The collective bias of theories of religion
The fundamental modernist bias of the concept of religion is implicit in scientific as well as everyday language. Religion is conceptualized as a collective enterprise, as is most clearly attested by the pervasive use of the plural ‘religions’. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is one of the most influential of its theoreticians (Durkheim 1947), even if his reception is informed more by later structural functionalism (cf. Krech 2000) than by a broad analysis of his ideas about experiences of self-transcendence and the sacralization of the individual. With the details of specific versions naturally showing wide variations, the resulting idea of religion can be sketched as follows. By sacralizing the normative kernel of a society, its members disguise the contingent character of their collective orientation and obligations, and in doing so create a system of orienting symbols. This is reproduced and invigorated in rituals, is given explanatory value in narratives or systematized teachings, and is made relevant for everybody in ethical imperatives. In its advanced form, an organization able to sanction deviant behaviour (with or without support from the apparatus called the ‘state’) might support the functioning of religion. Such a model might describe and even explain a lot, but it is hardly adequate for explaining religious pluralism or the wide range of individual appropriations of religions, in particular in urban contexts characterized by the presence and constant influx of groups that differ in their religious practices.
In recent decades, the concept of religion has been criticized for its implicitly Western bias, its tacit adoption of Christian terms and phenomena in particular, its unrestrained extrapolation onto non-Westem cultures, and its imposing generalization in the form of ‘world religions’.2 Its applicability to the history of ancient religion might be criticized in a parallel manner. Again, it is a very limited range of observations about current (and not exclusively European) societies that has led to far-reaching presuppositions about ancient societies. The contemporary dissolution of traditional norms and patterns of behaviour is interpreted as religious individualization, growing invisibility of religion, or even as the replacement of collective religion by individual spirituality (Luckmann 1991; Dobbelaere 2011. 198). By contrast, ancient societies and religion in antiquity are supposed to have been characterized by their collective nature. Despite admitting historical change and great variations in the quantity of available options (in many social fields), a problematic presentist generalization has produced a highly deformed image of the past. In the analysis of ancient religion, essentialism with regard to ‘cults’, ‘religions’, and the corresponding ‘languages' and ‘identities’, has carried the day. In order to dissolve this essentialism. it is necessary to reflect on the concepts used and the questions and perspective thus produced.