This introduction has so far addressed the way believers think about their beliefs. The emphasis has not been on labels themselves, such as Jesus, Allah, and Buddha, or faith, purity, and desire, but on the conceptualizations underlying their us e. Jesus for example can mean very different things to individual Christians and Muslims. But how can religious thought be rigorously and reliably investigated? It is possible to divide what believers do into three intersecting categories: their nonverbal behavior, the artifacts they produce (in terms of buildings, statues, paintings, etc.), and the language they use. This book primarily focuses on language, although occasionally the focus may shift to important connections between what believers say, their ritual behavior, and their artifacts. The foundational premise is that the words people use provide a valuable window on how people conceptualize their place in the world and their communities.
Much religious talk is based on comparing one thing to another or representing something in a particular way (with a particular construal), both key processes in much of cognition (cf. Croft & Cruse, 2004). Religious discourse focuses on aspects of reality that are subtle, complex, and, in many cases, hidden from sensory experience, so believers resort to conveying religious meaning through comparisons with more concrete entities and experiences. For example, people refer to a divinity as a father, mother, friend, lover, or lord. In such cases, language reveals a great deal about how believers view that entity and their relationship with it. Likewise, how believers view others can be revealed using terms such as brother or sister, or with the use of binary contrasts such as pure versus impure or light versus darkness.
These cognitive construal operations are not static, so the investigation of religious language must also consider dynamic elements (Pihlaja, 2018). Attention to language as part of discourse reveals how dynamic aspects of cognition are often represented as competing forces and agents in ever-evolving patterns of interaction. By identifying and tracking these patterns, the analyst can construct a rich, three-dimensional picture of how believers conceptualize their religious experience and how they convey ideas to achieve specific rhetorical purposes.