Sacrifice and Modern Thought
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In the islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans, powerful chiefs or priests usually carried out the grim rites. They dispatched powerless individuals—often slaves—by cutting off their heads, beating them to death, or crushing them with canoes until they died.
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These horrific deeds may have had some unexpected benefits, at least for some members of society. So Watts and his colleagues analyzed 93 traditional Austronesian societies to fill that gap.
About Sacrifice Imagined
Austronesians, who share a common ancestral language, originated in Taiwan and fanned outward across the Indian and Pacific oceans, from Madagascar to Easter Island and as far south as New Zealand. By combing through historical and ethnographic accounts, the researchers identified which cultures practiced human sacrifice prior to contact with modern industrialized nations.
Moderately stratified societies allowed for inherited status, but without pronounced social classes. In highly stratified societies, class differences were strict, social mobility restricted, and stature largely inherited.
Based on linguistic clues, the scientists built family trees showing how the Austronesian cultures likely evolved and how they are related. The family trees allowed them to estimate whether human sacrifice and social stratification arose in the same places, and whether ritualized killings drove changes in class divisions.
The family trees show that human sacrifice and social stratification evolved together. This study, however, highlights another aspect of belief in the divine. By assuming that human behaviors evolved exactly the same way that vocabularies did, the method ignores the possibility that behaviors may have spread between neighboring cultures, Henrich says. That could have happened, for example, when one society conquered another.
The way to verify that association, he adds, would be to analyze a test case—a behavior with a known evolution. If Austronesian culture and language are connected, then the prediction of the family trees should match the historical record.
Still, experts welcome the injection of sophisticated statistical techniques into research on religion and culture. Back Advent Studies. Back Books.
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Sacrifice and Modern Thought email twitter. Sacrifice has always been central to the study of religion yet attempts to understand and assess the concept have usually been controversial. The present book, which is the result of several years of interdisciplinary collaboration, suggests that in many ways the fascination with sacrifice has its roots in modernity itself. Theological developments following the Reformation, the rediscovery of Greek tragedies, and the encounter with the practice of human sacrifice in the Americas triggered a complex and passionate debate in the sixteenth century which has never since abated.
Contributors to this volume, leading experts from theology, anthropology, and literary and cultural studies, describe and discuss how this modern fascination for the topic of sacrifice has evolved, how it has shaped theological debate, the literary imagination, and anthropological theory. Individual chapters discuss in depth major theological trajectories, theories of sacrifice including those of Marcel Mauss and Rene Girard, and current feminist criticism. They engage with sacrifice in the context of religious and philosophical thought, works of literature and film.
They explore different yet overlapping aspects of modernity's obsession with sacrifice.
The book does not intend to impose a single narrative over all these diverse contributions but brings them into a conversation around a common centre.