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Scrupulosity and religion: another perspective

December 10, 2015

I haven’t been around in ages, but this topic seemed to fit a lot better over here. And, unlike some other places? Anybody who decides to “give offense” in comments here has fair moderation warning.

This is a long-winded mess, even by the usual standards. But, I did indeed end up distracting myself some with the some of the influences on my own personal mess of OCD scrupulosity. Which I didn’t even recognize as such until the past few years, as different as some of it ends up looking from what usually gets talked about.

As I mentioned, I had also tended to assume that it looked different, in part, because none of it was overtly religious in nature. But, now I am really not so sure about that. It’s hard to separate that out from some cultural influences in general.

I couldn’t help but think of some observations in a paper from Robert K. Thomas, an anthropologist who grew up in a Cherokee speaking home. Some of his writing has come up before here, yeah. It was written in I think 1959, and some of the language used shows it. The other disclaimers from when I posted it before also apply (through the link below).

But, he made some extremely good points in this paper that I hadn’t considered in exactly those terms, around religion in particular. I had actually meant to talk a little about that in a more general context at some point, but I guess this is as good a time as any, while I seem to have the spoons available.

“CHEROKEE VALUES AND WORLD VIEW” BY ROBERT K. THOMAS ›

Quoting more than I had intended, starting with a bit of relevant background info. Given how unfamiliar most readers will be.

Any authority given to one individual to wield over another is immoral according to Cherokee standards. This would be real interference and “giving offense.” [more on that later -U.] In the old aboriginal structures and institutions lack of hierarchy is apparent in the structure themselves. Cherokees have taken over institutions from white culture which, in their form, imply authority. However, they do not work this way in a Cherokee context. The various offices become only positions in their institutions and imply nothing more…

To say “He knows a lot,” is a compliment in Cherokee. Knowledge is almost a commodity and one can be called stingy with “what one knows”… So a man becomes more knowledgeable by experimentation and a kind of “rational” thinking, a very different process from acquiring power…I am not going to belabor this point, but I think one can understand better Cherokee’s reaction to whites and the whole course of recent Cherokee history if one remembers what a “pragmatic,” “rational,” seeking-after-knowledge view of life Cherokees hold.

Then we get to the part that practically had me rolling in the floor when I first read it, because I recognized myself and so many people I know in these observations. When I say a lot of my family is nominally Christian (mostly Methodist or Disciples of Christ), and more than a few of them would strongly object to that characterization? This is exactly what I’m talking about.

He was talking specifically about Oklahoma Cherokee, but so much of the same stuff applies to other people from related cultures. (And also to 16th century Northern Iroquoian people, going by some of Barbara Mann’s observations based on old accounts.) AFAICT more of my family started out Tutelo, but it still applies well.

What really bothers me methodologically is that Cherokees sound so much like other American Indians. You could, almost, substitute the word Cherokee for much of the material present on Navajo values or Chippewa, and so on, around the country. We haven’t the terms to really describe this behavior and thus differentiate, except at a gross level…

The author also made that observation, so yeah.

Cherokees have no real conception of sin although they have been Baptists for over one hundred years. Actions are judged not in relation to the inner man’s relation to some strict prohibition but as to whether his action disrupts the harmony of the group or not. For instance, old Cherokees will say, “Drinking is bad” or in English, “Drinking is a sin.” But, if you pin them down to a case, they will say a man is doing right or wrong in relation to how his action affects the group harmony. A man who drinks and who does not “bother” anyone is not doing wrong. Drinking is wrong, on an abstract level, because usually this is when Cherokees become aggressive. But judgments are made situationally…

Let me just say a word about how Baptist Christianity has affected this philosophy. Cherokee have assumed the basic nature of the universe and interpreted Christianity in this light. What has happened is that Jesus’ moral code has bolstered the old Cherokee values, and, in fact, they have become one and the same thing. But Protestants have failed to put across Protestantism as such because Christianity is presented to another people on too high a level of assumption and as bits of dogma. Cherokees know little about whites and, probably, could not see the connection between the white man’s nature (covert culture) and Protestantism even if they understood the whites. Even some parts of Protestant dogma which Cherokees have understood they have ignored. Consider the Cherokee view of sex relations. They have responded to those things such as Jesus’ morality which makes sense in terms of old Cherokee ideas; have ignored other parts of dogma which did not, except in terms of lip service, and have not even understood that there was a whole different idea of the nature of man and the universe involved in Protestantism. Really to make Cherokees into Baptists you would, in fact, have to remake the individual Cherokee and his whole community.

(Not that some people haven’t been trying for a long time, as witnessed by Daniel Heath Justice on Queer Indians and the Cherokee Nation. Which would seem to demonstrates a rather distressing level of success in at least some respects, at least among the people who even want to run things in Oklahoma since the 1950s when Thomas made these observations. But, I am not necessarily going to assume that the people who want to be in positions of power to where they can meddle are really representative.)

Which kind of leads into something else:

Notes supplied by John Gulick after personal communication with the author.

…2. Although the major Cherokee sanction is withdrawal resulting in the social isolation of the offender, the ideal Cherokee interpersonal behavior involves non-interference and leaving other people along [sic]. In the white world-view, the Cherokee ideal itself seems to be a species of social isolation, and therefore the relation between Cherokee sanction and ideal seems paradoxical. Why should the sanction be effective among people who appear to be “rugged individualists” of the Daniel Boone sort?

The answer appears to be that the Cherokee is not a “rugged individualist.” The non-interference ideal does not imply a desire to be socially isolated. Quite the contrary. It is, rather, an orientation to desired relationships in which “sociability” is desired but without assertiveness or aggressiveness.

3. Most specifically, the doctrine of Original Sin, and its implications for human nature, is entirely foreign to Cherokee thinking.

I mostly left that first (#2) observation in, as it relates to how representative the folks who want to be in a position to say who can or cannot even get married, may or may not be. But, I made some other observations on the “without assertiveness” assumption (and non-interference in general) not that long ago, at the very end. That was where the “Strange Exotic Culture” in question referred to umbrella Appalachian culture. But, yeah, there’s not always much distinction for some of us.

I did like how Thomas worked around that at the beginning of this paper. But, he was also approaching it more from the inside.

For instance, you will note that I used the term “offense” rather than “aggression” which has psychological ramifications. “Offense,” to my mind, can be used purely in terms of behavior and ideals without getting into the inner man…But what is “giving offense” in Cherokee terms? It is any situation in which the autonomy of the individual is interfere with. These situations, behavior-wise, would range from areas of over-zealous joking or unsolicited advice to open hostility.

That would seem to cover it a lot better, with fewer assumptions built in, than “aggression”/“assertiveness”.

But, indeed, that good old “low tolerance for paternalistic or prescriptive behavior patterns” (*snerk*) applies very much to how some people insist on using their religious ideas on the people around them. And hierarchical setups with that. The assorted Pentecostals and other fundamentalist types may have some ideas that are goofy as fuck in my estimation, but they are at least fairly egalitarian and don’t go around bugging other people that much.

They’re also thankfully AFAICT still much more popular among the folks back home who feel a need to ride in the rigging of the church, so to speak, than the way more interfering Evangelical movement. I really don’t have much exposure to the more authoritarian approaches there, and continue to be surprised at what some people get up to with that. And think they’re doing right with it😐 Some very different base assumptions, yes.

And I never really got some of the ideas that other people continue to hurt themselves with pushed at me.

I really don’t give a rat’s ass what other people are thinking, as long as they’re behaving decently and not harming anyone else. Their beliefs are none of my business; their actions are a different matter. As Thomas put it elsewhere:

Even the whites I knew in those days who were sympathetic had a basic misunderstanding of our religion. They were always asking “What do the Indians believe in? Do you have one God? Do you believe in Heaven?” I didn’t know how to explain to them that these are not the important features of the old Cherokee faith; that if you took a poll of Nighthawks you would find a lot of differences in belief; and that most questions of belief are not considered important enough to talk about much. I could see that they saw all religions basically as different belief systems, outside of the person; that one chose voluntarily as one whole consistent thing; and then pledged allegiance to it.

He was coming from a family that never even surface converted, which was the Nighthawks reference there. But, people seem to have mostly carried that basic approach over into their own versions of Christianity. I have also found it confusing when people will speak in the “belief”-heavy terms he mentions.

There’s more rambling along similar lines on this blog. My thinking there has unsurprisingly continued to develop, but the 2012 posts in that tag are still mostly relevant. I also keep finding more words to wrap around the same basic ideas.

Soon up: More rambling to tie this in to what got me going in the first place! Our old friend scrupulosity.

I had a hard time figuring out where to work this in, responding to the first set of Thomas’ observations that I quoted at way more length than I had ever intended. But, as an indication, I personally had no clue that anybody meant anything different by “sin” until after I was in college and read more comparative religions stuff. And it still hurts my brain, on most levels. Missionaries got really frustrated trying to get their ideas about sin across in the Eastern Woodlands in general, and I’m not sure how much of it ever sunk in, in a lot of cases. I was amazed to find out what most of Christianity means by that, if it’s not basically “harmful behavior”. Not even kidding here.

I also wasn’t really aware that monotheism was a thing distinct from some flavor(s) of pan(en)theism. Neither are/were most of my relatives, AFAICT, including the atheists. Frankly, learning more helped me figure out that monotheistic religions were not necessarily my cup of tea. I just couldn’t ignore that “whole different idea of the nature of man and the universe” package, and just keep on going thinking I was basically Christian by default. Sometimes things would probably be easier if that had worked for me.

But, to try to work back around to the point I started out with? My own personal scrupulosity bullshit did indeed have some very different religious/moral foundations to grab onto. And pretty much all of what it did seize on in the Make A Good Person Kit was stuff about not hurting or disappointing other people.

Some of my relatives went the same ways with it, and can get pretty terrible at themselves too. Which is better in a way than driving the people around them bonkers with it, but also…that kinda works against the whole “[h]armonious relations are the norm–the minimum” theme. When that’s already not the situation inside your own head, going into other situations and interacting with other people/the world around you in general. Your own state of mind matters there too. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.

There is also this, quoting again from the original paper:

This system gives very little tangible reward to the individual for being a “good Cherokee.” Harmonious relations are the norm–the minimum–rather than some goal to be reached. And violations of this ethic are punished by the above sanctions which, though diffuse, are severe to one raised to be sensitive to others. To achieve rewards in this system one must be a “super Cherokee” in all of these respects–almost an unobtainable goal for the average human being. And the rewards are once again very diffuse–being held in esteem by other Cherokees. One almost has to be a Christ-like figure to be held “beloved” by the Cherokees.

He got pretty scathing there, as someone who was raised that way too. But, I can’t say it’s wrong. Not a lot of cookies handed out, and it can be hard to tell when you’re doing it right. People aren’t actively avoiding you, or you don’t think they are? Maybe you’re doing it right. Maybe. Can you really know, though? You probably need to try harder.

That ’“pragmatic,” “rational,” seeking-after-knowledge view of life’ can also turn not so beneficial if you’re already prone to overthinking certain things. In an unbalanced way.

And, that stuff is about as easy to get twisted around as the Don’t Hurt/Disappoint God stuff a lot of other people have been exposed to through more “pure” versions of certain monotheistic theological approaches.

Especially if you’re dealing with some people who have an investment in thinking you’re causing problems which are really not on you. That can mess with your head, especially if you are already prone to scrupulosity.

Another instance of how this basic philosophy works in all aspects of life is that Cherokees look around to find out what persons involved in a bad situation caused the bad situation. As I said in a paper before, if you believe that your good fortune depends on your harmonious relations with other people, then you find the person who caused your bad luck.

Another exaggerated version, but yeah. That kind of approach can work out in a balanced way that’s good for everyone involved. Or, it really really can NOT. Depending on what the people involved are bringing into the situation. Very much like what I had to say recently about multigenerational/extended family living situations. Closely related subjects, yes. (Ha.)

Like with about anything else, this whole philosophical bundle can get used in various ways. Some of them more helpful than others.

But, in any case? There are some significant differences in base assumptions about How Things Work and How To Human, depending on the culture you’re looking at.

And, when it comes to how mental health issues are liable to look and best be managed in a person’s life? That really, really matters. A lot. If you don’t take those factors into account, you’re just not going to understand anything too well. And you may do way more harm than good.

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