Pentecostalism and the adaptive significance of trance

PhD Thesis

Bloomfield, Michael 2001. Pentecostalism and the adaptive significance of trance. PhD Thesis University of East London School of Social Sciences
AuthorsBloomfield, Michael
TypePhD Thesis

The thesis combines sociocultural anthropology with Darwinism. My ethnographic fieldwork centres on a Pentecostal church in contemporary Britain. Members engage in ecstatic worship that includes glossolalia or speaking in tongues. Utilising a cross-cultural perspective, I suggest that this form of worship is typical in conditions of economic and political deprivation, and in terms of vocalisations, gestures and altered mental states, represents a powerful means of status elevation. I further suggest that ecstatic trance can be seen an extreme form of "handicap" in Zahavi's sense, as essentially a sociopolitical signal of counter-dominance rather than catharsis (the psychological view) or the expression of cultural themes (the interpretive anthropology view). I regard trance as essentially pathomimetic, i.e. modelled on such pathologies as epilepsy, constituting in other words a kind of "sham epilepsy" which, in rendering the individual temporarily 'insane' and incapacitated, represents the ultimate in collective handicapping. This enables immensely strong bonds to be forged between trance participants. Furthermore, Pentecostalism's strong de-emphasis on material symbols of sacredness and emphasis on God being experienced through performance, which I suggest is typical of nascent religion, allows us to infer the existence of religious activity long before images of divinity
began being produced as external figurines or art forms around 35,000 year ago. Finally, the peculiar mental concomitants of trance, which I view as part of a uniquely human capacity I term the alien imagination, are shown to engender highly creative supernatural thought. I propose that trance behaviour may have acted as a 'kick-start' in the evolutionary emergence of novel technological and
conceptual frameworks. I thus oppose the cognitivism of writers such as Mithen and favour social factors as causal in cognitive evolution.

KeywordsSociocultural anthropology with Darwinism; Pentecostalism; Cognitive evolution
Publication dates
PrintJul 2001
Publication process dates
Deposited10 Mar 2014
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