Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. New York: Dell Publishing, 1970. 

Reviewed by John Bedell

In 1890 the Indians of the American plains were in desperate straits. The buffalo were dead, their soldiers had been defeated, and they had been confined to reservations on land no one wanted. The US government promised them food, seed, and tools, but nothing was delivered. They were dying of starvation, disease, and despair. Then a prophet appeared. A Paiute man named Wovoka preached that if the Indians abandoned the drinking of liquor, did no harm to any person, and danced in a way he taught them, the world would be convulsed by a great cataclysm. The whites would disappear and the Indians would dwell in a paradise on earth. The buffalo would come back, and the dead Indians would return to life, forever. The “Ghost Dance,” as it was called, spread rapidly all across the plains, and thousands of Indians dropped everything else to dance Wovoka’s dances and await the renewal of the world.

In 1919, on the opposite side of the world, the British protectorate in New Guinea was convulsed by another religious movement, dubbed by white observers the Vailala Madness. In the local dialect it was called iki kave, “belly-don’t-know;” in pidgin, “head-he-go-round” or “all-a-same-whiskey.” Cult members were regularly overcome by violent, convulsive, movements, accompanied by eye-rolling and moaning. These motions spread rapidly across the whole district. It seems that at first their meaning was mysterious, but within a few months the ideology of a classic “cargo cult” had grown up around them. The “head-he-go-round men” taught that soon an immense steamer would arrive from the land of the ancestors loaded with axes, knives, tobacco, calico, and food; in some versions the ship was also bringing rifles that would be used to drive the white men out of New Guinea. The cult incorporated a melange of native and European elements. A cult shrine was called “The Office” (in English), traditional dancing was discouraged and the old masks burned, but on the other hand the main ritual was a funeral feast for the dead that closely followed traditional native forms.

Anthropologists used to call these new religions “crisis cults,” because they arise in times of great crisis, or “acculturation cults,” because many of them have arisen when the tribal cultures of the world were subjugated by European imperialism. Anthropologist Weston LaBarre (1911-1996) was an expert on these crisis cults, and in The Ghost Dance he used them as a way to analyze the nature of all religion. La Barre was an atheist– it is interesting to note that the Chevalier de La Barre who was famously executed for blasphemy in eighteenth-century France was a distant relation– and also a trained Freudian analyst. He thought religious belief was a kind of neurosis from which a fully sane person would be free. In The Ghost Dance religion is coldly dissected using the tools of ethnography and psychology, and it is found to be a neurotic relic of primitive civilization, out of place in the well-adjusted modern mind.

The Ghost Dance has long been one of my favorite books, and I have been trying for years to write a review. My problem has been that I find the book so fascinating that my reviews grow to crazy length, studded with page-long quotations. There is just so much in the book that I want to share. I do not love the book because I agree with everything it says. On the contrary, I find La Barre at times positively maddening. Much of his Freudian psychology now seems about as useful and relevant as Aristotelian physics. Sometimes he is appallingly smug. The book is strangely structured and contains much that I find merely distracting. What makes The Ghost Dance wonderful is the amazing breadth of La Barre’s learning, which spans worldwide anthropology, Biblical studies, literature, the Greek and Roman classics, and psychology, and also his clear focus on what religion is for. It is commonplace now to read anthropological accounts of religion which deal entirely with its social aspects. Religion, these books tell us, arose to encourage group solidarity, or some such thing. While La Barre understands that religious institutions serve many purposes, for him religion is something that operates within the mind, and its primary value is in how it makes believers feel. We do not deal only with the world outside us, but also the world inside our minds:

Man lives in two worlds, a matter-of-fact one of common public experience, the other of mysteriously “supernatural” and compelling private dream or trance. More precisely, these two “worlds” of man are really two modes of psychic experience in the individual. (42)

We have different ways of dealing with problems in our two worlds. “Thus,” La Barre wrote, “material culture, technology and science are adaptations to the outside world; religion, to the inner world of man, his unsolved problems and unmet needs.” (45) In Freudian terms, religion is a psychological defense mechanism against a reality that is sometimes too hard to bear. It is this psychological approach that gives The Ghost Dance its power. While sometimes La Barre’s Freudian terminology seems downright bizarre, his double background in both anthropology and psychology is what makes his book so fascinating.

La Barre resisted all attempts to explain religion in rational terms. Sometimes he seems to protest too much, but you have to remember that when he was writing there were powerful schools of behaviorist psychology that denied any reality to psychic events, and also a powerful school of “functional” anthropology that sought to interpret every act and belief in terms of adaptation. “We must protest,” La Barre wrote, “the insistence on rationalizing the irrational.” (289) Religions are analogous to neurotic symptoms, and they work in the sense that they help people suffering from psychic distress (all of us) get through their lives. Because we must somehow get through our lives, the mechanisms that enable us to get along are so important that they trump all considerations of rationality. “Huge populations, for long centuries, under cultural impetus, can act irrationally. They can.” (290) Many of La Barre’s contemporaries were also concerned to overturn the bias against “primitive, irrational” native peoples that colored much early anthropology. It is true, says L a Barre, that we need to restore fairness and balance to our approach to other peoples. However, we should not do this by pretending that native taboos and magical practices are rational, but by recognizing that our own taboos and rituals are equally irrational. “It is indeed disturbing to have it hinted that part of culture can be irrational – and fairly enough so long as one does not confine this privilege to ‘prelogical’ primitives, but extends the franchise to all men.” (289)

What is the source of the religious ideas and symbols that are u sed to assemble these elaborate defense mechanisms? To La Barre, as to most Freudians, the roots of religion are in the family. In times of trouble we wish for a strong protector, or a nurturing caregiver; when and how could we have formed the idea that bigger, stronger beings would protect and care for us? As La Barre notes, one of the distinctive things about religion is that in some ways a cult will be the same for all believers, but on the other hand the experience of the divine is a deeply personal thing that people have great difficulty describing in words.

What is it in the individual that makes for the shaping of group religion? What private-public Mysterium is it that all individuals have in common but do not share? (10)

Obviously, it is the family: everybody has one, but no two are exactly the same.

The secular scrutiny of religion makes the Referent quite clear; and further study also explains the fearsome hiddenness, ambivalent projection, psychological ambiguity, and the strikingly individual and thenic variety of the Mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. The Mysterium is in a sense objective, and, in fact, has been experienced; but each individual has forgotten its erstwhile nature and original location. Religion *is* what a man thinks and feels concerning this unique unknown, and what he does with his ignorance. An understanding of the phenomenon embraces also the explanation of why religious response is uniquely human. The context is the universally human nuclear family, the condition is the individual human neotony. In religion the projected parent still stands, as of yore, between us and physical reality, and is still sometimes confused with it, the divine attributes being those of creator, ancestor, law-giver, protector, feared ally, lover and friend. At the base of every religion is the familial experience, and all religions consequently contain some basic oedipal story in their myths. . . .

This passage gives a fair sample of LaBarre’s writing, which mixes passages of clear, vigorous prose with Freudian jargon, convoluted syntax, what seems sometimes like a conscious effort to awe the reader with his learning, and that godlike pose of psychic authority that Freud perfected and his followers copied as best they could. You can sometimes sense the German lying behind these pronouncements about “The Father” and “The Mother,” making it seem as if these were universal constructs perfectly understood by the analyst, whose wisdom you, the reader/patient, must absorb if you are to make any progress in overcoming your neurotic blocks. The argument is reinforced by universal assumptions – the father is the disciplinarian, all societies have oedipal myths – that are simply not true. La Barre is a good enough anthropologist to recognize the diversity of human societies, and most of The Ghost Dance is devoted to laying out the diversity of human religious beliefs. La Barre veers back and forth between two modes, which we might call the ethnographic and the analytic. His wonderful ethnographic accounts emphasize the irrational elements in various belief systems, and their psychic richness, but there is no attempt to say that they are all the same. Then he switches back to analytic mode and asserts the underlying our religious diversity are the same psychic needs, rooted in The Family, where The Infant, in the "stage of pre-oedipal narcissistic omnipotence," depends on nurture from The Mother and protection from The Father.

La Barre’s model of how new religious movements begin is quite straightforward. In a time of crisis, people feel that their traditional religious structures and beliefs are no longer adequate: “Man is stripped of his protective cultural garments, and for a while he is exposed to the heartless winds that sweep the universe.” (349) A prophet appears preaching something new. (La Barre’s professional fieldwork was done among South American Indians, and usually calls this figure a shaman.) This prophet is someone we would almost certainly consider insane, because only someone unmoored from social and physical reality can imagine a new religion and believe in it. In the very extremity of his psychosis, the prophet embodies the neuroses of his contemporaries and his dreams give expression to their deepest wishes. This new religion will incorporate elements of past tradition while rejecting others, and it will add some novel element. It will often be apocalyptic, promising that the world will be destroyed and remade in a vast cataclysm. If people find the new belief comforting, it will spread, because “religion is the feeling of what is desirable and comfortable in crisis situations.” (45)

Although La Barre develops his model using examples from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it obviously applies perfectly to the origins of Christianity. The Jews had lost their political independence and were undergoing a profound religious ferment when a prophet appeared whose teachings mixed elements of Jewish traditions with new ideas. He predicted the coming of a hero figure, the “son of man,” who would usher in an apocalyptic overthrow of the world, after which the first would be last and the last would be first. Like so many modern prophets, he was then hauled before the agent of imperial authority to answer for the possible political implications of his teachings: “Jesus standing before Pilate is just another messianic prophet standing before the District Officer.” (254) After his death, his followers so longed for the presence that had given them psychic comfort that they imagined he would come back and fulfill his prophecies himself.

To La Barre, Christianity is thus the ghost dance of Judaism in its time of crisis, and in a somewhat different form it served as the ghost dance for the whole Roman world as it fell into ruin. Every belief system can be interpreted in this way. Marxism was the ghost dance of a Europe convulsed by industrialization, and in its Bolshevik form it became the ghost dance of a collapsing Russia. Nazism was the ghost dance of a humiliated Germany.

But the term “crisis cult” can be criticized on two grounds: is not every moment in history in some sense a “crisis”, and does not “cult” imply invidious reality judgment? The only answer to the criticism is, yes it is, and yes it does. But that is what life is like, a chronic crisis, and that is what science is, making invidious judgments about competing hypotheses or belief systems. (96)

It is to these “invidious judgments” that I turn by way of conclusion. In his tour of worldwide cultures, La Barre finds exactly two things worthy of praise. Among the ancient Hebrews, he admires their reverence for the “that which is,” a reality beyond our control that we can admire, fear, or worship, but that is not subject to any kind of magical manipulation. It is because of this core belief in the awesome, unchangeable reality of the world, La Barre thinks, that so many of our greatest scientists have been Jews. Among the ancient Greeks, La Barre admires their love of rational discussion, in which any man’s words were valued for their sense, not the status of the speaker. This tradition of fair and open debate led, he thinks, to both democracy and philosophy. Pretty much everything else about human endeavor comes across, in La Barre’s writing, as just another neurotic symptom.

The point of Freudian analysis is, first, to help patients escape from their delusions and see the world as it is and, second, to help them find the strength to go on without the comfortable crutches of infantile belief. When I encounter this approach to psychology, either in Freudian form or in self-help books like Judith Viorst’s Necessary Losses or Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, I end up thinking, what’s the point? Is spirituality only a sort of psychic toughness? Does growing up simply mean shedding the comforts of youth, one by one, until one stands exposed to the heartless winds that sweep the universe? Why would we want to do that? Because it is the truth, La Barre would answer, and our most important measure of adult sanity is the ability to face the truth and get on with living. Freud would add that understanding is itself a tool of healing and growth. Whether this psychological approach will ever lead to a happy, well-adjusted society, I have my doubts but then perhaps the record of millenarian religions is not so great on this score, either. If understanding the world and ourselves is an important goal, either for humanity or just for you, then consider reading The Ghost Dance, because I have read few books that approach its level of learning and insight.

April 10, 2009

From the 
Commonplace Book

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few.

--Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi



Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Limits of Being Right

Wild Swans

Why We Fight


The Ghost Dance

Changing the World



What is Education?

René Guénon

Which Primitives?

Terrorism and Freedom

Indian Freedom

Susan Haack & Intellectual Integrity

Richard Lewontin


Humanism in the 1990s

The "Wilding"

How the Mind Works

Ba'al Hammon and the Unitarian List of Suggestions