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Conceptualizing religion with a view to the individual

It is not necessary to get rid of the term ‘religion’ or to restrict Religious Studies to the observation of the historical use of religion, as has recently been proposed in an attempt to establish a ‘discursive’ academic discipline (Isomae 2002; Taira 2013; Stuckrad 2014). Nor is it necessary to restrict Religious Studies to scientific methods and the highly limited field of the non-speculative application of cognitive studies (as advocated by Martin and Wiebe 2012). Instead, in this book I propose to establish a concept and an analytical model of religion that enables the description of changes in the social locus and individual importance of religion as well as the description of the formation of institutions (in a wide sense) which are established, continued. and modified in ongoing and habitual transactions. Such descriptions are possible if religion is conceptualized from the methodological point of view of the intersubjective and communicative constitution of the individual, that is, its individuation in relation to and interaction with its social and material context, thus avoiding the fallacy (or. more neutrally, the extreme) of methodological individualism. In terms of methodological choices, this means opting to examine the processes through which ‘individual agency’ and an ‘individual self’ are established, a phrasing that very clearly expresses the bias towards the individual agent in sociological and hermeneutical terms (e.g. Niehoff and Levinson 2019).

Against the background of the current state of research on ancient religion - exemplified by numerous studies of mythology, ritual, or cults - the negative consequences of the new approach also have to be spelt out. It is not systems of belief or practices as elaborated by internal or external observers that will be the primary object of such a research strategy. Such systems could only be appropriated partially and imperfectly by individual agents (for the concept of ‘appropriation’, see de Certeau 1984, 2007; Fiissel 2006). Their existence is claimed by learned specialists rather than existing as ‘langue' in the individuals’ many ‘paroles’. Instead, it is lived (ancient) religion in its different or habitual situations, appropriations, and social constellations that must serve as the object of our scrutiny. Or, to put it another way, it is religion in the making to which our interest turns (Albrecht et al. 2018). The phrase ‘religion in the making’ has its origins in a work by Alfred North Whitehead published in 1926, although he never made any further conceptual use of it (Whitehead 1926, 1990). What he hints at with this language is a universal history of religion and its dynamic, the change that necessarily takes place in the course of the development of a rational worldview, and the permanent individual reproductions on the basis of aesthetic experiences that bring together the material and the noetic worlds.

The approach outlined thus far is not specific to religion and could be applied to any aspect of society. How, then, should religion be defined in a specific manner? How should it be conceptualized if it is religion in the making rather than religions as identical with fixed symbolic systems? I start from the tradition of substantialist definitions, introducing the notion of deities (or the like, see below and the more general discussion in Engler and Gardiner 2013) and pointing to their presence in the utterances or practices of the human actors under scrutiny, that is, in communication. The definition I

The history and theory of religion 43 am going to propose for historical research might sound too 'modern' (for discussion of this term, see M. Fuchs 2015) in its relativism and with its sceptical undertones, but it is actually based on numerous observations of phenomena throughout the premodern period, from the first millennium все onwards and perhaps even starting earlier. This includes the highly divergent uses of ‘religion’ within the same or neighbouring local societies, high rates of innovation and frequent failure, and arguments about the specifics of divine power and its limits. Hence, I define religion in a specific moment and situation as the enlargement of the environment that is judged to he relevant by the introduction of one or several additional actors from beyond the unquestionably plausible social environment of co-existing human beings in communication with one another (and hence observable by one another). What might qualify as ‘not unquestionably plausible’ differs from culture to culture and even from situation to situation. The plausible might include animals (Gilhus 2006) and even (from my point of view) objects (see, in general, Latour 2005). Plausibility, the possibility of gaining assent from others, is relative and is in itself a communicative, or more specifically rhetorical, concept. Dead significant others, divine beings conceptualized as persons, places that could not be defined topographically, might all fall into the grey area postulated as religious - whatever is accorded a ‘special’ (see for a broader use of this category as a building block for religions, Taves 2009, 29-46; Taves 2010a, 2010b, 176— 80) significance, or agency in the terminology employed here. What is culturally contested individually, between groups, or on a larger scale is of course a matter of interpretation and ascription for which the observer, the scholar of religion, is partially (but usually restrictedly) responsible. The overemphasis of observers on ‘deities’ as the stable elements in religion, and the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ built on such a proposition (comprehensively Otto 2011), are examples of rather consequential misjudgements. For ancient Mediterranean religion, it is usually not the fact that invisible agents are involved as such that is implausible, but rather the specific claims about their character.

If religion is defined as the attribution of agency beyond the unquestionably plausible, this enlargement of the relevant situation does not imply a structured Beyond or an organized pantheon, nor an afterlife or a netherworld. Communication could introduce big or small gods and might do so frequently and very early or reluctantly and rather late within its course. Forms and intensity of religion may vary widely. The initiatives of human agents and the range of options suggested by previous communication (and habitual tradition) might vary, but together they are responsible for the course of events. In some cultures, variation occurs between the strategic invention of deities (to use a suitable shorthand) and a constant fear of interference by divine forces. On the whole, I do not contradict the evolutionist claim that human beings have a propensity to detect agents (fully developed in Boyer 1994), but 1 wish to stress the precarious state of counterintuitive claims. The ascription of agency to deities (to use again a shorthand that is convenient for my own material) might be contested or enforced; even the exertion of control might have paradoxical effects (see Archer 1996, 225-6). I do not deny that narrative, textual, or material constructs proffered by some other actors, such as priests or those with economic or political power, happen to be part of the ‘situation’ or were even consciously selected as the environment for the intended religious action. Yet against the background of my historicization of the claim that premodern cultures and premodern religion in particular did not leave room for individual parole as opposed to collective langue (to draw on de Saussures’ distinction; see de Saussure 1916), 1 would like to question the culturalist argument for the analytical primacy of such practices and knowledge claims and for the extent of their explanatory power.

If ascription of agency to additional (divine) actors is a starting point for defining the specifics of religion, it can also offer a starting point for the operationalization of the definition into an analytically useful tool. The focus is on the action of ascribing agency, not on some ‘gods’ regarded as (culturally) given facts. For the purposes of a discipline studying the history of religion, religion as communication (as treated so far) cannot be analysed without considering human religious actors, regardless of whether we start from pragmatist philosophy and its problem-facing actors or interpretative sociology and its actors engaging in meaningful action. A human actor of this sort is no solipsistic being, nor a body perfectly integrated into society from early childhood, but somebody in the process of developing a controlling ‘Self’ in regard to the spontaneous ‘I’ and the internalized social image of the ‘Me’ (Mead 1934; Mead, Miller, and Mead 1982). Such analyses have advanced far beyond Mead’s starting point. The dominant strand of research has focused on processes of subjectivization, thus destroying the phenomenological priority of the individual. The central question is what are the codes and bodily routines of the actors, and what are the wishes that they must internalize and embody to be able to attribute to themselves, and be attributed, a full subjecthood (Reckwitz 2008, 14)? Again, it is as much the power of such cultural structures as it is the individual’s psychological and voluntaristic response to them, whether eagerly embracing or melancholically rejecting, that has shaped the discussion (prominently Butler 1997, 2005, 2006).3 It is with a view to the complexity thus achieved, but by taking a different conceptual path, that 1 suggest we should come to terms with religion.

Charles Taylor has analysed the process of developing agency as the interplay of experience, shared language, articulation of experience, and, again, the mutually influenced change of language and experience (Taylor 1985, 15 44; Taylor 1989. Part 1; cf. Jung 2006; Schlette 2013). 'Our identity’, he observes, ‘is defined by certain evaluations which are inseparable from ourselves as agents’ (Taylor 1985, 34). This would suggest that we should concentrate on agency and identity as constituted by communication and reflect on the relationship of religion to such strong evaluations. On the basis of such reflections, Taylor claims that religion is at the core of self-identity, but this seems implausible for many epochs and individuals when considered from the

The history and theory of religion 45 perspective of the historian. For early Iron Age societies, even where ‘axial phenomena’ of religious claims to transcendency, and thus potential critiques of society and social norms, might be traced, it is untenable to suppose that religion had this central role in identity as such. For the analysis of such historical contexts (which are not restricted to the past), insights about personal identity do not automatically produce insights about religion. In order to keep the focus on religious practices, 1 suggest pursuing a more open approach that replaces self-identity with religious identity, understood as a collective identity, and leaves open (against Taylor) the question of the latter’s importance for processes of individuation, of the constitution of a self in its entirety. Consequently, I propose to focus upon a constellation of agency that 1 shall call ‘religious agency’. But what does this mean?

1 emphasize the role of language, that is, communication as an analytical perspective, in order to focus on the communicative constitution of the individual and to analyse any actions and beliefs deemed (or fruitfully conceptualized as) ‘religious’. For the individual, in social interactions it is the concept of agency that has proven to be the most refined tool available, as shown in the discussions of the last two decades. Even if agency is referred to by observers at the level of strategic attribution (S. Fuchs 2001), the sociological reflection built on the term offers a detailed concept that can be used in the analysis of processes that shape the mutual constitution of individual human agents and social structures from the point of view of the agents.4

As a tool for historical research on religion - to return to the starting point and focus of my argument - 1 suggest developing the concept of religious agency into three bundles of related questions, the answers to which offer a fuller understanding of religion in the making, new perspectives for the analysis of sources, and assist in describing historical religion and religious transformations:

  • 1 How does the constitution of divine agency in acts of communication with actors beyond the unquestionably plausible social environment shape what is ascribed to the agency of individuals and their appropriation of religion as a ‘resource’? How does it shape their competence and creativity in dealing with daily and extraordinary problems? In short, how does it shape the religious agency of these human actors? And how, then, does such (human!) agency contribute to an institutionalization of religion in the longer term of this mutual constitution of agency?
  • 2 In what manner is religion referred to by individuals in the development of their identities? In particular, in what manner is religion referred to by individuals, and specifically in the development of their collective identities (the most explicitly attested kind), which shape the process of individuation and make the individual act or think as part of imagined groups or social formations of different forms and intensities? In what circumstances do they consider forging relationships to religiously constituted agents?

3 How is religion (seen as the amorphous web of actions, ideas, or even ideologies deemed religious) referred to and constituted in successive, recurrent, and modified acts of communication? How are processes of sacralization, that is, actions and processes that include within the act of communication elements of the situation in which that communication takes place - objects, space, time - and which thus ascribe meaning to them, solidified into agentical deities and institutions, which in turn provoke and shape further communication and elaboration?

In the arguments I develop below, these questions are not answered by reference to historical evidence but are, rather, used to identify theoretical tools which help us to reflect further on and explicate a model of religion to be used in understanding such evidence. Naturally, the capacity of such a model will be limited by the framework on the basis of which the model is constructed. In the context of the long debate about the relationship between acting and structure, between the individual and society (see, for example, the debate on Anthony Giddens theory of structuration, as outlined in Giddens 1984), and with a view to a dominant interpretation of premodern religion as a collective set of rules and assumptions, my interest is in analysing a specific type of communication as religious and in inquiring into how far the products of such communication are intersubjective phenomena. This approach also brings premodern people into view; first, as intersubjectively constituted and, second, as individuals (individuation). We also see them as shaped by changing forms of communication (and society as communication), which might further such individuation by attributing to it normative status, securing it institutionally in terms of law or offering opportunities for its experience and articulation. This sense of individuation has been discussed and elaborated on in Chapters 1 and 2 in this volume, where 1 called it individualization (M. Fuchs et al. 2019). Inquiring into the role of religion in such processes opens up new perspectives and helps us to gain a better understanding of what religion is in societies and what role it plays in the lives of individuals. Approaching the topic in this way allows us to reconstruct attempted and successful, intended and unintended, unnoticed or feared changes from the perspective of different angles of communication, and to do so without reconstructing ‘religious systems’ or religions.

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