From a concept of religion to a theory of religion

The three perspectives that I have been using to model a concept of religion that focuses on processes of individuation and individualization can be defined in terms of religious agency; collective identity envisaging religious bonds, groups, or networks; and communication constituting such agency and identity by referring to religious ‘facts’ or employing religious media and thus claiming increased relevancy. Each of the three is concerned with inter-subjectively constituted agents entangled in religious communication and thus reaching out, by acting upon their total environment as temporal beings, in their appraisal of past, present, and future (agency), by positioning their structured selves in a socially structured environment (identity). Finally, the agents further their individuation by participating in the communicative constitution of others’ and their own agency and identity in a direct form, via intermediaries, or through lasting media (communication).

For the purposes of a historian of religion, it is not necessary to elaborate a concept of religion which informs narratives of religious transformations into a theory of religion which tries to ‘explain’ religion." It is, however, appropriate (Segal 2006) to take a first step in this direction, to formulate a ‘theoretical idea’ (Stausberg 2009), in order to account for the implicit assumptions and biases of such an approach, and, ultimately, in order to put its capacity for generalization and explanation to the test. In the productive circle of theorizing and interpreting, it is the phenomena found and the causes supposed for the changes in one’s own historical material that will determine the precise shape of such theorizing.

Permanent changes and controversies, even in small groups, already characterize early phases of the history of religion in the ancient Mediterranean. Given this, I find it difficult to side with theories of religion that argue on the basis of biology and postulate evolutionary processes.12 To me, none of these theories are able to explain that which demands explanation, that is, synchronic as well as diachronic difference and change. Variation is not understood but is made even more incomprehensible by referring to commonly shared human traits. Thus, it is preferable to seek the answer in the realm of culture (likewise Gervais et al. 2011) without opting for fully fledged culturalism, that is, the assumption of the explanatory priority of shared traits.

The high level of investment in the construction of questionable or even, initially, hardly plausible contemporaries (or ‘counterintuitive agents’ in the terminology of cognitive theories of religion) seems to produce time and again a surplus of self-stabilization, power, or the capacity to solve problems. And this investment is immediately rendered precarious and contested on account of the inequality produced by the success of such a move on the part of one of the human agents, at least if they come to be seen as competitors by other individuals. Sacralizations - as I proposed to call such communicative moves in order not to limit the strategy to the constructions of deities (see Riipke 2012, 2013b) - within the unquestionably plausible and evident environment are elements of such strategic communication. Against, for instance, Dobbe-laere (Dobbelaere 2011), 1 stress that such sacralizations, shared attributions of an exceptional character and the corresponding treatment of the objects to which these attributions are made, are not those easily identifiable elements in a historical culture that could define religion as actions and concepts that refer to the sacred. Rather, we need a dynamic concept of sacralization, as indicated in Chapter 1 of this volume.13

Sacralization, the basic strategy of introducing something as ‘special’ into the relevant context, is not a ready-made tool. Religion is not a natural phenomenon but an emergent one. My metaphor of ‘investment’ points to the material extravagance of religious communication, to the enormous expenditure of religious actions on media. This includes, in various historical periods, the establishment of cult images and the construction of sanctuaries, the performance of complex rituals, the setting aside of personnel, and the pursuit of textual and communicative strategies. Here, a vast field of theories of media and communication research offers itself to historians for heuristic purposes as well as to social scientists for empirical testing. The same holds true for research on those individuals who face situations of religiously reinforced inferiority, religious patiency rather than agency. Pace social identity theory, such inferiors might opt within a religious context for strategies of social change or they might opt to leave this religious context and strive for their own (upward) social mobility (setting aside the option of quietism for the moment) (cf. Cameron 2004, 257, who does not refer to religion). If religion offers resources for enlarging agency, focusing identity (whether by reducing complexity or making identity more complex), and intensifying successful communication, it is obviously more congenial for some than for others in some or all of the perspectives addressed. This holds true - I would like to add, writing in the good old-fashioned way about the discipline’s methodological atheism, which observes, but neither discusses nor accepts, claims about the divine as an explanatory basis - regardless of whether the resource is given or created.

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