What happens when inequality grows? Ecstatic religion flowers.

Connor Wood

Laying on of Hands
Source: US Government. This image has no copyright restrictions.

I have a new article up today at On Faith, on the intriguing possibility that, as the economic grows more and more steeply stratified, we might start seeing a flowering of ecstatic religious movements. Examples of ecstatic religions are Haitian Vodou, Christian Pentecostalism, or Brazilian Candomblé. Such religions feature intense physical participation, music, and – often – spirits or the Holy Spirit entering people’s bodies from the outside. My argument is based on decades-old research by social scientists such as Erika Bourguignon and I.M. Lewis, who have pointed out that ecstatic, music-driven religions and spirit possession movements are often found in rigidly hierarchical cultures, where many people are stuck permanently in the lower ranks of society – cultures such as the one the United States is becoming.

From the article:

In the 1970s, the respected anthropologist Erika Bourguignon conducted an ambitious study of more than 450 different cultures from around the world. After completing a statistical analysis, she concluded that spirit possession was significantly more common in complex, hierarchical cultures where institutionalized inequality was pervasive, but was relatively rare among simpler, more egalitarian societies.

But why would spirits prefer stratified societies over egalitarian ones? One answer, advocated by I.M. Lewis, is that spirit possession gives impoverished and powerless people an avenue for expressing their frustrations — for “getting it out of their system.”

When we humans are stuck at the bottom of a social hierarchy, we do not react well. For instance, research has found that simply having a low occupational position in a work organization predicts depression and worse longevity outcomes, include cardiac illness – completely independently of health status and income. This means that a job that pays $30,000 a year but offers personal autonomy and decision-making responsibilities might very well be physically healthier than a job paying $40,000 where you do nothing but take orders all day. So it’s not just our minds that find chronic social subordination stressful – our bodies do, too.

But while social subordination can occur independent of income and wealth, in reality they’re usually connected. As is increasingly becoming the case, people lacking money in our society also lack power. The lower down the income scale you are, the fewer situations you encounter each day in which you are in control. For many people stuck on the bottom rungs of our economic ladder, life is a long series of situations and interactions in which other people have all the agency, all the power, and they have none. It’s difficult to overstate the negative impact this has on the human body and mind. Chronic social subordination is literally pathogenic.

…Which might explain the worldwide connection between ecstatic religion and unequal societies. Ecstatic religions – where you dance, sing, stomp, go into trances, and maybe get possessed by spiritual beings – are deeply embodied practices, far removed from the staid Protestantism of, say, a sedate New England church. Many scholars have suggested that these embodied, ecstatic practices are physically and emotionally cathartic. This might make them ideal “outlets” for venting the frustrations of living in a permanent low-status role. Possession by spirits can also provide a feeling of power to the powerless:

…when a person is possessed by a spirit (or by the Holy Spirit), he or she experiences a sense of agency that is otherwise unavailable to the powerless. The spirits have power — they can change things, influence people, heal the sick. It’s hard to do these things when you’re at the bottom of the pecking order in a stratified, hierarchical society.

So will ecstatic religious movements start booming as social inequality and a rigid, wealth-based hierarchy truly sets in to American society? It’s impossible to tell. But I wouldn’t be surprised.

Read the whole article here.


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