I’ve spent an increasing amount of time the last couple of years, trying to build a model to help me express how I think religion works. A couple of years ago, I experimented with a model based on ideas of the mind. It wasn’t very useful, and I abandoned it.
The diagram here is where I currently am, though this may also be something that proves to be too problematic to be useful. This model looks at religion as being made up of four elements.
Spirituality refers to actions that engender a set of mental states: profundity, transcendence, peace, thankfulness, trance, euphoria. These may be individual practices: prayer, meditation, retreat, or may be group activities: worship, pilgrimage, dance.
Community provides identity, solidarity, and support. Group activities do this: services, festivals, rites of passage. But also things moderated through community, such as morality, service, the interpretation of scripture.
Supernatural phenomena confound doubt by providing access to things that consensus reality denies. Miracles, apparitions, possession, prophecy, levitation, healing.
Story describes the reality behind reality. It explains why things in the other categories are significant and how they work.
The key thing of this model is that the inner elements provide experiences, while the outer ring provides the narrative. The inner section is the territory, the outer ring is the map.
Many Many Caveats
There are obvious features of this model that deserve concessions.
What is a religion? Does this model apply to all things we would call religion, and only those things? No. It doesn’t. I think religion is not a distinct category. It has fuzzy boundaries. That’s fine. The model is intended to be descriptive of a broad range of religions, not prescriptive in any way.
This is, of course, an outsider invention from a western reductionist perspective. It does not respect in any way what a person might think of their religion. I am a western reductionist outsider, seeking to look at religion. I cannot understand religion from an insider’s perspective. To pretend to do so would be more humble, but no less hubristic, I think.
My four sections are very fuzzy when it comes to religious phenomena. Things cross-cut: pilgrimage, for example, I mentioned in spirituality, but has a big community dimension. Pilgrimage to Lourdes may also have supernatural function. That’s fine. I identify these four slices because I think they are useful categories of explanation, not of phenomena.
Where is this Going?
My aim is to get a better understanding of how religion works, how it benefits adherents and how it abuses them, and why people allow it to do either. Because of my background, I naturally seek to do this in sciencey ways: through model making, through hypothesis, through analysis. Daniel Dennett talks about this impulse in Breaking The Spell.
This has proven to be predictive when it comes to my supernatural category. We can make pretty good predictions about what we’d find if we look closely at supernatural claims.
I would hope that success could be applied to theological, spiritual, and communal features too. By seeing patterns in religious stories, for example we can identify functions, and then predictively go and look for how other religions perform the same function.
This is not the predominant model of religious studies. In fact quite the opposite. It is, undeniably, a stance one has to take against a religion. It peels away the covering of story. And peeling the skin off something is an inherently violent act.