For many proponents of a cognitive-evolutionary explanation for religion (and also many religionists in general!), religion is defined as system involving belief in a supernatural agent or agents. Here, the concept of “belief” is central and pre-supposed, the hinge on which the definition often rests.
If you have kept up with this blog for a while, it would not surprise you that something missing for me here in some of the mainstream or popular accounts of evolutionary psychology where religion is concerned—is the way in which an essentially “computational” understanding of the mind evades (whether intentionally or unintentionally) certain questions about meaning (buried in that convenient word "belief"). Whether or not it is the intention, the discussion of memes as “units” of cultural transmission makes it too easy to see meaning as objective, shirking the importance and role of subjectivity and embodiedness.
This is simplifying it, but many cognitive-evolutionary accounts trace religion back to animism. The perception of intentional or intelligent, but non-human or even non-creaturely, agents in one's environment.
I am deeply fascinated by cognitive science (that's why I protest so much!) However, animism (let alone religion) cannot only be explained by the attribution of agency to features of the environment. The focus on discrete “beings” or “entities” in evolutionary psychology seems to overlook the phenomenon, touched upon by contemplative philosophers of religion as well as phenomenologists of religion, whereby transcendent meaning is attributed to or intuited from certain features (both animate and inanimate) of the environment as humans interact with it. What cognitive module or evolutionary adaptation, one wonders, is responsible for Mircea Eliade’s “hierophany”, an apprehension of “the sacred” in which the actual “structure of the world” as apprehended by humans reveals transcendent principles?7 In The Sacred and the Profane, perception of sacred reality is not limited to sensing the presence of god or gods, or even any kind of sentient agency. Religious experience then is primarily about the creation of meaning (and not necessarily the transmission of meaning), well illustrated in Eliade’s comment about pastoral or rural societies wherein “the existence of the world itself “means” something.”8 While cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religion center on the action of the human brain, phenomenological accounts of religion center more on the “world”—but it is the world-as-experienced subjectively, so it is literally the action of the world on the subject (as well as subject-on-world). Yet it is not my intention to show that these two approaches disagree—in fact I want to explore how they could possibly complement each other, especially if other models of cognition are considered.
In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade emphasizes that it is hierophany (perception of the sacred, an engagement with some dimension of ultimate reality) that allows a human subject to orient themselves within the world or the cosmos. This is quite a profound statement, as it is attaching the act of mapping the world and investing it with value to religious experience. There has been much debate over Eliade’s use of the concept of the sacred since his time, including many charges of his tendency to essentialize or universalize the sacred and/or posit the actual existence of an ultimate reality as something separate from human history. In this vein he has been criticized as a “crypto-theologian”—in other words, importing theological beliefs into his scholarship (cite Blum). But I read his definition of the sacred as essentially the subjective perception of an order of reality that sets up an opposition between itself and more normative or “mundane” modes of perception. This contradistinction is of immense, priceless value because it has a sort of grammatical or didactic nature— it ‘tells’ the subject something about existence. It is a rupture, a break in the flow of whatever mode of awareness dominates during the majority of the time. This rupture in both space and time (as perceived) allows an underlying structure to be “revealed”—and regardless of how the derivative revelations square empirically, the “sacred” is in the end a phenomenological category, not an ontological one. To me there is nothing faintly theological or even “essentialist” about this idea. Its value lies in the way it illustrates (perhaps poetically or metaphorically) the point that for anything to have meaning there has to be relation or comparison between at least two things. There can be no transcendent meaning inferred from apprehension of a completely homogenous world. For the world we live in daily to have meaning as a world, there must be “another world” beneath, behind, or hidden within it. For Eliade “the Sacred” is an “experience of the nonhomogeneity of space”, and so perennially provides this point of reference, this ‘other world.’9 With this reference point, the “profane” world is able to be defined and seen as a sort of privation—something other than sacred. In this way Eliade’s sacred is literally the source and index of all value, because its apprehension imparts or adjusts value to everything else.
Thus, Eliade speaks of hierophanies as having a world-founding function. He writes, “the discovery or projection of a fixed point—the center—is equivalent to the creation of the world.”10 Yet this “center” that Eliade speaks of is not necessarily a spatial or geographical center (though it is definitely referenced in mythic and religious ideologies that place certain cities or locations at the center of the world, which he discusses). It is merely a conceptual anchor point that fastens the “profane” world to an ultimate reality that is essentially unclassifiable in terms of normal space and time. Of hierophany, Eliade writes: “The religious experience of the non-homogeneity of space is a primordial experience, homologizable to a founding of the world...for it is the break effected in space that allows the world to be constituted, because it reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”11 Additionally, hierophany is an experience which demands response—he gives the example of Moses taking off his shoes when apprehending the Burning Bush.12 This echoes similar conceptions of religion by philosophers, religion as “absolute responsibility” for Derrida, and as “intuition of the universe” and a “taste for the infinite” for Schleiermacher. Yet this interaction and “responsibility” characteristic of religious experience cannot be reduced to interaction between two discrete beings, because ‘sacred reality’ as Eliade attempts to describe it seems to transcend normative ontological categories, including those of being and non-being. In other words, the sacred is much more, or perhaps much “other” than just a “supernatural agent”.
In the beginning of chapter three, Eliade explains that it is his intention to show “how sacrality is revealed through the very structures of the world.”13 Eliade’s account of how objects or features of the world can spontaneously become symbols in the course of being apprehended illustrates this. Using a stone as an example, he writes: “The hierophany of a stone is pre-eminently an ontophany; above all, the stone is, it always remains itself, it does not change—and it strikes man by what it possesses of irreducibility and absoluteness, and in so doing, reveals to him by analogy the irreducibility and absoluteness of being.”14 This is an example of the way in which the transcendent can be glimpsed through immanent materiality, and is in this way contingent upon the particular features of the world. But there is not necessarily a fixed definition of “transcendent” for Eliade himself—it can include whatever principle(s) something appears to embody or symbolize. The starry night sky is another example he gives. Contemplating the “celestial vault” produces a kind of religious experience because it appears infinite, outside of time.15 Because of the way that the night sky appears to us, it sets up a vast, even an ultimate, distinction between our finite selves and its apparent infinity. Even though ontologically the “sky” is just space and stars, from the perspective of earth and via the human senses it becomes an integrated thing, a “celestial vault”, and attributing meaning to it as a ‘thing’ is inevitable.
In this view, religion becomes a store-house for the transcendent principles gleaned from hierophanies. But what is interesting in that model is that it actually makes “the Sacred” a phenomenon beyond religion—in other words it cannot completely be contained by religion as we know it, or religion as it has actually played out in history. Perhaps this could help explain why Eliade’s work has often been mischaracterized for disregarding religion’s socio-historical contingency and criticized for conceiving of the “sacred” as a sort of eternal, unchanging presence that intermittently manifests throughout history. In my view Eliade’s articulation of the concepts of “Sacred” and “Profane” are indeed useful for illuminating ideas of holiness and sanctity that have historically arisen in religion, but they ultimately serve an even more profound purpose—that is, to try and articulate how meaning and value arise and become controlling factors or currencies in human culture. Since symbolic activity pervades human life far beyond the realm of religion, but yet historically the assignment of ultimate meaning to the world has been the purview of religion, it seems that questioning the evolution of religious thought cannot be disconnected from questioning the evolution and process of meaning making (semiosis) itself.
A compelling insight into semiotics can be taken from Eliade’s concept of hierophany. That is, the ability for things in the world—stones, trees, animals—to spontaneously become symbols, in addition to what they ‘actually’ are (and indeed, to be both things simultaneously). A stone is both a stone and a window to divine reality, perhaps because it tells us something about permanence that we cannot know just by interacting with our own bodies (for example). This is a sort of language of objects, where the “information” imparted is non-representational or non-discursive. Instead, the information is synthesized through human interaction with the actual physical and sensory qualities of the object. This ability of things to signify something far beyond themselves is mimicked or simulated in human material culture in the fashioning of objects of contemplation, both in religious and “secular” modes. Eliade gives the “secular” example of the miniature gardens popular among modern Chinese “literati”, which represent a “paradisal world." I would offer as a “religious” example Byzantine icons or relics, which are both simultaneously material objects and transcendent windows that yield insight into the structure of a particular spiritual economy (in this case the relationship of the saints to Christ and the Trinity, seen in that tradition as a facet of ultimate reality).
This ability for objects to appear as two things at once, both as object and symbol of something “other”, is something elucidated in critical theorist Bill Brown’s landmark essay on “Thing Theory," This theory caught my eye because it was cited in Patricia Cox Miller's excellent book The Corporeal Imagination, which is about materiality and the sacred in Late Antique Christianity. Brown distinguishes “things” from mere “objects” because “things” are objects that disrupt the normal perceptual flow of space and time. In this way they are a little bit like Eliade’s definition of the function of the Sacred—they create a wrinkle in space and time, making its texture “non-homogenous”. Brown writes that an everyday object could achieve “thing” status when it “stops working” the way it is supposed to, like “when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.”18 As such these things are, in a way, enchanted, because they possess a sort of suspended animation—they are, or have been, or will be, extensions of us and our agency. It is not, of course, as if we actually believe that these things have a soul or spirit, but rather that we acknowledge the way in which our own “soul” (whatever that may be) is reflected in—and to an extent, inhabits—features of the outside world.
Though he does not explicitly connect “things” to holiness in any overarching way, there is a sort of phenomenology of enchantment articulated in his essay. He suggests that “[y]ou could imagine things, second, as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects—their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.”19 Such “magic” is evident in the items of “memorabilia” one often sees arranged in living rooms, on bookshelves or the mantle. These objects comprise a sort of personal iconography of memory for whoever arranged them there, and they are certainly things—most definitely to their owner, but even to a lesser degree to strangers who, merely by their placement infer that they are more than just objects. Even an acorn or a leaf, if placed on a mantle among other items, becomes a “thing”, it suddenly has a deep—if not transcendent—meaning. Brown’s article points to the fact that, even from the secular view of critical theory, there is still an immense power, a semiotic fecundity, in our sensorial relationship to objects that speaks to a process by which we invest the material world, and thereby our own lives, with meaning. This process of investiture may be modulated by cultural categories like ‘religion’, ‘art’, ‘science’, but it is fundamentally the same process.
Re-evaluating Phenomenology of Religion
In a recent article on re-evaluating the utility of phenomenology of religion in light of its somewhat discredited status among social-scientific scholars, Jason Blum claims that phenomenology of religion has historically offered something unique to scholars of religion, namely "interpretation of the meaning of religion from the perspective of religious experience and consciousness.” It is interpretive, and not explanatory, and developed in opposition or counter-distinction with reductionist or naturalistic accounts of religion (but is not necessarily incompatible with them). According to its detractors, the most controversial characteristic of phenomenological accounts is the notion that there is a an essential aspect of religion (the Sacred for Eliade or the Holy for Otto) that is "radically independent of history.” Additionally, phenomenologists of religion have often posited this essence as “sui-generis,” autonomous, or irreducible, which historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of religion have found problematic because it seems to them tantamount to a metaphysical claim.
Additionally, because of the central hermeneutical focus on subjective experience, phenomenologists have been accused of “endorsing the religious subject's perspective.” These particular charges have been leveled famously at Eliade was has been called a "crypto-theologian."
Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish phenomenology of religion from theology precisely because phenomenologists take subjective experience so seriously—it is their “text”, so to speak. However, Blum suggests that as long as phenomenologists do away with these problematic aspects, phenomenology can be a viable way to study religion, and is not ultimately anti-thetical to explanatory methods (as long as those explanatory methods are open to the perspective offered by phenomenology). Blum argues that phenomenologists of religion don’t need to posit the existence of a transcendent realm in order to posit that such a realm is apprehended subjectively. He quotes Dúpre in correcting the generalization that phenomenology of religion is preoccupied with transcendence: "The notion of transcendence is phenomenologically relevant only insofar as it enters into the immanent experience. What the transcendent object is in itself, i.e., beyond its relation to the immanent being of consciousness, is unimportant." Thus, the phenomenologist of religion ideally brackets the question of whether religious realms exist or not, and “seeks to disclose the meaning of meanings of [religion] as they are constructed, perceived, and experienced within consciousness, or from the perspective of the religious subject.”
Thus, for Blum, phenomenology of religion is really about asking how experiences create religious meaning, and how meaning itself functions. In this way, phenomenology touches upon the insight that an inquiry into semiotics cannot be divorced from the way our bodies move, think, and feel—but yet it has been criticized as solipsist or crypto-theological because of this commitment to the ‘authority’ of religious or spiritual subjectivity. Postmodernism has since offered up a way of valuing subjectivity with its dogmas of relativism and a suspicion of objectivity, and uses deconstruction to investigate how values and meanings are culturally derived and ‘inscribed’ by cultural discourse onto persons. But this can still, in a way, ignore the ‘gestalt’ of experience—the way that it feels (and why it even matters) for our senses to gather the world around us into a coherent whole. Phenomenology offers the notion that the world as we perceive it is irrevocably ‘gestural’, and that our cognition is narrative in nature—and acknowledges that we are ‘locked in’ to this loop of interaction. In his book on ecology and the phenomenology of perception, David Abram quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who claimed that the human body’s gestural and expressive nature “extends...to the whole sensible world, and our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other “objects” the miracle of expression.”25 To paraphrase Abram, the world appears to speak, by virtue of simply appearing to the human subject (ibid.). This observation that ‘the world speaks’ is redolent of Eliade’s observation that for some pre-modern societies, the world means something, by default, by virtue of its existence.
This is certainly much more than just ‘agent detection’ as characterized in cognitive science, and for that matter much more than religion. In fact, agent detection merely grazes the tip of the iceberg in terms of how, according to phenomenologists like Merlau-Ponty, Husserl, and Abram, the world is apprehended by us. It is apprehended as a vast, continuous, non-homogenous texture, displaying varying degrees of animation that respond to our engagement. In this view, when exactly does something pop out from this animate whole to ‘become’ a supernatural agent or a discrete entity? It is certainly a valid question, but the treatment of supernatural agents in cognitive-evolutionary accounts of religion seems to draw too much of a distinction between religious cognition and non-religious cognition, when perhaps they are on a shared continuum—only separated by degree and not kind. There is more to be said about religion than just the false attribution of agency, because according to Merleau-Ponty and Abram, all meaning itself is derived from such a ‘false attribution of agency’—or rather, the impressions that the world ‘presses’ onto us. Therefore it is trite to claim this as unique of religion—it does not tell us anything interesting.
When considering the “scientific” study of belief, it is useful to keep in mind the question: Why do we perceive in the first place? In order to eat, to escape danger, to gather parts of the material world to ourselves. To paraphrase a former professor, teaching a class on evolutionary psychology, the brain didn’t evolve to tell us the truth about what’s out there. It evolved out of vectored relationships with other processes—it evolved by perceiving patterns that might be useful or strategic to the organism, and by navigating complex landscapes. The ecology of the natural world, structured by interconnected webs of relation, is the fundamental blueprint for the ‘ecology’ of language and meaning—indeed all symbolic systems, and so too religion.
To consider how this is so, we can examine theories that see language itself as continually evolving. David Abram describes how Merleau-Ponty both expanded and deviated from Saussure’s conception of language’s two-fold structure, one part being la langue—language as an abstract, symbolic system of relations, and the other la parole—the actual act of speaking. Merleau-Ponty sees the two as reciprocal. Abram writes “while individual speech acts are surely guided by the structured lattice of the language, that lattice is nothing other than the sedimented result of all previous acts of speech, and will itself be altered by the very expressive activity it now guides. Language is not a fixed or ideal form, but an evolving medium we collectively inhabit, a vast topological matrix in which the speaking bodies are generative sites, vortices where the matrix itself is continually being spun out of the silence of sensorial experience.” In other words, the process by which meaning is made and re-made has not changed much over the thousands of years in which humans have been able to speak or express, it merely has gotten more complex, more fractal in nature. As Merleau-Ponty undoubtedly saw, in the course of studying linguistics, there has been an overemphasis on its representational aspect—on the system of language as a static bank of meaning, or as even being the source of meaning itself. But although language has a history, this history does not completely determine its use. As we will see, cognition (and our understanding of it) may reflect a similar state: though it has an evolutionary history, that history does not determine its use—and moreover, it remains to some degree an open and evolving system, which is itself an evolutionary strategy!
The take home message, may be:
The history of language does not completely determine its use
The history of the brain does not completely determine its use
The history of the sacred does not completely determine its use
And the dethroned phenomenologist Mircea Eliade might be best looked at as not a religionist,
but a semiotician, interested (like Whitehead) in how value and meaning arise in human culture. In this case, many of the criticisms leveled against him no longer apply.
It turns out the "sacred" goes way beyond religion.
(( To be Continued! ))
A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.
**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous