Paper Proposal Accepted for “Religio: Shaping and Defining the Notion of ‘Religion'” in Velletri

I just received word that a proposal I submitted for a conference just outside of Rome in July entitled “Religio: Shaping and Defining the Notion of ‘Religion'” was accepted. The conference is described in the call for papers as follows:

Our conference aims to provide an occasion of reflection and interdisciplinary discussion about the concept of religion and the notions related to this topic. The aim of this meeting is to investigate the shaping and the development of the notion of religion in western thought. We plan to research and analyze the various ways in which specialized literature posed the concept of religion as the object of study, together with the phenomena that have been attributed to such concept and the properties that have been deemed peculiar to this sphere, according to the views and positions of each single scholar. We will pay attention to the aims these scholars had, the classifications and theories they elaborated and the historical context they worked in.

As the first chapter I’ve written of my dissertation focuses on the concept of religion in history and in contemporary scholarship, this presents a wonderful opportunity to expose my research to an international group of scholars and refine and improve it along the way. The proposal I submitted is below.

Cognitive Linguistics and Defining Religion

The question of how religion is to be defined, if it is to be defined at all, has experienced a bit of a resurgence in recent scholarship, most recently in a 2015 volume of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which published three responses (and a rejoinder from the author) to Caroline Schaffalitzky de Muckadell’s 2014 Journal of the American Academy of Religion article defending essentialism in approaches to defining religion. As with most other recent approaches to defining religion, Schaffalitzky de Muckadell briefly addressed prototype approaches to defining religion, but as with those other recent approaches (including in the responses to her article), she displayed a marked lack of familiarity with prototype theory and its methodological foundation, cognitive linguistics.

The proposed paper will describe the foundations of cognitive linguistics and prototype theory, and describe the relevance of the theory to attempts to define religion. An often overlooked context in this area is the Aristotelian theory of categorization that undergirds the definitional framework (Jonathan Jong’s work is a recent and notable exception). According to an Aristotelian approach, category membership is binary and is contingent upon necessary and sufficient features, which presupposes that a conceptual substructure governs the formation and function of lexical categories. As the work of several cognitive psychologists and linguists has shown, however, that is not how the human mind forms or utilizes such categories, whether or not they refer to empirically extant entities. Rather, we develop and use lexical categories based on conceptual proximity to cognitive exemplars, or prototypes. This usage is focused on the center of the category and not on potential boundaries. In fact, category boundaries rarely figure in usage until a rhetorical context of some kind or another calls for them, at which point the boundaries tend to be rather arbitrarily formulated.

The paper will conclude that most debate about the possibility of defining religion—even when it addresses prototype theory—overlooks critical aspects of category formation and usage that fundamentally undermine attempts to assert clear and objective definitions.


St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies Schedule

The preliminary schedule for June’s St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies, entitled “Son of God: Divine Sonship in Jewish and Christian Antiquity,” has been released to participants. It’s going to be quite a packed event. Three parallel sessions with three or four different groups of four papers each are scattered across the three days between the plenary sessions. My own paper will be presented last in group A of session 3, which begins at 2:20 PM on Tuesday in College Hall. See below for the schedule.

St Andrews Symposium Schedule Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 6.35.21 AM (2) Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 6.35.25 AM (2) Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 6.35.29 AM (2)


Larry Hurtado on Early Jewish Monotheism

I am reviewing some scholarship on monotheism in ancient Israel and early Judaism, and I have come across something I find peculiar, and I’m wondering if others have drawn attention to it. In his article “First-Century Jewish Monotheism” and in its reprint in How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Hurtado argues that authors in early Judaism self-identified as monotheists. Now, that word simply did not exist until after 1660, so they cannot have directly self-identified as monotheists. As Hurtado argues, though, the appeal to “one God” language counts, despite the fact that early Jewish literature did not seem to worry about scattered but explicit references to other gods. Hurtado only ever calls them gods in referring to ancient Jewish refusal to worship them, though. In the context of their appearance in literature, they are “heavenly beings,” “principal angels” that are “clothed with god-like attributes,” “divine agents,” “‘divine’ figures,” etc. Despite this reticence, Hurtado insists that viewing these “heavenly beings” as problematic for monotheism is a problem with our expectations, not with early Judaism. And here’s the part that I find particular peculiar. Hurtado seems to me to argue that the “heavenly beings” mentioned in Jewish texts somehow don’t qualify as monotheism-undermining “gods” because the exclusivity of Jewish worship reveals the true meaning of the texts (namely, monotheism). Here is what he says:

Thus, for example, scholars argue largely about whether ancient Jews conceived of more than one figure as divine, and they seek to answer the question almost entirely on the basis of semantic arguments about the meaning of honorific titles or phrases, without always studying adequately how ancient Jews practiced their faith. But in the same way that modern principles of linguistics persuasively teach us that the particular meaning of a word in any given occurrence is shaped crucially by the sentence in which it is used, and just as it is a basic principle of exegesis to understand the meaning of phrases and statements in the larger context of a passage or even a whole document, so it should be recognized as a basic principle in the analysis of religious traditions that the real meaning of words, phrases, and statements is always connected with the practice(s) of the religious tradition.

If my reading of this is accurate, Hurtado is insisting that the exclusive worship of one God absolutely precludes the possibility that early Jewish devotees read early Jewish literature as referring to “gods” in a way that undermines the application of monotheism to their tradition. It seems to me he is arguing this on the grounds that words, phrases, and statements cannot, as a principle, be understood by devotees to conflict with their practices.

This strikes me as a phenomenally bizarre way of insisting early Judaism is going to be considered monotheistic no matter what. Has this perspective been clarified or engaged elsewhere?


Atheism = Absence of Belief in God or Gods?

It’s a common trope among some New Atheists looking for more and better rhetorical tools for their identity politics that atheism is a-theism, and therefore means “a lack of belief in God or gods” and absolutely nothing else. This definition generally aids rhetorically in asserting atheism as a sort of default position for humanity. A recent example:

 

 

Apart from being a wildly naive etymological fallacy that ignores literally millennia of historical usage, the explicit denial of any qualification whatsoever renders all entities in the entire universe atheist, animate or otherwise, including all believers during the vast majority of their lives when they are not actively engaged in believing. I would suggest that this kind of petty and naive identity politics does neither service nor justice to atheism or atheists.


All the Gods of the Nations are Idols

Both 1 Chr 16:26 and Ps 96:5 state that “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” (כי כל-אלהי העמים אלילים ויהוה שמים עשה). This has long been appealed to in scholarship addressing monotheism in the Hebrew Bible as an example of the text’s denial of the existence of the gods of the nations. They are idols, not gods. I recently ran across this reading in James Anderson’s new book, Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal:

It is to Psalm 96 that one must turn to find a more pointed affirmation of Yahweh’s uniqueness: ‘For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.’ (Ps. 96.4–5) There, the onslaught against idols is complete with a clear statement that the other gods are no gods. The claim that Yahweh is the only god has to be backed up by the claim that he created the heavens. This massive theological claim was a novelty.

The problem is that “idols” is a terrible translation that completely obscures the rhetorical force of the verse and facilitates the incorrect interpretation of these verses as denying the existence of other gods. The word translated “idols” is אלילים, but that word does not mean “idols,” it means “worthless things.” It is a play on words that works because if looks and sounds so similar to the Hebrew word אלהים. It would become a lexical substitute for “idol” similar to the way “abomination” (שקוץ) functions as a substitute for “god” in places like Exod 8:26; 1 Kgs 11:7; and 2 Kgs 23:13. The text is not saying the other gods are not gods, it’s saying they’re worthless and powerless—and here comes the rhetorical hook—but YHWH made the freakin’ heavens! That’s how much more he is to be revered over all those puny gods. This is the rhetorical force this text was supposed to have, but too many scholars are too concerned about finding monotheism in the Bible to pay close attention to that.


Paper Accepted to St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies

CFP Son of God-page-001I just received word that my paper proposal for the St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies has been accepted (abstract below). This year’s symposium is entitled “Son of God: Divine Sonship in Jewish and Christian Antiquity,” and it includes invited addresses from scholars like Jan Joosten, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, Philip Alexander, and others. it should be an exciting two days (in addition to the days I’ll be golfing). If you would like to attend, you can find registration info here.

Divine Agency Christology: Cognitive Perspectives on Christ as Divine Agent

Concepts of divinity, identity, and agency are central to all christological models, but few scholars have directly addressed these concepts within their ancient West Asian contexts. Rather, the inclination has been to retroject modern, Eurocentric, and binary frameworks onto the ancient texts. With such frameworks governing the reconstruction of ancient conceptualizations of divine agency and identity, the resulting christological models inevitably reflect modern Western Christian orthodoxies and/or ontological categories.

The proposed paper seeks to avoid this tendentiousness by applying a cognitive framework to the reconstruction of ancient conceptualizations of divinity, identity, and agency. Identifying evolved and innate cognitive architecture can help facilitate a more critical and methodological reconstruction of those concepts. Among other things, the study of human cognition reveals a marked absence of the binary conceptual categories that characterize the philosophically based christological models that have predominated from the Nicene era to today. Within cultures not heavily influenced by a sophisticated philosophical ontology, identity is predicated upon social roles and functions. As a result, that identity, and associated notions of agency, are conceptualized as quite fluid and even communicable.

Applying these frameworks to the analysis of divine agents in early Jewish literature reveals a number of functional and conceptual parallels to the christological descriptions in the Christian scriptures. The proposed paper will argue that early Jewish conceptualizations of divine agency provided a conceptual template for early christological developments, which were later assimilated to philosophical models developed in the second century CE and later.


Atheism is as natural as religion?

The University of Cambridge has an article up publicizing and commenting on new research from Tim Whitmarsh. Whitmarsh’s book is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, and the article is entitled, “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion.” I’ve seen a few different people linking to it, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts. First, Whitmarsh’s book is, from what I understand, a must read that I have on my list and am looking forward to as soon as I can get to it. It does swim counter to the conventional wisdom that prior to modernity, everyone and their dog was a true blue theist, and rightly so. The conventional wisdom is silly wishful thinking on the part of conservatives who feel threatened by atheism and anti-theism.

Having said that, I think the headline and portions of the story rather misunderstand or misrepresent the implications of Whitmarsh’s research. First, what the article means by the word “religion” is a modern cultural reification. Atheism is far, far older than religion, since religion—at least, what we tend to mean when we use the word—was invented between the Reformation and Enlightenment periods. Theism (not a synonym for religion) would be a better word, since that refers specifically to belief in deity, but even then, atheism and theism are still modern conceptual frameworks that aren’t really entirely commensurate with those of, for instance, ancient Greece and Rome. Squishy conceptual categories like religion and atheism are not helpful for cross-cultural and historical analysis. As an example of how squishy these categories can be, according to Pew, only 92% of self-identified atheists reported not believing in God. 2% reported absolute certainty that God exists. 19% of Buddhists, 10% of Jews, 5% of Muslims and Hindus, and 1% of Christians reported not believing in God. So it would seem that “atheism,” as the article appears to use the term, overlaps quite a bit with religion. They’re not incommensurate categories.

Next, the question of the naturalness of both perspectives is not something historical criticism can really determine. The fact that many ancient authors and others objected to ideas about deity really has little bearing whatsoever on the cognitive innateness or naturalness of atheism. The article’s claim that the research raises “considerable doubts about whether humans really are ‘wired’ for religion” is, I would argue, baseless. The reference to our cognitive “wiring” for “religion” refers to the Cognitive Science of Religion, and within that field scholars largely differentiate between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive ones are those instinctual or reflexive perspectives or thoughts or reactions that occur without our conscious input. Reflective beliefs are those that we formulate through our own reason or to which we subscribe because others told us to or convinced us to. A quote from Whitmarsh suggests he uses “intuitive” to mean something different:

Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world.

Whitmarsh here uses “intuitively” to refer to what cognitive scientists would say is “reflective,” which kinda problematizes the appeal to the findings of that field. The human is mind is indeed intuitively primed to accept things that are not there in your world. The consensus within CSR that belief in deities is a product of innate cognitive predispositions reflects research into intuitive beliefs that has demonstrated that we are evolutionarily predisposed to beliefs about the world around us that facilitate that belief in deity. For example, an evolutionary adaptation we all share is heightened sensitivity to mentality and agency in the world around us. Our prehistorical ancestors who were quickest to assume the rustling in the bushes was an animal with intentionality and big teeth were evolutionarily privileged over and against those who assumed it was the wind. We all have this cognitive default in our brains to interpret unnatural and unknown events and entities as something with a mind and agency. This goes hand in hand with the similar cognitive predisposition to interpret events in the world around us as happening for a purpose, or because of intentionality, and when the two are put together, we find culturally determined reifications of beliefs about agents that have counterintuitive properties that are more easy to remember and transmit culturally, like invisibility, full access to strategic knowledge, superhuman power, etc. And there were gods. In cultures without sophisticated philosophical or scientific frameworks to undermine those beliefs, they tend to become culturally embedded. This is what it means to say that “religion” (better, “belief in deity”) is natural, or that we are “preprogrammed to believe.” On a subconscious level, we are.

Studies have shown that these intuitions are there even in spite of firmly held ideologies. For instance, in a recent study that asked participants to determine whether or not given objects had been “purposefully made by some being,” results closely aligned with self-identified beliefs about the agency of nature, but when not given time for adequate mental processing, non-theists increasingly described earth as “purposefully made.” As a control, cartoon characters were included, and many non-theists actually more frequently identified them as naturally occurring. This was accounted for as an attempt to override their instincts and underplay creation. On the other hand, in a study about conceptualizations of deity, contemporary Christians who reported orthodox beliefs about the nature of God were asked to recall details about a variety of narratives involving computers, Superman, God, etc. They were more likely to appeal to and remember descriptions of God as anthropomorphic and confined to time and space. Both studies show the salience of intuitive beliefs that are grounded in our cognitive architecture when our ability to override them with reflective beliefs is mitigated.

Now, I have yet to read Whitmarsh’s book, and so I may be way off, but I doubt that he digs into evolutionary psychology or the Cognitive Science of Religion to show that rejection of those beliefs is just as cognitively innate. That would entirely overthrow the field. I don’t get the sense from a brief search that that’s what’s going on, either. The word “cognitive” only occurs twice in the book, and in one footnote there’s a reference to Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, but that’s over 20 years old (for a much more up-to-date discussion, see Boyer’s Fracture of an Illusion). I don’t know if the notion that his research disproves the cognitive predisposition to beliefs in supernatural agents is his own idea or something the publisher or school thought would help promote it, but I flatly disagree with it and think it rather undermines the important impact his book will hopefully have.


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