Words and Things: One or Two Things That I Know About Religion

Anders Klostergaard Petersen is a Professor in the School of Culture and Society in the Department for the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark. He works in the areas of second Temple Judaism and early Christianity as well as studying cultural evolution. This post leads off a series of invited posts on the topic of words and things in the study of religion (introduced here).

During the last three years two important books have been published highlighting the absence of a concept of religion in the ancient world, namely Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale, 2013) and Carlin Barton’s and Daniel Boyarin’s Imagine no Religion. How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham, 2016). Strictly speaking these studies are more narrow than their titles imply, since they focus on the ancient Graeco-Roman and Jewish worlds only. Yet, I think their argument pertains to any other pre-modern world as well, but needless to say that will have to be explored further in future studies.

I shall not enter into a review of the books here, but will discuss a key matter of concern to both of them: the modern concept of religion. In particular, I shall focus on the question both books bring to the fore of the discussion: To what extent is it really distorting to use a concept foreign to the cultures under scrutiny — be they modern or ancient?

In my view, too much ink has been spilled on this question. It actually is not that complicated, after all, that is, mind you, if one understands the issue in terms of the philosophy of science, since it is really within this context the discussion belongs. Four core elements are at stake: 1) the level of reality pertaining to concepts; 2) a conflation of concepts with phenomena; 3) an unwarranted prioritizing of first world phenomena; 4) a basic epistemological stance in the philosophy of science.

Initially, it is fair to say that the modern concept of religion is impure, since it consists of various elements originating in different evolutionary origins, but I do not think this really constitutes a genuine problem, since we generally operate with many impure concepts such as culture and politics. As long as we know what we are talking about.

Obviously, concepts do not constitute phenomena, but does that make them less real or suitable for categorization? Not at all, as long as we acknowledge the difference that exists between first, second, and third worlds (Karl Popper). Admittedly, concepts do not belong to the physical world. Obviously we know that, but they are part of our mental world, and when posited as objective knowledge, they are as real as any other cultural entity, that is, as long as they are culturally upheld.

Fair enough, as both books persuasively argue, the ancients did not have a concept of religion like our modern one, but they certainly had religion in the sense of a variety of phenomena which are covered by the third order term religion (here understood as with Jeppe Sinding Jensen as:

Semantic and cognitive networks comprising ideas, behaviors and institutions in relation to counter-intuitive superhuman agents, objects and posits” (What Is Religion? [Routledge 2014, 8]).

In fact, they hardly had anything but religion, since religion and culture — perceived from the third order level of language — in the ancient world were overlapping entities. Surely, it is valuable to have studies that in terms of intellectual history point out differences between different epochs and areas with respect to concepts subscribed to by the cultures under scrutiny. But does it really comprise a great problem to apply a modern concept of religion to the study of cultures in which such a concept was not available? I do not think so. On the contrary, we are in need of such a concept in order to know what we are studying, and what we are talking about. Otherwise we would not be able to understand each other.

Personally, I do not care much about how we name the concepts we are using as long as we know exactly what we mean by them. For me, you can call religion ‘x’ or ‘y’ or, for the benefit of general understanding, simply ‘religion’. Alternatively, we end up in Humpty-Dumpty communication leading to confusion and void of any relation to reality — be it the first, second or third world.

In conclusion, let me state my view very plainly: Concepts are obviously different from phenomena, but that does not make them less real or applicable to the study of phenomena belonging to world one or two. It may well be that we do not find certain concepts existing in the worlds we are examining; but it would be naïve and presumptuous to contend, for instance, that male chauvinism did not exist in the ancient world although the past had no concept to designate that phenomenon. The same pertains to religion. But there is a larger issue at stake.

Is all we as scholars are engaged in simply a matter of studying highly idiosyncratic worlds without any mutual relationship? I do not think so. First, just as it may be a danger not to see the trees because of the forest, it is problematic when you cannot see the forest because of the trees. Second, to be able to identify a culture as being without a concept of religion you need – whether acknowledged or not — to subscribe to such a concept, albeit a vague one, that enables you to recognize the absence of the element you are searching for. Third, elements belonging to the third world or that of objective knowledge interact with the two other worlds. In fact, it is a philosophical prerequisite for our ability to communicate meaningfully about the first two worlds. Fourth, surely we are perpetually engaged in the construction of worlds, but when posited these worlds are real as social facts. Fifth and finally, constructivism admittedly but that does not imply that the constructions we are building are without a relationship to the first two worlds. To understand that, however, one needs a clear philosophical stance such as that of critical realism to which I am subscribing. To argue otherwise is to leave science in the hands of ideologies, ethnic stereotypes, and contingent spirituality.