Four recipes for religion

Over dinner the other evening, it struck me that religion is rather like ratatouille. People disagree about the ingredients of both but in fact there is no such thing as the one true recipe for either. The concepts ‘religion’ and ‘ratatouille’ are elastic and contested, and will almost certainly undergo further modification in the future. Foody fundamentalists tell us that real ratatouille is an Occitan dish originating in France but are divided into factions claiming descent from Provence (Provença ratatolha) and Nice (Niça ratatolha). According to Wikipedia (which apparently is rude to consult at the dinner table), there are four main kinds of ratatouille. Let us count the main types of religion.

Type 1 Religion is best understood as a kind of sacred party. What matters to most of the party-goers are not the ostensible reasons for celebrating but the dancing, singing, and dressing up, and the collective effervescence thereby produced. The bells and smells, the sensory pageantry and the collective euphoria conspire to bind participants together even if most revellers have only a fuzzy idea of why the party was organized in the first place.

Type 2 Religion is more like therapy. Patients present with maladies of the body, heart, and soul, stories of disease, ruination, and sexual jealousy, and (for a suitable fee) the therapist dispenses cures: sorcery, surgery, strokes, and sympathy. Some of these cures can be administered on a do-it-yourself basis. Aside from professional therapists (whose livelihood depends upon convincing displays of expertise) nobody is very curious about the history and meaning of particular ritual procedures and artefacts, but all take a keen interest in whether they work.

Type 3 Religion is more like a quest, an act of exploration into the mysteries of what lies beyond our familiar experience and immediate environment.  This way of being religious prizes unusual or especially salient experiences, moments of insight or revelation, and the discovery of esoteric mysteries. Quests of this kind tend to prompt (and are prompted by) a passionate concern with the intentions, emotions, and judgments of supernatural agents. Rituals are a means of enmeshing the mystic into complex webs of relations with other-worldly beings, in contrast with the quasi-technical procedures of therapists and healers.

Type 4 Religion is more like a school.  What matters most is the teaching of an authoritative creed, such that everybody sings literally and metaphorically from the same hymn sheet. Adherents are like pupils, endlessly lectured and tested. In performing rituals, what matters above all is what (by the lights of orthodox canon) they mean, express, and accomplish.

Four types of religion. Four types of ratatouille…. A coincidence? Alas, I have pushed the analogy too far. Too much table wine perhaps. If there really are only four varieties of ratatouille (and it doesn’t exactly claim this on Wikipedia – sorry) this would no doubt be an accident of history (including classificatory conventions), probably unique and certainly transient. Unlike a recipe which consists of potentially unbounded variations on a general theme by cultural diffusion, the four types of religion seem to have been independently invented many times over, forever coalescing into just one of four types, or only one of a limited number of combinations of the four types. Why is that? Answers please on a serviette…


  • comment-avatar
    Maurice Bloch 26 January 2010 (21:42)

    What Wikipedia means when it says there are four types of ratatouille is that it has recorded four lots of people who call their somewhat different dishes by this word. Wikipedia does not mean that these are four subtypes of a natural kind indicated by the word “ratatouille”. Wikipedia, like most of us, are amused, in a liberal sort of way, at this situation and at the foibles of the French. Whitehouse on the other hand seems to be looking for kinds of religion without doubting that the word refers to a bounded entity of which there can therefore be different cases; rather like one can say that there are four different suits in a pack of cards. The analogy is formally misleading but it has also proved extremely harmful and anthropology has painfully come to the conclusion that the word refers to nothing that has any essential element. Trying to “explain religion” as an aspect of human beings is therefore like trying to explain the British House of Lords as a characteristic of our species by taking into account institutions which, in various ways, remind of us of this ridiculous oddity.

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    Harvey Whitehouse 27 January 2010 (19:58)

    What I meant was that religion is like ratatouille precisely because it is not a natural kind (see above: ‘elastic…contested… no such thing as the one true recipe’ etc.). I’m assuming that most regular surfers of the ICCI website would agree on that. (Is that assumption correct?) On our ‘Explaining Religion’ project one of the four objectives is to isolate various features often associated with ‘religion’ that appear to have distinct sets of underlying causes and which consequently there is no obvious reason to think must be lumped together (e.g. whether in the category ‘religion’ or any other). But, and here’s what I thought was an interesting point to make, there do nevertheless appear to be some recurrent clusters of features… four of them to be exact. So my question is: why the clustering? (Ratatouille was just, ahem… a red herring. And the unreliable stuff about Wikipedia was meant to spice it up.)

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    Maurice Bloch 31 January 2010 (17:27)

    This type of problem is recurrent in anthropology and we have a good model to follow in Levi-Strauss’ way of dealing with Totemism. (I am not endorsing what he says but the way he does it.) He wrote a short book entitled Totemism Today. In it he traced the incoherent uses of the word Totemism and concluded that there was nothing useful to say about this in spite of numerous efforts to do so. Why “today”? Because the word could only apply to what any particular writer was writing about at that moment. It wnt no further. However, he went on to write a second book called The Savage Mind. In this he expalined that although saying anything about Totemism was a waste of time one could out flank the notion by showing that the many writers on totemism were padling in a much larger pool: the way the human mind used classification analogically from one area (e.g.classification of living kinds) as an operator for understanding others (e.g. clan classification). This wider pool was something one could study as part of a general understanding of human beings. I tried to do something similar in my paper for the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions Series B. “Why REligion is Nothing Special but is Central”.

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    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 31 January 2010 (18:54)

    Maurice Bloch reminds us of what he tried to do in his paper “Why Religion is Nothing Special but is Central.” But this paddling in a larger pool is what many others are doing as well, including Harvey Whitehouse. Talking about different kinds of religion in no way force us to presuppose an essence to ‘religion’ and to take it as a bounded category (as Benson Saler has so well argued). ‘Religion’ can be uderstood as only a name for the observed recurrent patterns or clusters of phenomena as Whitehouse says. Although it is true that an essentialist understanding of ‘religion’ has plagued the study of religion for decades or even centuries, I fail to see why the mere use of the word ‘religion’ would make one guilty of that sin. I think Whitehouse’s reply is very much to the point.

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    Maurice Bloch 1 February 2010 (09:57)

    What lies behind my ding dong with Harvey is very important. If we go on with considering explaining religion as a legitimate scientific enterprise we imply that all humans have an essential chracteristic which can be indicated by the R word. This would mean that religion is a feature of human beings, rather like the shape of their femur. This is wrong, highly misleading and it plays into an insiduous argument that our language lets us slide into and which, furthermore, conforts advocates of a soft religiosity .

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    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 1 February 2010 (10:42)

    But whence comes the assupmtion that what is referred to as ‘religiosity’ has to be an [i]essential[/i] characteristic? Also, the contrast between religion as a (false) category and natural kinds may be misdleading in suggesting that ‘natural kinds’ are an unproblematic category. There is a recent debate between conventionalist and Homeostatic Property Cluster views on natural kinds, with, for example, Carl Craver trying to remedy some of the problems of the HPC account along the lines of mechanistic explanation. The cognitive scientists of religion have by and large been interested in explaining trends in populations and this could, in principle, be done even without the term ‘religion.’ ‘Religion’ is merely a short hand for some observed regularities and there is no need to think that there is an individual-level essentialist “religiosity.” Thus, I agree with Maurice Bloch that we should not presuppose that religious behaviors are an expression of a single and essential species-typical biological trait. Only, this does not mean that ‘religion’ is an illusory category (pace Tim Fitzgerald). It is a heuristic term that directs our attention to certain recurrent patterns in human cultures. My understanding is that this is roughly what also Harvey Whitehouse was trying to point out.

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    Emma Cohen 1 February 2010 (21:21)

    Explanatory cognitive approaches to religion are no more guilty of essentializing their subject matter than are cognitive approaches to any other aspect of human thought or behaviour – at least, not by the mere use of the R word. I fully agree with Ilkka on this matter (and with Harvey, last time I checked). If this weren’t the case, we may as well dismiss as ‘illegitimate scientific enterprises’ cognitive approaches to just about everything that gets (heuristically and conveniently) labelled using existing language – morality, kinship, humour, ritual, cooperation, culture, etc., etc.. If it can be established that by using such labels no natural kind is necessarily implied, this is surely more efficient than developing code names and neologisms.

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    Dan Sperber 17 February 2010 (16:32)

    Maurice Bloch has challenged me in a friendly manner to intervene in this discussion. Well, Ok! We all agree I believe that there is no natural kind, let alone a natural kind with an essence, that would correspond to what anthropologists are talking about when they talk of religion. Rather we all see ‘religion’ as a polythetic or family-resemblance category that may be useful to point at a range of phenomena and issues each of which is linked to many of the others in the category in a variety of ways. I see no reason to doubt Harvey when he state that he is part of such an agreement, as Maurice seems to be doing. This is not the end of the story however. There is still room for substantial disagreement. Even family-resemblance categories have greater or lesser coherence and relevance; some of them are quite useful, others are likely to put us on a wrong track and should be dropped altogether. Harvey’s suggestion that there are four types of religion implies that the family-resemblance category of religion has enough coherence to have relevant sub-(family-resemblance)-categories. Maurice is clearly of a different opinion, as he has expressed in his Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B article. What he seems to be assuming is, on the one hand, that the proper category under which to investigate all the issues approached in anthropology under ‘religion’ is not that of religion at all and should be an even wider one, and, on the other hand, that there is a narrower category of ‘religion’ that points at religious institutions like churches and so on, which in the public discussion of religion in the last few years have been wrongly taken to be paradigmatic of religion in general. I think that Maurice suggestions are worth taking very seriously, and for this, to begin with, he should go on developing them (and put online a freely available copy of his PTRSB article). Let me add something else that I discern in the background of this particular discussion. It is true that anthropological and cognitive research on religion is currently benefitting from public interest in religion, in particular in the US, and from funding spawned by this interest, in particular from the very generous Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation clearly and openly promotes work that is likely to contribute to the respectability of religion — as epitomized in Christian churches — in academic and scientific environments. It should be stressed however that it is very broad in the topics and people it subsidizes — including, I imagine, all the participants in this particular discussion —and that it does not attempt to influence let alone dictate the content of their work. Still, it would make sense to have an open debate on the social, political, and cultural role of research on religion, the part played by institution funding our research and in particular by the Templeton Foundation, and the temptation there may be as a result to put our work in terms that may please, or at least do not displease people and institutions whose agenda is religious before being scientific. This is of course a different debate than the one about the coherence of the category ‘religion’, but they may not be as orthogonal as one might wish. Maurice seems to believe his view is less likely to “comfort advocates of a soft religiosity.” There is nothing a priori wrong however with holding views more likely to please religious people as long as one does not bend such views so as to render them even more pleasing.

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    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 17 February 2010 (17:31)

    While still waiting for Maurice Bloch’s response, we got a welcome comment from Dan Sperber, instead. I agree that the field of religious studies (not to mention philosophy of religion!) has suffered from an unwarranted generalization of the Western folk notion of ‘religion.’ I also share the worries (if I got it right)about the ever growing influence of the Templeton Foundation. However, too much focus on the concept of ‘religion’ may easily blind us to more important issues, that is, the theories we use in explaining phenomena dubbed as ‘religious.’ I quite agree that so-called religious phenomena should be explained as part and parcel of folkpsychology in general and not to be seen as somehow sui generis. I even think that it may not be necessary to have distinct departments of religious studies or comparative religion. But, yet, I think that as we have to somehow conceptualize the phenomena studied, ‘religion’ is not worse than, e.g., the alternatives suggested by Tim Fitzgerald. But whether there are “modes of religiosity” instead of something more general, is another matter. And we all agree that religion is not a ‘thing,’ after all.

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    Benson Saler 18 February 2010 (04:48)

    In reading the arguments touched off by Harvey, it seems to me that Emma Cohen’s brief remarks are both sensible and cautionary. Words, those nasty things, are often polysemous. And structural requirements internal to any system of signs will constrain the arbitrariness of expressive vehicles if sign combinations are to be of service for predicting meaning combinations. The sad but real consequence is that language cannot be internally cohesive as well as fully transparent to the meanings it is used to express. So four (or forty-four hundred) types of religion will not produce the transparency some seem to crave. I’m sorry about that. But I can offer two possible consolations. One would be to immitate Emma and me, and Ilkka when he is being Ilkka rather than a peacemaker, and relax. The other is to adopt as your personal role model — your hero or potential savior — that paragon of philosophers, Cratylus. He, we are told, eventually became so convinced that language is incurably deceitful that he retired into silence, wagging a finger now and then by way of communicating. Wow! Somebody who actually adopted a solution that was consistent with his analysis!

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    Maurice Bloch 19 February 2010 (12:43)

    Obviously when we write in English we have to use English words but the history of the social sciences, especially anthropology, has been about how to liberate our theoretical enterprise from the traps which such words set. Anthropologists have used words such as Totemism, religion, sacrifice, and marriage and have wasted incredible amounts of time trying to define these terms as a preliminary to analyzing these “things”… and always reaching grand conclusions about them which turn out to be nothing else than repetitions of the original definition (See the discussions by Levi-Strauss, Leach, Sperber, Asad about each of these terms) . Escaping the traps which these weasel words create has been hard (it is terribly hard to make our students understand the point) but we are by now familiar with what needs to be done. The first step is the recognition that these terms cannot be given general meanings. These words have to be explained historically not theoretically. Levi-Strauss did this for totemism, Leach for marriage, Sperber for sacrifice and several other writers, such as Talal Asad and myself, among many others, have attempted this for religion. The second step was not simply to trace the social/lexicographic genealogy of the words but to free our study so that we can use perspectives which escape the apparent boundaries which they create. I pointed out how Levi-Strauss swept aside the study of totemism to replace it, in both senses of the term, with the study of classification. The point was that the difficulty for anthropology lay in the idea of the enterprise: “explaining totemism”. This was what blocked the discovery of a framework for the scientific study of the rag bag of phenomena that the English word often indicated. The same apples for the word religion. “Religion” can only be explained historically not scientifically. Apparently the other contributors seem to agree with this point. If that is so I would like to know what they think they are doing writing scientific studies about “religion”. Of course we will find regularities in the phenomena that we label religion… otherwise we would not have dreamed of calling them religion in the first place. The question is whether these regularities are regularities “of religion”. This is simply not discussed in these studies because the framework “explaining religion” has already begged the question. I refer above to Leach’s discussion about the inappropriateness of developing theories about “marriage”. When this appeared as long ago as 1955 it only annoyed a few other anthropologists. When much later he repeated the point in his BBC Reith lectures British national newspapers ran front page headlines such as “Anthropologist undermines the family”. Such reaction shows what is at stake in such a discussion. The reason why a religious inspired foundation such as the Templeton foundation so freely encourages any and every scientific study of religion, without as Dan writes, any limitation is because it perfectly well knows that, as soon as there are programmes with titles such as “explaining religion”, these already imply the proposition that religion is a natural, indeed inevitable, aspect of our species.

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    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 19 February 2010 (13:56)

    I still fail to see Blochs point (and I am now being Ilkka the troublemaker, not the peacemaker). His posting seems to echo the logical empiricists’ view that the only proper language for science is mathematics and that all we can do is to describe reality. But, ‘religion’ is no more problematic than ‘society,’ ‘culture,’ or ‘subatomic particles.’ We just have to converse in verbal language and also to posit theoretical concepts. Explaining religion is no more problematic than explaining politics, ritual, or warfare. Of course, as Pascal Boyer, points out, we cannot have a theory of religion just as we cannot have a theory of all white objects. But if, as Bloch suggests, religion cannot be explained at all, then by the same token it is impossible to explain human behavior. We can only write its history (history of what, then?). Explaining religious behaviors only does not mean that the explanandum is ‘religion.’ ‘Religion’ is only a short hand for conceptualizing certain recurrent features. What we explain, are forms of thought and behavior. If explaining religion makes religion “inevitable,” then expaining cancer or racism also makes cancer and racism inevitable. This, however, sounds too much like postmodern, after-the-linguistic-turn hocus pocus. I never thought Maurice Bloch would go for that. But I guess everyone needs his or her high horse to ride into the battlefield of science (and, of course, science does not exist; it’s only a word carrying the notorious overload of Western heteronormative connotations …)

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    Benson Saler 19 February 2010 (18:22)

    I prefer Ilkka the Troublemaker to Ilkka the Peacemaker. In his troublemaking guise he makes a lot of sense. Bloch has been thinking for a long time about the matters that he addresses in his postings. But perhaps he was a bit more open to accomodation in yesteryear. Take, for instance, this passage from Prey Into Hunter (1992:25): “The phenomena which have been called by names such as totemism or sacrifice are not so varied as to make the words useless as general indicators of linked manifestations. On the other hand these manifestations are so loosely connected that it would be totally pointless to look for an explanation of sacrifice as such.” In any case, and if you will excuse a sentimental outburst, I was much taken by Bloch’s use of the expression “weasel words.” I don’t think that I have heard that phrase recently. Bloch’s invocation of it stimulated me to nostalgia, for it was a favorite expression of one of my teachers, the late A. I. Hallowell. Hallowell used it frequently, and he (so to speak) compiled quite a vocabulary of weasel words. But he did not allow such words to derail his efforts to understand the world. He took the problems posed by various terms (e.g., “supernatural”) into account, and while he deemed them possible and sometimes actualized traps, he did not allow them to overpower or otherwise inhibit his reasoning. One of the problems posed by weasel words is that they may so distract us that we fail to reason as clearly as we might. Take Asad, whom Bloch mentions with apparent approval. In his much cited 1983 essay (eventually incorporated into a book), Asad “argues” as follows: (1) In his famous 1966 paper, Clifford Geertz confronts us with a privatized, “Christian” conception of religion, a conception that is unsuited for the furthering of cross-cultural research. (2) Many anthropologists operate with similar conceptions, and they would do well to abandon those conceptions in light of the criticisms made of Geertz. (3) Instead of addressing the sorts of questions about meaning that Geertz favored in 1966, we should focus on this question: How does power create religion? But there is a severe disconnect between Asad’s first two points and his third. That is, if we purge ourselves of Geertz-like conceptions of religion, don’t we need some other conception of religion if we are to study how power creates religion? Asad, however, fails to supply us with anything in the way of a substitute concept. We all laugh at poor old don Quixote, who tilted at windmills that he apperceived as something else. But at least the windmills had a certain reality to them.