaptive aspects of many religions take hold only after the religion has been instituted. Religion may serve as a medium of communication in order to teach adherents how to successfully interact with their environment, but it can only do so once it has been established.


The ritualistic religion of the Tsembaga fits into Rappaport's argument due to its connections with daily life and the environment. The links between diet and ritual seem to lend credence to the adaptive function of religion. He may have been correct in saying that their territory was a "ritually regulated ecosystem" and their society was a "ritually regulated population." However, he paid only minor attention to the elements of the Tsembaga religious system that existed outside the consumption of food. Given this partial explanation of the Tsembaga religious system, it seems premature to depict it as an ecological adaptation.


Alexandra Gagne: Response

I agree with Tyson, that contextualizing a religion is essential. Without a historical element, religion is meaningless. I think that Rappaport's ecological frame is a good one, but I agree that is secondary. The environment helps to create certain rituals, but religion is based off of ideals which materialize in these rituals. That is to say that I can't see how caloric intake is a determining factor of religion. Rappaport's theories may have been more convincing if he had used this frame in addition to others.


Heddy Waters


While thinking about Rappaport’s argument, I am constantly reminded of Julian Steward.  To me, it seems that Rappaport is adopting a very cultural ecological stance on religion. In arguing for a cultural ecological approach to religion, Rappaport seems to focus on the subsistence activities and other aspects of the ‘cultural core’ and how this relates to religion.  It seems quite logical that ecology would have an effect on a religion; be it the type of animals that can be sacrificed or the type of deities most readily found (i.e. water, land, savanna deities, etc.).  I do believe that this is a very convincing argument, but, as stated above by Mark and E, it lacks a consideration of historical circumstances, and thus cannot be so simply explained.



Ojaswi Kafle


I do not necessarily think that religion is BEST understood within an ecological framework, as an adaptive characteristic of the human species. I think in order to answer this question, we have to define what exactly is the adaptive characteristic of the human species. Are we talking about surviving physically in a sustainable manner, or are can we also look at the mental and psychological aspect of being a human being as an adaptive characteristic? For example, we could look at how the idea of god, which is religious, helps people deal with the unknown, or how people adapt to the unknowns of life. If we are to include this latter adaptation, the mental one, then we might want to leave more room to understand religion than just looking at it within an ecological framework. Although I think all aspect of religion can be explained from an ecological framework, I am not sure if this framework is always the best one.


Nonetheless, I think it is crucial to see how the ecological circumstance plays a part in creating and perpetuating certain religious beliefs because people’s relationship with their ecological surroundings is clearly very important in determining how they live and if they will survive. Having read Marvin Harris’s Of Cannibals and Kings, I see how in every religion, the religious taboos placed on eating is influenced greatly, if not caused by the ecological circumstance presented to the group of people. For example, the prohibition on eating cow came from their important role of producing oxen offspring, which were needed to plow the field in agricultural India, but were too costly to be raised for food.  


In Rappaport’s paper, one can see how the religious rituals deal with the ecological situation presented to the Tsembaga people. Because, as Alexandra writes, Rappaport views humans as another component of the biological world, he illustrates how humans, like other biological beings, handle the issue of food availability and niche. Perhaps because humans are capable of thinking beyond the need of immediate survival and use their brain for more complex thinking, religion helps to deal with the uncertainty of the ecological situation they are faced with. In conclusion, I think a lot about religion can be understood within an ecological context, but I think we must also look at the relationship between religion and the mental and psychological aspects of being a human.


Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 9:57 pm on Apr 8, 2008

I agree with Mark and Alexandra. After reading Rappaports ethnography, “Pigs for Ancestors” and this excerpt in particular I felt that pieces of Rappaport’s analysis on Tsembaga culture are flawed. In this article in particular I felt that Rappaport omitted a lot of historical background on the Tsembaba. That omission leaves a lot to the imagination about what Tsembaga lives were like in the past. Maybe their cyclical rituals are newer or were brought about by something from their past. Without that background we cannot assume that religion and ritual are as tightly intertwined with ecology.

I’ll bring this up tomorrow in class, but I also agree with both comments about the fact that Rappaport did not spend a full cycle with the Tsembaga. The fact that he did not spend an entire cycle with the Tsembaga means that he had to make a lot of assumptions about why things happened in the small time frame of his stay. His study was in a lot of ways incomplete.

I do however find his mathematical approach intriguing. The idea of culture being a means towards creating an equilibrium between humans and the environment is interesting. That relationship between “organism” and environment can only best be seen in cultures like that of the Tsembaga because they live so in tune with nature itself. I’m not sure if his theory on religion and its tie to ecology would hold up in more urban areas however.

-Amber Buck

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