Tag Archives: Religion

Method Today: Redescribing Approaches to the Study of Religion

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.) 

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.

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.

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.

Religion and Politics as Modern Fiction

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.

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.

Why can’t the New York Times’ religion columnist define 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.

Why “Religion” is a Problematic Category

“Religion” is a category that cannot be defined. There are certainly definitions out there, but there are several problems undermining every single one. From a theoretical point of view, there’s the fallacy underlying dictionary definitions that assumes terms and concepts develop based on underlying conceptual structures. According to these assumptions, categories develop from and are governed by sets of necessary and sufficient features. The necessary ones are necessary for inclusion; the sufficient ones are sufficient to distinguish the members of the category from other categories. A definition is generally the smallest set of features that separates the category from all others. For example, a “bird” can be defined as a (1) feathered (2) vertebrate (3) animal. Those three features are necessary for inclusion and sufficient for distinction.

This works for birds, but it does not work for most categories, and particularly conceptual constructs. Take “furniture,” for instance. Try to reduce everything you refer to as “furniture” down to necessary and sufficient features without including numerous things that aren’t really furniture. Definitions of religion that try to distill the concept down to necessary and sufficient features do one of two things: (1) they choose features that do not include all the phenomena widely called religion, or (2) they choose features that are so broad that they include traditionally non-religious institutions. Regarding the first, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings as central to religion, but many traditions long referred to as religions do not assert supernatural beings, which makes that an inaccurate feature. Regarding the second, other definitions use features that are far too broad, like concerns with an afterlife, the transcendent, or ritual. These features would include numerous institutions not considered “religions.” The fact is that the concept does not have boundaries. Human language is not focused on boundaries of concepts, but on their centers. Boundaries are fuzzy and unclear until a need arises to draw them, and at that point rhetorical expediency is usually what determines them. No boundaries can successfully be drawn around the concept of religion in any way approaching objectivity or empiricism.

The next problem is that the entire concept of religion itself was created during the Enlightenment to serve Western structurings of values and power, and particularly colonialism. The original Latin term religio referred to any social or ethical responsibility or obligation, usually involving ritual or the performance of some task. Over time it began to refer to obligations to deities. When it was  adopted into developing Christian worldviews, it referred to the monastic orders. Each order constituted a different “religio” within Christianity.

When the Reformation brought increased power and influence to the separate offshoots and movements within Christianity, it raised concerns for how to understand their relationship to each other, to Jewish and Muslim cultures, as well as to the new cultures that were increasingly coming under the scrutiny of Westerners. This began the internalization and privatization of “religion” as a compulsion to the divine. Religion was a universal and innate orientation to God (it was asserted to be monotheistic) that resulted in different cultural mores and practices as it was filtered through the fallen minds and practices of the different cultures of the world.

Protestant Christianity was considered the most pure expression of “religion” (it was Protestants doing the considering). Catholicism was considered just as depraved and corrupt as other non-Christian cultures. The term paganopapism began to be used to equate Catholic priestly practices with paganism, precisely in the service of this view of “religion” as an internal cognitive phenomenon, rather than obligatory practices and rituals. As Protestant Christianity continued to fracture and multiply the available vehicles for salvation, bickering and infighting became quite a concern, particularly for the state. Salvation became more about propositions than about institutions, which divided up the available channels, and we finally had plural “religions.”

The discovery of and increased exposure to different cultures required a rubric under which they could all be situated, and Protestant notions of religion were used as a framework for understanding their worldviews and their practices. We have scriptures, so we looked for their scriptures. We have beliefs about deity, so we looked for their beliefs about deity. This influenced the way other cultures thought about themselves, their practices, and their relationship to us. As an example, Ghandi first read the Gita in an English translation in the UK. The impact of this scripturalization and interiorization of religion on other cultures would be difficult to overstate. It certainly facilitated and rationalized European colonialism, and today’s definitions, directly descended from those of the Enlightenment, continue to facilitate the cultural and ideological imperialism of both religious and non-religious groups.

For these and a number of other reasons, the notion that “religion” is a phenomenon that can be empirical distinguished from others is suspect. To speak of “religion” in antiquity is even more problematic, as there’s no evidence whatsoever that anyone ever organized their institutions or ideas according to that rubric. Distinguishing religion from culture, politics, ethnicity, etc., generally serves someone’s structuring of power, and for that reason alone, we ought to be careful about it. The fact that those distinctions also tend to prioritize belief over and against practice and other relationships raises further concerns with the usefulness of the category.

Here are some publications for further research:

W. C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion

Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies

J. Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious”

Harrison, ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment

Asad, Genealogies of Religion

Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions

Boyer, The Fracture of an Illusion

Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence

Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West

Schilbrack, “The Social Construction of ‘Religion’ and Its Limits”

Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept


Some Facts & Recommendations About Terrorism

ETA: Here’s the newer Global Terrorism Index from 2016.

In the wake of this week’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France and Boko Haram attack in northeastern Nigeria, a lot of rhetoric has been floating around the internet regarding the nature of Islam and its relationship to extremism and terrorism. Research has long been gathered related to terrorism and its motivations, so facts are readily available that can help to contextualize the discussion. Unfortunately, they mostly go ignored in the interest of promoting one ideological position or another.

Most of the following comes from the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2014 Global Terrorism Index. Important insights from this report include (1) key trends, (2) correlates of terrorism, and (3) successful strategies for ending terrorism. In this post I’d like to share some of these facts and some ways we can contribute to more constructive discourse on the problem.


Defining terms is a critical (and contested) aspect of the categories utilized in the report, so following is the definition of “terrorism” used:

The GTI . . . defines terrorism as ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.’ This definition recognises that terrorism is not only the physical act of an attack, but also the psychological impact it has on a society for many years after.

This is a somewhat broad definition, although some might quibble with the exclusion of state-sponsored violence. Using this definition, though, the GTI ranked the impact of terrorism within 162 countries:

Terrorism Impact


As the report notes, there was a 61% increase in terrorist attacks from 2012 (11,133) to 2013 (17,958), and 2013’s attacks represent a fivefold increase from 2000 (3,361). Deaths occurred in 50% of terrorist attacks. More than 60% of the deaths attributable to these attacks occurred in one of five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. The following charts show various trends over the last 15 years:

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This next graph shows how significant events influenced the rise and fall of deaths resulting from terrorist attacks:

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The war in Iraq and the outbreak of the Syrian war coincide with the beginnings of the two largest spikes in terrorist activity. Religious-motivated terrorist activity increased significantly since 2002, when non-religious terrorism predominated. Outside of largely Islamic territories (Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia), political and ethnic/nationalist separatist terrorism predominates, as this chart illustrates:

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In 2013 Islamic extremism did account for the majority of terrorist activity, but as the following chart shows, this is part of a recent and severe increase owing in large part to the rise of ISIL and Boko Haram:

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Contributing Factors

You’ll note that comparison with figure 1 above shows the sharpest increase coincides with the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The Iraq War also coincides with an increase in activity. As the report finds, over 70% of terrorist activity occurs in areas experiencing major conflicts. Robert Pape argues that upwards of 90% of suicide terrorism is aimed specifically at uprooting occupying forces, a motivation that crosses the ideological boundaries that are drawn between the secular and the religious. The most prolific suicide bombers of the twentieth century, the Tamil Tigers, were ethnic separatists who appealed to Marxist ideology in their literature. The GTI highlights that, since 2000, 90% of suicide attacks have taken place in the Middle East and South Asia. This does not coincide with any change in the nature or function of Islam as a religion or an ideology, but is a function of the political/ethnic/social/economic dynamics at work in these areas. From the GTI:

From thousands of socio-economic, governance and attitudinal variables analysed, three groupings of indicators show a multivariate significant relationship with the GTI:

— Political stability
— Intergroup cohesion
— Legitimacy of the state

Areas where terrorist attacks are most frequent are areas where there is little political stability, where ethnic, religious, nationalist, and other groups experience conflict, and where the government lacks legitimacy. The fact that more than 70% of terrorism occurs in regions of major conflict suggests war is one of the predominant catalyst for terrorism in areas where those indicators are present.

Terrorism Outside Islamic Regions

Agencies in the United States and in the European Union have gathered a great deal of data regarding terrorism in their areas. For the EU, see the 2014 European Union Terror Situation and Trend Report. In the general overview it notes that 152 terrorist attacks were carried out in the EU in 2013, resulting in seven deaths. Two of those attacks are categorized by Europol as religiously inspired (resulting in one death). While religiously inspired attacks were quite low, there were 216 suspects arrested for planning or carrying out religiously inspired terrorist attacks. This marks an increase over the 159 arrests in the same category in 2012, and represents about 40% of the total 535 arrests for terrorist activities in 2013. This report from the FBI analyzes the 318 terrorist incidents, resulting in 3,178 deaths, that occurred in the US between 1980 and 2005. According to that report, Islamic extremism accounted for 6% of the attacks, just under the 7% attributed to Jewish extremism.

Mitigating Radicalization

A 2010 Duke University study available here analyzed the attitudes of Muslim-Americans toward extremism to attempt to account for the very low occurrence of radicalization taking place on American soil. It outlines several findings:

– There is increased anti-Muslim sentiment
– There is a low number of radicalized Muslim-Americans
– The practices of Muslim-American communities prevent radicalization

The following practices were identified as mitigating radicalization:

– Public and private denunciations of terrorism and violence
– Self-policing
– Community-building
– Political engagement
– Identity politics

The last practice requires some explanation. The report shows that Muslim-Americans have become more assertive of their Muslim identities since 9/11. While a great deal of rhetoric attempts to equate increased piety with an increased chance of radicalization, the report showed the opposite. Citing a 2007 Pew study (here), the Duke report noted that Muslim-Americans who said religion was “very important” in their lives were 1/3 less likely to respond that attacks on civilians were “sometimes” or “often justified” to defend Islam. When Muslim-Americans felt their identities as Americans were salient (increasingly common since 9/11), their communities were organized less frequently by ethnic group, and they felt a cultural connection to other Americans, reducing the occurrence of radicalization. The study states:

Over the past several decades, immigration and conversion have turned Muslim communities into far more multiethnic sites than the homogenous enclaves of a generation ago. According to a survey of more than 400 mosques in 2000, one third had no majority of participants from any single ethnic group. Immigrants from numerous countries come to know one another far more than they would have in their home countries, creating a new Islamic identity that is distinct from the narrower sense of ethnic identity.

It continues:

Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding.


The report concludes with the following recommendations for mitigating radicalization among Muslims:

1. Encourage politic mobilization. This is the most significant positive trend the report noted

2. Promote public denunciations of violence. Note: “promote,” not “demand.” The report points out that public opinion polls suggest Americans are woefully unaware of the “consistent and strong public denunciations following incidents here and abroad.”

3. Reinforce Self-Policing Efforts by Improving the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Muslim-American Communities

4. Assist community-building efforts

5. Promote outreach by social service agencies. “This kind of engagement is viewed as an opportunity for Muslim-Americans to become stakeholders in the general community.”

6. Support enhanced religious literacy. A great example of this might be sharing the Letter to Baghdadi, an open letter recently published by a group of scholars of Islam denouncing terrorism and highlighting the many and various ways terrorism violates Islam and the Qur’an and has no legitimate basis in either.

7. Increase civil rights enforcement.Discrimination and contempt breeds bigotry and radicalization. ” Enhanced civil rights enforcement at local, state, and federal levels will contribute toward addressing Muslim-American concerns.”


Terrorism is too critical a problem to publicly engage with naive assumptions and empty rhetoric. Let’s get educated on the issues before we lose ourselves in rhetorical excesses and dogmatism.

Jim Linville on Religiously Oriented SBL Sections

Dr. Jim is understandably upset about some recent events regarding a new SBL program unit and shares some concerns he has with SBL sections that privilege religious presuppositions. I think he makes some good points.