Modes of religion

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.


More like this

The comments for the post where I imply that Sam Harris is a religiously inclined individual addressed the topic of whether Buddhism is a religion or not. This is a common issue, and I tend to cause some irritation whenever I declare that Buddhism is a theistic religion, because that's not what…
Ed Brayton and Jason Rosenhouse have long posts up about the recent dispute between PZ Myers and Ken Miller, the Roman Catholc cell biologist who has been one of the most prominent popular expositors of evolutionary biology in these United States. You can read my 10 questions for Ken Miller to get…
A few weeks ago, Andrew Brown (author of The Darwin Wars) stated: I'm not sure that Boyer, Atran and Wilson regard their explanations as complementary. I have talked to all three of them about it. My feeling is that while all three of them understand that the explanations might be complementary,…
A lot of comments have revolved around whether I am a Post-Modernist when it comes to the definition of religion. This post is to make explicit and clarify my own position so I don't have to waste so much time in the comments. Most readers can therefore ignore this and wait until I go back to…

I would add one other thing to your list: religion as identity (or culture). For many, identifying as a member of a religion is very important even if they don't hold with all, or even many of the beliefs of that religion (e.g., people who identify as "Catholic" even though they disagree with the Church on issues such as abortion).

I agree with you that too often, religion is 'overconceptualized' (I think those who never accepted religion to begin with or moved away from it have often done so for philosophical reasons, and consequently, at some gut level, don't understand the role identity plays). Most people are highly syncretic, and not entirely logical about religion, in part, because the role of religion in identity (or what Mordechai Kaplan called a 'religious civilization').

Great post, Razib. It's interesting to consider how those five layers interact. It seems obvious that there can be upward causation where the lower levels (say, the social/ritual level) can influence the upper levels (say, the rational/ideological), but downward causation can sometimes occur too (e.g. the ideological level altering the social functionality level). Which way you think the vectors point and how great their respective magnitudes are will largely determine, say, how optimistic or pessimistic you are about the future of the Muslim world and what the proper policies toward it are.


you make a good point. i would argue that religion-as-culture can be decomposed as vectors which lay along some of the axes listed above, especially #2 and #3. but, in this case i think religion is simply a outward gloss which serves as a nominal label for a complex of folkways with which it has been traditionally associated. mordechai kaplan's reconstructionist movement is a good case in point, it is now post-theistic. additionally, my impression of reconstructionist temples and those who espouse them is that they are also profoundly radical and syncretistic institutions. in other words, religion-as-culture is epiphemenona that emerges out of the correlation of a particular group of people and a complex of religious ideas. as an example, christian arabs recently arrived from the middle east can be considered part of 'islammic culture.' the late edward said claimed islamic civilization, despite his anglican upbringing and professed atheism. that being said, the children of these christian arabs will likely quickly dissipate in their identification with islamic civilization, and christian arabs (like tiffany, doug flutie or steve jobs) are among the most assimilated of 'white ethnics.' in contrast, muslim arabs maintain a tie with islamic civilization by their fundamental religious profession.

matt, not only is there is variation between the levels, but there is variation in how powerfully these levels influence the lives of people within a society, and, perhaps societies themselves. addressing these issues requires not being a savage, which is pretty hard as you found out a few weeks ago....

"Civilized Shamans" is a fascinating book about Tibetan religion. What's interesting is that in (pre-1959) Tibet there was an incredible richness of religious activity supported by a weak economy and very weak, decentralized political organization. (What political order there was was often provided by monasteries). Without an effective state there was also no centralized religious organization. Newspapers will say that the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama headed of Tibetan religion, but that was only weakly true and mostly because they represented Tibet to the outside powers. There were a multitude of sects, including the pre-Buddhist Bon religion which had been partly Buddhified (just as Tibetan Buddhism had been Bon-ized). There were also many freelance miracle-workers and holy men of many different types who usually were recruited into nominal affiliation with one of the monastic sects. (Pre-1000 AD Irish Catholicism may have been something like that.)

Even though we talk about the church and the state as adversaries, in Europe the Catholic Church and the feudal state system were really mutually dependent (Charlemagen and at least the legend of Constantine), and conversion to Catholicism usually involved entry into the state system.

The practice of "religion" is one thing, and political forms of organization (churches) are distinguishable. You can have one without the other, and where there is no political organization of religion, practice is much different and much wilder and more diverse.

Orthodox churches of all kinds always have to deal with upwellings of unlicensed piety, which sometimes are absorbed and sometimes condemned.

On the question of Hinduism and Buddhism, one test might be to find out the degree to which the theistic mass of Buddhist faithful think of elite atheists as heretics and evildoers. Within monotheistic religions atheists are automatically condemned in the strongest terms. I suspect that this is less true in Buddhist / Hindu areas.

In Hinduism (Louis Dumont) purity rules and ritual seem to be dominant rather than creed or belief, and serve to define groups and establish hierarchies.

On the question of Hinduism and Buddhism, one test might be to find out the degree to which the theistic mass of Buddhist faithful think of elite atheists as heretics and evildoers. Within monotheistic religions atheists are automatically condemned in the strongest terms. I suspect that this is less true in Buddhist / Hindu areas.

interesting point. the only thing i would offer is that heresy and evil tend to be issues that are fleshed out by one group of elites against another, with populist masses roused to action. eg., heresy against priests and ministers to my knowledge has generally been an accusation from someone else of cognate position.

john, rod stark's work deals with sect formation in the USA, and the observed pattern is consistent: as a sect rises in social status and becomes laxer, a breakaway group starts a new sect, which goes through the same process. to give you an empirical example, one reason princeton was started was to offer a genuinely conservative and orthodox alternative to training ministers aside from harvard, which was shifting from reformed christian to unitarian in the 18th century. one reason westminster theological seminary was started was that princeton theological seminary (its own roots remember being a reaction to harvard's liberalism) had become too liberal.

one reason patrick henry college was started was because something was 'missing' from evangelical schools like wheaton. 50 years from now someone will start a college because something is 'missing' from patrick henry college.

Interesting post.

I agree about the levels and the fact that the lower levels are more directly responsive to our natural predipositions.

I think, though, that the fact that the higher levels (moving otward theology & institutionalized churches) are so widespread. My guess is that they arise almost automatically out of reflections that become more easy to make once a socity develops history, writing, etc.

My guess is that at a certain stage of civilization atheism begins to seem a lot more plausible relative to the stories that arose out of the basic religious impulse (if not in the perosnal sense (I begin to feel doubt) then in the displacved sense (I can imagine how many of my weaker bethren will begin to feel doubt)), and that more layers keep getting thrown on to stave off the threat of atheism.