In our series, “Sensations of Religion,” students from Dr. Richard Newton introductory religion class explore the difference people make with “stuff” in discourses pertaining to religion. The third piece in our series looks at how aesthetic tastes are cultivated in community. Elizabethtown College student Elise Stendal reflects on the Five Percent Nation (Nation of Gods and Earths) and their critique of “soul food” to show how beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Religion is completely entangled with aesthetics, for most every religious experience deals with sensory perception and what one thinks to be beautiful. A religious experience involves ideologies and actions that connect people with what they believe to be divine, true, and sacred. It brings people closer to what matters most in their lives. Individuals thrive in their own religious worlds through their senses, whether it be with the sound of drumbeats or chants, the bright colors used in paintings, the smell of burning incense, the external marks on one’s body, or the sweet taste of foods (Myhre 2009, 3). One religion could find the taste of wine to be much more meaningful and symbolic than dancing, a movement that may be rated highly significant to another religion. When surrounded by a particular group of people or with certain words, a piece of bread or a single candle can morph from a profane object into a sacred symbol.
Interestingly, humans do not experience their senses in the same ways because sensation and perception are different concepts. Their sensation may be the same, such as seeing a brightly colored painting, but their perceptions of this sensation can be dramatically different, such as perceiving the colors as representing pain versus signifying love. Just as a single word can have numerous meanings, so can a single taste, smell, sound, feeling, or sight. How is this possible? Sociologically speaking, the way a person perceives a sensory stimulus may result from that person’s cultural arrangements, suggesting that perception is trained or nurtured. Just as different languages are spoken by cultures, different sensory worlds are inhabited (Plate 2009, 70). A child who is taught by their community that the sound of a drum summons good spirits will follow those teachings. If someone has been taught and surrounded by the belief that a certain sensory stimulus is powerful, then that person will continue to believe it.
Jacqueline Howard writes of where our taste in music could possibly stem from, focusing on how culture and location play a significant role in the formation of preference to certain tones. She discusses Josh McDermott, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and his discovery that Western cultures have a preference towards consonant sounds compared to other cultures.These sounds are normally found in pop music and combine classic “C” and “G” chords. The variance in the level of preference may have been caused by the differing worldly locations. McDermott and his colleagues visited the Tsimane village in Bolivia. They conducted a study with 100+ Tsimane villagers who were to determine the pleasantness of consonant, or harmonious chords, and dissonant, or unharmonious chords. The villagers believed both sounds to be pleasant, whereas Westerners found the dissonant sounds to be unpleasant. Music is a sensory stimulus of the auditory system that provokes various levels of importance depending on social background and location.
Although both provide meaning, there are differences between music that is sacred and music that is not. For example, one may find a completely different value in a song played at their church than in their favorite country song played on the radio. A contemporary worship song would cause different emotions and feelings in one who is religious compared to an atheist. The atheist may not find that any of their emotions are provoked, whereas one who is religious may feel the need to raise their hands and dance along. What a person perceives may have to deal with their belief in what is being sensed.
Another example of how one sensory stimulus can create several meanings is found within a group called the Five Percent Nation and their opinion of “soul food.” The “Five Percenters” formed their name from the belief that they are the 5% of all humanity that knows the actual truth of existence. They believe that the center of divinity and origins of humanity lie in black masculinity. It is common for Five Percenters to be vegetarian and to not eat pork or “soul foods.” “During and after the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the South,”the African American community often embraced soul food to represent pride in where they came from. It was empowering and it formed unity between them. However, the Five Percenters saw soul food as a symbol of their cruel slavery and restraints. They wanted to take back control of their lives, so they ate and wore what they wanted to. The Five Percenters formed an undesirable perception of soul food whereas other African Americans perceived the food as a meaningful representation of heritage.
It is incredible to think about the amount of possible stimuli to be interpreted within a religion. However, it is possible that troubles can come into play because there are people who have never experienced some perceptions that others have. As a result, these people either do not believe the perceptions are possible or they disagree and go against them. Material objects interact with senses and are perceived in ways that magnify a religious experience. How they are perceived depends on their perceiver’s beliefs and background.
Myhre, Paul O. 2009. “What is Religion.” In Introduction to Religious Studies, 3-14. Edited by Paul O. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, Christian Brothers Publications.
Plate, Brent S. 2009. “An Aesthetic Approach to Religion.” In Introduction to Religious Studies,67-78.Edited by Paul O. Myhre. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, Christian Brothers Publications.
Elise Stendal ’21 is a Psychology major at Elizabethtown College.