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Boas' view of prayer is, developmentally, like a child's view of morality: "I won't steal the cookie or the toy, so I won't get punished." It's a transactional view, not yet an internalized one. It's a disbelief in the Great and Holy Mystery, which anthropology cannot see and tries to objectify on the basis of merely what is visible or audible. The invocations. The rituals. Somehow praise and awe and transformation (even transfiguration) do not enter in.

The sad thing is that there are adults who view prayer in the way Boas describes. As if they could control God. And anthropology remains at this transactional level.

Clearly, in every society, there are individuals who are drawn deeply to the Reality of this Holy Mystery which is so far beyond our comprehension and yet so close and personal that we called beyond ourselves or deeper within.

Here is an example of a Man of Prayer and some links to his writing on prayer (where he also makes occasional pertinent comments on the anthropology of religion):

Thank you for this lovely blog, John!


Thanks, Thera, for backing me up here and for the delightful link.

A paradox: the fact that much of what passes for modern and rational in the social sciences attributes immature traits to religion is itself, from the point of view of developmental psychology, an index of psychological immaturity.


Well, Jesus did tell us to become like little children. ;)

And therein lies the paradox.

I think of Pascal and his wise advice that belief may follow practice rather than precede it.

I love a Paradox!

seth sanders

Boas is important but a smidgen out of date; he did have an ethnotypically European 19th/early 20th-c high-handedness.

OTOH his mandate was certainly not to cater to believers' sensitivities. The whole thing brings to mind the classic passage from James' Varieties:

It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. "I am no such thing," it would say; "I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone."


I was just reading Monk's tell-all biography of Wittgenstein. W is quoted from an unpublished letter (I think) as saying that William James - it is important to remember that W thought it useless to read most philosophers - makes for an extraordinarily rich read.

It's true, and, as Charles Taylor has argued at length, I can't help but thinking that William James (1842-1910), unlike Boas (1858-1942), is not out of date at all.

Random Arrow

Hi John (hope I’ve got the correct name!),

My first post here.

I’d like to give you a friendly push back. Not a defense of Boas. Nor a critique of prayer. And really not too much a push. I feel slightly awkward mentioning here that I pray daily in a sustained discipline, and that I also pray with my clients in cases, and I’ve kept a lifelong field-journal differentiating these prayers (and especially differentiating prayer agreements) with clients from counseling, legal, and alternative dispute resolution practices. This is not a hobby. I need to keep separate registers for the spiritual versus the professional advice that I’ve given. Even when these registers merge. I’ve also worked collaboratively with a few medical doctors who (like me) do pro-bono and poverty based care. And who together with me pray with patients. I’m equally at home with liberal Quakers and charismatic/Pentecostal Vineyards. I’d characterize Eliade’s enclyopedism of religious experience (his non-parametric methods need correction) as more adequate than both Joseph Campbell (archetypes) and William James (but I love James) for tracting and metricizing religious experience. Including prayer. Just my bias. Throat clearing.

Point is that if anyone has huge reasons to take issue with Boas, it’s someone like me.

But I don’t.

I think Boas was more correct than incorrect in featuring the manipulative aspects of prayer. Please hear me as a clinician who prays with my clients. But also as one who maintains private and daily devotional prayer too. With clients, I hear these kinds of manipulative prayers routinely. Please index my comments accordingly. And please discount for the kinds of pressures involved in my narrow spectra of work. Point is: I don’t fault Boas for featuring this. I would fault him if he did not. Sure, there’s more to prayer. But that’s not the point. Boas is utterly responsible for noticing the manipulative features of prayer. Sensible. Sane. On the more to prayer (outside my narrow praxis) please note again my love of the immiscibly broad-spectrum encyclopedism of Eliade.

So what?

I’m currently musing for my own sake on this question. I’m musing now from the perspective of a clinician with a few years of practice. With some distance from the academy. Things look different now. And should.

Specifically, I’m musing (no settled position!) on why even morphometric accounts of language-origins still maintain robust admissions that the rational and mystical features of language are both phylogenetic and functionally-operationally confused. Though the rational and mystical features of language become separable in the development of mathematics (yes, I know there are mystical and musical valences to mathematics too). Back to morphometrics: there is an admitted sort of n-space (say unlimited in all directions) confusion between mystical and rational in language. The confusion is just there. The confusion is just the way it is (do I sound like Bohr?). I’m not pomo. Nor a lit/critter.

My heart is with the science. Principally, biology/ethology. With language as a behavior. Boas did not do half-bad. But I know from my training and my work in law – that language can be (not always is - can be) a colloidal mass of confused rational (manipulative in part) and immiscible mystical (still equally manipulative in potential) confusion. I’d take a little issue with you and your accounts of native aboriginal prayer. But I’m fearful of breaking confidences. At any rate, I pray. I pray with clients. And my clients include Native Americans. And I listen in prayer. And listen with them in prayer. Please know. I think I need to stop there.

John, I’d really love your further opinion on this. Just playing. If it’s interesting. Nothing adversarial here. And know I’m far out of my depth in your special interests. Though I’ve done post-grad study into the intersections in religion, biology, and judgment theory and praxis. I just don’t know your stuff. Over my head. But I’d love your opinion.

Specifically, please see – for slightly more background (easy and fast reading) on morphometrics, @:

“In The Beginning ~ of Writing ~ Pre-Writing, Mystical and Rational ~ Morphometrics,”

If this interests you, I’ll look back here (not on my blog) for response - unless you email me as indicated on my blog. Otherwise, I’ll just look here.




Hi Jim,

I appreciate the interdisciplinary focus you bring to the table. The idea of metricizing religious experience strikes me as unpromising unless one finds a way to the metricize the (ex hypothesi) non-subsistence (or subsistence!) of the power to which one prays.

We agree that language can be manipulative and that prayer can be manipulative. What I don't understand is how you decide that a given prayer is about power rather than influence. On this distinction, I direct you to John Gottman's research on interactions within marriage. Gateway posts:

Perhaps you didn't mean to imply it but it sounds like you are willing to credit the notion that Native American prayer tends to function as an app by which to control the environment. Or perhaps you mean to say that all prayer tends to have that function.

I can't quite tell. In any case, the difference between good and bad prayer is a typical religious topic - a topic in the Bible as well.

You do leave me wondering how and whether you distinguish between good and bad prayer, both as a person who prays himself, and as an analyst of prayer.

Random Arrow


Great responses. Too good, in fact.

John - “The idea of metricizing religious experience strikes me as unpromising unless one finds a way to the metricize the (ex hypothesi) non-subsistence (or subsistence!) of the power to which one prays.”

Talk about cutting to the chase. That was so fast it is scary.

John, I’ve already seen what happened to the One who metricized the full measure of God’s suffering for the world, that is, Jesus and how Jesus’s reception of the – full measure – broke his heart and ended in death on a Cross. Let’s hope for Resurrection after we’ve lain dead for three days. A part-measured suffering adding to the full-measured sufferings of Jesus, that is, the part-measured sufferings of the Waldensians (part-measured: because they did not all die) completing in their own bodies the full-measured sufferings of Jesus.

But, your question to me about measuring God does appeal to my robust narcissism. So, yes. Yes, I make the Faustian deal just about every time I – measure. I’m thankful that my narcissism is met in response by the laughter of God (God laughs at the wicked). Laughter as a form of mercy. Because my measurements of God usually end up making me look like Jim Carrey, “Bruce Almighty,” that is, I’m not able to measure nor take care to make good responses to the few prayers in my own local neighborhood. I hope God keeps laughing at my narcissism. And cutting it away – measure by measure. Circumcisions of the heart. Which means that I’m the one who is tried in the balances – and measured. After all.

Which goes to your question about how I analyze good from the not-good prayers?

Ouch. Well, I’m tempted by the transcendental temptation (Kurtz) to play the fool of Bruce Almighty and just answer, “yes,” to – all – my Yahweh emails of incoming prayer requests. Not that I’m really prescient enough to see all the catastrophes that would happen if God did answer all these incoming prayers in the affirmative. But I feel the transcendental temptation to pretend I know the answers. If you know what I mean.

A limited answer to your killer (literally, killer) hard question about evaluations of prayer and how metricizing fits in –

I consider mathematics a form of mercy from God. I’m not neo-Platonist here. Not thinking that the cosmos is metric or tractable. I’m with Eugene Wigner on the “Unreasonable” effectiveness of maths. Another matter. Another time. Back to the point. Math is mercy for me because (like any mathematician), I can isolate on just one variable at a time. In prayer. The isolation on just one variable alone is a form of mercy. Compared to the death Jesus suffered on the Cross in unmeasured heartbreak. So I can isolate on just one small chunk of human suffering. Mine. My clients in cases. And like a mathematician isolating on a single variable inside the gates of hell on earth, I pray to enter those gates of hell. And take them out. One variable at a time. Mathematics is mercy to me. One variable – say one restraining order at a time – for a battered woman. Sufficient is the Grace. Which means I do need to know the measure (“metron,” Romans 12) of grace that I’ve been give. Case by case.

May I please have a bye on answering your questions about Native Americans? Please? I’m searching my brain for a neutral example from some other domain outside of my cases, so I won’t violate confidence, if that’s okay?

John, killer questions. I came here for love. And some warm-fuzzy poetics! And ended up dying!

Wipe that grin off your face. I know when the Holy Spirit has ganged up with a Waldensian in a holy covenant against me – to ask me unanswerable questions! To kill me!




Have you read Rudy Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear?

I don't recommend it because it gives the reader access to "unencumbered native voices." I recommend it because it seeks to render native voices in an illuminating way.

Random Arrow


For a cool pic to go along: a little Blake for a lit/critter!

“Mathematics as Mercy from God ~ Identifying the Gates of Hell ~ Measuring Them ~ Taking Them Out ~ Maths as Mercy”



Random Arrow

JohnFH, I'll check it out! Thank you ... Jim

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