Anthropology with a Difference

Mary Douglas at 80

In its issue of October 6, 1995, the Times Literary Supplement printed a list of the "hundred books which have most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War." Works by Ludwig Wittgenstein, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus, Erik Erikson, and Primo Levi were among the expected selections, along with Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

Only four books written by women were included, the most academic being Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger stood alongside Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great Cities. Still in print after nearly forty years, Douglas’s essay deals with such esoteric topics as the logic and thematic coherence of the dietary laws in the book of Leviticus and the seemingly macabre ritual murder of elderly "spearmasters" among the Dinka of East Africa. These, along with other fascinating examples, were used to demonstrate the correspondence between social experience and religious beliefs and symbols. What appears to be irrational superstition among so-called primitive peoples, Douglas argued, can in fact be explained by examining how a culture’s system of classifications mirrors its social institutions.

Richard Fardon, anthropologist and Douglas biographer (Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography, 1999), describes Purity and Danger as an "embarrassment of riches." That phrase applies to almost all of the eighty-year-old Douglas’s work. Her vivid, pugnacious writing style and vast, eclectic store of knowledge have been displayed in more than fifteen books and numerous essays and reviews. Her interests have ranged far and wide: how contemporary societies assess environmental risks; the way consumer behavior communicates social concerns; the relationship between ritual and jokes; the rational basis of witchcraft accusations; the etiquette of eating and drinking; even the debate about ordaining women (see "A Modest Proposal," Commonweal, June 14, 1996), and the quest for the historical Jesus.

I first encountered Douglas’s work in 1980 in a class on ritual taught by the liturgist Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., at Yale Divinity School. We read Douglas’s Natural Symbols (1970), which expressed deep skepticism about Vatican II’s reforms and took "reforming bishops and radical theologians" to task for "their doctrinal latitude, their critical dissolving of categories and attack on intellectual and administrative distinctions." Douglas argued that too many of the council’s reforms were carried out with little appreciation for what makes rituals and symbols meaningful, and with even less understanding of how attitudes toward religious conformity depend on a person’s social location. It was Douglas’s contention, for instance, that the abolition of Friday abstinence from meat did away with a vital symbol of Catholic identity and solidarity. To those who argued that abstinence was more spiritually authentic if it was a personal decision, not a group discipline, Douglas pointed out that dispensing with such shared symbols would not make self-denying acts more likely or more intelligible, but quite the opposite.

Finishing the book, I found myself a newly minted skeptic about the "rationalistic" reform of the liturgy. Natural Symbols had convinced me that my grandfather’s bead-counting, literal-minded piety-he had only an eighth-grade education-was not the mere superstition my prosperous middle-class world judged it to be. Douglas’s passionate defense of ritual reawakened in me an appreciation of the connection between beauty and truth in religion and other human activities.

Internal Catholic disputes are only a small part of Douglas’s interests. I had been a college student in the early 1970s, years marked by great social and political conflict as well as moral confusion. I had become skeptical of the motives of student protesters, whose "radicalism" and iconoclasm in the end always seemed as self-interested as it was theatrical. In Natural Symbols, Douglas argued that the student upheavals of the late 1960s, with their mass demonstrations and demand for unstructured freedoms, conformed to a familiar historical pattern. The conventional wisdom was that such protests were compensation for deprivation. Douglas noted that "compensation theory" could not explain the privileged status of most of the protesters. She contended that the undifferentiated and often ecstatic nature of student protest was not a form of compensation but "replicated" the social experience of the young. The lives of students lacked "articulated roles" or any group allegiance and were characterized instead by ego-focused competition and fleeting, easily dissolved social bonds. This described my undergraduate experience quite well, and I thought it helped explain the frustrations and disillusionment that followed in the wake of the extravagant 1960s.

Fortuitously, Mary Douglas arrived on the Yale campus the next fall (she was working at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City) to teach a course on "Methodological Issues in the Study of Religion." I enrolled, and spent the next few months spellbound-and frankly a bit overwhelmed-by her command of the anthropological literature on apparently everything: population control in primitive groups, the nature of contemporary sectarian religious conflict, how different societies conceive of the separation or unity of spirit and matter. Douglas is a great storyteller, and she readily culled examples from African, New Guinean, and Native American cultures to illustrate a passing point. Explaining the moral integrity of "primitive" beliefs and questioning the social nexus out of which modern moral assumptions emerge were part of her pedagogic technique. For me the destruction of the stark dichotomy between primitive and modern consciousness broadened my understanding of how rationality works and deepened my sense of what all humankind holds in common.

The social basis of belief

Much of Douglas’s work is an effort to develop a method that enables us to recognize the cultural bias or "blinders" that shape our views. In Natural Symbols, for example, Douglas presents a theory, developed from the work of sociologist Basil Bernstein, about how differing patterns of authority in working-class and upper-middle-class families restrict how children perceive the world. In working-class environments, authority is often conveyed in a "restricted" code. Explanations for why something should be done are hierarchical and positional: Because Dad says so. A more "elaborated" code, stressing the calculation of competing interests and the personal feelings of others, is used in less traditional, and often more prosperous households. The elaborated code is, of course, the method of rational analysis and of the academy. But Douglas argues that a restricted code possesses value as well, one that enables children-and adults-to see their lives unfolding within an overall pattern. Those reared exclusively in an elaborated code find it difficult to respond to condensed symbols of social solidarity, such as the Eucharist. Consequently, whole areas of aesthetic experience are closed off to them. Having been raised in a very "positional" home, I recognized the truth of this analysis. Years of playing organized athletics also convinced me that certain aesthetic and moral experiences are available only to those who are willing to conform to hierarchical social forms. As every family knows, there really is a good to be experienced together that cannot be experienced alone, but it requires a willingness to sacrifice for the whole.

At the end of the course, Douglas gave me a copy of Antonia White’s Catholic coming-of-age novel, Frost in May (1933). The novel, she explained, is set in the Sacred Heart Convent at Roehampton in West London. For many readers, Frost in May is a kind of horror story about authoritarian and taboo-ridden pre-Vatican II Catholic schooling. Douglas saw it quite differently. She had been a student at Roehampton, and she thought Frost in May brilliantly captured the vividness and startling beauty of that world-a beauty inseparable from its carefully delineated social structure.

Not surprisingly, Douglas’s Catholicism has strongly influenced her work. Already in Purity and Danger, she alerted readers to the way the discipline of anthropology grew out of the British colonial and essentially Protestant encounter with tribal peoples, and how the Enlightenment bias in favor of "ethical" rather than "ritualistic" or "revealed" religion colored nearly everything written about so-called primitive belief. Making an argument she would elaborate in Natural Symbols, Douglas wrote that "magical practice, in this sense of automatically effective ritual" is not a sign of irrationality or primitiveness, "nor is a high ethical content the prerogative of evolved religions." She took pains to show the similarities between the way modern and primitive people think about morality and religion. The need to classify and categorize experience is universal, she argued. Our understanding of what is "natural" is always filtered through socially constructed categories of what is good or bad, holy or profane, safe or risky, or ambiguous. Taboo is a violation of classifications. "Dirt," she famously wrote, "is matter out of place."

Douglas strongly objected to the denigration of ritual and traditional forms of religious knowledge implicit in the early anthropological paradigm. The idea that primitive peoples were psychologically unbalanced or irrational (see "The Myth of Primitive Religion," Commonweal, October 9, 1970) reflected the self-congratulatory prejudices of anthropological observers, not the human or moral reality of tribal life. A high regard for religious knowledge is also evident in her rejection of the idea that secularism and modern unbelief are the result of science’s triumph over superstition. Tribal societies, such as the Pygmies, can be just as irreligious or secular in their outlook as any free-spirited New Yorker, she writes. Science is a tool for solving problems in the natural world, but it has relatively little to do with religious ideas or our everyday moral decision-making.

It’s how we organize our communities, not what science tells us about the origins of the universe, that determines the shape of our religious beliefs. In this Douglas is a disciple of Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology and the author of The Elemental Forms of Religious Life (1912). Durkheim emphasized how society shapes the way individuals think, and how our ideas about God mirror our relationship to the community. Baldly put, the more cohesive a group, the more it will conceive of God as an enforcer of moral rules; the less cohesive, the more benign God will appear. Modern doubts about the existence of sin or hell, for example, are better explained by our independence and mobility than by the idea of intellectual progress. Following Durkheim and her Oxford mentor Edward Evans-Pritchard, Douglas thinks differences in religious belief-how we think about metaphysical questions, or even if we bother to think about them at all-can be explained sociologically, for instance, by comparing how people hold each other accountable for misfortune.

"The idea is that you really don’t sort out problems in your head," Fardon said of Douglas’s insistence on the social basis of belief and knowledge. "You sort out problems by behaving differently, then your head will take care of itself. And that goes back to that system of education where you are educated through practices, through bodily practices and punctuality, and sitting in a certain way. And of course that’s pretty much what Durkheim was saying as well. You don’t go study people’s religious beliefs; you go and look at what they do. On the basis of what they do, then you’ll figure out why they believe what they do."

"There’s a bit of existentialism thrown in," Fardon added. "You have to choose between different forms of life, and you have to make a commitment to one. So the idea of practical commitment is important."

Douglas, however, is not a thoroughgoing sociological determinist. What she rejects is methodological individualism, which assumes that everyone is a self-interest maximizer and that the individual, not social structural forces, should be the proper unit of analysis. "There is knowledge, but it is always influenced by social factors," she told me. "We can’t afford not to take them into account. We can’t afford to have this naive foundationalist view of knowledge."

At home in London

Mary Douglas is as direct and challenging in person as she is on the page. A petite woman with penetrating hazel eyes and trimly cut white hair, Douglas has an incorrigible intensity and buoyant sense of humor. She turned eighty in March, but looks fifteen years younger, and is possessed of the kind of energy and industry one can only envy. At an age when most people have placed their word processors in mothballs, she continues writing at a rate that would make a freshly minted Ph.D. proud-or a biographer nervous.

Douglas graces her conversation with a sly smile and mischievous laugh. Her impatience with questions she doesn’t like matches her enthusiasm for ones she does. She speaks emphatically, often answering with a simple yes or no. She is gracious but opinionated; her view of her own work and accomplishments can be blunt. She openly laments the fact that she never held a long-term appointment at a major research institution. "Mary always wanted to have a school," Fardon told me when I spoke with him last fall in London, "a group of people who would be doing things which were one way or another informed by her ideas. But she also made it very difficult for herself to have that, because she was attracted to work with people whom she found original, quirky, and stimulating, but inevitably found she couldn’t always agree with them."

Douglas retired from teaching in 1988, after spending much of the late 1970s and the ’80s in the United States, first at the Russell Sage Foundation, then Northwestern and Princeton. Today she lives in the Highgate section of north London, where she and her husband James, an economist and former policy adviser for the Conservative Party, have owned a home since 1956. The Douglases have traveled widely, making friends around the world, especially in the United States; yet, even without Mr. Douglas’s enthusiastic exclamations of "Marvelous!" and "Jolly good!" they remain, at least in the eyes of an American, unmistakably English.

The couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in April, and proximity to their three grown children and six grandchildren was a major reason for their return to England. They now spend much of their time at home, although Mary makes regular trips to the British Library for research on her latest intellectual passion-a reexamination of Numbers (In the Wilderness, 1993) and Leviticus. Her Leviticus as Literature (1999) includes a remarkable revision of her earlier views on how the system of classifications worked in the Jewish dietary laws. "I don’t think I got much of it right," Douglas told me. It’s hard not to be impressed by this matter-of-fact concession of error.

The Douglases’ comfortable four-bedroom house is close to Highgate cemetery (where Karl Marx and other luminaries rest) and a short walk from Hampstead Heath. Her trained interest in domestic rituals carries over into her own kitchen. "I love to cook," she said unabashedly after lunch as we stood before her large kitchen window looking into a surprisingly green (it was November) English garden. A love of cooking isn’t surprising for someone long fascinated by customs surrounding eating and drinking. Alert to every social boundary and interaction, Douglas sees all interpersonal acts, from the most mundane to the most intimate, as fraught with social meaning. "Drinks are for strangers, acquaintances, workmen, and family," she writes in her essay "Deciphering a Meal." "Meals are for family, close friends, honored guests."

Jim Douglas, now eighty-two and hobbled by arthritis, helps with the cooking. Because of his hearing loss, conversation must be conducted at a high decibel, although Jim can effortlessly read Mary’s lips. Known as a Tory "wet," Jim was committed to what was known as the "postwar consensus"-economic and welfare policy based on John Maynard Keynes and William Henry Beveridge-which was abandoned by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. He subsequently retired from the party staff. That decision enabled Mary to accept an offer to come to the United States, where Jim secured appointments in university political science departments.

Both of their fathers served abroad in Britain’s colonial empire, Mary’s father in the Indian Civil Service in Burma, and Jim’s in the army in India. It was Jim’s mother who introduced them. "Mary always says that it was only when my mother stopped insisting on Mary that I asked her to marry me," Jim confessed to the amusement of both.

Growing up in Paris, Jim was sent to Beaumont, an English Jesuit boarding school. Mary spent her early years in Burma. When she was twelve her mother died and she and her younger sister, Pat, were enrolled in the Roehampton convent where her mother and cousins had been students.

Douglas is circumspect about her years in the convent school in the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is clear that her appreciation for religious values was kindled at Roehampton, along with her conviction that the measure of a society is how it controls the powerful and cares for those at the bottom of the social ladder. Her memories of the convent, where she rose to be head girl, are almost entirely positive. Still, she acknowledges that not everyone thrived in the severe and highly structured environment. But during Douglas’s time, the convent’s rich symbolic life and emphasis on hierarchy and group solidarity gave her an abiding sense of how social structure inculcates values and how nonverbal forms of communication both reflect and reinforce group bonds.

Douglas has remarked elsewhere how the solicitude of the nuns after her mother’s death had created in her an intense attachment to Catholicism. "Added to the sense of irreparable loss and the need to enshrine her memory in my life, was loyalty to the nuns themselves," she told interviewer Peter Fry in 1997. "They weighed in heavily, creating a special bereavement entitlement for orphans-spoiling and favoritism. The weight of their rules was continually lightened by loving privilege. This no doubt gives me my bias toward hierarchy as a particularly empowering form of government."

She is convinced that the social intimacy and concern for others much longed for in modern societies, but rarely attained, is best achieved in tightly bounded hierarchical settings. Hierarchy also helps solve problems. "Its rules are formalized; it plans for the long term, and justifies what it does by reference to tradition," she has written. "Its advantages are in its clearly stratified and specialized pattern of roles: it can organize effectively; it is resilient and tenacious in the face of adversity. It tries to conciliate its rival units."

Douglas champions what she calls "benign" hierarchy, where listening is emphasized, different gifts recognized, and graces shared. In the convent, she said, there were lay sisters who were subordinate to the highly educated "choir nuns." Lay sisters did all the housekeeping. At the same time, however, the lay sisters were recognized as being much holier than the choir nuns, and stories abounded of the power of the lay sisters’ prayers. The greater efficacy and prestige attached to the lay sisters’ prayers balanced out the higher status of the choir nuns.

"In our society, any experience our colleagues and readers and friends have of hierarchy is General Motors," Douglas added. "That’s not a hierarchy in my sense, at all, because it hasn’t got natural balancing corrections. It just is literally a movement which people can be kicked out of at any time. Whereas in my idea of hierarchy nobody can kick you out; you’re always there, so your voice is always important. Hierarchy, as I idealize it, has got movements of communication up and down."

But whatever the organizational strengths and spiritual merits of Roehampton’s hierarchy, the academic program was spotty at best. The sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart "really despised the world and all its exams and works and pomps. Especially exams!" she said. Latin, for example, was not taught. Math and science were also conspicuously weak, and foreign languages not much stronger.

But the curriculum included courses on Catholic doctrine and the social teaching of the church. In these Douglas developed an interest in how any society or institution can structure itself in a way that enables it to exercise what she calls "concern for the whole." At that time, English Catholic school children studied the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno. "So we had two years of studying those, about the just wage, the living wage," Douglas said. "I can’t remember much more, but it was about social problems in a philosophical vein. So that was really exciting."

At Oxford, Douglas studied philosophy, politics, and economics. Graduating while Britain was at war, she went to work in the Colonial Office in London. It was there that she first met some of the most prominent British anthropologists, including Audrey Richards and Raymond Firth. Fascinated, she read extensively in the field. Encountering the work of Edward Evans-Pritchard, one of the seminal figures in twentieth-century anthropology, was a turning point.

Evans-Pritchard was a convert to Catholicism, and this was of paramount importance, Douglas admitted. "I met some great anthropologists in London and I knew that they were mocking Catholicism. I thought, that’s no place for me...I’d better go where Evans-Pritchard was."

Evans-Pritchard was to become Douglas’s teacher, mentor, and model, and she eventually paid tribute to him in a brief intellectual biography written for the Modern Masters series (Edward Evans-Pritchard, 1980). Evans-Pritchard’s ethnological work on witchcraft among the Azande and on Nuer politics and religion-both East African tribal cultures-was pathbreaking. Living with the Azande, he learned their language and practiced the tribe’s witchcraft rites, judging them to be logically coherent and socially efficacious. Douglas speaks of how Evans-Pritchard taught about "the sacredness of knowledge" and about "synthesizing from what was there, not going off into theorizing" or indulging in fashionable generalizations or idiosyncratic speculation, something Douglas thinks much recent anthropological writing does.

Genius at lateral thinking

Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout (Ethics after Babel, 1988), a former colleague and neighbor of the Douglases, confirms the connection between Douglas’s Catholic upbringing and her anthropological method. "One way of reading her most important book, Natural Symbols, is as a traditionalist Catholic’s critique of the liberalizing trends associated with Vatican II," Stout told me. "I think it is fair to say that many liberals, including many liberal Catholics, have made naive assumptions about how societies work. And they have also taken a sort of atomistic individualism for granted when making their complaints about hierarchy and tradition. Mary has pretty much made mincemeat of these opponents."

In the 1960s, when much of the Western world was infatuated with the notion of liberation from traditional structures and morality and with the celebration of emotional authenticity, Douglas cautioned against trusting either. "How to humanize the machine is the problem...[and] these humanizing influences depend upon continuity with the past, benevolent forms of nepotism, irregular charity, extraordinary promotions, freedom to pioneer in the tradition of the founders, whoever they were. Instead of antiritualism it would be more practical to experiment with more flexible institutional forms and to seek to develop their ritual expression."

Douglas’s venture into the debates about Vatican II did not sit well with some of her colleagues. Her combative defense of Friday abstinence, affirmation of transubstantiation, and praise for hierarchical principles provoked both consternation and enmity. Writing with barely concealed contempt in the New York Review of Books (January 28, 1971) the eminent Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach railed against Douglas’s praise of traditional Catholic practice. "All her recent work gives the impression that she is no longer much concerned with the attainment of empirical truth; the object of the exercise is to adapt her anthropological learning to the service of Roman Catholic propaganda," Leach wrote.

Douglas’s status within her field, which in the 1970s and ’80s increasingly turned away from the "participant observer" method developed by the classic British anthropological tradition, has had its ups and downs. There were a handful of prominent women working in anthropology in the early 1950s-Douglas spent two relatively brief periods "in the bush," in 1949-50 and 1953, both studying the Lele in what was then the Belgian Congo-and most of them were atheists and predominantly left-leaning. "A conventionally Catholic, middle-class woman married to a Tory grandee, that wasn’t your average background for a woman anthropologist," Fardon, her biographer, said. "I can’t think of another one at all. Anthropology has always gone along with the Left, with the cultural relativists and so forth."

As a result, Douglas’s pioneering achievements in bringing anthropological methods to bear on contemporary concerns tended to be overlooked. But a reassessment may be underway. Adam Kuper, author of Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School (1996), compares her to Claude Levi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Ernest Gellner, and Margaret Mead. "Mary is one of the few anthropologists who have become general intellectual figures," he said when I called him at Brunel University in London, where he is professor of anthropology. I asked him to evaluate the importance of Douglas’s work. She was one of the few anthropologists, he said, who could communicate with philosophers, historians, and literary people.

Kuper calls Douglas a "genius of lateral thinking," and that may be her true hallmark as an intellectual, an ability to perceive identities between seemingly disparate phenomena. In her hands the modern corporate media baron in London looks and sounds uncannily like the "Big Man" of the Indonesian cargo cults. In her critique of fashionable trends in parenting, she warns that child-centered education may free the young from "a system of rigid positions" only to make them a "prisoner of a system of feelings and abstract principles."

"She was able to make connections, able to take a study of taboo in the jungle and give you a whole new way of thinking about Leviticus, which never would have occurred to people who spent their lives studying Leviticus," Kuper said.

Yet despite Douglas’s own objections to loose speculation or theorizing,her cross-cultural comparisons have been criticized for a lack of rigor, a tendency to generalization, and an inattention to detail. Even those sympathetic to Natural Symbols found that book confusing, some of its conclusions unwarranted by the evidence. Perhaps the book’s most problematic idea was "grid-group" analysis. Grid-group was Douglas’s effort to develop a typology of societies and their cosmologies in which social location predicted religious beliefs. Social organization is broken down into four kinds of institutional life: hierarchical, sectarian (or enclave), competitive individualistic, and isolates. By measuring to what extent a society conceived of itself as a bounded entity (group) and in what ways individuals relate to each other within that group (grid), what beliefs would be held about everything from sin to sorcery to sexual morality could be predicted. Critics found the criteria for identifying the relative strengths of both group and grid hard to pin down and the whole scheme overly deterministic.

Characteristically, Douglas now readily admits the problems with the book. "I wrote it in a great heat of excitement," she told me. "It is a pity that I didn’t sort out the book. It’s very confused and difficult." But Natural Symbols has also provided a mother lode of ideas about religion, society, and cultural bias that Douglas has mined for the last thirty years. The grid-group method has been extensively refined. Now called "cultural theory," it has been used by an eclectic group of social scientists, including most prominently the late Aaron Wildavsky, with whom Douglas collaborated in writing Risk and Culture (1982). Cultural theory has contributed to the study of consumer behavior, labor movements, political parties, and more.

"It’s a way of understanding organizational arrangements and the discourses they support and that support them," said Steve Rayner, director of the Program in Environmental Policy Studies and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Rayner, a former graduate student of Douglas’s, has taken her ideas about the social determinants of belief and applied them to a variety of social-science concerns, especially environmental questions. He thinks Douglas has done a remarkable job of encapsulating the fundamental principles of all social organization. "The cultural theory approach requires you to unlearn a lot of social science," Rayner said, noting that social science operates on a mistaken individualist paradigm. "What we’re saying as cultural theorists is that a lot of values and a lot of beliefs and a lot of knowledge are stabilized as an emergent property of social organization," he said. "So you start with relationships instead of the individuals for understanding. That’s really a very radical breakaway from mainstream social science."

Brunel University’s Adam Kuper said that while any of Douglas’s particular analyses may be shown to be in error, something she seems quite ready to admit, the way in which Douglas has thought about culture will make a lasting contribution. She turned her skill at explaining seemingly strange behavior in primitive cultures to the rituals and beliefs of people in modern industrial societies, and in the process showed us how strange our own behavior can be. "Examining primitive cultures turned out to explain the Americans and Brits," Kuper added. "That sort of comparative jump-that is the inspiration that will remain."

Douglas’s analytical method does not come with a predetermined answer about what organizational structure is best in any particular circumstance. "I’m completely nonpolitical," Douglas told me, which is another way of saying that the relationship between her work and her own religious "biases" is complex. She is not interested in demonstrating the self-evident superiority of her faith. Rather, she seems more concerned with making plain the merits of what many dismiss as anachronistic religious practice. Douglas admits that something about religious experience escapes reductionist analysis. However, as an anthropologist, her interest is in explaining the variety of religious expression and the dynamics of religious change. Whatever supernatural reality may be, perception of it is mediated by social life. In this sense, as the biblical exhortation to follow God’s commandments promises, the way we live can disclose aspects of reality that are inaccessible to those who choose to live in a different way. "What I’m saying," Douglas told me several years ago, "is that when people are citing theology-the reformer’s theology, for example-they have in mind some sort of ideal society which would make sense of that theology. Therefore, we should unmask it a bit, and ask them directly: Is that the kind of society you want? Is that the kind of society you think this church is for? And they should do the same thing to me, and I should be able to be explicit."

Sacramental religion

Asked to assess the condition of the church thirty years after the warnings issued in Natural Symbols, Douglas is hesitant. "I don’t know enough about the church," she said. She confessed, for example, to having only recently realized how destructive the Index of Forbidden Books had been for Catholic intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Douglases are long-time parishioners at Saint Joseph’s Church, just up the rather steep hill on which their handsome suburban neighborhood is laid out. Mary seems fond of, but worried about, her parish community, especially its aging clergy. "They’ve really got a thriving parish but they’re all in their seventies and soon they will start falling off the perch. And there’s absolutely no one else behind them."

Douglas is convinced on sociological grounds that modern culture makes accepting many of the church’s claims-and even understanding the church’s logic-difficult. But that doesn’t mean she exonerates the hierarchy. The church’s own actions also present obstacles. On a very personal note, she mentioned a violent outbreak of sorcery accusation and subsequent church-sponsored exorcisms in Zaire in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where the children of some of her friends among the Lele were tortured under the supervision of a local priest. Her efforts to involve the Roman bureaucracy in the crisis proved fruitless. She attributed much of the problem to the church’s lack of understanding and respect for the traditional sorcery beliefs and practices of the Lele. Like Evans-Pritchard, she thinks exorcism can be a useful pastoral tool as well as a profound way of reflecting on the nature of evil. But the church in Zaire, she said, had not done a good job of getting across Catholicism’s great teachings about sin and suffering, forgiveness and reconciliation. In the absence of such teaching, people reverted to older witchcraft practices, practices whose traditional safeguards against abuse had been rooted out in the Leles’ conversion to Catholicism.

Douglas is also concerned about the role of women in the church today, which she describes as "absolutely iniquitous." "There should be something like a women’s commission on doctrine, so we would get off all this sex that they’re on so embarrassingly and get on to real doctrinal and theological problems," she said. A women’s commission within the hierarchy, Douglas said, should have veto power over certain aspects of church teaching, thus giving women as a group a voice in church decision-making that counterbalances the authority of the all-male priesthood.

Despite these frustrations, Douglas’s loyalty to the institution remains. "I do pick out what I love about a great religion, and I feel it a great privilege to be brought up in one," she said. "I probably idealize it, and I probably underestimate the costs, which people are hating. But I think they’re not appreciating how much they’re losing by undermining it."

She is pessimistic about the fate of a hierarchical and sacramental religion in an increasingly individualistic and socially fragmented world. "The more we have of telecommunications, individuals able to work at home, no ties, no bonds, not having to be somewhere, or not having to see each other, the more isolates we become. We can predict what kind of society that is. And that is one that won’t be able to take on major ritual structures at all. Or have the richness of life, of symbolic life, of the hierarchical system." To Douglas it is an ineluctable impoverishment. "Open society," she has written, "leads to private religion."

Despite the elegiac tone of much she has written about contemporary Catholicism, Douglas’s own work continues to be suffused with the values of constancy and dutifulness she absorbed in the convent: staying the course and remaining faithful to a larger vision.

What, looking back over all she has written, is Mary Douglas’s favorite book? Without hesitation she answers, "It’s always the one I’m doing. It ought to be." She continues to work on Leviticus and Numbers, determined to convince readers that these neglected biblical books are not impenetrable catalogues of arcane laws and irrational taboos, but works of great spiritual beauty. Don’t bet against her success.

Published in the 2001-08-17 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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