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Chapter 16: Modes of Thought (ETD)

I'm sorry I'm a few minutes late for this morning's lecture. I had to sign a statement at the police station, and then take my car to a garage for minor repairs. I was on my way home last night at the usual time, in broad daylight, when another vehicle crashed into me at the lights. The driver was drunk, of course. He tried to persuade me not to call the authorities, but some neighbour or passing witness must have seen the smash and the police were on the scene within minutes. It was quite routine, as far as they were concerned. The other driver will lose his licence for a while. I lose a lot of time, but at least his insurance company will cover my financial costs.

Now please try to understand this incident from a different world view, say, that of the Trobrianders, who regularly experienced accidents when fishing from their canoes. A Trobriander might be very suspicious about the St. Christopher blessing that my car received a bare 24 hours before this accident. It would be natural to suppose that the village priest was not a good one and had carried out the ritual incorrectly. You might find it natural to argue that this was an accident, a coincidence, but the Trobriander might insist on identifying a cause for the fact that, of all the other cars on the road in Cracow last night, this drunken idiot had to crash into mine. If we accept that the parish priest in my sister's village is in fact a very skilled magician, then suspicion might come to fall on others in our immediate environment, perhaps one of my political opponents on a university committee.

It is of course anachronistic to transplant the world view of an illiterate people living in a remote part of Melanesia into modern Cracow three quarters of a century later, but this example, unfortunate as it is, can help us to recognise the difficulties that anthropologists have in comparing how different peoples explain misfortune


Please make a list of all the terms you know for primitive religious specialists. You might start with shamans, and include magicians, sorcerers, medicine men etc. What do they have in common? Can you think of equivalents in your own societies today? Here is a list of addresses and telephone numbers of all the registered religious communities in Cracow at the moment. Try to make contact with one of these organisations. Enquire into their origins, their beliefs, and also their organisational structure and the composition of their membership.

Ania did not like this assignment, partly because of her lack of confidence in speaking Polish on the telephone. She made up her mind to call in person at the address given for the Mormons, which was conveniently central. Even before she got there, however, she ran into a Hare Krishna group, taking a picnic lunch on a park bench. They were extremely friendly, answered all her questions and gave her a pile of leaflets to read about their movement.

Back at Maria's flat later, Tom reported on the much more difficult time he had had with the Pentecostalist group that he had visited. Wlodek was dismissive. 'I don't understand why anyone pays any attention to these tiny groups. None of them have any place in the religious traditions of this country. Take the Krishnas, for example. They appealed to lots of people under communism just because they were flamboyantly different in those drab times. And the communists allowed them, because they were happy to encourage any religious group that was not Roman Catholic. But the young people who started the Krishnas in Poland are now married and settled down, and I bet most of them are back in the Catholic mainstream. I can't imagine why anyone would join them today.'

'I know some people who have been members from the beginning and I respect their commitment,' countered Marek. 'And whatever you think about the beliefs or the style of worship of any particular group, all religious minorities have a right to get their message across. The European Union, which Poland is trying hard to join, has a binding legal commitment to freedom of religion.'

'The supermarket model again!' Wlodek was heard to mutter.

Marek went on to explain that, from a legal point of view, it was impossible to distinguish Scientologists, or even Satanists, from ordinary Roman Catholics or other Christians. He disapproved of the fact that the Polish government gave 14 churches special recognition as 'historic churches', and that it had signed a special Concordat with the Vatican which gave that church exceptional privileges compared to all other denominations.

Ania found it hard to reconcile Marek's religious tolerance and pluralism with his constant talk of irreducible conflicts between cultures. Tom said that this combination was quite familiar to him in the United States.

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