Science Envy in Theories of Religion

Aaron W. Hughes published in 2010:

In the recently published Contemporary Theories of Religion (Stausberg; 2009,
hereafter CTR), at least 9 of the 15 chapters are devoted to theories that interpret
and/or explain religion from perspectives that can loosely be labeled as “cognitivist,” “evolutionary” or “neuropsychological.”…

Stausberg argues that theories of religion must take into consideration four overlapping questions (2009: 3-6): (1) specificity (i.e., what is unique about religion); (2) origins (i.e., conditions that witness foe emergence/origination of religion); (3) functions (i.e., what religion is perceived to do); and (4) structure (e.g., coherence)…Yet, if I must address these questions, let me state (albeit hesitantly) that: (I) foe specificity of religion is its evocation of transcendence for believers (not theoreticians); (2) that it is invoked and/or appealed to in foe invention of cultural identity; (3) that its main function is self- and group-making; and (4) that its structure is, paradoxically, its lack of structure, namely, that “religion”’s porosity and instability permits manifold and contradictory appeals across time and geography.

All of these four points pivot around a few key terms: identity, discourse, and invention….

I am calling for replacing one sort of reductionism (biological, cognitive) with another (issues of identity). The latter sort, it seems to me, enables us to factor in its ubiquity rather than isolate “religion” as an independent variable. Because I largely refuse to take religion seriously as a category, my form of reductionism hopefully accounts for “religion” as it is folded into, and indeed non-existent apart from, other historical, social, economical, and political forces…

…religions, like all social formations, are actively produced temporally, in time,
and in ways that are contingent upon social and ideological categories of alterity…

Rather than envisage the existence of a permanent inner core peculiar to each culture that confers upon it a veridical nature that determines present and future, cultural theorists prefer to stress the process of the subsequent elaboration of an ideology that speaks of the present by imagining an ideal past. Such a process enables those in the present to tame unruliness where meanings are often fraught with ambiguity and where identities are anything but stable.

…the liberal Protestant and ecumenical vision that currently reigns supreme in humanities-based theorizing on and about religion.

…Until science progresses, we have little evidence that we are any more predisposed
to religion than we are to economic or political systems. Religions, qua discourses that invoke transcendence, provide the tropes or the shards (or whatever we want to call them) that help facilitate the scattered, irregular, and often damaged hydra of identity, both collective or individual.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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