Explaining religion 2 - what is religion?

I now turn to the question of explananda - what is it that explanations of religion are adduced to explain?

Similarly to the general classification I gave before, there are several things that seem to need explaining.

1. The sociological explanandum: the existence of organised religion

Religions are salient objects in modern and historical societies. All of them have social structure, and it is that which calls for explanation. There are basically two approaches here, one tied to Weber's sociology and the other tied to Durkheim's. Weber believed that religion was symbolic, and founded on individual psychological traits resulting in social structures. Durkheim held, in contrast, that religion was "society divinised", founded on the economic and political needs of the social order. Neither is entirely of the extreme view that this is all there is to religion, but they both held some predilection for the kinds of explanation that in the social sciences have been called "methodological individualist" for Weber and "methodological holist" for Durkheim.

Marx's own view, that religion is a way of making exploitation and suffering tolerable is the common ancestor of both views in a way.

2. The experiential explanandum: the spiritual experience

Ever since William James wrote his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience back in 1902, the psychology of religious experience has been an issue. This is tied closely to existential explanations of religion. Individual experience is often regarded as the foundation of religion, as in shamanist stories of the role of the mystic or magic man in village societies. Explanations based on pathologies like epilepsy, schizophrenia are included, but also more general aspects of human psychology such as a feeling of awe and connectedness, particularly in case of meditation and ritual behaviours.

In cases of religions that are largely contemplative or have mystical experiences as their basis, like Buddhism, Dervish and Sufi Islam, Catholic mystics like St John of the Cross or Hildegard of Bingen, the focus is on ineffable experience as a way of communing with god or nature or escaping the snares of mundane experience.

3. The conceptual explanandum: etiology and explanation

One common explanandum is the use of religion to account for aspects of the world. One approach is to treat religion as a kind of pre-scientific cognitive process. Stories of deities and their actions explains factual and moral situations of the believer and their opponents. Hence, and we still see this operating today, a religious explanation of a disaster is seen as divine punishment for failure to act according to the wishes of the deity, while deities are themselves explanations of natural events like spring, the growth of crops, thunder, vulcanism, and so on.

Etiology (origin) stories are a core aspect of this. Every religion seems to have them. Sometimes they explain the privileged status of the religious community (or the subordinate status, with a promise of redemption or future victory). Sometimes they explain the origins of the natural world. Most ancient religions treated the origin of the present order in terms of struggles between deities, and most often this order is made from the bodies of vanquished deities (as in the story of Marduk or of the battle between the Olympians and the Titans). The Hebrew book Bereshit (Genesis) is a "demythologising" of this story - the deity merely imposed order on chaos, and none of the resulting heavenly or terrestrial objects are themselves divine in origin or substance).

4. The historical explanandum: the success or failure of particular religions

To be clear, it pays to distinguish general accounts of religion's existence and action from historical arguments about why this or that religion succeeded where another failed. For example, in the Indus valley, an early religion of a kind was the Carvakist materialists, who held a view very similar to Epicureanism - the gods, if they existed, were indifferent to human affairs. This was supplanted by Jainism and the early Brahmanist forms of Hinduism. Why? Likewise, Islam supplanted Hinduism and other local religions in that region to an extent. These processes require special explanation in terms of the utility, conceptual comfort and social influences in particular cases.

Now, having set out these four explananda, we might ask what it is that theories of religious origins are explaining. In short, what is religion?

The definition of religion is a vexed one. There are a couple of approaches people take here - one is to take the modern world religions as the prototypes of religion and to generalise them, attempting to make Mayan, Polynesian, Australian and so forth rituals, organisations and conceptual accounts fit into a typology based on these "great" religions.

Another is to attempt to specify, usually in the context of one or another preferred account of religion, early, "primitive" or universal forms that tend to cluster under the banner of religion, thus including animist, shamanist and rituals of local spirits as "religious". The major difficulty with this is that the defining characteristics of these forms of behaviour are not unique to what we would ordinarily call "religious behaviour". They also appear in terms of political affiliations, cultural fashions, and psychological types.

So I will make an arbitrary but not random definition of religion here: religion is that form of behaviour that contributes to and is constrained by some social organisation that involves culturally mediated rituals of a non-natural kind. That is, in order for it to be religion, it must have some form of organisation amongst the community and have as its target issues that "transcend" the natural or political or economic order. This is not to say that religion doesn't have a role in explaining or justifying these orders, but that it does so in terms that are non-natural.

This is vague enough that it includes such "political religions" as communism, national socialism, and minor variants. It is exact enough to exclude ordinary animisms, family spirits, and ancestor worship. This things are not religious, so much as protoreligious. The sole reason why animist "religions" have been called religions is because they are shoehorned into the typology based on modern religions, and treating them that way both occludes the causes of religion and does injustice to them as phenomena in their own right.

The word religion itself comes from the Latin "religare", to bind. Religious behaviour is, on etymological and more general considerations, behaviour that is bound in formal ways, and requires of its adherents a certain form of behaviour and belief. This therefore includes "secular Judaism", which has more interest in observing certain rules than in theological doctrine, as well as Buddhist religious behaviour even when no deities are in evidence (not even the Buddha himself).

On this basis, I think that we can say that religion begins when social structures are formed from large-scale agrarian foundations, when there are enough people to permit social differentiation, and when territory is fixed and contested. My reason for this is twofold. One is that I wish to give an account of religion as being an outgrowth of our economic and social development, and the other is that I accept the phenomenon often called the "Axial Age", in which the typical forms of religion developed in the second millennium before the modern era, at or about the time when large scale civilisations appeared, and in particular when the transition from the neolithic period to metalworking occurred, which changed the nature of warfare, conquest and migration, not to mention farming technologies and the subsequent explosion in population size.


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Obviously there are a heck of a lot of ways of approaching religion, but I think that it helps to distinguish the great historical religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto from the traditional religions of particular peoples. The historical religions share two related features: they all arose in the context of a clash of cultures and doctrinally they all define themselves in relationship to other religions. They are metareligions. Judaism is a polemic against idolatry; Christianity a multicultural version of Judaism (St. Paul!); Islam is supposed to be the fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity; Buddhism accepts and subverts the Hindu world view; Hinduism is a commentary on the diversity and unity of a host of local cults; and Shinto is largely an attempt to define a nativist Japanese spirituality against the threat of foreign imports.

A lot of what we think of as characteristic of religion in general is really just characteristic of the historical religions. Elaborate doctrines, for example, are required in a multi-cultural faith to facilitate conversion and enforce orthodoxy. Creeds make religions portable in a way that local religions can never be. The historical religions are all also typically involved with state building. The political angle is as true of Buddhism as it is of Islam, and Christianity would probably have remained just another cult without imperial sponsorship.

I emphasize the dichotomy between historical religion and traditional religion because it matters very much which kind of religion an explanation of religion is trying to explain. If you lump everything together, it's as if you attempted to understand life but took all your examples from eukaryotes. Of course it may appear that the only kind of religiosity worth understanding is typified by the historical religions; but traditional religion never goes away, though many of its manifestations have been given a perfunctory baptism--Mr. Bush, for example, is a classic idolater despite the fact that he calls his idol Jesus.

I don't understand why you are trying to exclude animism from religion. AIUI animism is essentially the attribution of supernatural properties to a visible object - be it the sun, a mountain, a doll or an animal hide - and the reverence of that object by an extended family, tribe, or some such group. In what way is the organised reverence of supernatural objects not a religion? It doesn't seem to be a good reason that the object happens to be visible. Nor does it seem to be a good reason that the group of people involved is small, especially if the prime interest is in the origins of religion.

As you say, the definition of religion is a vexed one. I suspect that any attempt to produce a "ring-fence" definition will fail: it will be too inclusive, or too exclusive, or too vague. A graded approach might have more success. One could list a set of characteristics; the more characteristics in that set that a particular activity possesses, the more appropriate it is to regard that activity as religious. Some elements of the set might carry more weight than others.

So football-supporterism might be a Level-5 religion (strong self-identification; rituals; symbols; a focus of reverence (but not a supernatural one); systematic antagonism towards supporters of other clubs) where Christianity and Islam are Level-12 (or whatever) religions.

Just a suggestion.

Is is possible that all these people are overthinking the issue? Might there be a far simpler explanation for the existence of religions?

@2: One distinction is that while animistic beliefs offer some kind of explanation/rationale/narrative for the vicissitudes of life, they don't provide any framework for organizing people at a level higher than the clan or tribe.

Organized religion first appears (as far as we know) with the appearance of cities in Mesopotamia and elsewhere. You need something more than a general belief in the supernatural if you're going to erect cities, grow crops to feed a multitude, or (perhaps most significantly) to raise an army.

I think it's interesting to look at situations in which neolithic people self-organized at super-tribal levels within historical times. We can actually observe the transition of animistic/shamanistic beliefs into proto-religions. In North America, for example, there is the emergence of the Moses-like figure Hiawatha (not to be confused with Longfellow's fictive Hiawatha) when the Iroquois Confederacy was organized, or even the later appearance of the messianic Ghost Shirt society among the Great Plains and Southwest tribes in the late 19th century.

One distinction is that while animistic beliefs offer some kind of explanation/rationale/narrative for the vicissitudes of life, they don't provide any framework for organizing people at a level higher than the clan or tribe.

That however is simply a rephrasing of my question. Why is "higher than the clan or tribe" an essential component of religion? It seems to me that the difference is between small religion and large religion, not between non-religion and religion.

If you look at the categories of explanation John gave in his previous post, it seems extremely likely that all of them would first have arisen within a tribe (and probably many times over in different tribes). So if you say that anything within a single tribe is by definition not religion, then you have just eliminated all the categories of explanation we were discussing. (Except perhaps social control / tool for power, which came up in the comments and probably was an important factor in religions taking hold over more than one tribe.)

Why is "higher than the clan or tribe" an essential component of religion? It seems to me that the difference is between small religion and large religion, not between non-religion and religion.

My claim is because the social organisation of a small band is too close to be explained in terms of religion or vice versa - religion and culture are at that level almost coterminous. Only when you have a division of labor in society, and the consequent possibility of a priestly class as opposed to a shaman-style "magical leader" do you get what I would call religion.

Now that is circular, I admit, but I think it is important in one way - if what we seek to explain are the effects of larger-scale religions, then there has to be a disconnect between the whole culture and a religion in order for whatever account we want to apply to do any explaining. Otherwise, it's just saying the same thing twice over repeatedly (pleonastically) - because culture is the "religion" and vice versa. Or, in non-question begging terms, ritual and culture are the same thing, whereas in a religion proper, that is never the case.