By William Montgomery Watt
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That is, if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label “religious” are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them. We may label some of their explanations of how the world works “supernatural” and others “naturalistic,” but those are our categories, not theirs. To them it seems fitting to respond to illness by trying to figure out which god caused it, just as to us it seems fitting to look for the germ that caused it.
The Christian tradition alone has generated roomfuls of treatises on this question. But hunter-gatherers do a better job of answering the question than many modern theologians; at least, the hunter-gatherers’ answers are less bedeviled by paradox. Theologians in the Abrahamic lineage —Jewish, Christian, or Islamic—are constrained from the outset by a stiff premise: that reality is governed by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and good God. And why such a god, capable of curing cancer tomorrow, would instead watch innocent people suffer is a conundrum.
Kung would become known as “masters of num,” and only the rarest of these was so gifted as to see the great god Gaona. ” 16 The anthropologist Robert Lowie, after studying the Crow of the North American Plains, wrote that “any tribesman might become a shaman” after going on a “vision quest” and having an apparition signifying his adoption by a particular spirit. ” If their curing spells were followed by cures or their rainmaking rituals by rain, their credibility grew. ” But pity the Crow who, as Lowie recounted, felt inspired by his adoptive spirit to introduce a new effigy into the Sun Dance.