Friday, 21 June 2013

Part XLIV - Relating to Religion

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Twelve is titled Devout Observances.

This is a much tougher chapter than the last one, in part because I expect some people of faith would be rather insulted by Veblen’s views.  He says he has no intention to ‘commend or to deprecate the practices to be spoken of under the head of devout observances’ but rather to talk about the ‘tangible, external features’ of such observances as they relate to his field of economics.  Neither does he wish to pass any moral judgement on the value of a life of faith or to comment on the truth or beauty of any creed.  

Also, he makes some sweeping generalisations that I’m not sure about.  Not that I mind his generalisations; in many cases they are an interpretation of his dense verbage that I can understand.  It is often through one of these gross generalisations that I can see his concepts exemplified in present time and they make his book seem almost current.  I’m not so sure about some of the examples in this chapter, but we’ll see how that works out.  This is also a chapter in which he seems to tie together many of this theories, not so much in a linear chain as in a mesh, with many ideas connecting to each other:  economics, psychology, sports, religion, class, gambling; all are interwoven.

Veblen seems to lump all religions together.  He makes no differentiation between druids, medicine men, followers of Thor, Catholic priests, Methodist ministers, they all serve under the umbrella of ‘devout observances’ and ‘anthropomorphic cults’.   I think this is how he tries to show that his theories apply across the board.  Veblen says religion is linked with the institution of the leisure class.

He reminds us of his premise in an earlier chapter about how the material standards of the leisure class influence the value we place on things, what we perceive as beautiful or desirable.  We are conditioned to believe that only things rare and expensive are worthwhile.  Another idea previously presented is that psychologically, '…the gambling spirit which pervades the sporting element shades off by insensible gradations into that frame of mind which finds gratification in devout observances.'

The animistic outlook leads to 
“a perceptible inclination to make terms with the preternatural agency by some approved method of approach and conciliation. This element of propitiation and cajoling has much in common with the crasser forms of worship —if not in historical derivation, at least in actual psychological content. It obviously shades off in unbroken continuity into what is recognized as superstitious practice and belief, and so asserts its claim to kinship with the grosser anthropomorphic cults.”

We need to remember that ‘the sporting temperament’ is also  associated with the leisure class, as is leading in devout observances.  

Generalisation:  A betting man is frequently both a naïve believer in luck and also a staunch adherent of some form of accepted creed.  His belief in one makes him more open to the other and so he is ‘possessed of two, or sometimes more than two, distinguishable phases of animism.’  Veblen says this ‘series of successive phases of animistic belief is to be found unbroken in the spiritual furniture of any sporting community.’  

I mentioned last week that many sports celebrities have their talismans and rituals.  A ritual warm up before a race makes a certain amount of sense, mind, just as any set routine requires less thought or effort and can form the basis of a good habit.   Veblen, however, says that the belief in preternatural agency goes along with the ‘instinctive shaping of conduct to conform with the surmised requirements of the lucky chance’.

Now, apparently this sporting temperament is a feature of the ‘delinquent classes’ as well as the leisure class.  We’ve already seen other traits they supposedly share, such as conservatism and fighting.

Another generalisation:  ‘It is also noticeable that unbelieving members of these classes show more of a proclivity to become proselytes to some accredited faith than the average of unbelievers.’  Furthermore, ‘it is somewhat insistently claimed as a meritorious feature of sporting life that the habitual participants in athletic games are in some degree peculiarly given to devout practices.’  This sounds ridiculous, except that I remember growing up going to the YMCA to learn to swim and later hitting the gym at  lunch time at the downtown Y.

I’m going to stop here.  With all the interwoven ideas, it’s hard to find a logical break, but this is where it will happen.  I must admit I had Veblen’s ideas about gambling at the back of my mind when I went to the horse races at Hexham last weekend, my first experience of British racing.  It was a beautiful, if windy, day.  Our friend Terry, from the running club, is a great one for betting on the horses and is part of a syndicate that owns a horse.  His love of horse racing is one of the lynch pins of his retirement and he travels around the country to see his horse run; other weekends he’s running himself.  Terry was well impressed that in spite of not understanding the odds, knowing nothing about horses or their jockies, I won on 4 of the 7 races I bet (£2 a go).  I took home £10 after paying the entry fee, which was a nice surprise.  As little as I believe in ‘luck’, it was hard not to formulate some sort of theory about how to win…  Better to just enjoy the beauty of the horses and of the countryside, the courage of the jockies and the devotion of the stable lads and leave it as a good day out. 


Beryl said...

I used to go to the horse races once a year with my Sherlock Holmes Society, in celebration of the story, Silver Blaze. Did you see how the Queen beamed when her horse won? Even here in Tulsa, the local news showed the clip.

Shelley said...

Beryl - Too funny, I live here in Britain and didn't know a thing about Ascot and the Queen til you commented and I went away and found a Youtube video. I'd no idea there was such a thing as the Sherlock Holmes Society, though I have been to 221B Baker Street in London, a sort of museum decorated as though it were his home. That was fun - much more fun than standing a queue for the waxworks place.