The discreet intimate dimension of the reciprocal listening that prayer involves invites skepticism on the part of those who are not trying to pray. There are also vociferous voices saying that it is pure illusion to speak with anyone’s God. This brief essay on the anthropology of prayer will be a flagrant violation of conventional “objectivity”, the so-called “axiom of neutrality”. What is the advantage of objectivity as understood by social sciences if it prevents us from addressing the topic of prayer in its own right?
Introduction: The rise of social anthropology occurred during the heyday of colonialism and the subsequent decline, at least in Western Europe, of the Christian Church under the cloud of secularism. This decline has been prepared of course by the Enlightenment, for which no gods were divine and no ethics revealed by the crucifixion of a Messiah. So we can say that it was natural that theology kept social anthropology at a distance, since the latter understood man’s creation not through divine hands nor through the “images” of Biblical revelation as portrayed by church Fathers, but through assumptions such as those of Feuerbach, that humanity has always invented gods in its own image. What kind of anthropology is that? Egocentric, solipsistic; in no way does man reflect the image of the pre-eternal Logos. And yet secularized anthropology was curious to discover the other religions.
There were advantages hidden in this atheism. The opening up of social sciences to societies and cultures not sharing traditional European Christian values seems humanistic. Pagan gods were not to be viewed as demons but as benevolent or foolish idols of an exotic humanity. The exploitative potential of the discovery of additional markets for European goods was disguised as the exporting of the benefits of European civilization to such barbarians. Why bring up these issues with which we are all familiar? Because they are all out of date.