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Defining Religion

Before engaging with the main theme of this book, religious language, it would be useful to consider what is meant by the word religion. In daily conversation, people can readily distinguish between religious designations such as Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist, and by extension, people have a powerful intuition that they can distinguish the religious from the secular. Yet any attempt to convert these intuitions into a set of criteria that clearly separate out religion from other theoretical constructs runs up against difficulties. Imagine aTheravada Buddhist monk giving a sermon focused on how mental states are impermanent processes. Most would agree that this is religious, yet the same insight expressed by a psychoanalyst or a popular self-help author would strike most of us as secular. Besides propositional content, religious behavior can also be ambiguous. For many, yoga serves as a typical example of a religious activity, but are a group of people stretching and holding poses as meditative music plays in the background doing something religious? What about holidays? In most Western cultures, Easter and Christmas could be considered religious holidays that are celebrated by many who have no religious belief.

Likewise, political and cultural discourse that purports to be secular often has suspicious parallels with religious talk. Consider the narratives and rituals associated with North Korean leaders. Upon their death, flocks of magpies are proclaimed to sing, and bears, skipping hibernation, appear on roads with tears in their eyes (Chance, 2012). When visiting the capital, citizens make requisite pilgrimages to venerate the “Great Leader” and hear miraculous stories of his life. These patterns of thought and the associated discourse might be considered merely political or they might be described as religious.

Any attempt to define religion in essentialist terms or as a set of clear-cut behaviors is problematic. If the umbrella term religion is still worth using, it is probably more useful to view it as a family resemblance category (Smart, 1973). Wittgenstein (1958) proposes this form of categorization to account for everyday classifications that cannot be defined in terms of a set of rigid criterial features. In his discussion of the category of games, he notes that most examples share a set of common features—they’re fun, competitive, played by groups of people, can have a winner, and so on—yet, it is always possible to think of an example of a game that lacks one or more of these features. Regardless of how the definition is adapted to capture our intuitions regarding games, in the end all that remains is a bundle of characteristics that are spread across all games but are not true of every game. Similarly, when we analyze the language of, for example, a Protestant Christian Evangelical protesting the Pope’s visit to their country, a person buying a special amulet at a shrine, and a Thai Forest Tradition monk delivering a Dharma talk during a meditation retreat, the heterogeneous nature of these actions and thoughts associated with religion is evident. Even so, most would agree that these patterns of behavior have some relationship to each other. This being the case, what bundle of features connects the disparate patterns of behavior and occasioned discourse contexts associated with religion?

Religion can be characterized by a constellation of beliefs and behaviors that co-occur due to their synergetic etfects (see Figure 1.1). A core feature of religious belief, and undoubtedly the most commonly occurring feature in the various definitions of religion, is supernatural agency. The concept of the supernatural as used here requires some further elucidation. The term should not be thought of as a proxy for false or scientifically unsupported. Most people undoubtedly hold countless beliefs that upon close inspection turn out to be false, but most of these are not supernatural beliefs. Here, a key stipulation is that the person who holds the supernatural belief is aware that the belief contradicts some normal intuitions about the state of the world (Barrett, 2004; Whitehouse, 2004). The

Family resemblance model of religion

FIGURE 1.1 Family resemblance model of religion

“minimally counterintuitive” belief often involves violations of a limited number of key attributes associated with an ontological category (Boyer, 1994, p. 125). For example, a ghost, which may otherwise resemble a human being, violates intuitions regarding corporality and is thus invisible. Supernatural agents thus include external beings such as gods, spirits, mythical creatures, and even beings from alien civilizations. The supernatural realm also extends to more internal dimensions such as the history of one’s past lives, the idea of a soul, or unseen forces such as sin and karma. Shared perceptions of unnatural events that are explicitly secular and yet contain inexplicable elements should also be considered as potentially religious, such as the above allusions to distraught magpies and bears and the sense that a revered (or feared) figure or group of people has special access to esoteric knowledge, insights, or powers.

Religion is also often viewed as a solution to existential threats, whether these be related to death (Jong& Halberstadt,2016),sickness (Pargament & Hahn, 1986), or life’s other misfortunes.These include practical, physical concerns, such as losing in battle and suffering from a bad harvest, as well as highly abstract concerns, such as the perceived curse of original sin or the effects of past-life karma. Regardless of whether the problem is material or spiritual, religious solutions invariably involve some metaphysical, otherworldly element. This may include the intervention of spirits to ensure a good harvest, the intercession of a divine savior to atone for sin, or the use of introspective meditation practices to root out a store of mental defilements accrued over countless lifetimes.

From this metaphysical problem-solution frame, some form of agency usually emerges. In some cases, religious agency functions like its secular counterpart: the believer initiates, executes, and regulates their actions within the religious domain. However, when it comes to subjective religious experience, beliefs, experiences, and feelings are often construed as forces acting on the believer, the community, and their environment. This agency may come in the form of impersonal forces or personal beings and may be viewed as acting within an individual or externally, but one point of agreement in many variants of religious experience is that it is perceived as potentially overwhelming in power (Richardson & Nagashima, 2018).

Another key feature of religion is its ability to weave together various fundamental propositions and stories about human life into an overarching narrative. Religious stories and myths depict the actions of agents and forces and imbue these with relevance and meaning that can be readily remembered and shared (Jensen, 2016). Importantly, these narratives are not static: the way they are interpreted, and often the content itself, is constantly evolving (Richardson & Pihlaja, 2018). Their perceived significance for the everyday life of believers is also in constant flux, with some aspects fading into obscurity or even disappearing entirely as others rise to prominence. Despite this, there are elements of remarkable stability spanning centuries and sometimes even millennia. These often draw on networks of narratives which act as mythological frameworks to explain with varying degrees of detail where people came from and where they are going.

When religious people tell their stories and describe the agents and forces around them, they invariably draw on the physical world to convey the metaphysical. More than a mere linguistic tendency, this provides insights into religious conceptualization. For example, when Christians talk about God as Father or when they sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus”, they are using their everyday experience of human relationships to comprehend what it means to relate to God. Similarly, when Christians and Muslims talk about hell as containing fire, or truth as light, they are of course in part searching for ways to talk about ideas that are difficult to express. Their talk reveals a consistent and perhaps universal tendency to conceptualize the metaphysical and those things that lie at the edge of reason with the help of what is physical and familiar (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). This leap from the familiar to the unfamiliar is especially evident in the way that religious rituals invoke associations between the profane (e.g., bread and wine) and sacred (e.g., the body and blood of Jesus) within a special ritual space (Sorensen, 2007). As discussed at length in this book, concrete language thus plays an essential role in conceptualizing or thinking about an ultimate reality.

Another common feature of religion is a sense of certainty that is derived from a closely overlapping relationship between trust and perceived experience. Given the complexity of the world and the fact that there is a relative aspect to much of our knowledge, most people might be expected to live their lives in states of profound uncertainty and ambiguity. However, this is often not the case. People generally feel quite certain about their worldviews and often have the sense that other competing worldviews are clearly and obviously incorrect (Haidt, 2012). Indeed, many religious belief systems are developed and maintained by belief communities who passionately reject the notion that their view of ultimate reality is subjective. Geertz (1993) captures this in his view of religion as a network of symbols that facilitate conceptions of an ultimate reality while “clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (p. 90).

Certainty is closely associated with categorization. Human beings can rapidly categorize the things they encounter, and it is natural for people to trust and rely on their choices. Indeed, in many respects our survival has depended on developing categories that have an adequate degree of precision (people want to jump when they see a snake but not when they see a stick) and can be utilized with speed and decisiveness (when they do see a snake-like object, they need to react rapidly). However, the human process of categorization is not a detached, objective process. It would be more accurate to describe it as a functional process that is intimately related to the fulfillment of specific, subjective goals. The catch is that the perception that some people are clearly right (and others are definitely wrong) is often a fundamental part of that functionality in terms of making decisiveness possible. However, humans are continually confronted by the brute fact that reality is overwhelmingly complex and perpetually in a state of dynamic flux. Therefore, a persistent tension exists between the shifts and ambiguities of reality and the strong functional need to develop worldviews that construe that reality as stable and unambiguous (Richardson, 2012).

This certainty' is associated with another key feature of religion: the tendency of religious behaviors to involve commitment and incur costs (Bulbulia, 2004; Henrich, 2009). One might assume that religious systems that ask little of followers would increase in popularity until they outnumbered competitors, but empirical research on the survival of religious communities shows precisely the opposite (Sosis & Alcorta, 2003). This has been explained in terms of costly signaling. Large communities rely on trust, but words are cheap. To ensure that others are truly trustworthy, people judge them by their actions.Those who are willing to sacrifice their short-term interests for religious reasons tend to be deemed more reliable in the long run. Costs can also be construed in terms of effort and opposing forces. Engaging supernatural agents often involves overcoming inherent opposition, so religious activities involving such agents often involve significant and sustained effort (Sorensen, 2007).

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