Latest Research News on Religion : Mar 2022

Religion: What Is It?

Scholars broadly agree that no persuasive general theory of religion exists. Recently, however, new efforts at producing one have appeared. These range from wishful-thinking theories to rationalist and linguistic ones, but they increasingly emphasize cognition. This paper reviews several current approaches and summarizes my own cognitive theory: that religion is a form of anthropomorphism. Earlier writers who have seen anthropomorphism as basic to religion have disagreed about its nature and causes. Most explain it as comforting or as extending what we know to what we do not. Neither explanation is sound. Instead, anthropomorphism stems from a necessary perceptual strategy: facing an uncertain world, we interpret ambiguous phenomena as what concerns us most. That usually is living things, especially humans. Thus we see the world as more humanlike than it is. Religions, this paper holds, are systems of thought and action building in large measure upon this powerful, pervasive, and involuntary tendency.[1]

Theory of Religion

Theory of Religion brings to philosophy what Georges Bataille’s earlier book The Accursed Share brought to anthropology and history, namely, an analysis based on notions of excess and expenditure. No other work of Bataille’s, and perhaps no other work anywhere since Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has managed to draw so incisively the links between man’s religious and economic activities. “Religion,” according to Bataille, “is the search for a lost intimacy.” In a brilliant and tightly reasoned argument, he proceeds to develop a “general economy” of man’s relation to this intimacy: from the seamless immanence of animality to the shattered world of objects and the partial, ritual recovery of the intimate order through the violence of the sacrifice. Bataille then reflects on the archaic festival, in which he sees not only the glorious affirmation of life through destructive consumption but also the seeds of another, more ominous order — war. Bataille then traces the rise of the modern military order, in which production ceases to be oriented toward the destruction of a surplus and violence is no longer deployed inwardly but is turned to the outside. In these twin developments one can see the origins of modern capitalism.[2]

Religion and Environment

Understanding the interaction of human and environmental systems requires understanding the religious dimensions to the integration of ecology and society. Research on the significance of religion to environmental problems and of ecological ideas to religion has emerged into a robust interdisciplinary field. One sign of its vitality lies in the methodological arguments over how to conceptualize and assess that significance. Another lies in the diversity of research projects, which appear within most religious traditions, from many geographical contexts, and in several different disciplines. This article introduces major approaches to the field and key questions raised, and then briefly assesses recent work in three broad areas of tradition.[3]

Religion and Unforgivable Offenses

The value of forgiveness is emphasized in many religions, but little is known about how members of distinct religious cultures differ in their views of forgiveness. We hypothesized and found that Jews would agree more than Protestants that certain offenses are unforgivable and that religious commitment would be more negatively correlated with belief in unforgivable offenses among Protestants than among Jews (Studies 1 and 2). Dispositional forgiveness tendencies did not explain these effects (Studies 1 and 2). In Study 3, Jews were more inclined than Protestants to endorse theologically derived reasons for unforgivable offenses (i.e., some offenses are too severe to forgive, only victims have the right to forgive, and forgiveness requires repentance by the perpetrator). Differential endorsement of these reasons for nonforgiveness fully mediated Jew-Protestant differences in forgiveness of a plagiarism offense and a Holocaust offense.[4]

Exploring the natural foundations of religion

A new cognitive approach to religion is bringing fresh insights to our understanding of how religious concepts are maintained, acquired and used to motivate and direct actions. This approach suggests that seemingly extraordinary thoughts and behaviours can be supported by quite ordinary cognition and may thus be termed ‘natural’. Simultaneously, this research is expanding the domain of concepts and causal reasoning in general. This review examines recent research into religious rituals, communication and transmission of religious knowledge, the development of god-concepts in children, and the origins and character of religious concepts in adults. Together, these studies consistently emphasize and support the notion that the cultural phenomena typically labeled as ‘religion’ may be understood as the product of aggregated ordinary cognition. The new cognitive science of religion should eventually provide a fuller account of the distinctive and apparently extraordinary properties of religion.[5]


[1] Guthrie, S.E., 1996. Religion: What is it?. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, pp.412-419.

[2] Bataille, G., 1989. Theory of religion.

[3] Jenkins, W. and Chapple, C.K., 2011. Religion and environment. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 36, pp.441-463.

[4] Cohen, A.B., Malka, A., Rozin, P. and Cherfas, L., 2006. Religion and unforgivable offenses. Journal of personality, 74(1), pp.85-118.

[5] Barrett, J.L., 2000. Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(1), pp.29-34.

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