I’m excited to see that an Equinox volume to which I contributed a small essay is now available. The volume, Method Today: Redescribing Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Dr. Brad Stoddard, offers reflections by senior scholars on four different aspects of the study of religion, followed by responses from younger scholars. The table of contents is above. I responded to Dr. Naomi Goldenberg’s discussion of “description,” and I used cognitive linguistics to address concerns with attempts to define “religion,” as well as the notion that there’s something problematic about the category in light of its incommensurability with definition. You can get a 25% discount by using the code RELIGION at checkout. (Feel free to email me for more information on my essay.)
Tag Archives: Religion
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.
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.
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.
The recent issue of Critical Research on Religion has a fascinating article in it by Timothy Fitzgerald entitled “Critical religion and critical research on religion: Religion and politics as modern fictions.” The article argues for understanding religion as a cultural construct that was produced simultaneously with another construct, “politics.” According to Fitzgerald, politics was developed as the public and culturally powerful counterpart to the private and internalized notion of religion. (Fitzgerald’s 2003 The Ideology of Religious Studies advocates for eliminating the concept of “religion” from contemporary scholarship. One of the broad criticisms of his book was that he neglects to address the elimination of cultural constructs like politics, economy, etc. His 2007 book, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, appears to be responding to that criticism by incorporating other categories into his critique. The current article takes up that framework.) This dichotomy was developed for a variety of reasons, but primary among them was the protection of male property rights:
The right to private ownership of the earth, including the right to buy and sell for purely personal gain, unencumbered by any effects the practice might have on the lives of other people or the environment, is a historically peculiar idea, one which would have been incomprehensible to most of the peoples who ever existed. And yet this fiction of the possessive individual and his or her supposed rights of private ownership has been transformed into our dominant notion of ‘‘human nature’’ and has become the globalizing norm of the world order.
‘‘Politics’’ was invented in the first place in the 17th century to refer to what was then a radically new concept of government elected to represent male private property interests. Over the centuries, and especially since the founding of the United States of America, liberal propaganda has discursively embedded ‘‘politics’’ and the state as the neutral domain of rational conflict resolution, freed from the unwanted interferences of ‘‘religion.’’ Today, it is not only university departments of political science that are responsible for the mystified reproduction of politics and the state as the neutral forum for adjudicating different interests. Uncritical studies of religion perform the mirror image function through the discursive reproduction of religion and religions as reified entities and even as malign agents. The myth can only be challenged from both sides of the ideological division.
There will be some ideas that will grate against most of our sensitivities, but I highly recommend the article. I think it raises some significant questions related to our Western conceptualizations of religion and politics and their relationship to each other.
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
Last week, The New York Times ran the column “When Some Turn to Church, Others go to CrossFit,” which discusses the tendentious way that attempts to define religion lean to more inclusiveness than intended. CrossFit is the example used in the article of a practice that is not usually called a “religion” but seems to meet the criteria of predominant definitions. Today The Week published an article by Damon Linker entitled “Why Can’t The New York Times‘ religion columnist define religion?” It basically insists that religion can accurately be defined and that The New York Times is being dumb. Here’s the money shot:
allow me to give this definition thing a shot: Religion is any set of norms, practices, and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.
Many of these comprehensive ways of life posit the existence of one or more deities, but not all of them do — just as others teach that a life awaits us after death, while still others make no such claims. What matters is the comprehensiveness, not the content, of the way of life.
The central feature of all religion, according to the author, is comprehensiveness. It requires “broader claims about the meaning or purpose of life, death, morality, love, and the origins, foundations, and ends of existence.” Where the line of comprehensiveness is drawn is never stated, which raises questions about traditionally recognized religions that don’t play politics or attempt to govern the bedroom or make claims about dress, diet, love, origins, etc. At the same time, there are plenty of non-religious institutions that absolutely make those broad claims. Philosophy and science are certainly capable of functioning as religions according to this definition, as are things like Atheism, Marxism, and various brands of nationalism, in addition to many adherents of CrossFit who absolutely do extend explicit and extrapolated CrossFit principles out into comprehensiveness.
The author produces the additional feature of reason v. revelation in an explicit attempt to excise philosophy from the definition:
Whereas religion is typically based on some form of revelation, mystical intuition, or extra-rational insight, a philosophical life is one lived in relentless pursuit of the comprehensive truth using reason or rational reflection alone.
But this is an ad hoc way of overcoming the objection that really only fits contemporary Western philosophical perspectives. During the Enlightenment period, the biggest religious debates largely took place between revelation-based and reason-based conceptualizations of religion. In fact, the entire category of religion is an invention of that period that grew in large part out of those debates. That contemporary use of “reason” as something distinct from religion is an effort to compartmentalize and control values. Religion as an independent category is a modern Western construct that was developed to serve and legitimize European colonial ideology. It is not some transcultural and transhistorical entity that exists outside of our minds. It’s something the Western world created in order to organize its understanding of the world in ways that served its economic, political, and ideological interests.
This leads to the next concern I have with this attempt to assert a definition about religion, namely the rhetoric of prescriptivism. People want clear definitions because it helps them to put things into categories so they’re more easily manipulable and adjudicated. Religion is a particularly critical category in the Western world given questions like tax exemption, the separation of church and state, and growing concerns over the boundaries of the religious and the secular. Those who control the definition can set the terms for those questions, whether officially or in public discourse. Often concerns for strict definitions are more about structuring values and power than about better understanding how categories are used. An undefinable category is particularly unhelpful. In any attempt to assert a definition about a cultural phenomenon, an important question is who benefits from the given definition. Why is it so important to Linker that religion be clearly delineated?
My final concern is the assumption that conceptual categories are able to be delineated. What definitions do is reduce the membership of conceptual categories down to the smallest number of features that (1) are shared by all its members and (2) distinguish the category from others. These are called necessary and sufficient features. They are necessary for inclusion and sufficient for distinction. The problem with this is that it presupposes that categories form and are governed by that underlying conceptual substructure, which is simply not how the human mind creates or uses conceptual categories. Neither children nor adults learn words and concepts by learning the necessary and sufficient features that delineate them. The meaning that we associate with words and concepts does not develop based on those features, it develops based on how words and concepts are used. This is why word meanings change, and it’s why trying to use definitions of conceptual categories predictively or prescriptively is particularly problematic. Dictionaries do not establish or adjudicate meaning, they just try to figure out how words are used and reduce that usage down to necessary and sufficient features. Conceptual categories are rarely amenable to that reduction, though, since they do not form around those features. The entire project of defining religion, as a result, is fundamentally and methodologically flawed.