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Response: Do Infants Have Religion?

ANTH 121-01
November 16th 2015

Alma Gottliebs piece Do Infants Have Religion? is an anthropological look at the
relationship between Beng infants and the spirituality of Beng people in West Africa.
Gottlieb discusses how the Beng view the afterlife, ancestors, language, and infant mortality
in relation to infants. She compares our western medical norms to theirs and makes an
effort to exercise cultural relativism (not always successfully). Her writing was accessible
and easy to understand and the images she included were valuable to the reader. I think
that her argument is that whether or not Beng infants are inherently spiritual, it affects the
way that they are treated and therefore affects the type of person that they will become.
Its important to understand the concept of wrugbe to understand how the Beng see
infants. Wrugbe is the place where souls go in the afterlife but it is also where they are in
the beforelife. In wrugbe they live with all of their ancestors that have not been
reincarnated yet. Because in wrugbe they live with all people who have passed on they are
able to speak every language, which translates to Beng people believing that infants have
the ability to understand every language. They strongly believe in reincarnation and there
are normal ways that reincarnation works for them. Often an infant will have the soul of a
person who died on the day that they were born, or they have the soul of someone with the
same name as them, or they could also have the soul of their deceased sibling.
In the Beng culture gender is taught (much like in western culture). Female babies
go through a third ritual that male infants dont; once they lose their umbilical chord their

ears are pierced. This is their initiation into the world of feminine beautification (Gottlieb
1998:124.) The way that Gottlieb puts this makes it sound like western cultures do nothing
that early on to indicate sex of babies and teach gender. On the contrary, we do much worse
to our infants. Pink or blue everything, piercing ears, adorning girls in bows and sparkles,
dressing babies in superhero or princess costumes; all these things ways that we initiate
them into the world of feminine and masculine binaries.
Divination is referred to many times in Gottliebs piece when she talks about how
Beng parents are meant to deal with unhappy or unhealthy infants. It is believed that they
are trying to communicate unhappiness from their past (wrugbe) parents to their new
parents. This is taken very seriously and a diviner who Gottlieb quotes often in her writing,
Kouakou Ba, stresses that infants should be taken in for divination immediately. It is
understood in the Beng culture that if wrugbe parents are unhappy with how the child is
being raised by their earthly parents they can take back their child. There is speculation
that it acts as a way of explaining the high rate of child mortality in their culture (Gottlieb
1998.) Gottlieb wonders in her writing if its possible that Kouakou Bas motivations are
not only ideological but also economically motivated, after all he does make more money
off of good parents who call him right away when there is a problem with their child. Not
only is he making money but he may also explain to them that their child needs them to
give them specific presents such as cowrie shells or silver bracelets (Gottlieb 1998.)
When Gottlieb discussed her reaction to party of the ritual following an infants
umbilical chord falling off I felt that she was being ethnocentric. Because she wouldnt give
her own children enemas she looked down on this part of the Beng peoples ritual. Its not
only something that they do to babies; the Beng people practice enemas on children

throughout childhood and then on themselves as they become adults (Gottlieb 1998.) She
writes that it is clearly causing distress to the crying child (124) and I wondered: does the
western world not knowingly cause distress to infants as well? Do they not cry when we
bathe them, take them to get routine shots, and strap them into car seats? What makes our
ways of upsetting babies more appropriate than the Beng peoples? Also if she was going
for the angle that it is not the best medical way to toilet train a child then there should
have been a reference to a source that says that. Instead theres nothing to back the feeling
up; its merely an opinion.
Overall Alma Gottlieb explains the spiritual life of Beng infants thoroughly. She
addresses why they are considered to be more spiritual that adults and how adults
recognize it in the way that they raise children. It seems that even within western culture
parenting styles can differ from household to household and some are quite polarized by
choices that other parents make. Because of this I wasnt surprised when Gottliebs opinion
came through when writing about the ritual of giving children enemas and piercing female
childrens ears.

References Cited

Gottlieb, A.
1998 Do infants have religion?: The Spiritual Lives of Beng Babies. American
Anthropologist. 100(1):122-135.