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Saturday, 14 January 2017


Jonathan Z. Smith

What is Religion?

by Austin Cline, aboutreligion (2015)

Does religion exist? Most people will certainly say “yes” and it seems incredible to think that there is no such thing as “religion,” but that’s exactly what at least a few scholars have tried to argue. According to them, there is only “culture” and some aspects of “culture” have been arbitrarily singled out, grouped together, and given the label “religion.”
...while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion — there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy.
- Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion
There is plenty of data for “culture,” but “religion” is merely an arbitrary grouping of cultural features created by academic scholars for the purpose of study, comparison and generalization.

This is a very intriguing idea that runs contrary to most people’s expectations and it merits closer attention. It is true that in many societies people do not draw a clear line between their culture or way of life and what Western researchers would like to call their “religion.” Is Hinduism, for example, a religion or a culture? People can argue that it is either or even both at the same time.

This does not, however, necessarily mean that “religion” doesn’t exist - or at least doesn’t exist outside the minds and scholarship of people in academia. Just because it isn’t clear whether Hinduism is a religion or a culture doesn’t mean that the same must be true of Christianity. Perhaps there is a distinction between religion and culture, but sometimes religion is so tightly integrated in a culture that those distinctions have begun to fade, or are at least very difficult to discern anymore.

If nothing else, Smith’s comments here should cause us to keep firmly in mind the role that academic scholars of religion play in how we understand and approach the subject of religion in the first place. If “religion” cannot always be easily and naturally abstracted out of its surrounding culture, then scholars who try are essentially making editorial decisions that can have far-reaching consequences on how students and readers perceive both the religion and the culture.

For example, is the Muslim practice of veiling women a part of religion or culture? The category in which scholars place this practice will obviously impact how people view Islam. If Islam is directly responsible for veiling women and other acts that seem to accord women a second-class status, then Islam and Muslim men will be perceived negatively. If, however, these acts are categorized as a part of Arab culture and Islam given as only a small influence, then people’s judgment of Islam will be far different.

Regardless of whether one agrees with people like Smith or not, we must remember that even when we think we have a firm handle on what “religion” is, we might only be fooling ourselves. Religion is a very complex subject and there are no easy answers as to what does and does not qualify as being a member of this category. There are people out there who think it is all very simple and obvious, but they merely betray a superficial and simplistic familiarity with the topic.

Charting the map metaphor
in theories of religion

by Mark Quentin Gardiner, Steven Engler

Abstract: The idea that scholars of religion produce ‘maps’ that represent the ‘territories’ of religion(s) is common and influential. This paper first discusses the role of the metaphor, with special reference to the work of J.Z. Smith, and some of the problems raised by the map metaphor (above all, its implicit reliance on a naive correspondence view of truth). It then draws two important distinctions: between different levels of representation; and between the representing and guiding function of maps (truth and use). It ends by comparing issues in the philosophy of science and the theory of religion in order to highlight some promising directions for more defensible semantic and epistemological groundwork in theory of religion. 

This article suggests that ideas from philosophy can help make sense of some of the theoretical issues that inform Religious Studies. Specifically, we examine the idea that scholars of religion produce ‘maps’ that represent the ‘territories’ of religion(s). We argue that the use of this and similar metaphors is symptomatic of a simplistic epistemology and an inappropriate semantic theory. Appeals to the map metaphor underline an implicit reliance on a naive correspondence view of truth, i.e., the view that language can be understood purely as a representation of something non-linguistic and that truth can be understood simply in terms of accuracy of that representation. Epistemological and semantic critiques strongly suggest that this view of language and truth are untenable. However, other views are possible, including more sophisticated accounts of truth and meaning that invoke conventional and pragmatic constraints without abandoning the field to an intolerable relativism. In this article, we review basic issues in epistemology and semantics in order to clarify the presuppositions implicit in the map metaphor. The core issue here is just how it is that the work of the scholar of religion represents the religious phenomena under study. We then draw on philosophy of science to further develop these ideas with more specific attention to relations between theory and data and to the nature and status of models and modeling. Our claim is not that the map metaphor is necessarily committed to a naive correspondence theory of truth but that its use in Religious Studies is symptomatic of a marked lack of epistemological and semantic clarity. We focus on the use of that metaphor for two reasons; the map metaphor offers an especially effective means to diagnose these problems; and a more nuanced consideration of this metaphor raises issues essential to more productive theorizing in the study of religion. Most theories of religion are behind the times, and so behind the eight ball, in their neglect of current thinking on truth and meaning: superficial uses of the map metaphor are symptomatic of this; and more nuanced uses chart a potential path toward more defensible work.

Map is and is not territory

The study of religion abounds in references to maps. A selection of passages will illustrate the range of ways in which this term serves as a metaphor for different issues broadly related to reference: ‘the primary intention of much African religious thought seems to be just that mapping of connexions between space-time phenomena which modern Christian thought feels is beyond its proper domain’ (Horton, 1964, p.96); ‘We need to map the variety of Judaisms’ (Smith, 1982, p.18); ‘models play an important role in providing our map of reality and in shaping our understanding of what is real’ (Katz,1982, p.270; original emphasis); ‘comparative terms such as ‘‘marriage’’ and ‘‘witchcraft’’. were assumed to map out similar configurations of meaning in different cultural environments’ (Shaw, 1990, p.339–340); ‘this terrain [of subtle mutual seductions] is not clearly mapped; the interests and risks of opening the body are not articulated’ (Johnson, 1996, p.191); ‘the domain of the scholar of religion.. is where we etch and authorize the maps that not only guide our movements through history but also make movement possible to begin with’ (McCutcheon, 2001, p.173–174); ‘The defamiliarisation created by Bhairava’s god-image maps the politics of mediation surrounding Hindu god-images’ (Grieve, 2003, p.60); ‘elite – mostly male – adepts learn to map out the world of Krishna on their bodies through practices of meditation and visualization’ (Hawley, 2004, p.384); ‘the disagreement over the place of material culture in religious cognition can be mapped onto the logical geography of the insider/outsider problem’ (Day, 2004, p.244); ‘non-Melanesians map onto Melanesians their own fantasies concerning love, longing, and unrequited desire’ (Kaplan, 2005, p.1421); ‘what makes mapping ourselves into a public/private dichotomy especially difficult is the experience of modernity’ (Zwissler, 2007, p.54). 

As these examples illustrate, ‘map’ means many things in the study of religion. It does the work of ‘describe’, ‘compare’, ‘refer’, ‘model’, ‘correlate’, ‘understand’, ‘inscribe’, ‘articulate’, ‘illustrate’, ‘project’, ‘make explicit’ and other terms. At the heart of all these uses is some relation between representations (maps) and the phenomena to which they supposedly refer (the territories of Religious Studies and of religions). As this range of uses indicates, clarifying exactly what sort of relation holds between map and territory is a complex issue. 

The first issue needing clarification here is the epistemological status of the relation between claims in the study of religion and their objects. In addition, there is a logical distinction, discussed below, between different orders of representations: religious representations of religious realities; scholarly representations of such insiders’ views; and scholarly representations of these secondary sources. The territories that scholars of religion map are maps themselves, and these in turn may serve as the territories of higher-order maps. Our first task then, is to draw attention to some of the complexities involved in making claims about religious phenomena. We make a case here that it is far from obvious how scholars of religion talk about religion. 

The map metaphor is about representation and it has played an important role in discussions of comparison in Religious Studies. On the one hand, it is obvious that map is not territory: one represents and one is represented. The claim that map is not territory preserves a distinction that relativism threatens to collapse. If map is territory, then the difference between them has no significance, with clear implications for the study of religion: ‘when map is the territory, it lacks both utility and any cognitive advantage with the result that the discipline which produced it, deprived of its warrants, disappears’ (Smith, 2004, p.209). 

The ‘is’ that relates map and territory in these discussions is that of metaphor. The task is to specify how the two are related, not to affirm or deny their equivalence. Korzybski’s (1958 [1933], p.58, 60; original emphasis) claim that ‘the map is not the territory’ made precisely this point: ‘A map is not the territory it represents but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness’. Maps are like and unlike the territories they represent, and this forces us to discuss complex issues of similarity and difference. Smith (2004, p.59) insists that the task of comparison forces us to be especially attentive to the latter: ‘Maps are structures of transformation, not structures of reproduction. What is at stake is an issue concerning which students of religion have been notably shy, the cognitive power of distortion, or difference.’ As Bateson (1972) emphasized in his lecture on Korzybski, ‘What gets onto the map, in fact, is difference’. If scholars of religion want to talk of making and comparing maps of religious territories, they need to be clear on precisely on how their maps represent and what they are to be used for. 

Smith’s (1978) essay, ‘Map Is Not Territory’ [cf. above], provides the touchstone for the map metaphor in theories of religion. It argues that scholars of religion need to ‘reflect on and play with the necessary incongruity of our maps before we set out on a voyage of discovery to chart the worlds of other men. For the dictum of Alfred Korzybski is inescapable: ‘Map is not territory’ – but maps are all we possess’ (Smith, 1978, p.309). Scholars of religion have often interpreted this as a warrant for a radical, relativist constructionism (Engler, 2004, 2005). To this end, the claim that ‘map is not territory’ is often read in tandem with likely the most widely cited passage in contemporary theoretical work on religion, from the introduction to Smith’s (1982, p.xi, original emphasis; see 1998, p.281–282) Imagining Religion:
there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy. 
A superficial reading of these passages can be paraphrased as follows: religion is nothing but a construct; scholars of religion invent the entire contents of their writings; there is no real world of religion to which scholarship of religion has any meaningful relation. However, such views are based on a false dichotomy: either (a) truth and meaning are rooted in a simple and direct correspondence between theory and object, language and world, or (b) no definable relation between language and world is possible (and, hence, for practical purposes, there is no world). This simplistic reading of the claim that ‘map is not territory’ is untenable. 

Smith does not hold a simplistic view. His choice of ‘map’ ‘as a substitution for terms such as ‘cosmology’ and ‘world-view’, themselves replacements for Eliade’s ‘ontology’, was meant to emphasize the status of these patterns as ‘constructs’’ (Smith, 2004, p.47, n. 59). Smith (2004, p.24, 31) is explicit that the concept of ‘map’ played a greater role in his earlier work, emphasizing the ‘consequences of the juxtaposition inherent in comparison’, but he remains insistent on the importance of the ‘choice of the map over the territory’. He complicates the relation between scholars of religion and their putative objects of study, but he does not negate it: 
What we study when we study religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell. . What we study ... is the variety of attempts to map, construct and inhabit. positions of power through the use of myths, rituals and experiences of transformation. (Smith, 1978, p.290–291) 
Smith’s choice of words here reveals a position that is neither naively realist nor radically constructionist. Describing religion as a ‘process of world-construction’, implies a distinction between products, raw materials, and the process of construction (see Benavides, 1997, p.130, 2000, p.116, 2001, p.107; Hacking, 1998, p.56, 1999, p.49). If religion ‘both discovers limits and creates limits’, this implies not only a distinction between discovery and creation but also their relation as a core element of what scholars of religion study. This passage raises important theoretical and methodological questions: Where do scholars stand in order to identify these ‘limits’ or ‘the bounds of the human, historical condition’? What comparative apparatus allows us to categorize the ‘variety of attempts to map’ that constitutes religion?

YouTube video "What Is Religion?"
* An earlier version of this paper was presented by Engler at the XIXth International Association for the History of Religions Quinquennial Congress held in Tokyo in 2005, as part of sessions organized by Bryan Rennie on ‘The Philosophy of Science and the Study of Religion’. The paper was intended for publication as part of the resulting special issue edited by Rennie for this journal. Being too large for inclusion there, it underwent a separate review process – directed by Michael Stausberg and including three rounds of revision – before being accepted for publication. The authors thank Bryan Rennie, participants in the Tokyo sessions, Michael Stausberg, and Religion’s reviewers for helpful comments on previous drafts.