- The Study of Religion after Davidson and Rorty
One of the enduring questions in the study of religion is how to define the object of our study. I would like to offer a definition, as an opening move in any discussion of religion, not because I think definitions settle anything by themselves, but because very different definitions of religion are at stake in contemporary debates in the academy, particularly in the hyphenated areas such as science and religion, or religion and politics, or religion and gender studies, and I think it is important to see how they are related. I will begin, then, with the definitional problem, which I will take as twofold and as susceptible to analysis along the lines of what we know from semantic holism. I will then turn to the work of Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty to show what Davidson contributes to the academic study of religion, when religion is defined as I do, and what Rorty contributes to philosophy of religion as a scholarly pursuit and to the creation of a new spirituality as a private pursuit.
I call the definitional problem twofold only because I am painting with very broad strokes. On one side, social-scientific approaches to the modern academic study of religion line up with rough consensus, beginning with E. B. Tylor in the nineteenth century and continuing through Robin Horton, Melford Spiro, Rodney Stark, Stewart Guthrie, and Pascal Boyer in our time; they stipulate that religion has to do with the category of superhuman agents. Call this the intellectualist-rationalist school. On the other side are theologically inspired definitions of religion, running the gamut from Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern” to Karen Armstrong’s “quest for transcendence.” Call this the symbolist-expressivist school. Tylorians generally erect a wall between religion and science, even when they show no interest in the old warfare motif. Tillichians, on the other hand, most often call for détente or nonoverlapping magisteria. Among scientists, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins would belong with the Tylorean intellectualists, and Albert Einstein and Steven Jay Gould would belong, for quite different reasons, with the symbolist-expressivists.
As a Neo-Tylorean myself, I want a definition of religion that allows me to delimit what is distinctive about my object of study as a scholar. At one time at Dartmouth we developed just such a definition of religion and used it to introduce students to the comparative study of religion in Religion 1. The short [End Page 195] version is this: religion can be defined as a system of myth and ritual. The long version has three parts: (1) Religion is a communal system of propositional attitudes (i.e., beliefs, including hopes, fears, and desires) and practices that are related to superhuman agents. (2) Myth is a story with a beginning, middle, and end, which was or is transmitted orally about the deeds of superhuman agents. The salience of “oral transmission” places certain genres, such as novels and science fiction, out of bounds as myths. (3) Ritual is a system of communal actions consisting of both verbal and nonverbal interactions with a superhuman agent or agents.
Certain advantages are evident in this definition; chief among them, in my judgment, is that it gives us a distinguishing feature for identifying what is religious and what is not: the element of superhuman agents. No mention of superhuman agents, no religion. Unlike elastic definitions such as “religion is ultimate concern,” this one specifies the object of study. Not that investigators have access to any of the superhuman agents that religions traffic in. All that they have access to are people’s beliefs about their interactions with superhuman agents. Without the element of belief in nonnatural causality, it would be impossible for interpreters to go about identifying anything as specifically religious. This point, unfortunately, receives less emphasis than it deserves in the American Academy of Religion. In culture after culture, people report such beliefs as that the soul lives on after death; that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth; or that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints, fairies, angels, demons, devils...