Why would (otherwise intelligent) scholars believe in

I do not know if many scholars of religion still believe in gods or spirits, but I know that a great many of them believe in the existence of religion itself – that is, believe that the term "religion" is a useful category, that there is such a thing as religion out there in the world, that the project of "explaining religion" is a valid scientific project. Naturally, many of the scholars in question will also say that religion is a many splendored thing, that there are vast differences among the varieties of religious belief and behavior. Yet they assume that, underlying the diversity, there is enough of a common set of phenomena that a "theory of religion" is needed if not already available.

One might think this unfortunate and obdurate tendency to believe in the scholarly equivalent of unicorns is chiefly confined to theologians or other marginal scholars. That is not the case. Indeed, quite a lot of people these days argue for a "scientific explanation of religion". In preparation for this they gather the best and most up-to-date scientific gear, from genetics and evolutionary biology to, inevitably, neuro-imaging.

I applaud the use of such tools in general and deplore it all the more in this particularly futile pursuit.mvet3

Fang epic recitation – a matter of "religion"?

There really is no such thing as "religion". Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing out there as "religion", meaning a kind of social and cognitive package that includes views about supernatural agency (gods and suchlike), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers and the constitution of specific organizations (castes of prests, churches, etc.). All this, as I said, is thought to be a "package", where each element makes sense in relation to the others, given a coherent and explicit doctrine. Indeed, this is the way most major "religions" – Islam, Hinduism for instance – are presented to us, the way their institutional personnel, many scholars and most believers think about them.

 

 

But all this is a recent invention. Most of human evolution took place in small-scale communities that did not have any religious institutions. This was also the case of most human groups outside modern economic development until recently, and it is still the case in remote places outside the direct influence of modern states. In all these places, there is no unified domain of "religion". True, there may be various ideas about superhuman agents, there may be ideas about morality (often not connected with those agents), there may be notions about ritualized sequences that must be performed (some with and many without a connnection to spirits etc.), there may be community affiliation (generally unrelated to morality or superhuman agency), but there is nothing that would justify putting all these things together.

 

 

"Religion" is the recent invention of special organizations that flourished in early states, typically in literate societies. These institutions grouped ritual specialists who collectively tried to set up a corporate monopoly on the provision of particular services – and gradually associated stable doctrine, ritual standardization, excusivity of services and other aspects of corporate branding.

That is why scientific explanations of what happens in religions and what is usually described as "religious" end up deflating the term, and showing that there is nothing sui generis to these kinds of thoughts, norms of practices. For instance, many well-intentioned people have told us that "religion" creates costly signaling, but that is of course found in many other contexts of human communication, and is often not found in "religion". The same goes for other arguments, e.g. that "religion" requires suspension of disbelief, that it creates social cohesion (or social fission), that it creates a unique kin of experience, etc. All these features are sometimes found in association with superhuman agent beliefs, and often without such beliefs, such that the category "religious" explains little if anything.

Note that this is emphatically not a matter of "definition". Many people in the business of explaining religion would say that we need a better, broader, more empirical, whatever, definition of religion. But this seems largely misguided. The problem is one of ontology, not terminology. Square triangles and unicorns may be very clearly defined – they simply do not exist.

In many human languages and cultures there is no local term for "religion", and where there is one it is invariably a term created or hijacked by specific literate organizations, as the label for their specialty. What does it mean, when a particular language has no equivalent for something other people find obvious?

It may point to either one of two diametrical situations. Consider the contrast between "syntax" or "economics" on the one hand, and "sport" or "divorce" on the other. Even though most human languages had no term for "syntax" until recently, they all had a syntax. Even though the notion of economics is a scientific category, all human societies have economic processes. But in a place where there is no term that could be translated as "soccer" or "divorce", it is quite certain that no-one plays sports or gets divorced.

Studying "religion" in the spirit- or god- or ancestor-related stuff that is found before and outside religious institutions is like studying "sport" in a place where there is no such concept. One can certainly find that the people in that place sometimes do strenuous physical activities, that at other times they compete in achieving difficult tasks, that they laughingly throw objects at each other, that they often support their lineage against others… But there is no single time and place where people compete in playful strenuous and difficult physical tasks and others watch and support one of the competing sides. "Sport" is one of these institutions that some human groups have and others do without.

Obviously, the same goes for "religion". But if there is no such thing, why go on about it? Why do (otherwise intelligent) scholars want to use that term?

I see only three possible reasons.

[1] A rather sinister one, from a scientific viewpoint, is ideological motivation. Claiming that "religion" is not just a specific institution of particular times and places, but a stable feature of humankind, may be a normative statement, implying that all (or all fully developed) human polities should have religious institutions, that the state of most tribal societies in that regard is somehow abnormal or primitive. This is not just a fantasy of mine. For religious institutions, it is obviously important to claim that there is such a thing as "religion" ( which these institutions are in the business of explaining, managing, etc.). If you don't accept that, there is no reason for those institutions' social role or indeed existence. This may explain why the discipline of "religious studies" (in places where it exists) is invariably penetrated by religious apology, no matter how heroic the efforts of serious academics to defend genuine scholarship against that insidious invasion (see books by Don Wiebe).

[2] A more depressing explanation is that people who talk about "religion" simply have not done their homework and studied their anthropology. This would apply to most journalists' use of the term. I have many a painful recollection of trying to explain to journalists, e.g. that it makes no sense to ask whether Neandertals had "religion", that "animists" as counted in world surveys are bnot members of a "religion" – all to no avail.

[3] Or it could be a convenient way of pointing to what you are studying, without really being committed to the existence of that particular unicorn. Which leads me to a recent exchange on the ICCI website. A while ago, Harvey Whitehouse worte a post on the many varieties of stuff commonly found under the label "religion". Maurice Bloch posted a spirited reply, along lines rather similar to what I am arguing here, although with more asperity. As Dan Sperber and Emma Cohen commented, Whitehouse and Bloch were talking at cross-purposes.

Well, then, shto delat' ? What is to be done?

It makes some pragmatic sense, and it is almost forgiveable, if you are in the business of attracting grants or selling books, to talk about "the brain and religion", "the evolution of religion", "how religion works", "explaining religion", or even, if you are really desperate, of "religion explained".

All this is harmless if your scholarship then proceeds to deflate the notion and explain why your empirical studies have to focus on genuine natural kinds, like costly signaling, counter-intuitive concepts, monopolistic specialists guilds, coalitional psychology, imagined agents, etc.
Our situation is difficult in that there is a great amount of social demand for naturalistic explanations of "religion", all the more so in a world made more dangerous by religious fanatics. Obviously, meeting that demand does not imply that we believe in "religion". But simply deflating the misleading concept seems dangerously close to "having nothing to say about religion". People who are worried about the dangers of modern zealotry may tend to find the statement that "there is no such thing as religion" rather academic. So we have to engage in a particularly delicate rhetorical exercise, showing that cognitive science and evolution have a lot to say about what people usually call "religion", and gently leading people to the realization that "religion", like aether and phlogiston, belongs in the ash-heap of scientific history.

24 Comments

  • Maurice Bloch
    Maurice Bloch 22 February 2011 (12:38)

    I agree with all the points made here and I unashamedly add that I made them sometime back (including the one about states) in a paper to which I give a reference here. This paper however added that many of the phenomena often called religious are the basis of many aspects of human sociality. I shall be happy to send the PDF to any member of ICCI. 2008 “Why religion is nothing Special but is Central” in The Sapient Mind: archaelogy meets neuroscience. Philosophical Transactions of the royal Society. June 2008 pp 2055-2062

  • Benson Saler
    Benson Saler 22 February 2011 (16:59)

    Pascal Boyer asks why scholars might “believe in the existence of religion itself,” and he supplies what he takes to be reasons for not doing so. He packs quite a lot into his post. So much, indeed, that an adequate refutation would require a long reply. I apologize for not furnishing such a refutation. But I will try to make some relevant points. I begin with unicorns. “Unicorn” is a classical, textbook example of a meaningful but empty category. Most of us can describe a unicorn, probably more precisely (and perhaps more enthusiastically) than we can describe an aardvark. Unicorns, moreover, are represented in the graphic arts, in folktales, in poetry, in ballet, and so forth. So the category has representations as well as meanings, even though there are neither living animal nor fossil instantiations. In that sense, unicorn differs from “four-sided triangles,” a paradoxical verbal concoction that Pascal seems to regard as another exemplar of the non-existence to which he consigns “religion.” But triangle is a perfect example of a truly essentialist category. Our rather simple definition of triangle necessarily applies to all triangles, real and imaginable. A four-sided triangle is not a mistake: it is an impossibility, it can have no representations, and it is therefore a joke. So let’s drop it and go back to unicorns. They are objects of social consensus, they exist in their representations, and they are meaningful — but less meaningful, I think, than religion and religions. In the real world we do encounter elements that we typically associate with religion (assertions about the reality and relevance of gods, ghosts, and spirits, observable rituals addressed to posited “supernatural” agents, and much else). Why do we look for packages of elements? Because the most prototypical exemplars of what we mean by religion — our adjudged clearest or best examples — do typically associate different elements. History, experience, and scholarly interests justify putting things together. But this does not mean that we need to conceptualize those elements within a framework that emphasizes necessity and sufficiency. Nor is there some essence to religion. Nor is the “package” always and everywhere the same. Nor do the elements exist in some “structure” where the meaning of one is determined by the meaning of all. Nor need we suppose that all of the typicality features that our scholarship disposes us to regard as “religious” necessarily evolved together. I deem religion to be a useful construct for talking about things that interest me. As a construct, it has a history, and there are political implications that attach to its use in maintaining a universe of discourse both with fellow scholars and with the larger community that supports scholarly research. But those considerations, I think, are only of secondary importance. Of primary importance is the intellectual utility of the category, especially once we refine it. To describe what I mean by refinement would require quite a lot of space, and I will not abuse your patience by attempting to spell out what I mean here. Suffice it to say that my approach, as I put it elsewhere, “emphasizes central tendencies rather than essences, fuzzy peripheries rather than sharp boundaries, resemblances rather than identities, and typical features rather than distinctive ones.”

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 23 February 2011 (01:54)

    Benson Saler is right that one can develop a family resemblance or ‘polythetic’ notion of religion –- in fact we already have, if anything, too many of them –- and he is right too that a proper scientific notion need not be given a definition in terms of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. But –- remember Leach’s and Needham’s discussions of ‘kinship’ –- the issue is not whether we can define or at least characterize a non-empty category of religion but whether there are interesting generalizations that apply specifically to members of that category. If there are not, then the category fails to ‘cut nature at the joints’ or to identify a ‘natural kind’, or to denote a ‘homeostatic property cluster’ In this respect, as Pascal argues, ‘religion’ fails. It may still serve to wave hands at a vague range of phenomena of interest, but the risk of misunderstanding is great.

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 23 February 2011 (02:02)

    Like Maurice Bloch, I agree with what Pascal says (and unlike Maurice I did not publish these ideas earlier, but they have been part of our conversations, both with Maurice and with Pascal, for years). And I enjoy the way Pascal says it. This being said, I still wonder (possibly because it is my turn to write a book on issues in this area) whether, there is not a distinct challenge to anthropological explanation presented by practices, artifacts, institutions and beliefs that presuppose what, borrowing and adapting a notion from the work of Gyuri Gergely and Gergo Csibra on pedagogy, I am tempted to call ‘irremediably opaque’ causalities (“relevant mysteries” with “minimal counterintutiveness” as it were). They have argued that opaque causality is the object of particular attention when it is presented ostensively and suggested ways in which such a ‘bias’ (which is not just attentional but also interpretive) plays a major role in cultural transmission, in particular of skills and artifacts (that end up losing their obscurity with the acquisition of true competence). From an epidemiological point of view, this bias, or, I would prefer, this ‘disposition’ creates as a side-effect a major susceptibility to persistent opacities that cannot be resolved, and that have accumulated in human culture in a variety of ways. Call (just for this discussion) this susceptibility R-susceptibility. Call this peculiar opacity property R. Now most so-called ‘religious’ practices, artifacts, institutions and beliefs are prototypical examples of items having this R property. So, I am tempted to say – it might help sell a book –, there is no such thing as religion. There are – god forbid! — no religions in the plural. Stop thinking of religion as a thing, a type of cultural system, or of institution, or something that people have, believe, practice, and so on. On the other hand, there may be a property — not a thing, a property — that it would not be so wrong to call ‘religion’, the property R. Or maybe we should just say that, in the best of cases, ‘religion’ roughly and misleadingly points to most things having this property. Or maybe even this is too much. What do you think?

  • Benson Saler
    Benson Saler 23 February 2011 (06:19)

    I appreciate Dan Sperber’s two posts. My comments are addressed to the first, not the second (I’m not sure that I understand all of what is said in the latter post). Dan’s mention of Leach, Needham, and kinship acted on me as something of a tonic (or perhaps I should compare it to the bell that rouses old firehorses). Rodney Needham, some of us recall, was especially industrious in deconstructing categories. He wrote a very long essay purporting to show that there really is no such thing as kinship, then a short essay doing away with religion, followed by a sizeable book claiming that belief does not constitute a natural resemblance among humans. His colleague Peter Riviere assaulted marriage. While these and similar exercises usually provided food for thought, the solemn intensity of the There’s- No-Such-Thing- As School of Anthropology, if unchecked, might eventually render social scientists mute (I hope that no one cheers at the prospect). After all, the criticisms that Pascal, Dan, Maurice, and others make of religion can be extended, mutatis mutandis, to a large number of analytical categories in the social sciences. In my opinion, human beings are the phenomenal subjects of anthropological research. Flesh and blood humans, not religion or culture or, as Russell McCutcheon would have it, religion in culture. Those latter categories are useful only if they facilitate the making of interesting generalizations about human beings. Even if (to borrow an expression from Dan and to put it in a context that he didn’t intend) those categories “serve to wave hands at a vague range of phenomena,” they may still be useful. The danger of misunderstanding, moreover, is virtually omnipresent in any case. I think that we ought to consider further what sort of categories we need and can expect. Do we really need to “‘cut nature at the joints’, or to identify a ‘natural kind’, or to denote a ‘homeostatic property cluster'”? Might we be better off if we adopt and adapt John Searle’s “social ontology”? What, indeed, would it do for our understandings if we supposed that the existential authenticity of what we call religion follows from the application of some concept of religion? In his post Pascal tells us that “The problem is one of ontology, not terminology.” But there are ontologies and there are ontologies. And I’m not at all certain that the disconnect that Pascal implies between ontology and terminology is warranted or serviceable.

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 23 February 2011 (13:23)

    I have to say that I had a bit of a chuckle reading the renowned author of [i]Religion Explained[/i] explain that there is no such thing as religion that needed to be explained. As a philosopher, to be honest, I thought debates such as “is really anything in the world to which abstract word (or concept) [i]x[/i] refers?” to be left to the few remaining Platonists and logical positivists out there. Given the long history of these types of philosophical debates, I thought everyone got the take home hand-out that such words are used pragmatically, and there use depends on the level of analysis by which one is approaching an abstract word or concept. Concepts are artifacts of the human mind—artifacts of the way the human mind groups “things” in the world through various strategies. Certainly, I do not use the same strategy to group conceptually together various beliefs and behaviors into a concept RELIGION, as I would group conceptually together the things currently in my coat pocket. Nonetheless, I have concepts of both. Now, it may be (or [i]seem to be[/i]) entirely arbitrary the way the things are grouped together in my mind, just as it may be (or [i]seem to be[/i]) arbitrary the way that these things are grouped in the world. I had an interesting discussion with another philosopher recently on this topic. He, like Boyer, seemed to think that any contemporary attempt to define religion was just an attempt to salvage the academic study of religious studies. I am not sure how or why this type of thinking has arisen, as of late, or why it should have. In addition, with specific respect to Boyer’s points, one could easily use the same arguments he employs to argue that there is no such thing as science. Does this mean, by [i]reductio[/i], that we just close down universities all together since no school (or college) at a university has a neatly defined subject matter to study? Should we likewise toss out all books that seek to explain nature? Obviously not. My philosophy colleague went on to argue that to the contemporary academic mind, religion is merely a term used nowadays to refer to beliefs that are [i]anti[/i]-scientific and [i]contra[/i]-empirical (as if both of [i]those[/i] concepts are neatly defined!). In other words, to the contemporary academic, RELIGION has no intensions but is merely a relational concept. In contradistinction to his argument, I argued that RELIGION has a prototypical and stereotypical conceptual structure, and thus is a “fuzzy” concept that admits of no clear and distinct borders. Yet, just because it is a “fuzzy” concept does not mean that it is not a useful concept to track (or [i]grok[/i]—as one of my mentors used to say) certain sets of phenomena in the world. Now I agree with Boyer that the phenomena that we group under the conceptual categories of religion and religious are never going to admit of a single explanation. Each (type of) religious belief and behavior is likely to have a different (if not multifarious) explanation(s). And thus, if anyone (and I am not sure who) is tempted to treat religion as a natural kind and then attempts to provide a single explanation or specifically a causal account for religion as such, then surely such a project will fail. But this is not the way that I see scholars who attempt to explain religion undertaking such a task. Instead, I see them carving-off a specific piece of religious phenomenon and operationalizing their definition of religion accordingly, and then giving an account of “religion” with regard to the specific phenomenon and operationalized definition. Why is this not a worthy undertaking? Surely, there will be misunderstandings not only within the lay-population but also within the academic community concerning what some scholar means to say when they claim to have explained religion by such means. There are such misunderstandings and misconceptions produced from any discipline that expands their audience beyond the scholars in that discipline (in fact, just think about how poorly explanations from physics are understood and conceived by the lay-population and academics working in other fields! As is demonstrated [url=http://books.google.com/books?id=SM8zAd3z3ugC&printsec=frontcover&dq=fashionable+nonsense&source=bl&ots=4gFlyFg9Lm&sig=BANKCSrodIdkygX_pu2Kk0-HxTc&hl=en&ei=rfhkTYrAF9T0gAfO5byaBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CD4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q&f=false]here[/url].). Yet, this does not mean that scholars working within that field are confused. To pull apart Boyer’s discussion a bit further, he discusses two different approaches to explanatory accounts of religion (or religious beliefs and behavior). One the one hand, he asks is there something such as religion that needs to be explained, and then a bit later, on the other hand, he asks what does the category “religious” explain. With regard to the former, I do think at some point scholars do need to attempt to explain why certain beliefs and behaviors often are grouped together in societies into what someone with even a vague and fuzzy concept RELIGION, like myself, would recognize as such. This is not to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that all groupings will be the same across cultures—just that the concept RELIGION is helping us to track certain sorts of such groupings (and yes, it is important for such an investigation not to force such a grouping onto the culture under investigation). With regard to the latter question, “what does the category ‘religious’ explain?” appears to me to be a category mistake (pun unabashedly intended!). Categories do not explain anything. They are merely a collection of “things” grouped together by various strategies. Categories are not explanatory devices, and they should not be misunderstood as such. None of this to say that Boyer’s overall point is lost on me: There is a certain academic arrogance present in projects that claim to explain religion, and there often does appear to be a treatment of religion as if it is a unitary package such that one size fits all cultures. Careful elucidation by scholars undertaking tasks to explain religious beliefs and behaviors can avoid such misconceptions and misunderstandings, however. But, this in no way, to my mind anyway, indicates that we should toss the concept RELIGION onto the ash-heap of scientific history as Boyer suggests.

  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 23 February 2011 (13:53)

    I’m sympathetic to Pascal’s claim that religion is ill defined. However, the view that concepts should correspond to a set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient features has been abandoned, both in psychology and in philosophy of mind. Indeed, even the notion of concepts in terms of family resemblances encounters notable difficulties, such that many philosophers believe this notion doesn’t work either. In other words: the problem of defining religion is not unique; one can indeed think of the problem of defining science, art, etc (as mentioned by other commentators). In philosophy of art, the problem of definition is widely discussed. Indeed, either we have to abandon the term art, or restrict it to western art since the 18th century, but even in that case there are borderline cases (e.g., folk art, mass art, found art, etc.) Therefore, it might be useful to look at recent conceptualizations of art in philosophy of art and see if they might applicable to religion: – [b]cluster concepts[/b]: one can define art in terms of a list of features, where large bundles of those features are sufficient, but not necessary for something to count as art. The late Dennis Dutton proposes a clusterlike concept in his latest book, the art instinct. A problem with this is that one ends up with large disjunctive lists of features. If one adds features to the list, there is no obvious way justify this, except by arguing that art (or religion) today also has such-or-such feature. Which begs the question of why this new artistic form was termed art in the first place. – [b]concept pluralism[/b]: this is a neat idea proposed by Christopher Magh Uidhir and P.D. Magnus, forthcoming in [i]Metaphilosophy[/i]. See also Dan Weiskopf’s papers, for example in [i]Synthese[/i]. Basically, the idea is that there is not just one art concept but several, just like we have several legitimate concepts for species in biology. Perhaps this is applicable to religion, for example, we could look as religion-as-ritual, or religion-as-counterintuitive-concepts, religion-as-supernatural-punishment, and so on – [b]the abilities view[/b]: Johan De Smedt and I have a paper forthcoming in[i] Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism[/i], where we argue that the concept of art should not be viewed as a set of objects, but rather as behaviors underpinned by specific cognitive abilities. This ties in with Ruth Millikan’s views of concepts as abilities. According to Millikan, having the concept CAT does not require postulating necessary and sufficient features of cats, but rather it is the ability to recognize cats robustly (but not infallibly) under various conditions. Similarly, having the concept art just requires that one recognizes (or is able to make) art objects under a wide variety of conditions, without having being able to articulate what art is. For religion, one might say that the concept simply consists of abilities, such as an ability to recognize and/or formulate counterintuitive concepts, an ability to engage in certain ritualistic acts and so on. I’m not sure if any of these new philosophical concepts of concept are at all convincing for religion, but they do indicate an alternative way to maintain concepts without having a definition.

  • Christophe Heintz
    Christophe Heintz 23 February 2011 (17:38)

    Very similar questions as the one asked by Pascal about the concept of religion could be, or have been, asked about “science”. Most historians, sociologists and anthropologists of science would now agree that “science” does not refer to a proper kind (natural or other), even though this is a rather disturbing thought. The century long debate in science studies about what is science and whether one should stick to the notion as a fruitful concept for science studies scientists, is as relevant to the case discussed here as the history of, say, the kinship notion in anthropology. I think that the attitude that is now adopted (or should be adopted) in science studies is the one advocated by Pascal for religion: for pragmatic reasons, it’s still interesting to have a field studying what we naturally come to think of as science, even if it turned out that the term can cover a full bunch of diverse phenomena and human practices. — There is, however, a further complication with “science”: Scientists do have interests in emphasising how science differ from pseudo-science in the same way as members of religious institutions have interests in emphasising how religion differ from sects, superstitions, … The complication arises because emphasising the difference is itself a worthwhile project: it leads to the development of better epistemologies and it is fully part of current scientific practices (the practice consist in stating: my project is scientific but not the neighbour’s one). Thus, it is both unscientific to think that “science” refers to a kind and methodologically important for scientists to somewhat assume the contrary. To my mind, that’s no reason to start a (science) war. We can perfectly live with the contradiction and work on a case by case basis to debunk pseudosciences. (proof: that’s what actually happens).

  • Konrad Talmont-Kaminski 24 February 2011 (04:04)

    It is clear that the claim put forward by Pascal is a fecund one, given the debate it has stirred. I would suggest another answer to the question that Pascal asks. While he considers broadly cultural causes, I would suggest a cognitive one – the human propensity to essentialise. It is this propensity – I would argue – that ultimately lies behind, for example, the way in which the Enlightenment thinkers tended to think of the conflict between science and religion as something approaching a Manichean struggle. I mention the science/religion conflict as I see in it another proximate cause of the way scholars think of religion. This does not mean, however, that I do not think that it makes sense to speak of such a conflict but, rather, that any discussions of it and of the two sides of it must be thoroughly cleansed of the essentialism our concepts are heir to. In part this entails giving up on the idea that religion or science are concepts that can lie at the bottom of any really satisfactory explanation, but without giving up on the idea that they can play a role within a good explanation that reaches back to the underlying cultural and cognitive causes. In this way, while I find myself agreeing with many of Pascal’s premisses, I end up siding with those who conclude that it is still [i]useful[/i] to talk about ‘religion’ and even ‘science’. I just hope that such piling of error upon error will not lead to Pascal questioning whether I am otherwise intelligent.

  • Radu Umbres 24 February 2011 (15:32)

    Pascal Boyer’s post made me think of another problematic pair – economics and economy. Indeed, he mentions that, although “economics” is a scholarly category, there are economic processes everywhere. However, taking the point further, is there such a thing as “economy”? My tuppence worth is that there is one for reasons which are not that evident in the case of “religion”. The definition of economics (Wikipedia): the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. This definition is obviously too general, since economics do not study all the above mentioned aspects: eg, it does not study the gastric processes involved in the consumption of food (not that I know of, anyway). It is limited to choices, inputs, outcomes and the institutions that govern interaction in exchanging goods and services. I think there are interesting resemblances between the history of ideas of economy and religion: both were developed in specific social contexts (Maurice Bloch discusses the state for religion and, similarly, economic thinking was associated with the formation of states, starting with the ancient ones and flourishing during early modern empires) and enfolded to encompass more phenomena. Economic mechanisms were developed to account for a great deal of apparently unrelated processes, such as marriage (Gary Becker), political behaviour, art, friendship, ethnic conflict (Barth), and so on. Anthropologists decried the “imperialism” of economics and came up with their own account labelled “substantivism”, emphasising the idiosyncratic character of each society (based, of course, on “Culture”) which rendered futile any “formalist” attempt of using the economics’ framework developed in capitalist societies cross-culturally. A famous quip of the time was that economics is about how people make choices and sociology (or anthropology) was about how they have no choice to make. While both sides made good points and some economic analysis were very crude indeed with respect to larger social processes, the basic tenant of the “formalist” position remains a respectable empirical and analytic tool for studying the circulation of goods and services. If anything, neo-institutional economics manage to include some of the good insights of “substantivists” without doing away with orthodox economics. Summarising, the key concept which holds all forms of economic thought together and can be more or less successfully applied everywhere is individual choice and its aggregation in the interplay of offer and demand. This concept provides a unifying field for all economists, of all creeds. Even in his vitriolic texts, Marx would discuss how the proletariat has no other choice than to sell its labour power. He shifted the emphasis on the system of property relations but he still agreed that economic choices have a real existence. The same goes for behavioural economics, arguing that rationality has been blown out of proportion, searching for biases, fallacies, etc, but still working within the framework of choices. That is why we can draw (fuzzy) borders around the economy: to continue my uninspired example, digestive processes are not part of the economy, since there is no choice involved, but the causal chain taking food from the field to our mouth is. My question is whether the studies of religion can come up with a similar common charter, a minimal set of causal mechanisms underlying “religion”, debatable in form and importance yet coherent enough to mandate a single field of inquiry. If “choice” is that human disposition for economics, as I understand Dan Sperber’s term, what would be the appropriate one for religion? I am sorry for this rather long post, but maybe something good might come up from comparing “religion” with “economy”, coming from someone who obviously knows less about the former and only a bit more about the latter.

  • Pascal Boyer 26 February 2011 (00:28)

    Thanks to all for high-level responses. Only we may be talking at cross-purposes, because I was not considering or discussing the conceptual structure of the term ‘religion’. It seems to me that the concept, as Benson Saler pointed out, is more or less the same as ‘family’ or ‘the economy’ – usually understood in terms of prototypes, a few disjunctive properties, and a family resemblance. What Mitch Hodge and Helen de Cruz say is perfectly valid – and perfectly apposite if I implied, albeit unwittingly, that I believed in concepts as necessary and sufficient conditions. Which I don’t. But the original post was not about the concept religion, polythetic or otherwise. It was about the cross-cultural validity of the phenomenon of religion. In some societies, there is a complex of institutions and organizations that (generally try to) a – integrate and monopolize public (and often private) discourse and instruction about superhuman entities, b – direct public events and ritualized behavior, c – explicate some particular moral norms, and d – organise their own membership. All this is pretty succinct but you see what I mean – because we share the (slightly polythetic) notion of religion that is common in such societies. Call this stuff XB24. My original point was simply that, in many societies today and for most of human evolution, XB24 as described above simply did not exist. So when well-intentioned people tell us that there must be an “evolutionary explanation of religion”, either [1] they are misguided in thinking that our forebears and all of humanity generally had (some form of) XB24 in their cultural environment, or else [2] they are simply (and ever so slightly disingenuously) leveraging a useful popular term to broadcast more interesting reflections on non-XB24 aspects of human cultures. My worry is that in many cases, sophisticated thinkers (in the domain of cultural transmission, neuro-imaging, genetics or evolutionary game-theory, etc.) show many symptoms of case [1] above. As a result a great deal of evolutionary baggage is thrown at an non-existent problem. XB24 is an extremely recent invention, it did not appear as a result of natural selection. Now what is to be done with non-XB24 places? A standard move in classical (pre-Malinowski) anthropology was to say that they in fact did have XB24, though in a rather different way – it was more diffuse, less stable, less doctrinal, more this, less that. Then anthropologists realised they could dispense with all this contorted rhetoric and not use the XB24 assumption conveyed by the term ‘religion’. Dan suggests that we should shift our focus to cognitive processes, which is rather sensible – and asks, Is there not some form of R-susceptibility that has all sorts of interesting consequences for cultural phenomena? Would that not be the focus of an acceptable research programme? Well, up to a point, m’Lord. We know that humans are very good at thinking about physically absent people, deceased persons, fictional characters, inferred agents (like gods). We also know that humans tend to appreciate narratives or other representations that slightly tweak their intuitive expectations. We sometimes say (with not enough evidence) that humans like to claim adherence to patently absurd statements as a way to gauge reciprocal commitment. It seems to me that these (and many other) processes are all engaged in many instances of the R-susceptibility, so that the R-susceptibility notion may itself be slightly misleading… but there we enter empirical issues, not conceptual ones.

  • Thomas Wells 27 February 2011 (17:37)

    I wonder if I might venture an alternative and less sophisticated perspective to Pascal’s provocative post. Your claim is that many who study religion appear to essentialise something which is actually contingent. That is they mistakenly treat religion as an aspect of human nature, like pair-bonding, language, reasoning, emotions, etc and thus one that can be studied scientifically, for example through evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, etc. I think the key to this issue is the word ‘invention’, which you use to descibe the appearance of the modern religious package. It thus resembles other contingent human inventions like fire, marriage, sport, or war. The parallels to war are particularly striking since it is also often attributed to human nature, i.e. innate aggressiveness, despite the fact that the key idea of organised group violence essential to the ‘war package’ is absent from some parts of the world. On this see e.g. Margaret Mead’s classic essay: “Warfare Is Only An Invention – Not a Biological Necessity” There are several implications. First you are right that certain ‘scientific’ kinds of analysis of religion are inappropriate. But second, it is clear that the religious package isn’t any less real or important, and thus worthy of legitimate academic study, than other inventions, like war. It is just that the appropriate techniques will tend to come from the social sciences. Third, one must acknowledge the limitations also of social science methods since although originally an invention religion has become part of the human condition (for much of the world). Thus one should be careful not to look to explain religion in general wholly in terms of social forces (like increasing wealth, political regimes, etc), for the same reasons that Hobbesian accounts of resource conflicts or pride do not by themselves explain war (though they may explain the shape and course of particular wars). Fourth, the fact that religion is an invention does not mean that it cannot become an increasingly significant aspect of the human condition. It clearly has. Just as war or fire is the kind of invention that once discovered sweeps through the whole world because of its evolutionary advantages (and marked disadvantages to those without it), so perhaps there are similar features behind the global success of the religious package. The study of these should be possible in a way that respects your concerns.

  • Jesper Soerensen 28 February 2011 (14:04)

    Debates about definitions of religion, or more radically, whether ‘religion’ is a category better abandoned seem to be an all time classic. This is neither the first nor is it likely to be the last time this debate will resurface. As a historian of religion, employed at a department for the scientific study of religion and doing cognitive science of religion it is my experience that discussions about the relevancy of the concept of religion is endemic to the study and that, at least in Europe, scholars are very well aware if the problems raised by Pascal in his original blog. Further, his and others’ critique of the concept has in general been well received as it has fitted well with more postmodern inspired attempts to criticize and perhaps even exorcise particular concepts from the academy (besides ’religion’, ‘magic’, ‘ritual’, ‘belief’, ‘myth’ are the usual suspects). There is an interesting twist to this, however. Maybe because I am hired to study religion, the concept is, ironically not so important to me. Research interest is generally directed at very particular problems, from historical or ethnographic inquiries to inquiries into particular phenomena, such as for instance construction of charismatic authority or representations of ritual efficacy (formerly known as ‘magic’). As such, ‘religion’ functions as a pragmatic delineation of a range of phenomena; it is impure (as argued earlier by Pascal); and thus it is in itself not explanatory. Most scholars I know therefore agree that essentialist conceptions of religion are wrong, they are well aware of the specificity of the concepts history and the polemical sides of this (especially as a contrastive term to magic and science), and that calling something ‘religion’ do not explain anything in itself. There is no unified domain of religion! That being said, however, I would like to raise two issues. The first is empirical. I believe Pascal is too restrictive in his observation of historical and ethnographic precedents of ‘religion’ outside the Western world of 18th century and forward. Relations between, say, ritual authority, doctrinal codification, constructions of temples or other costly buildings and political power is so widespread and recurrent throughout history that we would need to invent a concept to point to this if ‘religion’ were not already available. Thus the concept should be related to scientific modeling about recurrent features and we should not succumb to the notions that we cannot use concepts that have no ‘local’ counterpart. Scientific concepts should get rid of their parochial history, but there is little evidence supporting that exorcising broad concepts like religion will be very helpful. The question is why certain features coalesce in some situations, and in order to address this we need to describe and possibly explain the foundations of the individual parts (however defined), before trying to unravel possible stable connections. My second issue is more strategic. Let’s say that we actually did abandon the concept of religion from scientific discourse, what would follow? First, the concept is part of several languages, will most certainly remain so, and it is likely to spread to other languages due to globalization, transnational legal statutes etc. Thus, everyone else will still employ the concept except the very academics supposed to know about (e.g. anthropologists, historians of religion or ‘XB24)! Second, this would basically entail that this public realm of discourse would be taken over by theologians and others with a vested interest and a strong tendency to essentialize – the very problem the whole discussion is supposed to remedy. So when some journalist or politician wants to know about a religion in some remote area of the world (or past historical period) we would have to say this has nothing to do with religion, whereas the theologians would be ready to step in. It is my experience that this hardly qualifies the debate! What we need is scientifically informed, unbiased knowledge about the “phenomena usually associated with the concept of religion”. I find it unlikely that spending energy to exorcise the concept will prove helpful in this regard. That being said, we do of course need to be vigilant about anachronisms, false questions and fundamental misunderstandings that arise due to a concepts history. However, as evidenced by the Sokal affair, concepts need neither be old or without reference to the real world in order to be misunderstood and appropriated for pure nonsense.

  • Ilkka Pyysiäinen 28 February 2011 (14:49)

    Pascal’s blog has inspired an interesting discussion that focuses on two questions. First, Pascal is correct in that there is no such thing as religion; ‘religion’ is a theoretical concept (in the sense philosophers of science use this term: we cannot directly observe “religion”). Many commentators already have pointed out that terms such as ‘science’ or ‘war’ are quite similar in this sense. But, second, and as Pascal points out, this was not his point. The point was rather a methodological one: the theoretical term ‘religion’ (with all its implicit associations) should not lead us to study certain socio-cultural phenomena in an essentialistic manner, assuming that there are several aspects of religion that always go together like a horse and carriage. Here he comes rather close to some of Tim Fitzgerald’s recent arguments (which may or may not be successful in the end of the day). I tend to agree with Benson Saler’s line of argumentation: we study certain recurrent patterns that may be called “religion” (or whatever, for that matter) because we have to name our object of study in one way or another. But Pascal’s warnings are important because our own biases may all too easily lead us to think (implicitly, at least) that there is much more unity in “religion” than there actually is. This concerns especially the arguments about the evolution of “religion” (see Pyysiainen & Hauser, The origins of religion: Evolved adaptation or by-product? [i]Trends in Cognitive Sciences [/i] 14(3), 2010, 104â��09). What evolves when “religion” evolves? And how could religion drive the evolution of cooperation without there first being cognitive-emotional mechanisms that make “religion” possible (see Pascal Boyer, Prosocial aspects of afterlife beliefs: Maybe another byproduct. A commentary on Bering. [i]Behavioral and Brain Sciences[/i], 29(5), 206, 466)? Yet it seems both hopeless and futile to try to eliminate ‘religion’ from our scholarly vocabulary altogether. It just needs serious rethinking (still, after Lawson and McCauley’s book [i]Rethinking Religion[/i], 1990). Maybe this was what Pascal was trying to point out (if I may provide a guess). This issue will be partly discussed in the forthcoming first issue of the new journal [i]Religion, Brain & Behavior [/i](in April, I guess). Cheerio, Ilkka

  • Benson Saler
    Benson Saler 28 February 2011 (17:13)

    Pascal Boyer’s remarks in his XB24 post strike me as sensible and important. They are, moreover, consistent with much that he has published over the years. In that regard, I call your attention to his 2004 essay, “Out of Africa: Lessons from a By-Product of Evolution” (in Timothy Light and Brian C. Wilson, eds., “Religion as Human Capacity: A Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson,” 27-43). Boyer notes that many students of religion have sought to understand religion by starting with what are sometimes called “world” or “doctrinal” religions, and going on from there. While doing so is understandable, we should also understand that such religions are secondary growths on more fundamental and more widespread dispositions. Unless we are careful, invoking doctrinal religions can mislead us. Indeed, to paste in a quote from his essay, most religion “has no doctrine, no set catalogue of beliefs that most members should adhere to, no overall and integrated statements about supernatural agents. Most religion is piecemeal, mostly implicit, often less than perfectly consistent and, most importantly, focused on concrete circumstances” (2004:28). Now, as it happens, I have done ethnographic fieldwork among Amerindians in lowland South America whose religious expressions fit Boyer’s characterization of what he calls “most religion.” But one need not go out to exotic locales to validate and understand the point of Boyer’s remarks. Well stacked (so to speak) libraries should provide you with what you need. While I am at the keyboard, I take the opportunity to touch on another set of considerations. Secular, modernist academics appropriated the term “religion” from the larger societies in which they lived and worked. In that regard, religion started as a “folk” category. We academics latched on to it — and attempted to refine it — because it was popularly deemed to refer to important matters in Euro-American societies. Some of us, moreover, wondered if there are significant analogs in other societies to what is called religion in our (“Western”) societies. Our curiosity, I think, is justified. But we ought to be careful and not impose our understandings of Western doctrinal religions on others. And we might also try to reduce much of the hand-wringing over definitions and ontologies.

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 1 March 2011 (15:43)

    I cannot help but feel from Boyer’s latest response that he is on about a straw-man [i]of sorts[/i], and what is needed here is a bit of what Dennett calls “conceptual hygiene.” Contrary to what Boyer insists, I think the problem he presents [i]really is[/i] a conceptual one. I also think, as he points out, that some of this is due to academic baggage from the disciplines of anthropology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. What is needed here is for the baggage to be weighed to make sure it is within the required limits, and then a thorough customs check for contraband. To some extent this disagreement brings to mind how many people nowadays like to distinguish being spiritual versus being religious, being nondenominational versus being institutional, or just religion versus institutionalized (organized) religion. The impression with which I am left following Boyer’s latest response is the last of these distinctions is that which is most pertinent to this discussion. For Boyer, what I and many others would call, institutionalized religion [i]is[/i] religion. Thus, he takes it that when authors such as Bering (whom he linked to in his original post, and with whom I am most familiar) discuss religion in their works that they are talking about institutionalized (organized) religion (which is the mysterious XB24). As I mentioned in my last post, concepts take on different meanings when they are used at different levels of analysis. Most assuredly, at the high end of the human social level (which is largely the domain of anthropology), it makes sense to talk about religion as a highly complex social institution. Religion, understood as such, not only fails to have pancultural applicability, but it also fails to be scientifically reducible to an evolutionary, genetic, or brain-function account. One simply cannot account for such a complex and dynamic social institution by such explanations—no matter how involved. Anthropological analyses of religion often take a top down approach in their explanations (this is perhaps more true historically than it is today). They start with the cultural manifestation writ large and work their way down to the roles of the individual participants. In this way, they see the cultural manifestation ([i]i.e.[/i], religion) as a behemoth that transcends the individual and the group such that it begins to take on a life (independently) of its own. Thus, it cannot be reduced to the individual, or even the society from which it sprung. The classicist in me understands the want of historical continuity in word usage. Indeed the word “religion” in the West has historically been used to refer to the socio-cultural institution of religion. But the question is whether the conditions of the concept RELIGION necessarily include “a – integrate and monopolize public (and often private) discourse and instruction about superhuman entities, b – direct public events and ritualized behavior, c – explicate some particular moral norms, and d – organise their own membership,” as Boyer suggests. I want to suggest that while these conditions might be necessary for the mysterious XB24, they are not necessary for the concept RELIGION at other levels of analysis, such as the cognitive or psychological level. The cognitive and psychological analyses of religion work from the bottom up. For instance, when I read Bering discussing religion, I take him to be talking about the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of an individual that are identifiable with regard to thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group—and these thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors fit into the category of religious. Religion, as I took Bering to mean it, was the intertwining and interconnectedness of those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors not only for the individual herself, but also how those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of that individual connected her to a larger group (THE religion). From the standpoints of cognitive and psychological analyses of religion, religion is something that individuals [i]do[/i], rather than [i]merely[/i] something they support or in which they participate. When discussing religion on the scale of the individual, it is perfectly reasonable to look for evolutionary, genetic, and brain-function explanations (although this is not to say that all so-called religious thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors will admit of a single explanation). Moreover, the concept RELIGION, as it is used in these cognitive and psychological analyses, is not a recent “invention” (it has an evolutionary history), and it is pancultural. Of course, the cognitive scientists and the psychologists bring to the table a lot of baggage themselves which needs to be weighed and examined. For one thing, many of their accounts appear to be narcissistically individualistic, completely ignoring the socio-cultural dynamic of religion. It is all well-and-good to understand natural predispositions in individuals from which religion springs, but if one cannot connect that to the cultural manifestations of religion writ large, then this ends up being a dead-end analysis as well. As I see it, depending on the level of analysis, religion is both an individual activity supported by evolved cognitive mechanisms and a group activity supported (on the extreme end of the large-scale) by institutions. In sum, I think the differences between the two uses of “religion” comes down to the distinctions between “folk” religion on the one hand, and institutionalized (organized, XB24) religion, on the other. I think the concept RELIGION is “fuzzy” enough to allow for both. Thus, when Bering claims to provide an evolutionary explanation of religion, it is of the folk religion sort of which he speaks from the psychological view of the individual, not the XB24 full-package institutional (organized) religion sort. There seems to be, however, a tension inherent between how psychological and cognitive analyses conceptualize religion, and how anthropological analyses conceptualize religion. On the one hand, we would not want to say that an individual who had wholly idiosyncratic thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors about supernatural entities, an afterlife, divine morality, and solitary rituals involving those beliefs as engaged in religion. The concept RELIGION does seem to necessitate being a part of a group that shares those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors (this is not to say such idiosyncratic examples cannot be helpful in illuminating the cognitive and psychological processes involved). On the other hand, the anthropological concept RELIGION, as many other respondents have pointed out, does seem to essentialize religion at the level of the group, which very nearly makes the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of the individual irrelevant. This latter conception of religion treats religion as if it exists independent of its adherents. Now if this latter conception of religion fits with Boyer’s XB24, then most certainly it is mistaken. Religion as a cultural institution did not arise in a vacuum, no matter when or where it arose. To understand and explain how such institutions arose, will require in part looking at the evolution of the psychological and cognitive processes of the individuals engaged and supporting the religious institution as well examining historical cultural circumstances of the group in which the institution arose. Understanding and explaining both of those is important to understanding how institutionalized religion arose. The former type of explanation tells us how and why the individuals of the group supported institutionalized religion, whereas the latter can tell us why institutionalized religion is not pancultural. Thus, as I see it, it really is a conceptual issue we are discussing. Must we bow to those who would only have us conceptualize religion as XB24? Or, is the concept RELIGION fuzzy enough to allow for loosely grouped individuals (non-institutionalized and largely non-organized, [i]e.g[/i]., new-agers) who share common religious thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors? Although, Boyer has insisted that he is not taking the concept of religion to have necessary and sufficient conditions, I see his description of XB24 to be very nearly that. But as is witnessed already in many of the replies, XB24 does not capture what many of us mean when we speak of religion. We have a [i]fuzzier[/i] concept of religion. This does not mean that we reject XB24 as a type of religion, just merely that we do not see it as the only type. Our (if I may be so bold!) concept RELIGION has much more cross-cultural viability than the XB24 conception. None of this is going to satisfy anyone who wants a clearly defined subject matter when it comes to religion. In fact, if such people do insist on such a clear definition, they would be better off doing away with the concept of religion as Boyer suggests. But please don’t hate on those us who are comfortable with the fuzziness!

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 1 March 2011 (16:12)

    I cannot help but feel from Boyer’s latest response that he is on about a straw-man [i]of sorts[/i], and what is needed here is a bit of what Dennett calls “conceptual hygiene.” Contrary to what Boyer insists, I think the problem he presents [i]really is[/i] a conceptual one. I also think, as he points out, that some of this is due to academic baggage from the disciplines of anthropology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. What is needed here is for the baggage to be weighed to make sure it is within the required limits, and then a thorough customs check for contraband. To some extent this disagreement brings to mind how many people nowadays like to distinguish being spiritual versus being religious, being nondenominational versus being institutional, or just religion versus institutionalized (organized) religion. The impression with which I am left following Boyer’s latest response is the last of these distinctions is that which is most pertinent to this discussion. For Boyer, what I and many others would call, institutionalized religion [i]is[/i] religion. Thus, he takes it that when authors such as Bering (to whom he linked in his original post, and with whom I am most familiar) discuss religion in their works that they are talking about institutionalized (organized) religion (which is the mysterious XB24). As I mentioned in my last post, concepts take on different meanings when they are used at different levels of analysis. Most assuredly, at the high end of the human social level (which is largely the domain of anthropology), it makes sense to talk about religion as a highly complex social institution. Religion, understood as such, not only fails to have pancultural applicability, but it also fails to be scientifically reducible to an evolutionary, genetic, or brain-function account. One simply cannot account for such a complex and dynamic social institution by such explanations—no matter how involved. Anthropological analyses of religion often take a top down approach in their explanations (this is perhaps more true historically than it is today). They start with the cultural manifestation writ large and work their way down to the roles of the individual participants. In this way, they see the cultural manifestation ([i]i.e.[/i], religion) as a behemoth that transcends the individual and the group such that it begins to take on a life (independently) of its own. Thus, it cannot be reduced to the individual, or even the society from which it sprung. The classicist in me understands the want of historical continuity in word usage. Indeed the word “religion” in the West has historically been used to refer to the socio-cultural institution of religion. But the question is whether the conditions of the concept RELIGION necessarily include “a – integrate and monopolize public (and often private) discourse and instruction about superhuman entities, b – direct public events and ritualized behavior, c – explicate some particular moral norms, and d – organise their own membership,” as Boyer suggests. I want to suggest that while these conditions might be necessary for the mysterious XB24, they are not necessary for the concept RELIGION at other levels of analysis, such as the cognitive or psychological level. The cognitive and psychological analyses of religion work from the bottom up. For instance, when I read Bering discussing religion, I take him to be talking about the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of an individual that are identifiable with regard to thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group—and these thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors fit into the category of religious. Religion, as I took Bering to mean it, was the intertwining and interconnectedness of those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors not only for the individual herself, but also how those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of that individual connected her to a larger group (THE religion). From the standpoints of cognitive and psychological analyses of religion, religion is something that individuals [i]do[/i], rather than [i]merely[/i] something they support or in which they participate. When discussing religion on the scale of the individual, it is perfectly reasonable to look for evolutionary, genetic, and brain-function explanations (although this is not to say that all so-called religious thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors will admit of a single explanation). Moreover, the concept RELIGION, as it is used in these cognitive and psychological analyses, is not a recent “invention” (it has an evolutionary history), and it is pancultural. Of course, the cognitive scientists and the psychologists bring to the table a lot of baggage themselves which needs to be weighed and examined. For one thing, many of their accounts appear to be narcissistically individualistic, completely ignoring the socio-cultural dynamic of religion. It is all well-and-good to understand natural predispositions in individuals from which religion springs, but if one cannot connect that to the cultural manifestations of religion writ large, then this ends up being a dead-end analysis as well. As I see it, depending on the level of analysis, religion is both an individual activity supported by evolved cognitive mechanisms and a group activity supported (on the extreme end of the large-scale) by institutions. In sum, I think the differences between the two uses of “religion” comes down to the distinctions between “folk” religion on the one hand, and institutionalized (organized, XB24) religion, on the other. I think the concept RELIGION is “fuzzy” enough to allow for both. Thus, when Bering claims to provide an evolutionary explanation of religion, it is of the folk religion sort of which he speaks from the psychological view of the individual, not the XB24 full-package institutional (organized) religion sort. There seems to be, however, a tension inherent between how psychological and cognitive analyses conceptualize religion, and how anthropological analyses conceptualize religion. On the one hand, we would not want to say that an individual who had wholly idiosyncratic thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors about supernatural entities, an afterlife, divine morality, and solitary rituals involving those beliefs as engaged in religion. The concept RELIGION does seem to necessitate being a part of a group that shares those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors (this is not to say such idiosyncratic examples cannot be helpful in illuminating the cognitive and psychological processes involved). On the other hand, the anthropological concept RELIGION, as many other respondents have pointed out, does seem to essentialize religion at the level of the group, which very nearly makes the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of the individual irrelevant. This latter conception of religion treats religion as if it exists independent of its adherents. Now if this latter conception of religion fits with Boyer’s XB24, then most certainly it is mistaken. Religion as a cultural institution did not arise in a vacuum, no matter when or where it arose. To understand and explain how such institutions arose, will require in part looking at the evolution of the psychological and cognitive processes of the individuals engaged and supporting the religious institution as well examining historical cultural circumstances of the group in which the institution arose. Understanding and explaining both of those is important to understanding how institutionalized religion arose. The former type of explanation tells us how and why the individuals of the group supported institutionalized religion, whereas the latter can tell us why institutionalized religion is not pancultural. Thus, as I see it, it really is a conceptual issue we are discussing. Must we bow to those who would only have us conceptualize religion as XB24? Or, is the concept RELIGION fuzzy enough to allow for loosely grouped individuals (non-institutionalized and largely non-organized, [i]e.g[/i]., new-agers) who share common religious thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors? Although, Boyer has insisted that he is not taking the concept of religion to have necessary and sufficient conditions, I see his description of XB24 to be very nearly that. But as is witnessed already in many of the replies, XB24 does not capture what many of us mean when we speak of religion. We have a [i]fuzzier[/i] concept of religion. This does not mean that we reject XB24 as a type of religion, just merely that we do not see it as the only type. Our (if I may be so bold!) concept RELIGION has much more cross-cultural viability than the XB24 conception. None of this is going to satisfy anyone who wants a clearly defined subject matter when it comes to religion. In fact, if such people do insist on such a clear definition, they would be better off doing away with the concept of religion as Boyer suggests. But please don’t hate on those us who are comfortable with the fuzziness!

  • José-Luis Guijarro 3 March 2011 (12:51)

    The above post by K. Mitch Hodge has awaken the old linguist (or, rather, [i]pragmatician[/i]) in me. I am, therefore, aware that in everyday conversation, most of the time, we manage to interpret lexical terms having a set meaning in dictionaries, as pointing to new [i]ad hoc[/i] concepts which make sense in particular occasions. These occasions provide the elements that make the developing of an appropriate context of interpretation possible. The process of lexical adaptation works beautifully in, say, the 85% of cases. But, unluckily, it may cast doubts or become a source of misunderstanding in the 15% of cases. I believe that the observational level of adequacy ([i]i.e[/i]., “what the heck are we talking about (or, [i]mutatis mutandis[/i], trying to analyse?”) is, therefore, a commendable goal to achieve when entering a serious debate such as this one. To my mind, this requisite is fundamentally adopted to make sure that the 15% of possible misunderstandings may be drastically reduced. The above posting by Hodge, if I am right, is a very important step in that direction. I am definitively not an anthropologist, and, therefore, I hesitate to participate in this interesting debate. However, just as a very intuitive idea, I would like to stress the evident notion that humans are the only known species to have religion (or art or humour, and a host of other … what? … “possibilities”) and this, I believe, is an effect of our cognitive set up which must have evolved in a certain describable fashion to be able to arrive at such “possibilities”. Starting from there, would it not be possible to describe and explain the ways in which this human cognitive system interacts ecologically with surrounding systems of all sorts achieving results that may be considered religious, artistic, humorous, or whathaveyou?

  • Don Gardner 5 March 2011 (05:17)

    I go along with Mitch’s response to Pascal’s follow-up. His original post unavoidably involves conceptual/ontological and theoretical as well as empirical issues, as I’m sure he appreciates. Certainly, it does if his ‘XB24’ question signals the possibility of tweaking an important aspect of the thriving research program Dan and he have developed–the distinction between the cognitive and the ecological dimensions of the epidemiology of representations. If one can live with dual inheritance ideas about selection processes, though, there seems no reason to worry about a discipline whose “homeostatic property clusters” only come into being–and remain sociologically/explanatorily significant–under the right circumstances (which, from the point of view of traditional disciplinary divisions, are ontologically heterogeneous). What would be wrong with an explanatorily relevant causal nexus (“Durkheimian”? [or “Blochian”?]) that operates across the (non-institutionalised/institutionalised) divide Pascal sets up? (Providing, at least, one saw such a nexus as but part of a broader [Weberian?] process.) It would involve patterns of co-operation (and deference re authority over propositions) within and between social units that were R-susceptible (without this necessarily being anything like the historical ace of trumps) and to social outcomes (as locally interpreteted); it might, though, best be thought of as a historical rather than a natural kind. Whether we want to continue to speak of this nexus in terms that evoke all the messy stuff associated with religion (and “religion”) would, I imagine, remain an issue for most practising social scientists, given the heterogeneous range of interests their vocation is usually understood to imply. It is probably also worth pointing out the relevance of the post under discussion to Pascal’s previous one, on [i]Homo oeconomicus[/i].

  • Maurice Bloch
    Maurice Bloch 5 March 2011 (18:09)

    Pascal’s point is that the essentialising of religion has been harmful for cross cultural studies. He is right. I suggest colleagues look at Fuller’s The Camphor Flame where it is explained how “religion” has harmed the study of Hinduism. Another point which emerges from Pascal’s post is that it has vitiated, and continues to vitiate, comparative work. It would take me too long to illustrate this here but contributors to the debate that do not know this sad history should take this fact on trust.

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 5 March 2011 (20:29)

    I wish to briefly state again that I understand Boyer’s concern about essentializing religion, and that concern is not only well-taken, but also taken to heart. I am familiar with the long-standing debates and problems that anthropology of religion has faced because of the use (or conceptualization) of the word religion. My concerns with regard to Boyer’s posts, are two-fold: first, I am concerned that the assumption is that when someone like Bering uses the word “religion” in print that he has in mind something like the XB24 conception of religion. I have seen no evidence that this is what Bering means when he uses the word. Second, I found the prescription that we do away entirely with the word “religion” to be a bit heavy-handed. Let me explain this latter point a bit more. I am reminded of how poorly for centuries philosophers and then psychologists conceptualized the mind. In fact, just as with the concept of religion in anthropology, philosophers and psychologists did such a good job essentializing the mind that to this day, some still believe that the mind cannot be studied or understood scientifically (for instance, the supposed problem of [i]qualia[/i]). But rather than heeding to the vocal minority of philosophers who wish to do away with mind-talk altogether, most of us have exerted a tremendous amount of effort undoing our mistake and re-conceptualizing the mind to open it up to scientific investigation. This is because many of us believe that talking about the mind, instead of [i]only[/i] the brain, is an appropriate and helpful level of analysis for some psychological issues. My question/position, then, is why can anthropologists and theologians not do the same with religion? Why must they recommend that all those interested in religious phenomena across various disciplines do away with the word entirely, rather than aiding us in avoiding the same sort of conceptual mistakes that put anthropology of religion and religious studies into crisis? (This is a sincere question–not merely rhetorical.)

  • Benson Saler
    Benson Saler 5 March 2011 (22:18)

    Just as we ought to be careful in generalizing about religion and religions, so, too, ought we to be careful in generalizing about anthropologists (and non-anthropologist scholars in departments of religion or departments of religious studies). Many (perhaps most) do not recommend dropping the term religion. And while some do attempt to essentialize religion, others make efforts to avoid doing so. Numbers of the latter have opted for a family resemblance approach to religion. Unfortunately, however, most of those efforts — or, at any rate, the dozen or so that I have analyzed — end badly. In some cases they become incoherent or even silly. But even a relatively sophisticated effort, that of Peter Byrne (1988), ends badly because it ends in essentialist recidivism. Family resemblance, it seems, cannot do the job alone; more is required. The present discussion about definitions, ontologies, etc. etc. is not really new. One can go back many years to earlier discussions about “reification,” conceived of as the attempted “thingafying” of a concept or construct. Marx, for instance, protested against the reification of “market,” a construct having to do with the fixing of value through acts of buying and selling. Today one doesn’t hear much about reification, at least not on this thread. But current talk against essentialism has a genealogy that includes protests against reification. For my part, I welcome carefully thought out efforts to escape the rigidity and detritus of essentialism. I think, further, that we can achieve a useful non-essentialist conceptualization of religion. Indeed, I think that it is important to do so if we are to advance our understandings of what we call religion. The biologist Ernst Mayr (2001:83) writes that “Darwin showed that one simply could not understand evolution as long as one accepted essentialism.” I think that that is also true of religion.

  • K. Mitch Hodge
    K. Mitch Hodge 14 March 2011 (15:04)

    First, I want to say “[i]mea culpa[/i]” to Benson Saler with regard to my unintentional intimation that ALL anthropologists and those involved in religious studies prescribe doing away with the word “religion.” I recognize that this was a gross (and false) generalization only prompted to my fingertips as I typed by the fact that I had been confronted with this suggestion so often recently. Obviously, given the responses on this thread alone, this is not a suggestion recommended by all (or even many). My apologies for not thinking this through more carefully before posting. I would like to return to a point originally brought up by Helen de Cruz in this thread, and that is the insufficiency of similarity to explain concepts. Inasmuch as several in this discussion have repeated the claim that religion is a family resemblance concept, I think it bears repeating that similarity (on which the conceptual theory of family resemblance relies) does no work in explaining concepts. At least since Nelson Goodman’s (1972) attack on the notion of similarity, philosophers (as de Cruz rightly points out) have recognized that appeals to similarity simply cannot be the guiding principle in understanding conceptual structure—for in one sense or another, everything is similar to everything else. In another sense, as Goodman asked, in what sense, even, is a photograph of an individual really similar to that individual at all? The photograph is two-dimensional, the individual is not; the individual has agency, the photograph does not; the photograph is made of paper, the individual is made of flesh and blood; etc. As Murphy and Medin suggest [url=http://books.google.com/books?id=sj1gczQ-7K8C&lpg=PA425&ots=NnskGjuY0C&dq=the%20role%240of%20theories%20in%2 0conceptual%20coherence&pg=PA425#v=onepage&q=the%20role%20of%20theorie s%20in4%20conceptual%20coherence&f=false]here[/url], similarity, at best, is a manner of speaking about conceptual coherence, but it does not explain conceptual coherence. This is why, as Saler points out above, that attempts to explain or define religion based on family resemblance have failed. For in every way (to the infinite) that one might be able to point ways in which cultural manifestations across cultures are similar, on can also point out ways (to the infinite) in which the two manifestations are dissimilar. In whatever way that concepts such as RELIGION might work, the family resemblance theory of concepts does nothing to help us understand how such concepts are formed or deployed. Given, however, the intuitive pull in thinking that similarity does play some role in concept formation and identification of “things” with those concepts, many researchers have pushed for a notion of relevant similarity. Several strategies have been suggested in determining relevancy with regard to similarity: conceptual structural mapping; theory-ladenness of concepts; (natural and social) environmental invariance (stability); embodiment/affordances; habituation of association; mention-selection; and culturally specific linguistic definitional constraints, metaphors and analogies. Though there are still some who seek a “magic bullet” to explain how all concepts are formed, most researchers now accept that concepts can be formed from numerous cognitive strategies—and often a single concept, according to context, might display different strategies of relevance. It is because of this latter point that I think that attempts to find necessary and sufficient conditions for intensional contents of concepts (nearly) always fails. Even widely accepted natural kind concepts such as WATER (H[size=x-small]2[/size]O) can admit of differing intensional content depending on the strategy by which the concept is deployed (i.e., whether one is chemically analyzing it, thirsty, putting out a fire, or gardening). The problem is that we (humans) tend to assume (take for granted) that concepts are univocal—that our concepts are a neatly wrapped immutable package. In truth, concepts are multivocal and multimodal—that is, the intensional content is loosely grouped together and mutable (depending on context/strategy). Now, I certainly do not believe that I am saying anything here about concepts and their formation and deployment that the members of this forum do not know; I am simply saying something that is often forgotten, including by myself. As much research has demonstrated, regardless of the fact that we can intellectually understand the multivocality and multimodality of concepts, our intuitive pull is to essentialize them. We want (there to be) necessary and sufficient conditions and (there to be) a one-to-one correspondence between our concept and the thing(s) in the world. Giving into this intuitive pull, as has been witnessed by the history of the concepts RELIGION and MIND, can get honest researchers into trouble (thus causing the debacle against which Boyer, Sperber, and Bloch are warning us with regard to the former). The problem, as I see it however, is that it [i]might be[/i] the case that those who are calling for us to abandon the word “religion” are as guilty of essentializing the concept as those who forced their essentialized concept RELIGION onto other cultures (and this is said with humility and due deference to the magnanimous minds who have suggested such an abandonment).

  • Moin Rahman 25 March 2011 (16:25)

    I agree with much of what Pascal to say. Because religion is being treated as sui generis to the human species, and, so the logic goes among the scholars goes that it needs to be studied as a field in itself is weak. One may treat religion as a phenomena falling under “costly signaling,” which provides long-term fitness benefit to those who participate in it. A form of phenotypic, social signal that works to promote classical and inclusive fitness. The paper by Richard Sosis, available [url=http://www.anth.uconn.edu/faculty/sosis/publications/SosisHutteriteHumanNature.pdf]here[/url], is a good example of one such treatment. So I agree with Pascal that “Religion” has taken on a mystical aura with a mythical touch among scholars as to why it stands apart from the rest of social scientific research. It is about time that such thinking should be challenged.