Accepted paper:

Trust is to belief as alienation is to doubt: religious life and everyday life in East Africa


David Parkin (Oxford University)

Paper short abstract:

Social process is premised on cross-cutting ties of mutual indebtedness and credit. Religious and spiritual exchanges make up a similar network. When trust in them breaks down, can 'secondary elaborations' restore faith in people and spirit, and when does scepticism lead to disbelief?

Paper long abstract:

Various peoples in East Africa, and perhaps peoples everywhere, live a dual life as creditors and debtors. Bridewealth payments are prolonged, cattle exchanges deferred, land borrowed, settled but subject to reclaim, and money and commodities are lent and exchanged. Any one person may be beneficiary or claimant in this network of cross-cutting credit and indebtedness, and social process is premised on this duality. Relationships with God, spirits and ancestors rest on a similar network of deferred promises and expectations. Disputes occur when agreements become too prolonged and mutual trust breaks down. Similarly, spirits and sometimes even God are scolded for their lapsed or forgotten promises. The concept of 'secondary elaboration' is supposed to rescue the gods, spirits or the occult from judgements of failure, so that 'belief' in oracular powers continues. The western concept of 'belief' has itself been judged to be a western epistemological imposition. But all peoples suffer broken trust and alienation, and, likewise, this paper suggests that they all also sometimes reject what we can translate as 'belief', either in other people or in spiritual entities and forces. What are the implications of this claim for scepticism among increasingly diverse populations?

panel G20
Trust in super-diversity