Religion is important to understand

300px-Quan_Am_1656On Twitter and elsewhere (e.g., on this weblog, in real life) I often get into confusing arguments with people when it comes to religion because I approach the topic from a somewhat strange angle. Specifically, it is one which integrates cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, intellectual history and sociology. My interest in this topic was more in evidence in the middle years of the last decade (yes, I’ve been blogging a long time!). One of the last long posts on the topic I published in 2007 was titled Levels of analysis of religion, Atran, Boyer & Wilson. The shorter version is that I believe it is important to understand religion from the ground up. Ergo,

– Religion as a cognitive phenomenon which emerges out of banal basic human intuitions

– Religion as a social phenomenon which emerges out of the interaction and cooperation of individuals within groups

– Religion as a social phenomenon which emerges out of the interaction and conflict across groups

– Religion as political phenomenon which emerges out of the interaction of different groups, constructing a ‘meta-ethnic’ identity (using Peter Turchin’s terminology)

– Religion as an intellectual phenomenon, which can be bracketed into two classes, the mystical and the philosophical-rational

The last is to a great extent what we moderns think of religion as. That is, religion qua religion. Some who are more aware of history and anthropology might acknowledge a phase of ‘primal religion,’ which is pre-philosophical. Animism and such. What my study of religion suggested to me is that the fixation upon religion as a intellectual system totally misses the primary reasons that religion exists, and why it has existed for all of human history and has had adherents across most of humanity. To see how this is relevant, analyses of individual religious believers of various world faiths has emphasized how incredibly similar their conceptualizations of the supernatural world is when stripped away of the exoteric terminology. By this, I mean that terms such as ‘monotheistic,’ ‘henotheistic’, and ‘polytheistic,’ do not really sink deep into the mental architecture of humans. They’re surface concepts with a logical coherency, such as non-euclidean geometry. But intuitively they’re as substantive as the colors upon a flag.

Obviously I’ve moved onto to other things, but perhaps the field has also updated. I checked out Justin Barrett’s Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds to see if the scholarship has moved in this decade. I’ll read it when I have time. My personal experience is that most educated people are weak on understanding the lower levels of the organization of the religious phenomenon. The psychology and social structure. Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained is a rather easy introduction. David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral is probably the best treatment of a neo-functionalist understanding of religious organization. Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust is a harder read, but worth it.

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