Religion, Theories of

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Religion, Theories of

The theoretical study of religion emerged in the eighteenth century. Like the concept of religion itself, it is the product of, among other influences, the Age of Exploration and Empire (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), the Protestant Reformation (sixteenth century), and the Augustan Age (eighteenth century). In The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), Wilfred Cantwell Smith documents how the premodern etymological antecedents of the modern word religion (e.g., Latin religio ) generally mean something like "the pious Christian rites of worship," not what the modern word means. The practice of translating the premodern terms as religion, therefore, often misleads. Non-Western cultures, furthermore, did not have terms with anything like the same connotations or semantic scope.

In premodern Europe, the known religious horizon consisted of (1) the mythology of ancient Greek and Roman pagans, (2) Jews, (3) Muslims, and (4) Christians. These four could be arranged in a unified narrative by any of the three latter groups. Christians, for instance, could view Jews as stiff-necked people who refused to accept the gospel, and Muslims as schismatics who split Christ's Church. In his poem The Inferno (c. 1308), Dante Alighieri consigns Mohammed to the circle of hell reserved for "sowers of scandal and schism" (p. 326). Finally, Christians assimilated Greek mythology to biblical history by arguing that the Greek gods were actually demons, that the Greek myths were actually biblical stories about biblical characters but were corrupted through transmission, or that the Greek myths were allegories representing biblical or Christian virtues. Jews and Muslims had their own unifying narratives. Indeed, the Qur'han itself carefully positions Jews and Christians in relation to Islam. It claims to confirm, continue, correct, and complete earlier revelation.

This comparatively coherent religious horizon eventually collapsed under the growing pressure exerted by European expansion. The Age of Exploration and Empire increased European contact with non-European cultures and non-Western religions. The reports of seafarers about exotic beliefs and practices introduced ethnographic data that could not easily be incorporated into the narratives of premodern Europe. This new cosmopolitanism eroded some of the inevitability clothing Western forms of theism. Renewed attention to, and esteem for, ancient authors (e.g., Lucretius and Cicero) during the Augustan Age, moreover, supplied sources for naturalistic explanations of religion, critique of ritual, and materialistic cosmologies.

Most importantly, perhaps, the Protestant Reformation shattered the relative uniformity of religious thought and culture in Christian Europe. It produced different and warring "religions" (i.e., conceptions of piety and worship), justified by competing criteria of religious authority. This impasse made necessary a neutral stance for assessing religious claims. Only a standpoint that abstracts from contested religious criteria could resolve such a dispute. In the service of religious polemic, early modern thinkers devised canons of inquiry and argument that were independent of religious presuppositions. In order better to conduct religious debate, early modern thinkers secularized inquiry. Conceived by Jansenists to defend their theology against papal condemnation, modern probability theory, for example, both rendered religious presuppositions optional, and facilitated modern science (Stout, 1981). The social discord in which the Reformation culminated made it necessary, furthermore, to privatize religion, to push it out of public affairs for the sake of peace. Religion came to be viewed as a discreet domain of culture, distinct from morality, and ranged alongside law, science, politics, and art. The general term religion reflects this differentiation. The Reformation made possible a nonreligious position from which to reflect critically on religion, conceived as a general category identifying one aspect of human intellectual, emotional, and social life.

The emergent theoretical study of religion had its inception in apologetics and polemics. Religionists of one persuasion or another sought out the origin of religion to defend their view from competing religious accounts or irreligious explanations. The bloodshed caused by religious violence and the growing explanatory power of science led others to adopt a nonreligious stance to try to explain religion in nonreligious terms, often with the intention of hastening its supposed demise. Though the polemical inspiration for theories of religion has receded in many quarters, one can nevertheless profitably make a heuristic distinction between humanistic theories of religion and religious theories of religion. Humanistic theories explain religion in terms of the humans who create or subscribe to them. Religious theories explain religion in terms of a religious object, entity, force, or ultimate reality.

This distinction provides only a provisional orientation because humanistic theories can be given religious significance. Ludwig Feuerbach, for instance, argued in The Essence of Christianity (1841) that humans unconsciously project the essential characteristics of the human species outside themselves and reify them in the form of a divine being. He insisted that humanity must overcome its self-induced self-alienation by self-consciously restoring its nature to itself. To this extent, Feuerbach's theory is humanistic. Feuerbach complicates matters, however, by insisting that theological statements predicating attributes of God must be inverted. If God is conceived as love, for example, humanity must come to see that love, as an essential component of human nature, is divine. Some read The Essence of Christianity as a theological text because they view Feuerbach as collapsing the distinction between a humanistic theory and a religious theory. They see him both explaining religion in terms of the humans who create it, and treating humanity as a religious entity. On this interpretation, Feuerbach's humanistic theory has religious inspiration; it articulates a religious naturalism. Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg present another case where the distinction between humanistic and religious theories breaks down. In The Mystical Mind (1999) they provide models of brain function to explain mystical experience, myth, and ritual. They explicitly aver that their models explain the origin of religion. Yet, they believe this humanistic theory culminates in what they call neurotheology, a "megatheology" whose content could be adopted by most of the world's major religions.

Early humanism

David Hume's The Natural History of Religion (1757) is the most influential eighteenth-century humanistic theory of religion. In composing a "natural history" of religion, Hume brings religious phenomena within the purview of science. As part of his larger project to create a science of human nature, Hume seeks both to isolate the causes of religion in human nature and to identify the consequences of religion in light of human nature. Not only does Hume consider religion a fit object for scientific investigation, he also theorizes that religion arises in the absence of science. In his pithy phrase, "Ignorance is the mother of devotion" (p. 75). Religion, Hume believes, fills the void when humans lack the aptitude for better founded explanatory principles.

Hume rejects the theological anthropology of his forebears' Calvinism wherein God endows humans with an innate religious sense. In Hume's naturalistic anthropology, religious principles are derivative. They are not an "original instinct or primary impression of nature," like self-love, sexual drive, or love of progeny (p. 21). These latter are all universal, he claims, and have a "precise determinate object," whereas religion is not universal and is not uniform in its "ideas." In this last judgment Hume attends to the extraordinary diversity of religious beliefs. Despite this diversity, he claims, all particular religious phenomena coincide in "the belief of invisible, intelligent power" (p. 21).

If religion itself is not universal, it is, nevertheless, a response to universal feelings. Concern about the "various and contrary events of human life" elicits hopes and fears whose object are the unknown causes of those events (p. 28). Because they need "to form some particular and distinct idea" of the causes and because science "exceeds" their comprehension, "the ignorant multitude" allow the imagination to clothe the unknown causes with human features (p. 29). Hume posits a natural propensity in humans to "conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious" (p. 29). A French admirer of Hume's theory, Baron d'Holbach, coined the term anthropomorphism to capture the tendency Hume describes. Humans, Hume argues, anthropomorphize the unknown causes behind significant events and, thereby, create gods. Anthropomorphizing the unknown causes not only renders them more familiar and comprehensible, but also furnishes the possibility of gaining their favor "by gifts and entreaties, by prayers and sacrifices" to control future events (p. 47).

Hume believed that these two facets of anthropomorphism, that it provides both familiarity (explanation) and the possibility of gaining favor (control), result in opposed tendencies in religion. The need for familiarity and concrete, even sensible, representations of unknown causes explains idols, polytheism, and mythology. The need to gain favor, on the other hand, leads to the obsequious pursuit of ever more exalted terms of praise (and abject means of self-abasement), culminating in iconoclasm, monotheism, and an insistence on mystery. Blatant contradictions in theologies of all types manifest the tension between these needs. The two tendencies produce contrary movements, furthermore, and initiate a continuous "flux and reflux" between polytheism and monotheism. Although Hume believes that both polytheism and monotheism compromise and distort natural human virtue, he believes that monotheism engenders intolerance and exhibits a greater proneness to enormities.

Religious feelings

Hume's theory explains religion in intellectual terms: as an account of the unknown causes at work in the natural and social worlds. An enterprise fundamentally concerned with explanation, prediction, and control, religion, on Hume's view, directly competes with science. Later, Victorian anthropologists like Edward Tyler, James Frazer, and Herbert Spencer likewise adopt a fundamentally intellectualist explanation of religion. They too see religion in conflict with science. As early as 1799, however, an alternative explanation of religion emerges. Unwilling to declare religion obsolete, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues that it constitutes an autonomous domain distinct from science. Religion, he claims in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799), consists in "the sensibility and taste for the infinite" within finite experience (p. 103). This religious feeling is independent of, and prior to, all thought or belief, though it naturally finds expression in language. The growth of science need not, therefore, conflict with religion because beliefs and judgments are essentially foreign to religion.

Schleiermacher's religious approach to religion influenced later theory as much as Hume's humanistic one. The nineteenth-century German scholar, Max Muller, for instance, theorizes that religion begins in perceptions of the infinite glimpsed in awesome natural phenomena like the sun. Through a "disease of language," the names for the powerful natural phenomena became misconstrued and taken to be the names of superhuman beings. Myths nevertheless metaphorically express the experience of the infinite. In the mid-twentieth century Mircea Eliade interpreted religious symbolism in light of what he called hierophanies, the religious experiences wherein one perceives a mode of the transcendent, wholly other "sacred" in a mundane object. In various ways "homo religiosus " builds different myths, rites, and beliefs out from the universal symbols.

William James also holds that religious feelings are primary and the explanation of religion. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he argues that various inarticulate feelings of the presence or reality of an unseen something more that is congruent with human interests explain religion. Unlike Schleiermacher, James admits that religious beliefs can conflict with science, but religious beliefs are merely secondary interpretations of religious feeling. Ultimately, he ventures the humanistic hypothesis that the subconscious explains the experiences he describes, but he countenances religious theory by allowing that a religious reality could work through the subconscious. The attempt to safeguard religion from science by maintaining the primacy of feelingthe approach shared by Schleiermacher, Muller, Eliade, and Jamesruns aground on the fact that religious feelings are not in truth independent of, and prior to, religious beliefs. As Wayne Proudfoot makes evident in Religious Experience (1985), religious feelings are constituted by the subject's implicit commitment to a religious explanation of their cause and a religious description of their object. This commitment belies the alleged priority of religious feeling to religious belief.

Society and symbolism

Emile Durkheim conceives his humanistic theory of religion in self-conscious opposition to intellectualist theories of religion. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) he insists that the generative source of religion cannot simply be ignorance. Otherwise, religion would have disappeared long ago under the pressure of massive disconfirmation because religious beliefs are "barely more than a fabric of errors" (p. 227). Durkheim proposes to explain the persistence of religion (its "ever-present causes") despite the errors it contains (p. 7).

An explanation of religion must, Durkheim argues, recognize that religion is a social fact. Previous theorists grounded their explanations in anthropology, or a theory of the person. One cannot explain social facts in this way, he claims, because societies, though composed of individuals, exhibit laws and properties of their own. Social facts place constraints on individuals and can contribute to explanations of individual psychology. Individual psychology, however, cannot explain a social fact. One should ground explanations of social facts in sociology, or a theory of society. To try to explain religion through a theory of the person entirely misses the social dynamics creating this social fact.

Durkheim grossly overstates the gulf between the social and individual levels of explanation, and even violates his own methodological prescriptions when he appeals to individual psychology in his theory of religion. Nevertheless, he offers a salutary corrective. Hume exemplifies the sort of theory about which Durkheim complained. Despite Hume's interest in the social consequences of religion, his theory of the origin of religion completely neglects social considerations. It almost seems, on Hume's view, as if each individual concocts religion independently. Schleiermacher and James also flout the proper order of explanation. Religion, as a social fact, can help explain the individual's religious feelings better than the individual's religious feelings can explain religion.

Whereas Hume deems belief in invisible, human-like beings to be the hallmark of religion, Durkheim argues that the category of religion includes systems without spiritual beings (or, at least, systems like Buddhism, where spiritual beings possess, he claims, only minor importance). To characterize religion most generally, he introduces a notion that influenced Eliade and his followers, and that eventually succumbed to ethnographic counterexamples. Religion, Durkheim claims, universally entails an absolute distinction between the sacred, "things set apart and forbidden," and the profane (pp. 44). A religion is a shared system of beliefs and practices concerning sacred things that unites a community. For Durkheim community is intrinsic to the idea of religion. This definition, based on the "readily visible outward features" of religion, bears a symmetrical relation to Durkheim's hypothesis concerning its "deep and truly explanatory elements" (p. 21). Inverting his definition of religion, Durkheim ultimately claims that the uniting of the community explains the beliefs and practices about sacred things.

Durkheim believes that the key to explaining religion is a consideration of the individual's relationship to society. The individual depends on society for his or her well-being, yet society demands service from the individual and frequently requires that the individual set aside his or her own interests and inclinations. Society subjects individuals to restraints and privations, but social interaction also fosters courage and confidence. Durkheim argues that the members of a society objectify and project outside their minds the feelings that the social collectivity inspires in them. They feel acted on by a mighty moral force to which they are subject, and, not surprisingly, they imagine it external to them. They fix the feelings on some object, which thereby becomes sacred. Moments of what Durkheim calls "collective effervescence," when the social group physically gathers and the individual feels uplifted and fortified by the crowd, are especially powerful, Durkheim claims, in creating religious ideas and the sacred. Although Durkheim relies on irremediably faulty ethnography and untenable assumptions about the simplicity of "primitive" societies, his interpretation of Australian religion well illustrates his general theory. The Australian totem, he reports, stands both as the emblem of the clan (i.e., the society) and the emblem of sacred power. The sacred power, he concludes, derives from the clan itself.

Two features of Durkheim's theory influenced later twentieth-century theories profoundly. First, Durkheim argues that religious beliefs and rites, the beliefs and practices related to sacred things, symbolize society and social relations. He claims that "religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it" (p. 227). Although the believer understands them literally, religious beliefs and practices are fundamentally not attempts at explanation, prediction, and control. Rather, they are metaphorical expressions of social realities. Taking inspiration from Durkheim's injunction that "we must know how to reach beneath the symbol to grasp the reality it represents and that gives the symbol its true meaning" because the "most bizarre or barbarous rites and the strangest myths translate some human need and some aspect of life, whether social or individual," many twentieth-century scholars interpret religious beliefs primarily as symbolic expressions of existential concerns (p. 2). Others, like Mary Douglas and Edmund Leach, who follow even more closely in Durkheim's footsteps, have documented rich correlations between social arrangements and religious representations.

Second, Durkheim supplements his explanation of the origin of religion with a functional explanation of its persistence. Prevalent in biology, functional explanations explain something by its function, or what it does. In the social sciences they explain an institution or behavior in terms of its unintended, beneficial effects. Durkheim argues that religion persists because it satisfies social needs. Society requires a periodic strengthening of the social bond through communal activity that reinforces collective feelings and ideas. Worship, undertaken to maintain the relationship between the individual and the sacred, actually maintains the relationship between the individual and the reality behind the sacredsociety. Rituals, meant to strengthen society's relationship to the sacred, strengthen society. That religion fulfils this social function explains, for Durkheim, how it persists despite its errors. Many twentieth-century anthropologists and sociologists adopt functionalism as an explanatory paradigm, but employ it uncritically. Sometimes they naïvely assume that extant religious beliefs or practices must serve some beneficial purpose. Sometimes they heedlessly suppose that the (putative) benefits maintain the beliefs or practices. Not everything that exists, of course, serves a beneficial purpose (some things work to the detriment of individuals and societies) and not everything that has beneficial effects exists for the sake of its effects.

In Ulysses and the Sirens (1984) Jon Elster provides the most penetrating analysis of the logic and the pitfalls of functional explanation. He argues that simply demonstrating that unintended, beneficial effects result from the presence of an institution or behavior in a society does not suffice to explain the presence of the institution or the behavior. To explain an institution or behavior's presence by its effects, one must also identify a feedback loop "whereby the effect maintains its cause" (p. 32). In biology, natural selection provides the feedback loop whereby the effect of an adaptation explains its presence in a population. Elster remarks that virtually all social scientists who invoke functional explanations fail to specify a comparable feedback loop. Durkheim's functional explanation of religion arguably does include a feedback loop: The effects of religious rites (strengthened social bonds) maintain their cause (religion) precisely because social bonds produce religion. Elster, nevertheless, rightly criticizes the all too frequent assumption in social scientific theory that unintended beneficial effects provide sufficient explanation for their cause.

Hume redivivus

Despite Durkheim's enormous influence over subsequent social scientific theory of religion, some late twentieth-century theory sustains themes advanced by Hume in the eighteenth century. Robin Horton, for example, in a series of essays spanning thirty years (and collected in 1993) argues for an intellectualist explanation of religion. While allowing that religious beliefs can reflect social preoccupations, he rejects symbolic understandings of religion because the subjects of his fieldwork in Africa construe their religious beliefs literally. The motivation to interpret religious beliefs symbolically derives, he argues, from liberal scruples about attributing massive error to so-called primitives. Horton finds this liberal attitude patronizing. Taken literally, religion, like science, represents an attempt to explain, predict, and control the environment. Unlike science, however, which employs impersonal processes and entities as its explanatory idiom, religion employs personal forces and entities. It represents "an extension of the field of people's social relationships beyond the confines of purely human society," an extension "in which the human beings involved see themselves in a dependent position vis-à-vis their non-human alters" (pp. 3132).

Though Horton revives both intellectualism and a variation of Hume's definition of religion, he repudiates the sort of distasteful elitism Hume epitomizes and remedies Hume's neglect of the social factors causing religion. He argues that societies with relatively stable patterns of social organization and relatively poor means of technological control draw on social analogies in constructing their theories because for them the social world represents predictability. Rapidly changing societies with good technological control, on the other hand, draw their analogies from the natural and artificial realms, which to them seem most predictable. Horton maintains that in addition to the use of a "personal idiom" to explain, predict, and control events, humans enter into "communion" relationshipspersonal relationships viewed as ends in themselveswith the personal entities postulated by religion. Religion-as-theory and religion-as-communion represent two poles or aspects of religion with varying relative salience depending on circumstance. In the modern West science has largely replaced the theoretical role for religion, granting communion greater prominence. This fact, he argues, helps explain the tendency of Western scholars to dismiss intellectualist explanations of religion.

In offering a sociological explanation of the personal beings that define religion, Horton departs from Hume. Stewart Guthrie, on the contrary, adheres to Hume's anthropological approach. In Faces in the Clouds (1993) Guthrie adduces copious evidence to suggest a propensity in human nature to anthropomorphize the world. Humans must constantly draw implicit or explicit explanatory conclusions about their surroundings. Guthrie claims that over the course of human evolution, the importance of other humans to human existence selected for traits that facilitate the detection of human agency in ambiguous or uncertain circumstances. A well-developed cognitive predisposition to perceive agents will inevitably produce erroneous results. Religion, Guthrie argues, represents one such result. He characterizes religion as a system of partial anthropomorphism (i.e., gods are only human-like, they are not human simpliciter ) centered on communication with humanlike beings through symbolic action. Science as an institution, by contrast, has historically resisted the tendency to anthropomorphize.

In Religion Explained (2001), Pascal Boyer supplies a complementary cognitive theory that likewise characterizes religion as essentially concerned with person-like beings and explains it as a by-product of evolved mental dispositions. From cognitive psychology Boyer adopts the conclusion that humans display cognitive biases that predispose the mind to attend to certain kinds of information, to classify it in specific ways, and to draw certain sorts of conclusions about it. The mind has biases toward a few "ontological categories" (e.g., inanimate objects, animate objects, and agents) that activate specialized "inference systems" (e.g., intuitive physics, intuitive biology, and intuitive psychology). These mental subsystems produce a set of intuitive default expectations concerning members of the category. Boyer contends that supernatural concepts preserve most intuitive expectations, but conspicuously violate a few (e.g., invulnerable organisms or percipient artifacts). These cognitively interesting concepts gain salience from their relative counterintuitiveness, and Boyer provides experimental evidence to show that they are more memorable than intuitive ones.

Specifically religious concepts (as opposed to folklore, myths, etc.) are those supernatural concepts that are "serious" and arouse strong emotions. They gain this additional salience from their "aggregate relevance" to important social and moral processes. Religious concepts concern agents who counterintuitively have full access to information pertinent to social interaction. Concepts involving "full-access strategic agents" gain plausibility and significance from the role they can play in moral reasoning, their congruity with human intuitions about the causes of misfortune, and their capacity to explain the social effects created in ritual. Religion does not produce morality, intuitions about misfortune, or ritual. Rather, the latter simply make some supernatural conceptsthe one's concerning full access strategic agentsmore relevant.

Though Boyer is critical of intellectualist explanations, both Guthrie and Boyer share Hume's view that religion does not represent "an original instinct or primary impression" in human nature. Like Hume, they believe that religion derives from more fundamental human propensities and predispositions. Religion, they contend, is a by-product of evolved cognitive biases. This approach enjoys considerable advantages. They do not need to show that religion itself confers an evolutionary advantage, nor to delineate a feedback loop independent of natural selection.

Marx and Freud

Sigmund Freud (18561939) and Karl Marx (18181883) both authored prominent humanistic theories of religion with scientific or quasi-scientific pretensions. Marx endorses Feuerbach's view of religion as alienation and projection, but argues that religion, or alienated consciousness, is only an epiphenomenal reflection of a more basic dehumanizing alienation at the level of social and economic organization. Religion reinforces prevailing social and economic arrangements by both consoling the oppressed and justifying their oppression. Freud's "psychoanalytic" theory explains religion as both the delusional fulfillment of powerful wishes for a protector, and as a symbolic enactment of ambivalence about the father. He describes a primal crime in which jealous sons kill and devour their father. Religions are attempts to allay guilt by deferred obedience to the father. Freud equivocates about the historicity of this oedipal conflict. Sometimes he portrays the primal crime as an historical phylogenetic truth. Sometimes he treats it purely as an illustration of a universal psychological conflict.

Detractors have labeled both Marx and Freud pseudo-scientific. The extraordinary plasticity of their interpretive principles renders their systems virtually invulnerable to counter-evidence. Sometimes they both also explain away and stigmatize objections, rather than meeting them. These features, together with the all-encompassing nature of their theories and the reverence accorded to the founders and the founding texts, leads some critics to liken Marxism and psychoanalysis to religions.

See also Freud, Sigmund; Hume, David; Mysticism; Neurotheology; Sociology


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matthew c. bagger

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