Friday, December 22, 2006

Religion - definitions   posted by Razib @ 12/22/2006 05:37:00 PM

In the post below I got pretty blogged down by the definition of the word religion. This is not new, almost anything is tagged as a 'religion.' Elvis fandom, football, and so forth. Six months ago I spelled out in tedious detail some of the definitions which I allude to contextually when I say "religion."

To repeat:

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 can be thought of as multiple vectors or traits which sum up to what we perceive in a gestalt manner as "religiosity." All of these are not necessary for religion as I define it. For example, #5 is a development of the last 3,000 years, and at most the last 6,000. #3 is probably a feature which emerged in the last 10,000 years as agriculture resulted in mass societies where non-kin associations became significant. #1 and #2 have always been with us I suspect, and are modal in the human psychology. They're the "default" state, and we atheists are "oddballs" in our deviation from it. #4 is in some ways the opposite pole from atheism, it is perhaps a hyperactive form of #1 so that perception is distorted/heightened (depending on whether you believe there is anything out there to perceive) to an extreme.

When people say that "Therevada Buddhism is non-theist" I tend to express skepticism because I offer that ethnographic literature strongly implies that #1 is powerful enough to overrule the formal creeds imposed by #5 on a day to day level. This means I'm skeptical of the functional impact of belief, because I don't think belief is in most people that powerful aside from being a group demarcator in most circumstances. When Rod Stark offers that the Trinitarian Christian theology offers special functional benefits in One True God I wince, he needs to read some psychology. Most Christians have only a fuzzy idea of the genuine meaning, rooting in Greek philosophy (e.g., the technical meaning of the term "substance"), of the Athanasian Creed. And yet nevertheless, Stark does observe that throughout most societies there is operational limit to the number of gods worshipped in a locale (e.g., no Hindu worships, let alone comprehends, 333 million gods, this as sensible as the Athanasian Creed in terms of typical Hindus actually extracting direct meaning out of divinity). He also notes that over time the raw number of gods in most society have decreased. A simple explanation might be that the extinction of many languages and peoples as empires expanded naturally resulted in a consolidation of "god concepts." The emergence of local "saints" in monotheisms suggests that this consolidation also has a natural break.

In any case, the point of my original post wasn't to espouse a particular view as to the strength of a meme complex, it was to ask what role historical contingency vs. inevitable directionality played. It seems, for example, that the period between 600 and 600 was especially fruitful for the emergence of "world religions." And yet it has been over a thousand years since a real heavy hitter appeared on the scene. Perhaps human social complexes have attained a metastability?

Ultimately the questions I'm asking are so vague and general that they'll spawn a mass of counter-questions. I plan on tightening the constraint in the future.