What religion is

It’s been about 10 years since I addressed this topic. Largely because I have no new thoughts. But probably after 10 years, it’s useful to revisit/clarify on this topic to clarify confusions, since people have a lot of opinions on this topic.

People mean different things when they mean “religion,” and the different meanings are not contradictory, nor in conflict.

At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.

In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives. These rituals and communal narratives help forge some sort of group Weltanschauung that has a functional utility in terms of inter-group competition and relations. Here religion steps out of the individual and becomes an expression of collective consensus.

As human societies became more complex the role of religious professionals became more elaborated. The common role of a shaman can be thought of as a magician, one who manipulates and operates in the domain of the supernatural. Shamans are common and ubiquitous in pre-state societies (even if a tribe does not have a “professional” shaman, someone takes on the role when needed). The priest adds on top of this institutional authority, often supra-clan or tribal. No king, no priest. Eventually, though the shaman-priest took on the role of the metaphysician. The metaphysician generates abstract principles and rationales, which can transcend the tribe or ethnicity, and allows religion to generate meta-ethnic civilizational identities in the service of priestly functions.

So in the post-Axial Age, the religious professional is often shaman, priest, and philosopher.

In relation to my post about why I am not a New Atheist, New Atheists, and the hyper-verbal expositors of modern organized religion, often tend to reduce religion to a branch of philosophy with some textual revelatory buttress. By refuting the philosophy of religion, they think that they refute religion in toto.  But what they refute is only the latest and most elaborated structural expression of the religious phenomenon.

What about the priest? Though I am wary of the term “political religion,” due to semantic confusion, it seems clear that the function of the priest can be stripped of its supernatural valence. Many of the most objectionable characteristics of religion for people of liberal orientations derives from the institutionalized priestly functions. Unfortunately, the persistence of the priest in the absence of gods, shamanic powers and metaphysical justification opens the doors to secular totalitarianism.

Finally, it seems almost impossible to stamp out the shaman. Shamanism is like music. You can banish it through institutional sanctions, but once those sanctions disappear, shamanism reappears.

These different aspects of religiosity exist and persist simultaneously in most contexts, but sometimes in tension. Philosophers and priests often take a dim view of shamanic religiosity. In organized religion of the modern sort shamanism is marginalized, or highly constrained and regulated in sacraments. But the recession of state-sponsored Christianity across much of the West has arguably resulted in a resurgence of shamanism, and the proliferation of diverse supernatural beliefs which had previously been suppressed (much of East Asia is characterized by relative weakness of philosophical religion but the strength of shamanism).

Jade Eggs anyone?

The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists. Part of this is due to the fact that the philosophical-metaphysical aspect of religion is quite clearly indoctrination, and often of a superficial sort at that (judging by how weak most believer’s grasp of theology is). But the communal and psychological aspects are not indoctrination, as much as specific instantiations of general human sentiments, dispositions, and intuitions. The erasure of a Christian, Buddhist or Islamic religious orientation will not necessarily leave in its wake a mind primed for scientific naturalism. Rather, it will simply be one shorn of Axial-Age accretions, reverted back to the shamanic age…

As someone who is an atheist, I have never had strong intuitions that lead me to find shamanism plausible. Additionally, the philosophical arguments are wanting for me in relation to God, though they are interesting (thanks to reader Thursday I’m reading Edward Feser’s work). Finally, obviously, I take a dim view of the conformity and structure which the priests attempt to impose upon us.  But I do not presume I am not typical.

11 thoughts on “What religion is

  1. Is Weltanschauung different from the kind of “asabiya” that Peter Turchin brought up in one of his books IIRC? They sound very similar.

  2. after reading “religion explained” i came away with the notion that religion is basically indistinguishable from culture/behavior. since there is no common denominator between ALL religions? it also seemed to explain why conspiracy theories are the norm after any shooting or political event.
    reminds me of this: https://www.thesun.co.uk/tech/science/5322165/orangutan-medicinal-plants-ointment-muscle-joint-inflammation/
    are these orangutans doing something or are they doing nothing?:)

  3. Razib Kahn….. Greetings… My name is Charles Coryn, an old timer who graduated in Anthropology at U.C. Berkeley, 1965. No typo, as I am now 80 years old, but still thinking……. and then I saw your posting and read this:
    “At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe. Colloquially one might say that religion bubbles out of our unconscious.”….
    Yes, but….. I disagree. Consider another point of view: “There is no antidote for religion mixed with mother’s milk….” as Robert G. Ingersoll succinctly put it. Actually we are lied to from birth. First our parents, then our preachers and teachers, all who want to ‘know’, but in fact are only guessing. What is intuition? Can an infant intuit, or is it those others who ‘teach’ a child to ‘intuit’, whatever that means. My dictionary says ‘ Knowing immediately without learning or being taught’. Like magic maybe, or a guess, but not science……. Which brings us immediately to the nature of reality, to science, which religion and belief attempt to avoid at all costs, because beyond cause and effect, there is nothing but guesswork….. no evidence, no corroboration and no agreement………
    I have here Marjorie Leach’s book ‘Guide to the Gods’ which lists thousands of gods and goddesses, and here is Michael Jordan’s book ‘Encyclopedia of Gods’, listing over 2,500 ‘Deities of the World’. So are all these gods ‘real’? Or are they all created by men, for a purpose? Science is our only tie to reality, the rest is guesswork. Maybe this or that god is ‘real’, and the rest are not?
    Religion to my mind is a human artifice devised for control of the hunting and gathering groups that evolved and existed for thousands and thousands of years until finally the introduction of the scientific method, which may help us finally confront reality. By not teaching children our anthropological heritage we are crippling them…. but for a purpose, that is, for social conformity and governance, to create a ‘society’ of like individuals. Society sacrifices reality to belief, but for a purpose.
    I digress…… When I was studying semantics, we attempted to establish an objective ‘referent’ regarding every word symbol we used. Such as ‘this metal is heavy’ and ‘the wind is cool’, helped to scientifically separate the real from the imaginary. But in ‘the troll is ……’, or ‘God is ……’ there is no referent that can be agreed upon because it can’t be shown to exist. What is the ‘is-ness’ of a god? Certainly not flesh and blood………
    Belief must be established in a child’s mind before knowledge, and that is exactly what religion does……or attempts to do……
    Thoughts?
    charley

  4. At the lowest level in terms of individual cognition religion emerges from deep intuitions about the nature of the universe.

    Does “deep” here mean “profound” or “deeply entrenched”? If the former, is it similar to Taleb’s claim that religion is often actually rational in an instrumental sense? He (and some others) provide anecdotal justifications for this, but I wonder if someone has made a more comprehensive case.

    (BTW I carelessly used a different handle to make a comment on a different post here, apologies.)

  5. deeply entrenched is what i meant.

    i think the cog intuitions are adaptive in their primary function. i think elaboration of religious narratives is a secondary product, which is co-opted for functional purposes in terms of group cohesion.

  6. “In relation to social units, say the clan or tribe, religion consists of these intuitions about the nature of the universe and the world around us, bound together with rituals and verbal descriptions and narratives.”

    Razib, I think you put the theological cart before the social horse. I would argue that religion is first and foremost about the rituals that bind a social group (community, tribe, congregation) together. Theology is a set of narratives that sanction those rituals and orient the community.

    E.g. we could treat marriage as a civil contract that is the same in every respect as a partnership agreement among a firm of accountants. But, Most of us don’t. We treat it as a religious ritual and use narratives like the Wedding at Cana and texts like Song of Songs to shape it.

    Abstracting theology from its social context renders it ridiculous. Which has been a major trope of the the New Atheists. But, it cuts no ice with the relevant communities, they see the theology in context, and because they are bound to the community they do not care that it looks ridiculous to outsiders.

  7. I never had intuitions that made shamanism or religion plausible until I started taking psychedelics, and ayahuasca in particular. A few of these experiences made me very aware of that brain module. I assume most people don’t need drugs to tap into it.

  8. It’s definitely true that the decline of major religions like Christianity in more fully modernized countries has opened up cultural space for “shamanic” forms of religion and this has resulted in an uptick in that form of religion. However, the reason that people in more fully modernized countries have left major religions is mostly not that they have shifted to new forms of religion, but that they have become much less religious overall. And that lower overall level of religiosity has severely limited the growth of shamanic religion and may even have reversed it in some cases. I’ve read quite a few anecdotal accounts from Wiccans and such who are also having trouble keeping their children in the faith, so to speak, after the uptick in interest after the 60s.

    BTW, if anyone doubts that religiosity has overall declined I’d strongly recommend Steve Bruce’s God is Dead: Secularization in the West. He deals with New Age and other expressions of “shamanic” religion.
    https://www.amazon.com/God-Dead-Secularization-Steve-Bruce/dp/0631232753
    A top notch book.

  9. Thanks, I now remember your earlier posts writing about that secondariness, should have thought of that.

  10. charley, my thought: paragraphs are your friend; use them (a lot of people won’t take you seriously otherwise).

  11. “The relevance of all this in relation to New Atheism is that New Atheism seems to posit a religious “Blank Slate.” That is, children are indoctrinated in religion at a small age, previous to which they had been atheists.”

    One reason for this might be the fact that most New Atheists never had that religious ‘firmware’ built to strongly in their system in the first place? They then assume that their normal is everyone’s normal, though it might not be.

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