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The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting.

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

By Damon Zacharias Lycourinos, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism (22 October 2012).

One of the most influential scholars in the contemporary academic study of Western esotericism is beyond doubt the erudite and highly productive Wouter J. Hanegraaff, professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. Some of his major publications, and especially the ones that I have read and enjoyed, are Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture; New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought; Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, which he edited with Jeffrey J. Kripal; Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, edited with Roelof van den Broek; and finally his paper ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’ in Religion, 33:4, 357-380.

Having spent a good deal of time last year wandering and pondering over notions, definitions, and methodologies pertaining to the study of Western esotericism, I happened to come across Hanegraaff’s works quite frequently, as one would expect. My initial response was a profound interest in way that Western esotericism is described as ‘rejected knowledge’. According to various sources, Western esotericism, as a self-designating term, is used by contemporary scholars according to certain typological and historical constructs. Hanegraaff refers to the term as a typological construct related to secrecy and knowledge reserved only for an elite. Regarding how the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied as a typological construct Hanegraaff states,

As we have seen, this usage is in line with the original connotations of both the adjective and the subjective. In this typological sense, the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied freely within any religious context, for concerns with secret knowledge reserved for elites can be found throughout history, and all over the world… The same is true for another, related typological understanding of the term, that associates it with the deeper, ‘inner mysteries of religion’ as opposed to its merely external or ‘exoteric’ dimensions.[1]

In relation to historical constructs, Western esotericism can be understood as embodying specific currents of religious and cultural fields of discourse, displaying metaphysical similarities and historical parallelisms. According to Antoine Faivre and Karen-Claire Voss, “The term “Western” here refers to the medieval and modern Greco-Latin world in which the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have coexisted for centuries, periodically coming into contact with those of Islam.”[2]

Although my first reaction to the manner in which Faivre and Voss have employed the term ‘West’ was one of suspicion of personal agendas and exclusivist representations, I believe that there is no need to presently dwell on this further, as scholars such as Kocku von Stuckrad[3] and Robert Mathiesen[4] have already reacted through constructive criticism to Faivre’s and Voss’ usage of the term ‘West’. What I would like to address though is my initial impression regarding the academic study of Western esotericism identifying the sometimes, and somewhat simplistic binary opposition embodied in Western epistemology between Greek rationality and Christian faith, or more specifically between ‘mythic thought’ and Aristotelian logic. This ‘esoteric’ knowledge summoned by currents of Western esoteric spirituality can be “characterised by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.”[5] According to Roelof van den Broeck and Hanegraaff, “The adherents of this tradition emphasized the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis; a revelatory experience that mostly entailed an encounter with one’s true self as well with the ground of being, God.”[6] This shifting of positions has endowed esoteric phenomena, under contemporary academic scrutiny, with a sense of fluidity and recognition of it as being the ‘third pillar’ of Western religious and cultural historiography, erected between secularisation on the one hand, and on the other sterile dogmatism.

Despite the possibilities of unveiling other dimensions that constitute the religious and cultural landscapes of Europe through further representation of this ‘romantic’ struggle, some concepts and perceptions remain unclear and biased, undermining emic accounts and further methodological evaluations. For example, the interpretation of the term ‘gnosis’ differs considerably according to different historical contexts. This alone indicates that conceptualisation of various features pertaining to ‘traditions’ of Western esotericism may be viewed as academic constructs, with the intention of providing an understanding of diverse traits and currents that might have similarities, but also significant differences in form and content.

Various methodological paradigms that have been employed to distinguish and define a variety of phenomena that can be labelled as ‘esoteric’ within a Western context should merely be treated as abstract tools. Although this might appear to function theoretically by classifying something as ‘esoteric’ when the constituting components are present, in practice however this is not as simple as it appears. To be able to locate these components the scholar of Western esotericism must go beyond doctrinal tenets and discover evidence of ‘esoteric presence’ in the manifestation of forms, symbols, and styles. A challenge for scholars of esotericism has been to identify material belonging to an esoteric corpus, yet lacking the constituting components of esoteric form of thought. Textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, with the constituting components present explicitly or implicitly,[7] may not pose an immediate challenge to esoteric scholarship, but textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, yet not displaying the constituting components, can and have complicated matters of research. The conclusion that the scholar would have to draw would be to categorise a textual material as ‘esoteric’ only if it displays the constituting components of esoteric scholarship in an explicit or implicit fashion. The same can be applied to the “migration of esoteric ideas into non-esoteric materials”[8] where it is common practice to discover esoteric ideas, symbols, and gestures in non-esoteric settings and climates. This can be seen by treating a piece of fiction which refers to ideas and practices such as magic and alchemy as ‘non-esoteric’ mainly because it is a non-esoteric usage of an esoteric concept or technique.

Many of the foundational evaluations and critiques of academic endeavours to define and study esotericism in a Western context have not yet managed to connect esotericism in the sense of a ‘name’ that esotericists and esoteric scholars give to a certain discourse related to religion and scholarship. This view is also expressed by Bergunder, initiating the necessary reflection of this connection. Starting from this connection, Bergunder introduces the cultural studies approach where the perspective of the academic stands in an interrelationship with the subject of research,

In cultural studies orientated approaches the definition of a research subject takes place in the prevailing discursive practise of a society, because the topics of cultural studies research are no more than historical artefacts and historical patterns of behaviour and thought.[9]

Research into Western esotericism has been clearly associated with the contemporary esotericists’ self-conceptions, which indicates that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations of the esoteric. The nominalistic endeavour to separate them can only focus on the subject definition and the academic definition. One problematic area of concern is whether and to what extent academic research into esotericism is in any way ‘esoteric’ in itself. Hanegraaff emphasises the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[10] However, such a view fails to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of esoteric fields of discourse has affected and continues to affect the esoteric discourse and, very importantly, the opposite is true. From this perspective academic research into Western esotericism should not act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism. Questions of identity are a crucial element in the conceptualisations of Western esotericism, with esotericism acting as a form of identity marker. This approach manifests the multi-layered areas of activities that affect the study of Western esotericism through the identity positioning of esotericists themselves, where apart from positioning themselves as esotericists the individual may also identify with other areas of self-expression, such as an academic, a humanist, a Christian, a Jew, a Pagan, and so on. This then designates a general concept that makes identification possible.

The next step for the unfolding of a more inclusive approach to a multi-dimensional study of esotericism would be to represent it as a social practice with innovative methodological applications. This would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only esotericists, but all who participate in its articulation.

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting. To be able to reconstruct Western esotericism as a historical phenomenon worthy of research, diachronic and synchronic dimensions of methodological application are vital. The synchronic dimension of methodological application would present esotericism as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants re-negotiate. This can only obtain meaning when it is registered in the totality of synchronic fields of discourse. The diachronic criterion, however, demands that we can only refer to the historical manifestations of esotericism when the synchronic elements stand in a diachronic relation to previous synchronic fields of discourse. Whether currents or individuals are set within these parameters depends entirely on the time and place of observation.

Finally, regarding the study of definitions with the framework of Western esotericism, one should begin by examining the point of entry set down by the individuals within the particular field of discourse, instead of assigning a point of entry at the beginning of an alleged tradition, which in the following merely treats it as an academic construct. This is obvious when one historically investigates the usage of the term ‘esotericism’ and discovers that before the second half of the nineteenth century, those involved with ‘esoteric’ pursuits did not explicitly refer to the concept of ‘esotericism’. Although this does not antagonise the diachronic criterion, the synchronic criterion should be employed to examine the self-representations of elements similar to the reception of the term ‘esotericism’, and especially the category of ‘Western esotericism’.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has an academic background in the fields of anthropology and religious studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. He is currently engaged in a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh exploring the meanings and weavings of ritual, the body, and magic within contemporary Western contexts, employing both theoretical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. He is also the editor of Occult Traditions (Numen Books, 2012), to which he contributed papers on various aspects of the Greek Magical Papyri, Hellenistic theurgy, the role and nature of Seth, and the esoteric ideas of Julius Evola’s sexual metaphysics. In addition, he is also completing an academic journal paper titled ‘From Corpus to Spiritus Mundi: A Study of Ritual Behaviour, Occult Cognition, and Enchanted Worldviews’. When not engaging with academia, he can be found embodying Hellenic goēteia and Hellenistic theourgia through intense study and performance, wandering the wilderness, and engaging in martial arts. He currently resides in Edinburgh, but when not he can be found in Athens or on the volcanic island of Thira overlooking the Aegean.

 


[1] Hanegraaff, Wouter J., ‘Esotericism’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck, and Jean-Pierre (eds.). Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 337.

[2] Faivre, Antoine and Voss, Karen-Claire, ‘Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions’. In Numen, Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 50.

[3] Stuckrad, Kocku von, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2005, p. 5.

[4] Mathiesen, Robert, ‘Byzantium’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 218-222.

[5] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[6] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[7] As esoteric materials are normally composed by esotericists for other esotericists, the constituting components are not always presented explicitly and many are taken for granted.

[8] Bogdan, Henrik, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 20.

[9] Bergunder, Michael, ‘What is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approach and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies’. In Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22, 2010, p. 19.

[10] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the yates paradigm: The study of western esotericism between counterculture and new complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, p. 29-30

Editors’ Picks 2: The Phenomenology of Religion

The second of our Editors’ Picks “repodcasts”, and this time Jonathan has chosen our interview with James Cox on the Phenomenology of Religion. It was, incidentally, also our very first podcast, originally broadcast on the 14th of January, 2012. Jonathan also wrote the response to this interview, entitled “What is Phenomenology?“.

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted on the page where the podcast was originally posted, along with some further information. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on ‘Religion’ and Mystification (4 June 2012).

In the interview regarding ‘religion, non-religion and mystification’ Timothy Fitzgerald is quite correct to chide many for failing to critically reflect on the terms they employ. Like all of the core concepts of the Social Sciences: culture, society, politics, ethnicity and ritual are concepts which have been handed down to us from the West and were greatly transformed in the modern era, though ideology is the only one to be specifically coined in this period. The fact that these concepts have a specific history should hardly surprise us, and they can still pick out underlying currents of human life if they are utilised with critical awareness.

Though etymology and discourse analysis are important parts of the toolkit of the Social Sciences, I find Fitzgerald’s assertion that the field’s primary task is to analyse the usage of words to be a troubling retreat from the analysis of what human beings actually do and think. A focus on words and their protean etymologies can be misleading and be detrimental to the study of the phenomena actually present in the context. Would we confine ‘culture’ only to those who possess the systematic category which emerged in the modern era? Would we do the same for ideology? Surely a person could still recognise that there are ingrained, meaningful differences in lifestyle and worldview among communities and that certain ideas may function to justify these, before a concept is constructed or adapted to analyse this.

The compartmentalisation of categories is deeply problematic but because they only show their value when they work in tandem. Religions would not be especially interesting or valuable if ‘religious’ beliefs and practices did not affect politics and society, if they were purely individual or speculative. If it is easier for us to conceive of the workings of society as ‘politics’ influencing ‘religion’ and ‘religion’ influencing ‘politics’ then so be it.  I would not maintain however that a scholar is bound to use common terminology if they find them unhelpful but others may find them perfectly helpful. The concept of culture can cause problems if it creates the notion of a specific set, identifiable number of hermetically sealed ‘cultures’ or the notion that community must have a set number of traditions or folklore to be a viable community. Religions are hardly the only types of community which can be reified and essentialised, but to simply identify groups is not to reify them.

In attempting to set out my own approach I will draw on a theoretical model used by Fitzgerald in his 2000 book Ideology of Religious Studies, because I have found it useful for my own research. He argued that definitions and theories of ‘religion’ have a tendency to be either theological or vague. The two poles being theories which defined religion as some kind of universal essence, specific responses to ‘the Divine’ on the one hand and those which defined religion in a way that picks out nothing distinctive, identifying it with anything meaningful or important to human beings. To his credit however he did not leave it at that which would have served his purposes well enough, but admitted that there were many theories which lay somewhere in the middle. Religion could be defined clearly and scientifically and it is this course that I have sought to trace back to one of its key ancestors, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his 1871 Primitive Culture.

Tylor defined religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’ rooted in the notion that human beings had a soul which gave them life and which could survive the death of the body. This was extended to include soul-like beings in the cosmos, either disembodied or embodied in natural phenomena (animism), personal beings in the cosmos which were causal agents with whom human beings needed to establish relationships. The notion of the soul, naturally enough gave rise to the idea of afterlives and spirit worlds.

Fitzgerald has rightly queried the often uncritical usage of the concepts like ‘god’ (or ‘spirit’), but comparison is based as much on difference as it is similarity. What is most amazing is simply the fact that these beings are postulated at all and throughout the world. This demands Social Scientific analysis. The term ‘supernatural’ has been quite understandably referred to as a ‘peek-a-boo’ term because it is a vague concept, which the vague concept of religion can hide behind; it is also a peek-a-boo concept because it appears to be very difficult to exorcise. Religion appears to be haunted by ‘the supernatural’ and even theories which attempt to define it in a different way are forced to address this. I would argue that it is time to acknowledge that this is the heartland of religion.

The concept of religion that we have is undeniably linked to the scientific worldview: but it could exist without it. Sharpe wrote that the first comparative religionist was the person to recognise that people in other places worshipped different gods. Comparison can be and routinely is, mounted from a non-scientific, faith based perspective, however even that would not quite be the same without the history of modern science. Certainly terms like the ‘supernatural’ can only emerge with the scientific view of nature. I do not believe that this is a problem; as Thomas Tweed has argued, it is impossible for the scholar to be truly un-situated, and we are attempting to pursue a Science of Religion after all. I am not certain that religious pluralism and secular government are as closely linked as Fitzgerald argues: the history of the Roman Empire, China, India or even the early secularising West would appear to be pluralist but not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. Even Medieval Catholicism spread its sacred canopy over much diversity and division.

Religion for me refers to the institutionalised belief in and practices based around ‘extra-natural’ phenomena or the ‘socialised supernatural’, however the phenomena is not necessarily considered to be ‘above’ nature. This includes gods, spirits, souls, other realms, afterlives and forces like the Dao or Karma. It is an etic perspective because for religious believers these are inherently part of the order of the cosmos, but they are additions to that shared core of human experience mediated through individual and cultural factors: the senses, the mind, culture etc. It is important to stress that human beings do inhabit largely the same cognitive universe and that is the (phenomenal) world of experience as opposed to the world as it really is which is unknowable (the noumenal), to borrow a distinction from Immanuel Kant. Religions for their believers provide the key to the complete picture, “the really real” as Clifford Geertz put it. Science also provides extensions to this shared core of human experience, including a variety of hidden phenomena like atoms and other dimensions but the difference is that these are revealed through the application of reason and empiricism, as opposed to tradition.

These phenomena may not be conceived as non-corporeal, even spiritual let alone metaphysical, as Stewart Guthrie is keen to argue, but they are ‘hidden’, so that those not inculcated with belief in them may seriously doubt their existence. One process that Tylor claimed to uncover that I think has enough grain of truth to repeat, is that these phenomena tend to become more mysterious and further removed as scientific knowledge expands. Tylor argued that the spirits were initially conceived as ethereal yet material beings, the gods were located in a physical Heaven above the firmament or on a mountaintop, the sun really was driven across the sky and the land of the dead was found in the West, on a mysterious island or a gloomy cavern. Increasing knowledge drove these phenomena into another realm and drove the spirits out of matter. This meant that such phenomena became more and more based around faith but also simply cannot be truly falsified empirically because their properties are outside of empirical analysis.

Despite this, religious people really do have experiences attributed to such phenomena and in many cases do attempt to instigate this in some way. Felicitas Goodman argued that religion was based around belief in an ‘alternate reality’ which was unique to each culture and was experienced through ritual and trance states provoking altered states of consciousness. These experiences provide all the ‘proof’ many religious people need and is possibly the reason that Ninian Smart put so much stock in ‘the experiential dimension’.

As Fitzgerald asks in the interview, what becomes of the phenomena defined as non-religious? This is a deeply pertinent question and it should give scholars serious pause for reflection because our role is neither to denigrate nor promote religions, including over non-religion. Religion could potentially have different positions in relation to wider society and the state; it is part of its utility as an analytical category that we can make such distinctions. Religion is often claimed to be ‘bound up with’ or ‘inseparable’ from life but in what ways? In Medieval Christianity or classical Islam all aspects of life were considered to be subservient to religion and could never be outside its purview. Indigenous Religions are often claimed to be subservient to the needs of everyday life, personal and social welfare or certain systems of values. Fitzgerald himself has argued convincingly that relationships with the Kami in Shinto are governed by and subservient to the same system of values which govern relationships with human beings. Even the beings or forces postulated by believers are not necessarily conceived of as much higher either in power or virtue than human beings, they are not necessarily the Summum Bonum, the highest good or value.

The exact border between religion and non-religion is difficult to pinpoint, as with the border between other key concepts, however as long as a conceptual heartland and borderland are acknowledged I believe it can still be of use. Nonetheless I will attempt to chart as much of these marches as I can. I would probably consider belief in cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster to be just shy of the dividing line, partially because they are purported to be biological but far more importantly that other than perhaps a hesitation to swim in the waters or a propensity to drag expensive scanning equipment across them, belief does not affect behaviour and is not especially institutionalised among even a loose community. Maintaining a distinction may appear to be pointless but it allows us to understand the processes by which such phenomena could transform into a religion and can allow us to recognise new religions when they emerge.

Religion would become an impossibly wide concept if it included all beliefs or convictions held without empirical evidence. I would adapt the philosophical maxim that we must separate ‘is’ systems, accounts of reality from ‘ought’ systems of how they should be, at least ideal-typically. I can also appreciate Fitzgerald’s reasons for equating belief in God with belief in self-regulating markets which certainly does appear to be nothing short of a modern myth. However the primary difference is the fact that such a belief is dependent on the (much softer than it will frequently admit) science of economics based on analysis of the production and exchange of resources and on mathematics and to an extent is subject to it: what authority it has is dependent upon it and can simply be described as bad economics.

What is the difference between belief in an abstract notion like a Nation or Democracy and a religious belief? Well there certainly is an underlying similarity, they are not physical but do have great social power. These ideas can be classed as ‘Durkheimian gods’ in that they have a hold over a group of people, affect the way they act and relate to one another and are greater than the sum of their parts, acting within and without the individual and can never truly be false in this sense. However I feel I can say as a ‘believer’ or ‘adherent’ of a Nation myself that, for example, the Scottish Nation is still conceived to be nothing more than a body of people, their institutions, traditions, sense of collective self and history. Belief in an actual divine being fits all of these criteria and can be described perfectly as a ‘Durkheimian god’ but is also additionally a ‘Tylorian god’, which is really conceived to exist ontologically, to act as a causal agent which can play an explanatory role. No honest engagement with these beliefs as found among human communities can truly deny this.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Liam Sutherland is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree in 2009. His dissertation was subsequently published in Literature & Aesthetics (2011), entitled “The Survival of Indigenous Australian Spirituality in Contemporary Australia”. Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project. Recently, Liam has failed to defy RS stereotypes and ended up working part time for a Church.

Bibliography:

Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1990) Anchor

Cox, J.L. From Primitive to Indigenous in the Academic Study of Religion (2007) Ashgate

Durkheim, É. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001) OUP

Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) OUP

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books

Goodman, F. Ecstasy, Ritual and the Alternate Reality (1988) Indiana University Press

Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) OUP

Kant, I. “Critique of Practical Reason” in (1888) K. Abbot (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Ethics 4th edition Longmans Green & co.

Sharpe, E.J Comparative Religion: A History (1986) Duckworth

Smart, N. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989) CUP

Tweed, T. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2008) Harvard University Press 

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1871) Volumes 1 & 2: John Murray

Religion’s common denominators, and a plea for data

Religion’s common denominators, and a plea for data

By Stuart Ritchie, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 11 April 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi on Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion (9 April 2012).

Beit-Hallahmi rightly notes that psychologists of religion focus on the psychological common denominators that associate with religious beliefs. Some of these are cognitive processes; for instance, Barrett (2000) has discussed the ‘Hyperactive Agent Detection Device’, a cognitive feature whereby humans (and some animals) tend to misperceive the movements of objects in the world as intentional, even if the object is, say, an inanimate one, caught by a gust of wind. While such processes are fascinating, and important for understanding why people glean meaning from randomness, here I’d like to focus on two ‘individual differences’ variables, which might also be important ‘common denominators’ of religion – personality and IQ.

First, we should define ‘religion’. There is now a consensus in the psychology of religion that religiosity reflects more than just one binary factor (‘are you religious or not?’) or one unidimensional scale (‘how religious are you, from 1-10?’). We now mostly agree that religiosity is complex and multifaceted, being made up of a number of separate factors, upon which people vary. However, there is no consensus on what these factors are. Kendler et al. (2003) found seven separate factors, including ‘social religiosity’ and ‘unvengefulness’. Saroglou (2011) builds a four-factor model of religiosity: ‘believing, bonding, behaving, and belonging’. For want of a consensus on these factors, in the remainder of this article I will refer to religiosity facets as each researcher conceived of them, and give a reference in each case.

The various traits of personality, assessed using validated questionnaires, have been linked to the dimensions of religiosity outlined above. In a meta-analysis, Saroglou (2002) showed that the traits most commonly associated with general religiosity are Agreeableness and Extraversion. More fundamentalist beliefs tend to be associated with low Openness, whereas those of a ‘spiritual’ bent tend to have high Openness (for discussion of these traits, see Matthews, Deary, & Whiteman, 2009). This implies that an individual’s religiosity will to some extent depend on their basic personality tendencies, such as how engaged they tend to be with new experiences – a perfect example of one of Beit-Hallahmi’s ‘common denominators’.

In addition to personality, a great many studies have shown negative associations between religiosity and intelligence – that is, more intelligent people tend, on average, to be less religious (e.g. Lynn, Harvey, & Nyborg, 2009; Nyborg, 2009). Recently, my colleagues Gary Lewis, Tim Bates, and I looked into this question using a large dataset called the MIDUS (Kessler, Gilman, Thornton, & Kendler, 2004), which included around 2,300 US adults who had been asked a variety of questions regarding their religiosity (among vast numbers of other measures) and who had sat a full-scale IQ test (Lewis, Ritchie, & Bates, 2011).

As in the other studies, in general we found a negative association between intelligence and religiosity, but using more nuanced measures of religiosity than most previous work, we found some other interesting patterns. For instance, fundamentalist belief had the strongest negative association with intelligence, whereas intelligence didn’t appear to have any relationship to reported ‘spirituality’ (for more details, see Ritchie, 2011).

The most fascinating point here is that, even though IQ measures just involve simple mental test questions (e.g. ‘how many words can you think of that start with the letter B?’), they can predict how an individual will answer profound religious questions about meaning and existence. I would argue that such variables should not be ignored in our search for religion’s common denominators.

As well as just asking about the correlates of religiosity, we might want to go one step further. We’re very fortunate to have a great deal of data from studies which are longitudinal – that is, studies that collect data at one starting point, and then collect more, many months, years, or even decades later. The most comprehensive such studies will start collecting data at birth, and follow the participants up at many times throughout their lives. One very well-known example is the National Child Development Survey, which assessed every child in England, Wales, and Scotland in 1958, and continues to follow them up to this day (Power & Elliott, 2006). A wealth of data has been collected, from measures of social class of each individual’s family, to their education data, their political opinions, and a wide variety of health and biomedical measures. As you can see, the potential for research here is enormous, given the right statistical tools and expertise.

So, using such a dataset, we might wish to ask questions on religion similar to those of Beit-Hallahmi, about those individuals who lose, gain, or change their religion over the lifespan. Do people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, compared to better-off individuals, tend in later life to remain members of the religion into which they were born? Do those with high levels of intelligence as children tend to give up on religion when it comes to young adulthood, or are the effects of education stronger? What are the effects of parents versus those of peer groups on choice and strength of fundamentalism compared to spirituality? Do people who show an interest in particular academic subjects, say physics, become more spiritual than those interested in, say, philosophy? Do people with more health problems turn to fundamentalism as their lives become more difficult? These are just a few top-of-the-head examples of interesting questions that could be asked, with the right data to hand.

However, to ask such questions, we need good information on religion. As discussed above, researchers have tended to focus on binary or single-scale measures of religiosity, which we know are very blunt instruments at best. Sadly, the large longitudinal studies are often no different, and few of them (to my knowledge) have asked their participants detailed questions about their religious practices and beliefs. My colleagues and I are currently on the lookout for a longitudinal dataset with measures of cognition and a nuanced set of religious questions.

The very best research of this sort will have a control group, to whom the researchers can compare the individuals of interest. How do, for example, the people who convert to a different religion during their lifetime compare to those who don’t? The right control group is critically important but, as Beit-Hallahmi points out, very difficult to find. In his experiments on converts, he used a group of university students as controls. As he noted, student participants are easily available, but hardly a great comparison – they may differ in myriad ways from the people under study. Beit-Hallahmi mentioned another experiment where he used the siblings of converts as controls; this group would be more similar to the converts, but again, hardly perfect. Could we do any better?

I’d suggest we could. An even better design presents itself, which edges closer to the ‘holy grail’ (no pun intended) of causality: the Monozygotic Discordant Twin Design (Vitaro, Brendgen, & Arsenault, 2009). This is somewhat different to the classic twin study, which you may have heard of and which has been used in some previous research on religion (Lewis & Bates, revision submitted). The logic is this: we know that identical (monozygotic) twins share 100% of their DNA. We also know that they share the same home environment, if they’re raised by the same parents. Thus, they are each other’s perfect controls: genetic clones who are also brought up similarly. If these twins differ (are ‘discordant’) on some variable, we can be more confident that it is due to an environmental factor (for instance, education, peer group, or life experiences), which we can then investigate.

This argument becomes even stronger when longitudinal data are used: perhaps twins higher in openness at age 16 will go on to become more spiritual than their co-twins. Perhaps the twin with higher intelligence and a better education will be less likely to believe in fundamentalist religion in later life. Thus, instead of just knowing that two variables go together, we’d be able to assess whether the association is due to nature or nurture, and the development of that association across time.

Alas, good twin datasets are rare, and difficult to collect due to the relative rarity of twins themselves. Collection of more nuanced, complex religious information in longitudinal and twin samples (and longitudinal twin samples!) – as long as it is collected along with important cognitive and personality variables – would greatly increase researchers’ ability to gain useful, rigorously-tested knowledge about the psychology of religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Stuart Ritchie is a PhD Psychology student at The University of Edinburgh. His main research interests are in education and learning, with secondary interests in the psychology of religion and the paranormal. A list of publications can be found here: http://timeoutofmindblog.wordpress.com/about/

References

Barrett, J. (2000). Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 29-34.

Lewis, G.J. & Bates, T.C. (Revision submitted) Genetic influences on religiosity are explained by heritable effects on community integration and existential uncertainty.

Lewis, G. J., Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2011). The relationship between intelligence and multiple domains of religious belief: Evidence from a large adult US sample. Intelligence, 39, 468-472.

Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37, 11–15.

Matthews, G., Deary, I.J., & Whiteman, M.C. (2009). Personality Traits (3rd Ed). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nyborg, H. (2009). The intelligence–religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans. Intelligence, 37, 81–93.

Kendler, K. S., Liu, X. -Q., Gardner, C. O., McCullogh, M. E., Larson, D., & Prescott, C. A. (2003). Dimensions of religiosity and their relationship to life- time psychiatric and substance use disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 496–503.

Kessler, R. C., Gilman, S. E., Thornton, L. M., & Kendler, K. S. (2004). Health, well-being, and social responsibility in the MIDUS twin and sibling sub- samples. In O. G. Brim, C. D. Ryff, & R. C. Kessler (Eds.), How healthy are we? A national study of wellbeing at midlife (pp. 124–152). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Power, C. & Elliott, J. (2006). Cohort profile: 1958 British birth cohort (National Child Development Study). International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 34-41.

Ritchie, S. J. (2011, 5 September). Fundamentalism, spirituality, and IQ [Web log post]. Accessed 22 March, 2012, at: http://timeoutofmindblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/fundamentalism-spirituality-and-iq/

Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 15-25. Available at: http://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/psyreli/documents/2002.PAID.ReliBFive.pdf

Saroglou, V. (2011). Believing, bonding, behaving, and belonging:
The Big Four religious dimensions and cultural variation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42, 1320-1340. Available at: http://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/psyreli/documents/BigFourReligiousDimensions-VSaroglou.pdf

Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., Arseneault, L. (2009). The discordant MZ-twin method: One step closer to the holy grail of causality. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 376–382.

 

The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/

Podcasts

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting.

The Twilight of Esoteric Wanders and Academic Ponders

By Damon Zacharias Lycourinos, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Wouter Hanegraaff on Western Esotericism (22 October 2012).

One of the most influential scholars in the contemporary academic study of Western esotericism is beyond doubt the erudite and highly productive Wouter J. Hanegraaff, professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. Some of his major publications, and especially the ones that I have read and enjoyed, are Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture; New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought; Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, which he edited with Jeffrey J. Kripal; Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, edited with Roelof van den Broek; and finally his paper ‘How magic survived the disenchantment of the world’ in Religion, 33:4, 357-380.

Having spent a good deal of time last year wandering and pondering over notions, definitions, and methodologies pertaining to the study of Western esotericism, I happened to come across Hanegraaff’s works quite frequently, as one would expect. My initial response was a profound interest in way that Western esotericism is described as ‘rejected knowledge’. According to various sources, Western esotericism, as a self-designating term, is used by contemporary scholars according to certain typological and historical constructs. Hanegraaff refers to the term as a typological construct related to secrecy and knowledge reserved only for an elite. Regarding how the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied as a typological construct Hanegraaff states,

As we have seen, this usage is in line with the original connotations of both the adjective and the subjective. In this typological sense, the term ‘esotericism’ can be applied freely within any religious context, for concerns with secret knowledge reserved for elites can be found throughout history, and all over the world… The same is true for another, related typological understanding of the term, that associates it with the deeper, ‘inner mysteries of religion’ as opposed to its merely external or ‘exoteric’ dimensions.[1]

In relation to historical constructs, Western esotericism can be understood as embodying specific currents of religious and cultural fields of discourse, displaying metaphysical similarities and historical parallelisms. According to Antoine Faivre and Karen-Claire Voss, “The term “Western” here refers to the medieval and modern Greco-Latin world in which the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have coexisted for centuries, periodically coming into contact with those of Islam.”[2]

Although my first reaction to the manner in which Faivre and Voss have employed the term ‘West’ was one of suspicion of personal agendas and exclusivist representations, I believe that there is no need to presently dwell on this further, as scholars such as Kocku von Stuckrad[3] and Robert Mathiesen[4] have already reacted through constructive criticism to Faivre’s and Voss’ usage of the term ‘West’. What I would like to address though is my initial impression regarding the academic study of Western esotericism identifying the sometimes, and somewhat simplistic binary opposition embodied in Western epistemology between Greek rationality and Christian faith, or more specifically between ‘mythic thought’ and Aristotelian logic. This ‘esoteric’ knowledge summoned by currents of Western esoteric spirituality can be “characterised by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.”[5] According to Roelof van den Broeck and Hanegraaff, “The adherents of this tradition emphasized the importance of inner enlightenment or gnosis; a revelatory experience that mostly entailed an encounter with one’s true self as well with the ground of being, God.”[6] This shifting of positions has endowed esoteric phenomena, under contemporary academic scrutiny, with a sense of fluidity and recognition of it as being the ‘third pillar’ of Western religious and cultural historiography, erected between secularisation on the one hand, and on the other sterile dogmatism.

Despite the possibilities of unveiling other dimensions that constitute the religious and cultural landscapes of Europe through further representation of this ‘romantic’ struggle, some concepts and perceptions remain unclear and biased, undermining emic accounts and further methodological evaluations. For example, the interpretation of the term ‘gnosis’ differs considerably according to different historical contexts. This alone indicates that conceptualisation of various features pertaining to ‘traditions’ of Western esotericism may be viewed as academic constructs, with the intention of providing an understanding of diverse traits and currents that might have similarities, but also significant differences in form and content.

Various methodological paradigms that have been employed to distinguish and define a variety of phenomena that can be labelled as ‘esoteric’ within a Western context should merely be treated as abstract tools. Although this might appear to function theoretically by classifying something as ‘esoteric’ when the constituting components are present, in practice however this is not as simple as it appears. To be able to locate these components the scholar of Western esotericism must go beyond doctrinal tenets and discover evidence of ‘esoteric presence’ in the manifestation of forms, symbols, and styles. A challenge for scholars of esotericism has been to identify material belonging to an esoteric corpus, yet lacking the constituting components of esoteric form of thought. Textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, with the constituting components present explicitly or implicitly,[7] may not pose an immediate challenge to esoteric scholarship, but textual materials belonging to an esoteric current, yet not displaying the constituting components, can and have complicated matters of research. The conclusion that the scholar would have to draw would be to categorise a textual material as ‘esoteric’ only if it displays the constituting components of esoteric scholarship in an explicit or implicit fashion. The same can be applied to the “migration of esoteric ideas into non-esoteric materials”[8] where it is common practice to discover esoteric ideas, symbols, and gestures in non-esoteric settings and climates. This can be seen by treating a piece of fiction which refers to ideas and practices such as magic and alchemy as ‘non-esoteric’ mainly because it is a non-esoteric usage of an esoteric concept or technique.

Many of the foundational evaluations and critiques of academic endeavours to define and study esotericism in a Western context have not yet managed to connect esotericism in the sense of a ‘name’ that esotericists and esoteric scholars give to a certain discourse related to religion and scholarship. This view is also expressed by Bergunder, initiating the necessary reflection of this connection. Starting from this connection, Bergunder introduces the cultural studies approach where the perspective of the academic stands in an interrelationship with the subject of research,

In cultural studies orientated approaches the definition of a research subject takes place in the prevailing discursive practise of a society, because the topics of cultural studies research are no more than historical artefacts and historical patterns of behaviour and thought.[9]

Research into Western esotericism has been clearly associated with the contemporary esotericists’ self-conceptions, which indicates that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations of the esoteric. The nominalistic endeavour to separate them can only focus on the subject definition and the academic definition. One problematic area of concern is whether and to what extent academic research into esotericism is in any way ‘esoteric’ in itself. Hanegraaff emphasises the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[10] However, such a view fails to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of esoteric fields of discourse has affected and continues to affect the esoteric discourse and, very importantly, the opposite is true. From this perspective academic research into Western esotericism should not act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism. Questions of identity are a crucial element in the conceptualisations of Western esotericism, with esotericism acting as a form of identity marker. This approach manifests the multi-layered areas of activities that affect the study of Western esotericism through the identity positioning of esotericists themselves, where apart from positioning themselves as esotericists the individual may also identify with other areas of self-expression, such as an academic, a humanist, a Christian, a Jew, a Pagan, and so on. This then designates a general concept that makes identification possible.

The next step for the unfolding of a more inclusive approach to a multi-dimensional study of esotericism would be to represent it as a social practice with innovative methodological applications. This would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only esotericists, but all who participate in its articulation.

If one is to understand esotericism as a general term of identification reproduced through articulated fields of discourse, Western esotericism can be treated as a historical phenomenon without being nominalistic or idealistic, but instead as a field of discourses of interpretation interacting. To be able to reconstruct Western esotericism as a historical phenomenon worthy of research, diachronic and synchronic dimensions of methodological application are vital. The synchronic dimension of methodological application would present esotericism as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants re-negotiate. This can only obtain meaning when it is registered in the totality of synchronic fields of discourse. The diachronic criterion, however, demands that we can only refer to the historical manifestations of esotericism when the synchronic elements stand in a diachronic relation to previous synchronic fields of discourse. Whether currents or individuals are set within these parameters depends entirely on the time and place of observation.

Finally, regarding the study of definitions with the framework of Western esotericism, one should begin by examining the point of entry set down by the individuals within the particular field of discourse, instead of assigning a point of entry at the beginning of an alleged tradition, which in the following merely treats it as an academic construct. This is obvious when one historically investigates the usage of the term ‘esotericism’ and discovers that before the second half of the nineteenth century, those involved with ‘esoteric’ pursuits did not explicitly refer to the concept of ‘esotericism’. Although this does not antagonise the diachronic criterion, the synchronic criterion should be employed to examine the self-representations of elements similar to the reception of the term ‘esotericism’, and especially the category of ‘Western esotericism’.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has an academic background in the fields of anthropology and religious studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. He is currently engaged in a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh exploring the meanings and weavings of ritual, the body, and magic within contemporary Western contexts, employing both theoretical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. He is also the editor of Occult Traditions (Numen Books, 2012), to which he contributed papers on various aspects of the Greek Magical Papyri, Hellenistic theurgy, the role and nature of Seth, and the esoteric ideas of Julius Evola’s sexual metaphysics. In addition, he is also completing an academic journal paper titled ‘From Corpus to Spiritus Mundi: A Study of Ritual Behaviour, Occult Cognition, and Enchanted Worldviews’. When not engaging with academia, he can be found embodying Hellenic goēteia and Hellenistic theourgia through intense study and performance, wandering the wilderness, and engaging in martial arts. He currently resides in Edinburgh, but when not he can be found in Athens or on the volcanic island of Thira overlooking the Aegean.

 


[1] Hanegraaff, Wouter J., ‘Esotericism’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck, and Jean-Pierre (eds.). Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 337.

[2] Faivre, Antoine and Voss, Karen-Claire, ‘Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions’. In Numen, Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 50.

[3] Stuckrad, Kocku von, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2005, p. 5.

[4] Mathiesen, Robert, ‘Byzantium’. In Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter, J. Hanegraaff, Roelof van den Broeck and Jean-Pierre Brach. Leiden: Brill, 2006, p. 218-222.

[5] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[6] Broeck, Roelef van den and Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. vii.

[7] As esoteric materials are normally composed by esotericists for other esotericists, the constituting components are not always presented explicitly and many are taken for granted.

[8] Bogdan, Henrik, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007, p. 20.

[9] Bergunder, Michael, ‘What is Esotericism? Cultural Studies Approach and the Problems of Definition in Religious Studies’. In Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22, 2010, p. 19.

[10] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the yates paradigm: The study of western esotericism between counterculture and new complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, p. 29-30

Editors’ Picks 2: The Phenomenology of Religion

The second of our Editors’ Picks “repodcasts”, and this time Jonathan has chosen our interview with James Cox on the Phenomenology of Religion. It was, incidentally, also our very first podcast, originally broadcast on the 14th of January, 2012. Jonathan also wrote the response to this interview, entitled “What is Phenomenology?“.

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted on the page where the podcast was originally posted, along with some further information. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on ‘Religion’ and Mystification (4 June 2012).

In the interview regarding ‘religion, non-religion and mystification’ Timothy Fitzgerald is quite correct to chide many for failing to critically reflect on the terms they employ. Like all of the core concepts of the Social Sciences: culture, society, politics, ethnicity and ritual are concepts which have been handed down to us from the West and were greatly transformed in the modern era, though ideology is the only one to be specifically coined in this period. The fact that these concepts have a specific history should hardly surprise us, and they can still pick out underlying currents of human life if they are utilised with critical awareness.

Though etymology and discourse analysis are important parts of the toolkit of the Social Sciences, I find Fitzgerald’s assertion that the field’s primary task is to analyse the usage of words to be a troubling retreat from the analysis of what human beings actually do and think. A focus on words and their protean etymologies can be misleading and be detrimental to the study of the phenomena actually present in the context. Would we confine ‘culture’ only to those who possess the systematic category which emerged in the modern era? Would we do the same for ideology? Surely a person could still recognise that there are ingrained, meaningful differences in lifestyle and worldview among communities and that certain ideas may function to justify these, before a concept is constructed or adapted to analyse this.

The compartmentalisation of categories is deeply problematic but because they only show their value when they work in tandem. Religions would not be especially interesting or valuable if ‘religious’ beliefs and practices did not affect politics and society, if they were purely individual or speculative. If it is easier for us to conceive of the workings of society as ‘politics’ influencing ‘religion’ and ‘religion’ influencing ‘politics’ then so be it.  I would not maintain however that a scholar is bound to use common terminology if they find them unhelpful but others may find them perfectly helpful. The concept of culture can cause problems if it creates the notion of a specific set, identifiable number of hermetically sealed ‘cultures’ or the notion that community must have a set number of traditions or folklore to be a viable community. Religions are hardly the only types of community which can be reified and essentialised, but to simply identify groups is not to reify them.

In attempting to set out my own approach I will draw on a theoretical model used by Fitzgerald in his 2000 book Ideology of Religious Studies, because I have found it useful for my own research. He argued that definitions and theories of ‘religion’ have a tendency to be either theological or vague. The two poles being theories which defined religion as some kind of universal essence, specific responses to ‘the Divine’ on the one hand and those which defined religion in a way that picks out nothing distinctive, identifying it with anything meaningful or important to human beings. To his credit however he did not leave it at that which would have served his purposes well enough, but admitted that there were many theories which lay somewhere in the middle. Religion could be defined clearly and scientifically and it is this course that I have sought to trace back to one of its key ancestors, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and his 1871 Primitive Culture.

Tylor defined religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’ rooted in the notion that human beings had a soul which gave them life and which could survive the death of the body. This was extended to include soul-like beings in the cosmos, either disembodied or embodied in natural phenomena (animism), personal beings in the cosmos which were causal agents with whom human beings needed to establish relationships. The notion of the soul, naturally enough gave rise to the idea of afterlives and spirit worlds.

Fitzgerald has rightly queried the often uncritical usage of the concepts like ‘god’ (or ‘spirit’), but comparison is based as much on difference as it is similarity. What is most amazing is simply the fact that these beings are postulated at all and throughout the world. This demands Social Scientific analysis. The term ‘supernatural’ has been quite understandably referred to as a ‘peek-a-boo’ term because it is a vague concept, which the vague concept of religion can hide behind; it is also a peek-a-boo concept because it appears to be very difficult to exorcise. Religion appears to be haunted by ‘the supernatural’ and even theories which attempt to define it in a different way are forced to address this. I would argue that it is time to acknowledge that this is the heartland of religion.

The concept of religion that we have is undeniably linked to the scientific worldview: but it could exist without it. Sharpe wrote that the first comparative religionist was the person to recognise that people in other places worshipped different gods. Comparison can be and routinely is, mounted from a non-scientific, faith based perspective, however even that would not quite be the same without the history of modern science. Certainly terms like the ‘supernatural’ can only emerge with the scientific view of nature. I do not believe that this is a problem; as Thomas Tweed has argued, it is impossible for the scholar to be truly un-situated, and we are attempting to pursue a Science of Religion after all. I am not certain that religious pluralism and secular government are as closely linked as Fitzgerald argues: the history of the Roman Empire, China, India or even the early secularising West would appear to be pluralist but not ‘secular’ in the modern sense. Even Medieval Catholicism spread its sacred canopy over much diversity and division.

Religion for me refers to the institutionalised belief in and practices based around ‘extra-natural’ phenomena or the ‘socialised supernatural’, however the phenomena is not necessarily considered to be ‘above’ nature. This includes gods, spirits, souls, other realms, afterlives and forces like the Dao or Karma. It is an etic perspective because for religious believers these are inherently part of the order of the cosmos, but they are additions to that shared core of human experience mediated through individual and cultural factors: the senses, the mind, culture etc. It is important to stress that human beings do inhabit largely the same cognitive universe and that is the (phenomenal) world of experience as opposed to the world as it really is which is unknowable (the noumenal), to borrow a distinction from Immanuel Kant. Religions for their believers provide the key to the complete picture, “the really real” as Clifford Geertz put it. Science also provides extensions to this shared core of human experience, including a variety of hidden phenomena like atoms and other dimensions but the difference is that these are revealed through the application of reason and empiricism, as opposed to tradition.

These phenomena may not be conceived as non-corporeal, even spiritual let alone metaphysical, as Stewart Guthrie is keen to argue, but they are ‘hidden’, so that those not inculcated with belief in them may seriously doubt their existence. One process that Tylor claimed to uncover that I think has enough grain of truth to repeat, is that these phenomena tend to become more mysterious and further removed as scientific knowledge expands. Tylor argued that the spirits were initially conceived as ethereal yet material beings, the gods were located in a physical Heaven above the firmament or on a mountaintop, the sun really was driven across the sky and the land of the dead was found in the West, on a mysterious island or a gloomy cavern. Increasing knowledge drove these phenomena into another realm and drove the spirits out of matter. This meant that such phenomena became more and more based around faith but also simply cannot be truly falsified empirically because their properties are outside of empirical analysis.

Despite this, religious people really do have experiences attributed to such phenomena and in many cases do attempt to instigate this in some way. Felicitas Goodman argued that religion was based around belief in an ‘alternate reality’ which was unique to each culture and was experienced through ritual and trance states provoking altered states of consciousness. These experiences provide all the ‘proof’ many religious people need and is possibly the reason that Ninian Smart put so much stock in ‘the experiential dimension’.

As Fitzgerald asks in the interview, what becomes of the phenomena defined as non-religious? This is a deeply pertinent question and it should give scholars serious pause for reflection because our role is neither to denigrate nor promote religions, including over non-religion. Religion could potentially have different positions in relation to wider society and the state; it is part of its utility as an analytical category that we can make such distinctions. Religion is often claimed to be ‘bound up with’ or ‘inseparable’ from life but in what ways? In Medieval Christianity or classical Islam all aspects of life were considered to be subservient to religion and could never be outside its purview. Indigenous Religions are often claimed to be subservient to the needs of everyday life, personal and social welfare or certain systems of values. Fitzgerald himself has argued convincingly that relationships with the Kami in Shinto are governed by and subservient to the same system of values which govern relationships with human beings. Even the beings or forces postulated by believers are not necessarily conceived of as much higher either in power or virtue than human beings, they are not necessarily the Summum Bonum, the highest good or value.

The exact border between religion and non-religion is difficult to pinpoint, as with the border between other key concepts, however as long as a conceptual heartland and borderland are acknowledged I believe it can still be of use. Nonetheless I will attempt to chart as much of these marches as I can. I would probably consider belief in cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster to be just shy of the dividing line, partially because they are purported to be biological but far more importantly that other than perhaps a hesitation to swim in the waters or a propensity to drag expensive scanning equipment across them, belief does not affect behaviour and is not especially institutionalised among even a loose community. Maintaining a distinction may appear to be pointless but it allows us to understand the processes by which such phenomena could transform into a religion and can allow us to recognise new religions when they emerge.

Religion would become an impossibly wide concept if it included all beliefs or convictions held without empirical evidence. I would adapt the philosophical maxim that we must separate ‘is’ systems, accounts of reality from ‘ought’ systems of how they should be, at least ideal-typically. I can also appreciate Fitzgerald’s reasons for equating belief in God with belief in self-regulating markets which certainly does appear to be nothing short of a modern myth. However the primary difference is the fact that such a belief is dependent on the (much softer than it will frequently admit) science of economics based on analysis of the production and exchange of resources and on mathematics and to an extent is subject to it: what authority it has is dependent upon it and can simply be described as bad economics.

What is the difference between belief in an abstract notion like a Nation or Democracy and a religious belief? Well there certainly is an underlying similarity, they are not physical but do have great social power. These ideas can be classed as ‘Durkheimian gods’ in that they have a hold over a group of people, affect the way they act and relate to one another and are greater than the sum of their parts, acting within and without the individual and can never truly be false in this sense. However I feel I can say as a ‘believer’ or ‘adherent’ of a Nation myself that, for example, the Scottish Nation is still conceived to be nothing more than a body of people, their institutions, traditions, sense of collective self and history. Belief in an actual divine being fits all of these criteria and can be described perfectly as a ‘Durkheimian god’ but is also additionally a ‘Tylorian god’, which is really conceived to exist ontologically, to act as a causal agent which can play an explanatory role. No honest engagement with these beliefs as found among human communities can truly deny this.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Liam Sutherland is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree in 2009. His dissertation was subsequently published in Literature & Aesthetics (2011), entitled “The Survival of Indigenous Australian Spirituality in Contemporary Australia”. Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project. Recently, Liam has failed to defy RS stereotypes and ended up working part time for a Church.

Bibliography:

Berger, P. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1990) Anchor

Cox, J.L. From Primitive to Indigenous in the Academic Study of Religion (2007) Ashgate

Durkheim, É. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001) OUP

Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) OUP

Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books

Goodman, F. Ecstasy, Ritual and the Alternate Reality (1988) Indiana University Press

Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) OUP

Kant, I. “Critique of Practical Reason” in (1888) K. Abbot (ed.) Kant’s Theory of Ethics 4th edition Longmans Green & co.

Sharpe, E.J Comparative Religion: A History (1986) Duckworth

Smart, N. The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989) CUP

Tweed, T. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2008) Harvard University Press 

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (1871) Volumes 1 & 2: John Murray

Religion’s common denominators, and a plea for data

Religion’s common denominators, and a plea for data

By Stuart Ritchie, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 11 April 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi on Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion (9 April 2012).

Beit-Hallahmi rightly notes that psychologists of religion focus on the psychological common denominators that associate with religious beliefs. Some of these are cognitive processes; for instance, Barrett (2000) has discussed the ‘Hyperactive Agent Detection Device’, a cognitive feature whereby humans (and some animals) tend to misperceive the movements of objects in the world as intentional, even if the object is, say, an inanimate one, caught by a gust of wind. While such processes are fascinating, and important for understanding why people glean meaning from randomness, here I’d like to focus on two ‘individual differences’ variables, which might also be important ‘common denominators’ of religion – personality and IQ.

First, we should define ‘religion’. There is now a consensus in the psychology of religion that religiosity reflects more than just one binary factor (‘are you religious or not?’) or one unidimensional scale (‘how religious are you, from 1-10?’). We now mostly agree that religiosity is complex and multifaceted, being made up of a number of separate factors, upon which people vary. However, there is no consensus on what these factors are. Kendler et al. (2003) found seven separate factors, including ‘social religiosity’ and ‘unvengefulness’. Saroglou (2011) builds a four-factor model of religiosity: ‘believing, bonding, behaving, and belonging’. For want of a consensus on these factors, in the remainder of this article I will refer to religiosity facets as each researcher conceived of them, and give a reference in each case.

The various traits of personality, assessed using validated questionnaires, have been linked to the dimensions of religiosity outlined above. In a meta-analysis, Saroglou (2002) showed that the traits most commonly associated with general religiosity are Agreeableness and Extraversion. More fundamentalist beliefs tend to be associated with low Openness, whereas those of a ‘spiritual’ bent tend to have high Openness (for discussion of these traits, see Matthews, Deary, & Whiteman, 2009). This implies that an individual’s religiosity will to some extent depend on their basic personality tendencies, such as how engaged they tend to be with new experiences – a perfect example of one of Beit-Hallahmi’s ‘common denominators’.

In addition to personality, a great many studies have shown negative associations between religiosity and intelligence – that is, more intelligent people tend, on average, to be less religious (e.g. Lynn, Harvey, & Nyborg, 2009; Nyborg, 2009). Recently, my colleagues Gary Lewis, Tim Bates, and I looked into this question using a large dataset called the MIDUS (Kessler, Gilman, Thornton, & Kendler, 2004), which included around 2,300 US adults who had been asked a variety of questions regarding their religiosity (among vast numbers of other measures) and who had sat a full-scale IQ test (Lewis, Ritchie, & Bates, 2011).

As in the other studies, in general we found a negative association between intelligence and religiosity, but using more nuanced measures of religiosity than most previous work, we found some other interesting patterns. For instance, fundamentalist belief had the strongest negative association with intelligence, whereas intelligence didn’t appear to have any relationship to reported ‘spirituality’ (for more details, see Ritchie, 2011).

The most fascinating point here is that, even though IQ measures just involve simple mental test questions (e.g. ‘how many words can you think of that start with the letter B?’), they can predict how an individual will answer profound religious questions about meaning and existence. I would argue that such variables should not be ignored in our search for religion’s common denominators.

As well as just asking about the correlates of religiosity, we might want to go one step further. We’re very fortunate to have a great deal of data from studies which are longitudinal – that is, studies that collect data at one starting point, and then collect more, many months, years, or even decades later. The most comprehensive such studies will start collecting data at birth, and follow the participants up at many times throughout their lives. One very well-known example is the National Child Development Survey, which assessed every child in England, Wales, and Scotland in 1958, and continues to follow them up to this day (Power & Elliott, 2006). A wealth of data has been collected, from measures of social class of each individual’s family, to their education data, their political opinions, and a wide variety of health and biomedical measures. As you can see, the potential for research here is enormous, given the right statistical tools and expertise.

So, using such a dataset, we might wish to ask questions on religion similar to those of Beit-Hallahmi, about those individuals who lose, gain, or change their religion over the lifespan. Do people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, compared to better-off individuals, tend in later life to remain members of the religion into which they were born? Do those with high levels of intelligence as children tend to give up on religion when it comes to young adulthood, or are the effects of education stronger? What are the effects of parents versus those of peer groups on choice and strength of fundamentalism compared to spirituality? Do people who show an interest in particular academic subjects, say physics, become more spiritual than those interested in, say, philosophy? Do people with more health problems turn to fundamentalism as their lives become more difficult? These are just a few top-of-the-head examples of interesting questions that could be asked, with the right data to hand.

However, to ask such questions, we need good information on religion. As discussed above, researchers have tended to focus on binary or single-scale measures of religiosity, which we know are very blunt instruments at best. Sadly, the large longitudinal studies are often no different, and few of them (to my knowledge) have asked their participants detailed questions about their religious practices and beliefs. My colleagues and I are currently on the lookout for a longitudinal dataset with measures of cognition and a nuanced set of religious questions.

The very best research of this sort will have a control group, to whom the researchers can compare the individuals of interest. How do, for example, the people who convert to a different religion during their lifetime compare to those who don’t? The right control group is critically important but, as Beit-Hallahmi points out, very difficult to find. In his experiments on converts, he used a group of university students as controls. As he noted, student participants are easily available, but hardly a great comparison – they may differ in myriad ways from the people under study. Beit-Hallahmi mentioned another experiment where he used the siblings of converts as controls; this group would be more similar to the converts, but again, hardly perfect. Could we do any better?

I’d suggest we could. An even better design presents itself, which edges closer to the ‘holy grail’ (no pun intended) of causality: the Monozygotic Discordant Twin Design (Vitaro, Brendgen, & Arsenault, 2009). This is somewhat different to the classic twin study, which you may have heard of and which has been used in some previous research on religion (Lewis & Bates, revision submitted). The logic is this: we know that identical (monozygotic) twins share 100% of their DNA. We also know that they share the same home environment, if they’re raised by the same parents. Thus, they are each other’s perfect controls: genetic clones who are also brought up similarly. If these twins differ (are ‘discordant’) on some variable, we can be more confident that it is due to an environmental factor (for instance, education, peer group, or life experiences), which we can then investigate.

This argument becomes even stronger when longitudinal data are used: perhaps twins higher in openness at age 16 will go on to become more spiritual than their co-twins. Perhaps the twin with higher intelligence and a better education will be less likely to believe in fundamentalist religion in later life. Thus, instead of just knowing that two variables go together, we’d be able to assess whether the association is due to nature or nurture, and the development of that association across time.

Alas, good twin datasets are rare, and difficult to collect due to the relative rarity of twins themselves. Collection of more nuanced, complex religious information in longitudinal and twin samples (and longitudinal twin samples!) – as long as it is collected along with important cognitive and personality variables – would greatly increase researchers’ ability to gain useful, rigorously-tested knowledge about the psychology of religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Stuart Ritchie is a PhD Psychology student at The University of Edinburgh. His main research interests are in education and learning, with secondary interests in the psychology of religion and the paranormal. A list of publications can be found here: http://timeoutofmindblog.wordpress.com/about/

References

Barrett, J. (2000). Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 29-34.

Lewis, G.J. & Bates, T.C. (Revision submitted) Genetic influences on religiosity are explained by heritable effects on community integration and existential uncertainty.

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The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/