Folk concepts are not a reliable means of constructing scientific theories about religion

Scholarly conceptualizations of religion are often based on how scholars perceive the world to be (i.e. folk concepts). Often scholars propose a definition of what religion is and then provide evidence for this view (i.e. top-down approach) through suggestive anecdotes, ethnographic case studies, among other methods. Of course, theories of the world are shaped to some extent by human cognition, such as intuition and insight. However, these more often reflect phenomenological understandings than taxonomical insights.

Sometimes our intuitions help us develop scientific understandings of the world, and sometimes they hinder them. Most importantly, folk theories are not a reliable means of constructing the boundaries of a phenomenon and should not be attributed explanatory validity (at least not a priori). For instance, evolutionary biological science tells us that the differences among animal species are not accurately portrayed as taxonomic differences in kind but as differences in degree as measured by genetic proximity. Further, species may be more similar than they appear. For example, male capuchinos (birds) can look and sound very different across species, despite being almost identical genetically.14 Therefore, folk theories do not always provide a useful and accurate conceptual foundation from which to develop scientific theories about how the material world, including religion, works.15

On the surface, religion appears to be remarkably different, which often cultivates a sense of otherness and intolerance within and between cultures. (Image credit

Figure 2.2 On the surface, religion appears to be remarkably different, which often cultivates a sense of otherness and intolerance within and between cultures. (Image credit: vector_s/Shutterstock.com).

By labeling a range of phenomena as religious, scholars have designated a package of ideas and behaviors—such as ideas about supernatural agents, rituals, and moral obligations—as being somehow related causally, or even descriptively. However, claims about these relationships have not typically been systematically tested. Folk definitions of religion may tell us more about the perspective humans are inclined to take than denoting meaningful relationships between thoughts, behaviors, traditions, and institutions.16

Top-down definitions can easily privilege religious diversity over similarity and emphasize, even exaggerate, the differences between traditions. These definitions are prone to human biases and dispositions, including the tendency to draw from our Western view of the world to explain other religious traditions17 (i.e. ethno- centrism), and to think that we are privileged over other groups.18 Just as some birds appear to the untutored mind to be very different while being genetically similar, so too religious traditions may appear so distinct and far removed from that which we are familiar, that we perceive them as not constituting anything like religion.19

Alternatively, we may relegate other people’s concepts, behaviors, and systems to a “lesser” category, such as paranormal, superstitious, magical, or supernatural.2" Likewise, the presence of institutionalized religion is a relatively modem phenomenon. Other features of religious ideas and beliefs, such as supernatural explanations of misfortune and ritualized practices, long pre-date the establishment of such institutions. Taking the recurrent features of religious ideas and behaviors into account may well provide a richer understanding of their nature.

Participation 4: Race is a social construct

Religion, like race, is a social construct. Race is a grouping of humans based on perceived shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society, defined by markers such as skin color, hair texture, eye shape, ancestry, identity performance, and even name. For example, a person who could be categorized as “Black” in the United States might be considered “white” in Brazil.

Assumptions about genetic differences between people of different races, such as “white” and “Black,” have had social and historical repercussions, and they still threaten to fuel racist beliefs today. However, racial categories are weak markers for genetic diversity. The mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning. As Professor of Public Health, Michael Yudell, commented:

It’s a concept we think is too crude to provide useful information, it’s a concept that has a social meaning that interferes in the scientific understanding of human genetic diversity, and it’s a concept that we are not the first to call upon moving away from.21

Scientists have petitioned for the removal of the concept of race from human genetics. Consider the following abstract from a journal article in Science:22

In the wake of the sequencing of the human genome in the early 2000s, genome pioneers, and social scientists alike called for an end to the use of race as a variable in genetic research. Unfortunately, by some measures, the use of race as a biological category has increased in the postgenomic age. Although the inconsistent definition and use have been a chief problem with the race concept, it has historically been used as a taxonomic categorization based on common hereditary traits (such as skin color) to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research —so disputed and so mired in confusion—is problematic at best and harmful at worst. It is time for biologists to find a better way.

  • 1 Outline some of the problems with using the concept of race to summarize differences and similarities between groups of people (you may conduct further research on the Internet on this topic).
  • 2 Re-read the sections in this chapter (see pp. 26-27) on how CSR conceptualizes religion. Then answer the following question: To what extent do you think the problems in conceptualizing race also apply to conceptualizing religion?
  • 3 Outline the benefits of using a scientific approach rather than the concept of race to study differences and similarities between people.
  • 4 What are the benefits of using a scientific approach to study religion rather than folk categories?

Key points

  • • Using what people tend to think of as religious as the means to define religion is not a scientific method.
  • • Folk concepts of religion are often based upon what is familiar.
 
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