What Religions are Made of

The structure of Religion

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.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “What Religions are Made of

  1. An excellent post.

    You provide a concise and workable definition of the term “spirituality.” However, there is both a long history of the term meaning any number of different things, and a recent history of many people calling themselves “spiritual but not religious,” who in my opinion are as religious as anyone, and would, if they understood the term “protestant,” call themselves “protestant.” But because they don’t understand that term, and because language changes according to use and not because the changes make sense, we are rapidly approaching a time where “spiritual but not religious” refers to the latest wave of Christian Protestantism. If that time has not already come, that is.

  2. Ian

    Steven, wow, that’s an angle I’ve not heard before: that SBNR are a new form of Christian protestants. I’d love to read more of your thoughts on that. Do you have a particular post on your blog to start down that rabbit hole?

    I agree that ‘spiritual’ is a term that has been used and abused for so many things. And I agree that SBNR is religious (for the kind of idea of religion I hold to). Its use in terms like SBNR seem to suggest individual religious response when someone wants to make it distinct from communal religion and particularly an explicit religious authority. Its that kind of sense I was appropriating here. But I agree, without defining it, the term is problematic.

  3. No, I haven’t blogged about SBNR’s being Protestants. I don’t have very much to say about it. Perhaps I’m wrong and the analogy isn’t apt, but what is a Protestant but someone who leaves a Christian organization (in protest), not because they’re no longer Christian, but because the organization isn’t Christian enough, and the individual who leaves wants a more direct relationship with God, unencumbered by clergy who are usually seen as worldly and corrupt? The similarities between the phenomena of the Lutherans and Calvinists leaving the Catholics, the Puritans and Pietists leaving the Calvinists and Lutherans, the Charismatics leaving the Pietists, and many other separations in protest, including now the SBNR leaving various denominations, seem rather obvious to me.

  4. I could see how this model would be useful to have some conversations.

    I looked back and compared your model with my experiment back in 2009 to make a Syndrome definition for “Religion”.

    We both used “Community”. I used “Spirits” whereas you used “supernatural”

    I used “rituals” where you used “Spirituality” and “Blessings”.

    I used “narrative” and “explains unknown” where you used “story”.

    Don’t know if you saw that post.
    I’ll be curious to see how you try to apply your model.

  5. Ian

    @Steven – yes, SBNR could be seen as the ultimate extension of the idea of schism in Christianity. Schismed to the point where each person has formed their own church. I think there might be something theologically interesting about tracing SBNR back to non-conformism too. But I don’t know what.

    @Sabio – I didn’t have that in mind, but I remember reading it now you’ve pointed it out. Thanks for pointing it out again. I enjoyed revisiting it. And there are definitely overlaps.

    I’d like this model to not be descriptive of religious claims, but predictive of the ways they work.

    I’ve been applying this model for a few months, I hope. But not very explicitly. I’ve posted twice on the structure of stories, based on this model. And twice on the supernatural. Way back I talked about profundity, and I might go back to that with this model a bit more in mind.

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