I’ve been blogging a lot about “religion” recently, but I haven’t reallly spelled out what I mean by religion. The answer is many things. Religion, or religious belief and practice, are a suite of behaviors and concepts which explore a multi-dimensional space. This space is inhabited by a wide range of combinations of traits, some more common than others. One of the problems addressing this topic is that everyone has a different perception of the subject, a perception shaped by their own cognitive and social biases.
Here are a few of the axes which I believe religion explores:
1) The axis of intuitive supernatural agency. This is basically god(s)-belief, and serves as the lowest common denominator across cultures. Cognitive anthropologists hypothesize that this tendency emerges out of a combination of our social intelligence mixed with theory of the mind, folk physics and other pattern recognition heuristics and modules. One could posit that schizophrenics and autistics occupy two antipodes of this trait, one group seeing agents all around them, another unable to perceive agency even in human beings in front of them.
2) The axis of social ritual and participation. This is basically the liturgical and outward behavorial aspect of religion. Even in “primitive” societies rituals and rites of passage exist, and they are often imbued with supernatural significance. Some people do not take to these rituals for whatever reason (asociality, fear of crowds, etc.) while others thrive on them and the public forum they offer for their charisma.
3) The social functionality. This is basically the phenomenon where church or religious ties serve as an entree into social accepability and smooth the interactions between individuals within a society. It is a reflection of some of the ideas promoted by David Sloan Wilson regarding group selection. Some individuals might not be particularly supernaturalistic or aroused by ritual, but they know that church membership and nominal profession of belief is essential for good standing within a community.
4) The axis of mystical experience of higher consciousness. This is basically an encapsulation of the program of “neurotheology,” which attempts to show that religion can be characterized as altered states of brain chemistry. Obviously some people are more mystical in orientation, while others are relatively dead to the dreams of the cosmos. This is obviously related to #1, but I don’t think the two are coterminus subsets.
5) The axis of rationality and ideology. This is basically the creeds and doctrines promoted by the “high religions” coupled with the insitutional systems that promote them. Out of this religious mileu come the Five Ways of Aquinas or the Four Noble Truths. This mode of religious expression intersects a great deal with ethical philosophy.
These modes that I refer to are not exclusive or independent. To some extent I have laid the list out in from least to most “complex” and contingent. “Primitive” societies might lack #5 for example, and they might not have any individuals gifted with #4 because of their small scale. #3 might be attenuated or poorly developed, but #1 and #2 should still be ubiquitous. I would argue that the further up the list you are, the more naturally “evoked” the traits are from the simple experience of being a human with a particular cognitive architecture that expresses their development within the world as we know it, both social and physical. In contrast, #5 is contingent upon an interlocking set of necessary conditions and a level of social organization which implies that it does not come so “naturally” to human beings. In Theological Incorrectness the cognitive psychologist Jason Slone shows that people who profess world religions in fact conceptualize deities which are no different than class #1. In other words, though monotheists avow a belief in an all powerful god out of time and space, they seem to model in their minds a god of far more limited capacities and characteristics which resembles those of “primitive societies.”
This illustrates a classic problem that shows up when discussing religion: intellectuals monopolize the definition of religion in a modern society and so have reshaped the discourse in their own image, which I believe gives us a false perception of what religion is modally about. Christian philosophers in the tradition of Aquinas, followers of modern day thinkers like Alvin Plantiga, might battle with the legions of atheistic savants, but I suspect to a large extent they are working on the surface of the true phenomenon of religion. Similarly, we might speak of Buddhism as a non-theistic religion which rejects the Creator God and has only an equivocal attitude toward concepts like the soul, but operationally the reality on the ground is that the practices and cognitive states of Therevada Buddhists in Sri Lanka resembles that of their Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbors, who generally do explicitly appeal to a personal God (there might be an exception in some strains of monistic Hinduism, but again, this is an elite formulation). Early 20th century intellectuals might easily imagine that the demon haunted universe would give way to the bright light of secular humanism as freedom from want and the light of reason illuminated our world and drove the gods into the shadows, but that hasn’t happened. I suspect in large part this is because the intellectuals view religion as a proto-science, an explanatory model which rationally fulfills existential concerns of how and why the world is, but most human beings do not concern themselves with such narrow questions. True, post facto they will assent to the teleological or cosmological explanation as a proof for the existence of God, but these were never atheists before they reflected on the ground of being of the universe.
One implication of this line of reasoning is that many intellectual religionists share more with atheists than they do with the masses of religionists in how they reason about the world and come to their conclusions. That is, Thomists might disagree with Logical Positivists in regards to the probability of the God hypothesis, but they are both traveling the paths of reflective rationality orthogonal to the experience of most humans who know God exists prior to reflection. In a very real sense I do believe that religious people in the generality believe in the same god, but that is not the god bound by the formulae of the philosophers.
Ultimately, as an atheist these are not conclusions that I warm to. I would like to believe that rational argumentation could resolve questions concerning the God hypothesis, and though I am reasonably fluent and capable of dancing around the ontological argument, or refuting arguments in regards to teleology, or Pascalian straw men, I have little to say to those who express a vulgar Kierkegaardian fideism. That is, they believe because they do to their inner bones. This does not mean that higher religions are safe from the assault of modernity, throughout the modern world the power of the mega-religions seems to be waning and smaller and more flexible religious institutions are rising up to fill supernatural needs. In some cases the frequency of avowed atheists and agnostics is rather high, for example in the Far East, but as John Derbyshire once noted, the Chinese are the least religious but most superstitious people. I do not believe that lack of explicit God belief necessarily entails scientific materialism.
Before we can talk about religion as a phenomenon of interest, we have to define the bounds of our topic, but those bounds range far and wide indeed. We need to look hard and perceive beyond our own horizons, constrained by the landscapes of our own personal mental universes. Those of us overly bounded by the domain of books and abstract constructions need to look around particularly hard to see the “truths” bubbling under the dark surface of the swamps beyond our line of sight.