Do shamans have more sex? Why New Age spirituality is no more pure than old-time religion.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 29 2009 1:59 PM

Do Shamans Have More Sex?

New Age spirituality is no more pure than old-time religion.

Wouldn't it be great to be back in hunter-gatherer days? Back before the human spiritual quest had been corrupted by the "relentless onslaught of Western scientific materialism" and "dogmatic male-dominated religion"? Back when there were shamans—spiritual leaders—who could plug us into "the realm of the magical," show us "the reality behind apparent reality," and thus lead us to understand "how the universe really works"?

The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles. You see traces of it even in such serious scholars as Karen Armstrong, who wrote in A History of God that early Abrahamic religion had created a gulf "between humanity and the divine, rupturing the holistic vision of paganism."

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Advertisement

As the author of the just-published book The Evolution of God, about the history of religion, I'm primed to do some debunking. But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it's great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don't doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a "holistic vision" who selflessly sought to share that vision.

What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more sense than the average religion of today. 

Of course, there's no way to resurrect long-dead cultures to find out, and there is by definition no such thing as a written record of prehistoric societies. But we have the next best thing: accounts from anthropologists who visited hunter-gatherer societies before they had been corrupted by much contact with modernity. These anthropologists observed shamans doing what shamans do: prophesying, curing people, improving the weather, casting spells, casting out evil spirits, etc. And the anthropological record suggests the following about the age of shamanism.

1) There was a lot of fakery. Eskimo shamans have been seen spewing blood upon contact with a ceremonial harpoon, wowing audiences unaware of the animal bladder full of blood beneath their clothing. The sleight of hand by which shamans "suck" a malignant object out of a sick patient and then dramatically display it works so well that anthropologists have observed this trick in Tasmania, North America, and lands in between. Other examples abound.

2) Shamans—lots of them—were in it partly for the money. In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America),  or slaves (the Haida of western Canada). In California, if a Nomlaki shaman said, "These beads are pretty rough," it meant that he would need more beads if he was to cure anything that day.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Amazon Is Launching a Serious Run at Apple and Samsung

Television

Slim Pickings at the Network TV Bazaar

Three talented actresses in three terrible shows.

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Jurisprudence
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?