Since the dawn of anthropology, sociology and psychology, religion has been an object of fascination. Founding figures such as Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber all attempted to dissect it, taxonomise it, and explore its psychological and social functions. And long before the advent of the modern social sciences, philosophers such as Xenophanes, Lucretius, David Hume and Ludwig Feuerbach have pondered the origins of religion.
In the century since the founding of the social sciences, interest in religion has not waned – but confidence in grand theorising about it has. Few would now endorse Freud’s insistence that the origins of religion are entwined with Oedipal sexual desires towards mothers. Weber’s linkage of a Protestant work ethic and the origins of capitalism might remain influential, but his broader comparisons between the religion and culture of the occidental and oriental worlds are now rightly regarded as historically inaccurate and deeply Euro-centric.
Today, such sweeping claims about religion are looked upon skeptically, and a circumscribed relativism has instead become the norm. However, a new empirical approach to examining religion – dubbed the cognitive science of religion (CSR) – has recently perturbed the ghosts of theoretical grandeur by offering explanations for religious beliefs and practices that are informed by theories of evolution and therefore involve cognitive processes thought to be prevalent, if not universal, among human beings.
This approach, like its Victorian predecessors, offers the possibility of discovering universal commonalities among the many idiosyncracies in religious concepts, beliefs and practices found across history and culture. But unlike previous efforts, modern researchers largely eschew any attempt to provide a single monocausal explanation for religion, arguing that to do so is as meaningless as searching for a single explanation for art or science.
These categories are just too broad for such an analysis. Instead, as the cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse at the University of Oxford puts it, a scientific study of religion must begin by ‘fractionating’ the concept of religion, breaking down the category into specific features that can be individually explored and explained, such as the belief in moralistic High Gods or participation in collective rituals.
For critics of the cognitive science of religion, this approach repeats the mistakes of the old grand theorists, just dressed up in trendy theoretical garb. The charge is that researchers are guilty of reifying the concept of religion as a universal, an ethnocentric approach that fails to appreciate the cultural diversity of the real world. Perhaps ironically, it is scholars in the Study of Religions discipline that now express the most skepticism about the usefulness of the term ‘religion’.
They argue that it is inextricably Western and therefore loaded with assumptions related to the Abrahamic religious institutions that dominate in the West. For instance, the religious studies scholar Russell McCutcheon at the University of Alabama argues in Manufacturing Religion (1997) that scholars treating religion as a natural category have produced analyses that are ‘ahistorical, apolitical [and] fetishised’.
There is much that is valid in such critiques. It is important to highlight the tendency of North American and European scholars to associate religion with the endorsement of professed beliefs, regular participation in religious services, hierarchical institutions and exclusive membership. All of these are features of Abrahamic traditions, but none are essential to religious belief and practice worldwide.
To demonstrate the limitations with the dominant Western concepts of religion, we must examine religion in a non-Western context; for example, in Japan, where I have lived for the past four years, conducting research on collective rituals and bonding. The vast majority of the Japanese population profess to have no strong religious beliefs, and there are few who regularly attend religious services. Regardless, many people happily partake in events and festivals arranged by multiple religious traditions. Indeed for many Japanese, the decision to marry in a Shinto or a Christian ceremony is not made according to religious beliefs but instead by the bride’s preference for wearing a traditional kimono or a white wedding gown (my own wedding experience in Japan involved both).
So is Japan just a non-religious society, like many surveys and some scholars claim? Or do we instead need to broaden our assumptions about what, in fact, constitutes religion?