Quetzalcoatl and Whether or Not There Is Such a Thing as “Religion”

September 16, 2006

In the discipline of Religious Studies, there is a theoretical debate concerning the category of “religion” itself. Many people (starting with the great sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim) would say no, there is no a priori component of human existence that we could call religion. We may have behaviors, social structures, beliefs, etc. that fall into the human category of “religion,” but these elements of our lives are not inherently religious. These types of arguments tend to focus on religion’s social, cultural, political, economic, and semiotic functions. Religion is, then, an extremely complicated mechanism to propel important parts of human experience.

Others would disagree. They argue that there is, indeed, something specifically religious in the human. These types of arguments tend to fall into two categories: 1) those who are deeply religious, and find in their own religious experiences something that transcends other categories; and 2) those who make psychological arguments about religion, saying that religious behavior and institutions grow from a unique psychological place that crosses cultures, histories, and subjective experiences. This latter stance was made popular by Joseph Campbell on public television. He was a disciple of an important scholar named Mircea Eliade. Eliade identified what he considered to be common traits that were at the heart of the world’s religions, especially evident in what he called “primitive” religions and cultures.

Now, I generally hold the conviction that there is not something inherently religious about the human. I find that, methodologically for the scholar, this is a more useful paradigm from which to study religion. If you’re not caught up in trying to poke certain behaviors into a religious category, you can ask all kinds of analytical questions about meaning, value, social structure, etc. The problem with the other school that says that religion is sui generis is that once you “prove” that something fits the mold of what you find religion to be, there’s not much more to say.

I recently read a book that most certainly fell into the “religion is something real” school. The author, Enrique Florescano, is a prominent Mexican intellectual and historian. The book, entitled The Myth of Quetzalcoatl, traces the fascinating threads of Mesoamerican religion that, in some way, all weave together around the central figure of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Quetzalcoatl comes to represent creator gods, gods of the winds and air, death and rebirth, and a supposed axis mundi stretching from the nether regions to the heavens. He also gets tied up in indigenous understandings of the invading Spanish. In some accounts, the Nahuas of Tenochtitlan supposedly thought Cortes was Quetzalcoatl come from the east to rejoin them. These same accounts all proceed to point out that the indigenous people were quickly disabused of this notion when Cortes’s men went on a killing rampage.

The book is mostly fascinating. Florescano’s use of sources is masterful, and he lends creedence to the notion that Mesoamerican religion was by no means a fragmented mess of discrete practices but rather a worldview worthy of being considered a world religion (a discussion best kept for another blogpost). But he errs mightily in his final chapters when he compares the myths of Quetzalcoatls with other myths of the western world, specifically that of Isis and Osiris (Egypt) and Tiamat and Marduk (Babylonia). He insists that agricultural societies will all create similar myths, of which Quetzalcoatl is but one example. His explicit claim is that religion is a response to environmental questions the world over. And since many environments are similar, ergo many religions are similar. The problem with this argument is that it is only true until it is not. In other words, it has no way of explaining difference. It simply is not fruitful to try to find the similarities between two religions. The most you can discover, if you’re lucky, is that there really is something called “religion” behind our actions. But then what? Florescano would have been far better served to describe in detail the many differences between the myth of Quetzalcoatl and other myths. Differences tell us something. They illumine the fractures between us, they show us different options for explaining similar phenomena, and they enrich our collective human experience.

6 Responses to “Quetzalcoatl and Whether or Not There Is Such a Thing as “Religion””

  1. Dave Says:

    Ah, very good! Your position on comparative relgion is almost identical with my own — except that I don’t think I could have expressed myself half so well. But yeah. And books like this one you’re describing frustrate me as well, because as you say, what’s the point of generalizations like this? What does one do with them? I want to understand societies from the inside, if possible, through good ethnographies, translations of their literature, and so forth. “Differences tell us something. They illumine the fractures between us, they show us different options for explaining similar phenomena, and they enrich our collective human experience.” Exactly!

  2. Brett Says:

    I’ve been an ordained Presbyterian minister now for only a little over 4 years. For half that time I’ve been in this Religious Studies program thinking about comparative religion (while still serving a congregation). At first I thought I would be able to integrate these two parts of my life fairly seamlessly. But when I find myself writing things like this, I note a sincere distance between scholarly inquiry of religion and the insider’s practice of one. Of course, the insider’s brush with things transcendant is one of the main impulses behind the assumption that all religious experience is ultimately the same. But the pastor in me didn’t believe that in the first place.

    But, Dave, you’re the poet. My question for you would be: Are sublime or ineffable experiences truly similar, or do we all just have the same lack of words for them?

  3. Matthew Says:

    I can’t answer that question, but I like your conclusion. It illumine my frustration at the, “we’re all on different roads to the same place,” line of reasoning. I’m guilty of this myself when I want to downplay the fractures. It’s an impulse to try to reconcile too easily what will not be easily reconciled. It is a facile and insincere peace that we try to impose in order to avoid relying (perhaps) on the One who brings peace.

    But then I’ve just generalized again, haven’t I…

  4. Brett Says:

    Thanks, Matt and Dave, for your comments. Matt, it is tough to remember the importance of difference. But I also wouldn’t say that there aren’t things that draw us together!

  5. Dave Says:

    Are sublime or ineffable experiences truly similar, or do we all just have the same lack of words for them?
    If I ever felt I knew the answer to that one, I’d have little incentive to keep trying to find words! But I think it’s reasonable to assume similarity across a continuum, or rather a spectrum, of differences which does not end with the line between human and non-human.

  6. Brett Says:

    Well, I hope you keep trying! I love reading your stuff.
    The other thing I wanted to tell is you how much I appreciate your personal responses to all the people who respond on your own blog.

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