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The importance of religion 1: Religion and reductionism

Professor Gavin Flood
Monday, 20 October 2008 - 11:00am

Two tendencies in recent years have sought to provide explanations of religion in terms of a naturalist or eliminative reductionism, the realm of science, on the one hand, and a cultural reductionism, the realm of politics, on the other. Eliminative reductionism primarily refers to theories of cognition and evolutionary psychology along with their philosophical justification. By cultural reductionism I mean accounts that see religion only in terms of a politics of representation and structures of power. On this view, religion is a disempowering hegemony caused by a ‘false consciousness’ that has served the interests of the rich and powerful. Both kinds of reductionism share an incredulity to religious truth claims and offer explanation and critique that are rigorously externalist in their explanation of religion and thoroughly materialist in their ontological and ethical pre-commitments. On reductionist accounts, to explain religion is to locate a cause (in cognition, genetics, socio-political structures) and to explain religion is to present an external account of it, often antithetical to the internal claims of traditions. This understanding of explanation has been the predominant model in the natural sciences from Bacon through to the social sciences of our own time. Even Theology traditionally understood claimed to explain religion in this way, locating the cause of religion in God. Scientific explanations have generally been antithetical to Theology in locating causes of religion in nature and claiming superiority to theological accounts because, unlike such accounts, they are falsifiable and have predictive power. Both eliminative and cultural reductionisms offer external accounts of religion through the location of cause, the former in nature the latter in the genealogy of cultural politics, and so do not engage seriously with traditions’ claims and concerns.

But there is a different sense of explanation that is not the location of a cause. This is to draw on, or return to, the verstehen tradition in the history of social science where explanation is ‘understanding’ and to claim that the explanation of religion is the exposition of a meaning rather than the location of a cause: to explain religion is not to seek a causal account in the first instance but to show how something is connected to a broader sphere or context and to demonstrate or translate a tradition’s semantic density into a language which is implicitly comparative. This kind of account is both descriptive and interpretative in drawing out the implications of description in theory-informed, semiotically sophisticated ways, and reasoning within the horizon of the western academy. This account is akin to phenomenology in wishing to offer thick description yet like hermeneutics in wishing to inquire beyond description. Unlike eliminative reductionism it must recognise the autonomy of higher level processes in any hierarchy or multiple levels of organised systems and unlike postmodern, cultural constructivists and genealogists it must recognise the legitimacy of tradition and tradition internal concerns. In the context of this debate, the lecture will discuss the two kinds of reductionism and the idea of ‘explanation’.