Regardless of whether you have your own personal faith or feel deeply suspicious of any supernatural claim, it is difficult to deny that such beliefs still play a key role in today’s world. Religion, after all, is one of humanity’s fundamental frameworks for understanding its place in the world and appears to have existed in some form going back to the emergence of modern humans (Rossano, 2006). For most of us, religion is associated with the global faiths that formed primarily during the Axial Age (600 все to 1 ce). These “world-transcendent” belief systems have played a critical role in the formation and endurance of large communities where humans have had to interact peacefully with anonymous strangers with whom they lacked kinship ties (Sanderson, 2018).
While religious belief has declined in modern times in a handful of affluent societies, it remains important in the lives of a large portion of the world’s population. A 2010 analysis of global census data and surveys found that 84% of the world’s population had a religious affiliation, with over three-quarters of respondents identifying as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist (Pew Research Center, 2012). In short, religion is alive and well. In fact, the far greater number of births among religious believers suggests that increases in those reporting a religious affiliation, and Islamic faith in particular, will far outpace the near-zero growth of the unaffiliated in the years up to 2060 (Pew Research Center, 2017). These developments underscore the great need for principled investigations of religious thought to gain insights into a wide range of phenomena that span human psychology, modern societal trends, and tensions arising from interreligious conflict and demographic shifts.
There are many ways to investigate religious thought and behavior, but a key approach is through language. Language, after all, is central to religious behaviors whether they involve interaction with supernatural agents, theological rationalizations, normative discourse, or ritual (cf, Downes, 2011). Language, and its perceived limitations, can even provide insights into mystical and ineffable truths and experiences and the efforts of religious masters to guide followers to them. Consider, for example, the well-known Verse of Light, taken from the Qur’an (24:35), which, using powerful, vivid imagery, describes Allah as light originating from a lamp within a glass. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who produced a noted English-language translation of the Qur’an, writes of this sura:
The glass by itself does not shine. But when the light comes into it, it shines like a brilliant star. So men of God, who preach Allah’s Truth, are themselves illuminated by Allah’s Light and become like illuminating media through which that Light spreads and permeates human life.
(1985, p. 1016)
The language of the sura describes a Muslim’s experience of the divine, which is presumably difficult to articulate. Ali explains its meaning by showing how preaching “Allah’s Truth” can be understood as being “illuminated by Allah’s Light”.The commentary highlights the relationship between Allah and humanity, comparing Allah to light and humans to glass, reminding the reader that the glass itself does not shine, but rather glows with the light it receives. The reader can imagine light spreading and permeating translucent material and, through a series of inferences, how divine truth likewise spreads and permeates the world.
This sort of figurative religious language is powerful, but it is difficult to establish why this is so, why comparing one thing to another or using a few concrete words to stand for a complex network of meaning can be so evocative and memorable. Even though appreciation of these elements is instantaneous, it is not immediately obvious how the machinery of language produces these effects and what precisely is going on inside the mind. Linguistic analysis thus provides an essential key opening the door to a fascinating network of bodily, cultural, and social understandings of the world.