Tag Archives: Gods

Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?

I recently read a very interesting paper from the journal Religio by Czech Classicist Juraj Franek entitled “Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?” In it, Franek suggests the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) cuts through the Gordian knot of essentialism and “social constructionism” and provides an empirically established definition of the category of religion. The argument is very well researched and generally well reasoned, and I want to comment on some of the insights it raises, but there are some significant gaps that I believe fundamentally undermine the conclusion. In following, I’ll outline the paper and explain where I believe Franek has missed some critical observations.

Franek begins with defending the need to arrive at a definition of religion, pointing out that there are significant social consequences to the delineation of the category (for lawyers and jurors, questions of tax exemption, conscientious objection, etc.), but also that the study of religion needs at least a proximate definition if it is to be able to “demarcate the object of its study” and “formulate its basic theoretical postulates.” In light of this, the question merits engagement.

Next, Franek gives a representative sample of definitions that have been offered by authoritative voices within the field of CSR. What they all have in common is the assertion that religion is essentially about belief in and interaction with supernatural agents. He states,

barring some minor differences, every single assessment of the nature of religion cited above explicitly identifies superhuman, supernatural or counter-intuitive agents as a differentia specifica of religion: A belief or an action can be considered religious if and only if it entails the involvement of counter-intuitive agents. Since the acceptance of this principle is virtually unanimous in the CST, I find it justified to speak about a ‘cognitive definition of religion’ with the concept of counter-intuitive agents operating as its definiens.

The phrase “counter-intuitive agent” references a concept central to CSR that is founded on the observation that humans have evolved a cognitive predisposition to sensitivity to agency in their environment. This predisposition is a by-product of an evolutionary adaptation that favors the hyperactive detection of agents. Natural selection favored those who intuitively assumed there was an agent with a mind behind given events or circumstances. It’s better for survival to think the dark shape in the shadows is a bear and be wrong rather than think it’s a big rock and be wrong. The by-product of this adaptation (the distinction between an adaptation and a by-product of an adaptation is critical to CSR) is that we tend to think things are happening for a reason, and specifically one that is determined by some kind of agent. While this opens the door to positing all kinds of different agents behind the way things happen, those agents that are minimally “counter-intuitive,” or that violate a minimal number of our intuitive understandings about the way things work, tend to be most memorable, and therefore most salient. (Note that “counter-intuitive” does not necessarily mean “false,” since human intuition is not infallible.) This is what CSR scholars understand to be the cognitive framework responsible for our conceptualization of deities.

To contextualize these definitions of religion, Franek moves on to the traditional definitions that have been offered outside CSR, first highlighting the essentialist definitions of Edward Burnett Tylor and Émile Durkheim, which he suggests represent the poles of a definitional continuum. Tylor insists “belief in Spiritual Beings” are the essence of religion, while Durkheim rejects that idea and defines religion as “a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things . . . which unite all those who adhere to them in a single moral community, called a church.” In the mid-twentieth century came a new essentialist-eschewing approach to understanding religion that Franek describes as “social constructionism.” He divides these into “power-innocent” and “power-based” conceptualizations, with Wittgenstein and his “family resemblance” description representing the former, and the latter, Foucault and Bourdieu with their perspectives on structuring power. Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald are included in the power-based discussion, but their observations about the invention of the category of “religion” during the Enlightenment are overlooked.

Moving on to analysis, Franek lists the concerns a CSR definition must resolve: (1) how is it different from Tylor’s essentialist definition? (2) what about religions without concepts of deities (primarily Buddhism)? (3) how does it overcome the concerns raised by those who insist “religion” is a social construct? and (4) is it power-based? These four concerns are resolved for Franek in quite short order:

  1. In a lengthy discussion of “cross-cultural universals,” Franek appeals to Kant and Chomsky and cognitive modularity to insist that the CSR definition is not theoretically essentialist so much as empirically universal.
  2. Franek appeals to Ilka Pyysiäinen’s work to insist even Buddhism fits the CSR definition, since it generalizes from “deities” to “counter-intuitive agents,” like Buddha, the buddhas, and any other “counter-intuitive agents” that populate, we are to assume, every last tradition categorized by scholars as “religion.”
  3. Franek rejects the “social construct” category, since CSR identifies this predisposition to counter-intuitive agents in our very “cognitive architecture.” It’s innate, not culturally constructed.
  4. CSR can sidestep accusations of being “power-based,” according to Franek, since it is the product of empirical research that can and should be free from power manipulation.

My concerns with Franek’s argument begin with the fallacy of essentialism and of defining conceptual categories, which I’ve briefly described in the last paragraph of this post. These concerns come from the field of cognitive linguistics, which I was surprised to find entirely absent from Franek’s paper. The appeal to Chomsky and cognitive modularity signal either a lack of awareness of the field or a rejection of it. This is particularly peculiar in light of the fact that Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory, which Franek engages in some detail, set the stage in many ways for cognitive linguistics and its insights into categorization.

Next, if counter-intuitive agents are to be considered the empirically determined essence of the category “religion,” then we need some accounting of how the category so accurately developed in the process by which European colonialist ideologies divided up the world and its traditions. With no real concept of “counter-intuitive agents,” how did writers and rulers so perspicuously keep the category so clearly and so accurately delineated? Why did no one raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Buddhism through so many centuries when it was for so long devoid of supernatural beings? Franek directly cites Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, but overlooks the implications of their description of the origins of “religion” as a category. Yes, counter-intuitive agents pre-existed that development, but they also extend well beyond the category that developed, and this raises another concern. If counter-intuitive agents are a necessary feature of religion, they’re certainly not sufficient. Counter-intuitive agents, as an innate part of our cognitive architecture, are found everywhere. Does Smith’s invisible hand render capitalism a religion? What about millennials who refer to the agency of “the universe”? What about the personification of the nation or justice? Even the anthropmorphizing of “science” or “evolution” that is found in thinking about and describing their will and what they do could be said to produce a counter-intuitive agent.

As Smith, et al., also highlight, one of the results of the Western Enlightenment era construction of religion is a view of religion as fundamentally about belief, which means religion is really being analyzed through a Protestant Christian lens. Franek’s definition fails to escape the gravitational pull of that cultural construct, and even though he mentions practices, the definition is still essentially focused on the belief in counter-intuitive agents. This is problematic on its own, but also in light of modern research that shows even within traditions widely accepted as religious, some faithful adherents marginalize the importance of belief in deities or outright reject their existence. I personally know multiple individuals who identify as firmly Jewish and Christian, but also identify as staunchly atheist. If staunch atheists can be religious, belief—and particularly belief in counter-intuitive agents—cannot essentialize the category. The chart below shows the results of a Pew Research study regarding belief in “God or a universal spirit.” Note how many adherents to different religions, Christian and non-Christian, do not believe in deity.

In light of these concerns, I don’t believe we can insist the Cognitive Science of Religion has successfully defined religion. I don’t think that conclusion at all undermines CSR’s contribution to understanding the cognitive foundations of religion and religious belief and practice, but I don’t think its findings overcome the theoretical and methodological problems with attempting a definition of a modern cultural construct like religion.

Thesis Posted

I am making my recently defended master’s thesis available in PDF format at this link. The title and an abbreviated abstract are below.

“You Will Be Like the Gods”: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective

This thesis has two primary goals: (1) to analyze the contours and extent of the generic category of deity in the Hebrew Bible, and (2) to propose a semantic base for the term. It begins with a description of the fields associated with cognitive theory, and particularly cognitive linguistics. Chapter 2 examines the cognitive origins of notions of deity and discusses how this heritage is reflected within the biblical texts. The third chapter examines the conceptualization of Israel’s prototypical deity, YHWH, beginning from the earliest divine profiles detectable within the text. In Chapter 4 the discussion returns to the generic notion of deity, highlighting references within the biblical text to deities other than YHWH. The conclusion synthesizes the different sections of the thesis, sketching the origins and development of the Hebrew Bible’s representation of both prototypical and non-prototypical notions of deity. Implications for further research are then briefly discussed.

Words Meaning “Deity”

Maybe someone out there will find this useful. I’ve been analyzing the semantic ranges of the different ways the authors use the words that mean “deity.” As part of this research, I’ve been putting together a document that lists every occurrence of the three Hebrew words and one Aramaic word that mean “deity,” both generic (“god[s]”) and appellative (“God”): elohim, el, eloah, and elah. I finally finished and thought I would share. You can find the Word doc here and the PDF here. I list the word, the number of occurrences, the individual references, and then the number of occurrences by book. I go from the most common word (elohim: 2600 occurrences) to the least common (eloah: 58 occurrences). The next step is to separate out the references to Yhwh from the references to other deities.

The Divine/Human Dichotomy or Spectrum?

In my previous post I mentioned two books that I bought at SBL and have already begun to read, namely Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism and The Son of God in the Roman World. Both touch in some way on my thesis topic, the development of monotheism, and both treat contemporary academic positions regarding the nature of divinity in very similar ways. Specifically, both highlight a trend away from viewing divinity and humanity as separated by an ontological barrier, and toward viewing them as somewhat overlapping fields within a continuous spectrum. This insight is borrowed by both authors from scholarship on Roman emperor worship (both even cite the same author), but both insist it has explanatory power in their respective spheres (Assyro-Babylonian religion and early Christianity). I’ve found this understanding also alleviates a lot of issues scholars have had with understanding early Israelite and formative Jewish ideologies. Both authors go on at length about how this insight informs their particular interest in the divine, but two quotes show the similar approaches and similar influences. From Pongratz-Leisten’s article, “Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia”:

Ittai Gradel’s approach to the notion of the divine in his book Emperor Worship and Roman Religion is inspiring when applied to religions of the ancient Near East. In the introduction to his book, Gradel cautions us against viewing ancient religions as an independent dimension, separable from other spheres of human experience and capable of being independently dissected. Based on the practice of ritual and sacrifice, he interprets the man-god divide, which clearly existed also in antiquity, as a reflection of a distinction in status rather than a distinction between their respective natures of “species.” He suggests that we speak of divinity as a “relative category” rather than beginning with the rather diffuse notion of “the Holy” and the “Numinous” and from the concept of the gods as a species. . . . Rather than conceptualizing the divine and human worlds as distinct realms, the human sphere gradually merges with the realm of the divine.

And from Peppard’s book:

Scholars such as Simon Price, Ittai Gradel, and Clifford Ando articulate interpretations of divinity that confound the categories customarily used by Roman historians and scholars of religion. In their view, divinity in the Roman world was not an essence or a nature, but a concept of status and power in a cosmic spectrum that had no absolute dividing lines. The realm of the gods was not, in the famous maxim of Rudolf Otto, “wholly Other.” In this chapter, I survey and synthesize the current conclusions of this burgeoning field of research, in order to encourage fellow scholars to question their presuppositions about divinity in the Roman world, just as I have scrutinized and reoriented my own. My approach to the matter draws especially from recent studies of emperor worship, while also making some analogies to scholarship on Judaism and Christianity in their Roman context.

Storm God and Sun God

In the study of ancient Near Eastern religion, it’s widely recognized that deities which rule over other deities tend to assimilate the attributes and responsibilities of their subordinates. In early Israel Yhwh likely had a consort named Asherah, who was a mother goddess and fertility deity of some kind (the boundaries of these deities are blurry and overlap). By the end of the exile she seems to have been scrubbed clean from Judaism’s theological landscape, and Yhwh seems to have absorbed her attributes. There are a few different metaphorical references to Yhwh as a mother and even a midwife in exilic literature, for instance. This process likely began as far back as the monarchic period, though. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the asherim which were ostensibly taken from the temple and destroyed during Josiah’s reforms may have had no connection to Asherah by that time period, but rather may have been residual cultic representations of divine power over fertility and childbirth, now attributed to Yhwh.

Other ways this kind of assimilation seeps into Israelite literature is in Yhwh’s nature as both storm god and sun god. A fascinating article by Paul E. Dion (“YHWH as Storm-God and Sun-God: The Double Legacy of Egypt and Canaan as Reflected in Psalm 104,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103.1 (1991): 43–71) points out elements of both storm-god imagery and sun-god imagery in Psalm 104. This psalm is famous for its relationship to the much older Hymn to Aten, but Dion argues there is a great deal of storm-god imagery as well. We know Yhwh was viewed as a storm deity very early in Israelite history. Yhwh is said to make the “clouds his chariot” (עבים רכובו – Ps 104:3) echoing Baal’s title as “Rider of the Clouds” (rkb ‘rpt – KTU 1.2 iv 8).  Psalm 29 shares very close affinities with praise given to Baal for his storm-god status.

Later in Israelite history Yhwh seems to be associated with solar imagery. Hezekiah’s seals on a number of jar handles discovered in and around Jerusalem have a scarab with a sun disk or a bird with a sun disc. This is closely related to Egyptian iconography, which makes sense given his relationship with Egypt at the time. It goes back further than this, though. In the 10th century Taanach cult stand Yhwh appears to be represented as a horse below a sun disc (I discuss these issue here). The popularity of these two divine attributes goes back even further in the wider ancient Near East. In the Amarna letters the pharaoh is sometimes addressed as “My Sun” (EA 45, 49, 60, 61), but is also addressed at least once as “My Storm-God” (EA 52). At Ugarit the king as addressed as “the Sun” as well (KTU 2.81.19, 30). Mark Smith suggests Byblos and Tyre represent the points of contacts for the ideologies of Egypt and Iron Age Syria-Palestine (p. 72 here). It seems Yhwh’s assimilation of these roles is not just a result of his perceived kingship over the gods, but may also be part of a campaign to make sure Yhwh is represented with all the popular imagery.

Were the Dead Divine in Pre-Exilic Israel?

Most informed readers of the Bible are familiar with the witch of Endor’s reference to the deceased Samuel as an אלהים, or “deity.” She uses the plural participle עלים (“ones rising up”) with אלהים, but Saul asks מה תארו “what is his (singular) form,” in response. The participle may then be morphologically assimilating to the plural form of אלהים. Another text that may provide a few more clues regarding Israel’s view of its deceased is found in Ezekiel 32:21, which reads as follows:

ידברו־לו אלי גבורים מתוך שׁאול את־עזריו
ירדו שׁכבו הערלים חללי־חרב

The mighty gods shall speak to him out of the midst of Sheol with those that help him
They descend. The uncircumcised lay down, slain by the sword.

Most translations render אלי גבורים with “mighty chiefs,” or “the strong and the mighty” or something similar, but I don’t believe this reading is warranted. I’m not convinced אל ever means anything other than “divinity,” although it is often presupposed by exegetes. The phrase is the plural of אל גבור, which is found in reference to Hezekiah in Isa 9:6 and in reference to God in Isa 10:21.

The context is a prophecy about the destruction of Egypt, who will descend to Sheol and find the uncircumcised nations of the earth there. I suggest the אלי גבורים are the deceased kings. This would align with Assyro-Babylonian and Syro-Palestinian ideologies concerning kings as deities both in life and death.


CSBS Paper Submission

CSBS, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, is holding their annual meeting at the University of New Brunswick on May 29–31. I’m submitting to the general programme, which requires a 100 word paper proposal. Here’s what I managed to shrink down to around 100 words:

Monotheism—Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?

This paper will take up Peter Hayman’s 1991 Journal of Jewish Studies discussion of “monotheism” as an inadequate descriptor for ancient Jewish belief regarding deity. It will align with Hayman’s argument against the applicability of the term from an etymological point of view, but will depart from Hayman in suggesting that “monotheism,” which developed as a descriptive term, can still adequately describe formative Judaism. It will show that “monotheism” comprises a specific view of the nature and function of other divine beings in relation to Yhwh, and will describe this view and its development within formative Judaism.

Hayman’s paper, which I highly recommend, is briefly described here.


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