In the study of religious language, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of agency. As Atran (2002) notes, “[supernatural agency is the most culturally recurrent, cognitively relevant, and evolutionarily compelling concept in religion” (p. 57). Cognitive anthropologists have long argued for the key role of agency in the development of religious thinking. Much of their work revolves around the notion of a human agency-detector system that has evolved to rapidly identify both predators and prey from incomplete sensory data: “This hair-triggering of the agency-detection mechanism readily lends itself to supernatural interpretation of uncertain or anxiety-provoking events” (Atran, 2002, p. 78). A second tendency is to combine this perception of supernatural agency in our environments with our mental template for how people think and behave. This allows believers to intuitively think about supernatural agents not only in terms of beings that can be understood and predicted, but also as beings that are interested in actively engaging with people. However, these agents often differ from humans in an important respect (in addition to their power and a wide variety of secondary aspects): they have full access to relevant strategic information regarding our thoughts and actions, and the knowledge this provides determines how they behave toward us (Boyer, 2001).
When this notion of supernatural agency is taken into account, it becomes clear that religious belief is more than just adherence to a set of propositions. Beliefs can fundamentally alter and even determine the experience of agency (Leeuwen and van Elk, 2018). In discussions of religious belief, individuals can often be viewed as rational actors who make choices and actively engage in specific behaviors that reflect their intentions. Yet a close examination of religious discourse reveals that the believer is often cast in a more passive role. This is because religious language reflects a conceptualization by which a supernatural entity or associated process acts on a believer; a phenomenon which can be understood as reverse transitivity or, as Charteris-Black (2017) describes it, inverted agency.This notion is then elaborated on and becomes a complex interaction between perceived supernatural agency and the believer’s active response to it.
Inverted agency is a hallmark of many theological statements. For example, the description ofAllah in the Verse of Light says,“Allah guides to His light whom He pleases”. The same depiction of God as a guide can be seen in the Old Testament texts as well, with God being described as a constant guiding force in Isaiah 58:11—“And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones”. In these examples, the agency of both God and humans is implied. God may be acting in the natural world, but “guiding” also requires people who follow the guide. This balance of agency, and how the supernatural acts on the natural world, is a common theme across religious language and how humans understand how they act and are acted on in the world.