Friday, June 07, 2013

Jakob De Roover: Consensus Gentium and the Cultural Universality of Religion

"Incurably Religious? Consensus Gentium and the Cultural Universality of Religion" by Jakob De Roover (a student of Balu) is available here (registration required).

It begins thusly:

Are there human societies and peoples without religion? For centuries, this question captivated some of the greatest minds of Europe. The potential existence of tribesand civilizationswithout religion caused anxiety in some and elation in others. Going by the debates from the early sixteenth to the late nineteenth century, this was one of the most significant challenges that the discovery of non-western cultures posed to the European intelligentsia. Whenever some traveller claimed that he had found “a people without religion” in Africa, Asia or the Americas, others would deny that this could be the case. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, however, this concern largely vanished from the radar of western scholarship. Illustratively, authors now dismissed the question of the fundamental universality and permanence of religions” as follows: “This great fact is no longer disputed by any one, it is one of those matters classified as ‘definitely settled’” (Le Roy 1922:286-7). 

Or they announced that they had no intention of discussing this point, “because, as every anthropologist knows, it has now gone to the limbo of dead controversies” (Jevons 1896:7). Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, textbooks reproduced the claim that all known cultures or societies have some kind of religion.1 It remains alive today. 

A recent introduction to the anthropology of religion notes that in the past “claims were often made that religion was lacking in various societies.” Today, however, “neither anthropologists nor, probably, any other scholars would accept claims...about the absence of religion in various societies. Anthropologists are now confident that religion is present in all human societies, even though some or many traditionally lack a word for religion in their own language and therefore do not separate religion’ from other realms of culture” (Winzeler 2008:3).
Jakob de Roover leads us through how this consensus came about.

Consensus Gentium is actually a pre-Christian argument, from Cicero:

there never was any nation so barbarous, nor any people in the world so savage, as to be without some notion of gods” (Tusculan Disputations (I, XIII, 30))
However this quickly transformed into a doctrine of the Biblical God.  Jakob establishes that

As the Creator had given awareness of his existence to humanity, it appeared to have become theologically impossible that people without religion could exist.  From the church fathers to the Renaissance, the belief in the universality of religion rested on Christian theology and its references to an imaginary consensus gentium.
 The first real encounter with empirical data occurred with the early explorers.

The first dissenting notes that challenged the consensus gentium came from the reports of the early voyages of exploration. Both Christopher Columbus (1968:196) and Amerigo Vespucci (Wallisch 2002:20-21) made ambiguous observations about the absence of worship and idolatry among the inhabitants of the new world. Yet, the momentous changes during this period did not inspire any inquiry into the truth of the consensus.
 In the seventeenth century, the presence or absence of religion in alien cultures became a concern - but because of theological problems in Christianity.
Were there peoples without religion? When this question was addressed, it was not as an empirical issue about alien cultures, but as a theological problem with equally theological solutions attached to it. Seventeenth-century Protestants and early deists assumed that all human beings had an intrinsic religiosity or “natural religion” – a simple belief in the Sovereign Creator of the universe, taught by “the light of nature.”
 The story gets more interesting however:

From the late sixteenth century, a doubtful light had been cast on such conclusions, as new reports about the population of the New World reached Europe. These suggested the unthinkable: several American Indian tribes did not appear to have any religion. Similar claims surfaced about some African and Asian peoples encountered by European travellers (Chidester 1996:11-6; Kors 1990:142-50). They did not seem to know of any “Supreme Being.There were nations so barbarous and peoples so savage, these reports emphasized, as to lack all religion. Fortunately, these groups could be brushed away as savages, whose humanity was suspect. 
But the problem of atheism threatened to turn acute, when French missionaries were said to have found a society of atheists in an ancient civilization. It concerned China and the “Confucianism” of its educated elite. Did this doctrine know of “God” or was it atheistic? For decades, different monastic orders and the philosophes disputed the issue. Eventually, the polemics required the interference of the Sorbonne and the Papal See, which decided in favour of the view that the Confucians were atheists (Kors 1990).
This was bad news:

If one could demonstrate the existence people without religion, one gave the atheist evidence for his claim that religion was but the artifice of human legislators and power- hungry priests.
  To the rescue Father Joseph Lafitau, a Jesuit:

In 1724, he published his massive Moeurs des sauvages Amériquains comparée aux moeurs des premiers temps, one of the first works of comparative ethnology (Pagden 1987:198-210). Its purpose, Lafitau stated, was to establish the truth of the unanimous consent of nations in the matter of religion.
The conclusion was

Theological certainty, then, left no doubt whatsoever that religion was indeed universal: “Men need a religion.” The issue had been settled; the consensus saved.
 Jakob moves us forward in the Enlightenment:

For a moment, it seemed as though the early Enlightenment would go ahead with this task and reject the belief in the universality of religion. John Locke disputed the innateness of the idea of God and pointed out the following in the fourth edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1700:29): “Besides the Atheists, taken notice of amongst the Ancients, and left branded upon the Records of History, hath not Navigation discovered, in these latter Ages, whole Nations...amongst whom there was to be found no Notion of a God, no Religion.” 
 But  Jakob tells us, this did not have any significant or lasting effect.  Most travel reports conceptualized the practices of peoples encountered in terms of religion.  There still remained reports of peoples without religion.  There were several strategies to deal with such claims.

The first strategy denied humanity to the peoples without religion.....
Another strategy was to suggest that travellers had made flawed observations......
A third strategy was to ignore the reports.......
Once the explorers’ observations had been denied, reiterating “the universal Consent of Mankind” was the task that remained.......Citing as evidence the same phrases from Cicero, they referred to “the histories of all ages” and “travellers into all countries” as empirical confirmation.
 Jakob's commentary is that

What we see happen in the course of the eighteenth century is the transformation of theological postulates into anthropological facts.  Perhaps no texts illustrate this so strikingly as the early encyclopaedias.
 Jakob then takes one of the encyclopedia entries to make a crucial point:

This entry illustrates a crucial shift that would shape the study of religion for centuries to come. The apparent discovery of peoples without religion had constituted empirical anomalies with respect to a particular theory. That is, the observation that some tribes did not know of any deity, and therefore had no religion, was possible and significant only because of a specific theoretical framework operating in the background, namely generic Christian theology. In response to such anomalies, the most evident step is to immunize the theory against the empirical anomalies it confronts by making ad hoc changes.
The encyclopaedia entry embodies one such immunizing modification: redefining one of the theory’s theoretical terms. Instead of defining “religion” as “belief in the Deity,” “awareness of the Supreme Being,” or something similar, it now spoke of “religion” as the entertaining of notions of superior and invisible powers, upon which depends the happiness of humankind. It replaced an obviously theological concept with more neutral-sounding terms of description, and hence also neutralized the empirical anomalies: after all, all human nations had some notions of superior and invisible powers.
That this constituted no fundamental change to the theoretical framework is shown by the ease with which the entry moved back and forth between the two sets of concepts: it could easily shift from the notions of superior and invisible powers shared by all nationsto explicitly theological concepts like the image of the Deity stamped on the human mind” and “primeval revelation.Moving from one set of concepts to the other averted the need to engage in any major rethinking of the anthropology embedded in the western common sense by this time. It could keep the basic conceptual framework stable by substituting some of its terms. The same cognitive move, we will now see, determined the conceptual framework of the twentieth-century study of religion.
Jakob takes us into the nineteenth century:

Generally, two objections exhausted the opposition to the claim that there were cultures without religion. On the one hand, an earlier strategy was revived: accusing the travel reports of inaccurate observation. Travellers had not spent enough time among the natives or did not know their languages sufficiently well. Besides, later visitors had seen religion among the same peoples (Flint 1880:260-89). On the other hand, one accused the travellers or theorists in question of using unacceptably narrow definitions of “religion.” This was the approach of Tylor and also of the two works that would close the nineteenth- century debate in favour of the universality of religion: L’espèce humaine (1879) by the French anthropologist Armand de Quatrefages and Outlines of the History of Religion (1905) by the Dutch religion scholar Cornelis Petrus Tiele.
 Basically, these academics preserved the universality of religion by constantly expanding its definition.  You have to read this next passage closely (emphasis added, sparingly):

In spite of its continuing popularity, we need to highlight the peculiarity of this claim that the presence or absence of religion depends on how one defines the word religion.Consider the following: the debate on the consensus gentium had been so persistent through the centuries because fundamental problems of Christian doctrine were at stake. The basic terms of the debate – “Supreme Being,” “religion,” “worship,” “divine”... – were theoretical terms within this framework of Christian doctrine. Consequently, the meaning and reference of terms like “religion” and “worship” were constrained by the framework in which they were embedded: fundamentally, “religion” referred to humanity’s inclination and desire to worship the biblical God, and to the different forms this could take, from true Christianity to the worship of “sticks and stones.Therefore, whenever the empirical question was raised as to whether or not some people possessed religion, scholars could settle this only by taking recourse to this conceptual framework
This has an important implication. From the philosophy of science, we know that we have no access to facts but only to descriptions of facts, and that such descriptions are always structured by some conceptual framework. When early modern Europeans had concluded that some non-western people had religion and began to describe its religion, these descriptions were structured by the theological background framework. Yet, the resulting descriptions were soon mistaken for obvious facts about the world. This is indicated by the following striking fact: when there was agreement that some people say, “the Hindus” or “the Mayas” – had religion, this people could no longer be involved in debates about the consensus on the universality of religion (e.g. Craufurd 1790:4-5). One could challenge the consensus only by pointing to some newly discovered “tribes” about which such agreement had not yet been reached in Europe. 
Consequently, if these nineteenth-century thinkers had intended to critically examine the consensus about the cultural universality of religion, they would have to question all the dominant European descriptions of the “religions” of Asia, Africa and the Americas and fundamentally re-examine the relevant cultures. They could not just assume that these cultures had religion, since that conclusion had been reached by drawing on the theological framework and its conception of human nature, including the belief in the consensus gentium.

 They could not just accept the descriptions of “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” “Animism”... as facts, since these descriptions of the facts had been structured by the very same framework and its theoretical terms. The only way to move away from the earlier theological consensus was to once again involve all these cultures, and not just some exotic tribes, into the debate about the universality of religion. 
Instead of doing so, however, they re-defined one term within the larger framework and kept both this framework and its concomitant descriptions of the various “religions” of humanity stable. Eventually, this allowed them to conclude that there were no peoples without religion. Cognitively speaking, this move was economic, but it also came with a heavy price: that of accepting theological claims as theory-neutral anthropological facts. 
Let us illustrate this historically. When Lafitau or More addressed the question as to whether all human groups had religion, the nature of this object of religion was clear to them: religion was the awareness of God’s existence given by Him to humanity (and all too often corrupted later). Because of the absolute theological certainty that religion existed everywhere, European travellers saw its presence in all kinds of practices, stories, and texts they encountered in other parts of the world. A variety of terms from Asian and African traditions were translated as “God” or “Supreme Being” or “Deity,” since it was indubitable that these people had some awareness of the biblical God. 

If no plausible equivalent was found, scholars stipulated that among the people in question the instinctive awareness of God had degenerated into spirit worship or something else. In short, a specific theoretical framework provided one with conceptual criteria to confirm the presence or absence of religion among certain alien cultures and gave structure to the resulting descriptions of these cultures.

What would happen, if this theological framework were to shift into the background and its doctrinal issues were transformed into anthropological questions? Suddenly, one no longer possessed the theological account about the original religion to establish its universality. At the same time, this framework had not been replaced with any new theory that identified the structure and properties of the object of religion. 

In other words, one lacked criteria to test its presence or absence in any given society. All one had left, were the term “religion,” certain commonsense notions about the object it referred to, and a whole body of descriptions of the “religions” of non-western cultures, all inherited from more than fifteen centuries of Christian theorizing.
These, I would like to suggest, were the conditions under which Tylor, Tiele, and their contemporaries approached the issue at hand. They no longer said that all human beings had a sense of the biblical God, for this was an explicitly theological claim. But they were even less open to challenging the belief in the cultural universality of religion, since this piece of theology had been ingrained in the western common sense. As in previous centuries, the “fact” of universality was restored through repetition. Instead of the great orator, the historian (Tiele) and the anthropologist (de Quatrefages) became the experts who had established this once and for all.6
Early in the twentieth century, a phrase appeared that would replace Cicero’s claim as the new truism: “Man is incurably religious.” The phrase, taken from Auguste Sabatier (1903:6), led authors from all disciplines to grand claims about humanity. Comparative religion discovered its truth and suggested that religion was a psychological necessity: “Man is religious before he is fully aware of the fact” (Jordan 1905:337). The educationalist could not agree more: “Man is alone the religious animal, and he cannot escape the demand of religion until he escapes from his deepest self” (King 1908:103). Historians, psychologists and others reproduced the same words: “Man is a worshiping animal; he is ‘incurably religious’” (Barton 1919:3).7
Jakob asks, can we cure the incurable?

From the foregoing, we can conclude that a genuine scientific debate about the cultural universality of religion never occurred in western scholarship, because the terms of description and debate had been set by a theological background framework. A constitutive element of this framework was the presupposition that all nations had some form of religion. Over decades and centuries, the dominant descriptions of the presumed “religions” of Asia, Africa and the Americas were purged of their explicitly theological content. More empirical anomalies were pointed out: scholars showed that belief and doctrine were not central in some religions; others pointed out that many religions had no creeds, sacred scriptures, ecclesiastical structures, or organized modes of worship. 

In response to such anomalies, new ad hoc modifications also followed: the term “religionand its cognates became increasingly more “flexible” as the term was defined in more encompassing ways. It was added that there were different kinds of religion and that we should not map all religions on the model of Christianity. Nonetheless, the basic conceptual structure of the descriptions of non-western religions remained in place. This can be inferred from the fact that western scholars and laymen continued to speak and write of “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” “Bantu religion,” “Hopi religion” ... as though it was self-evident that such entities existed. For those non-western peoples concerning whom agreement had emerged at some point in the history of western scholarship that they did have religion, this agreement was not to be disputed again.
 Except for a few, including, notably Balu.  Balu's challenge is presented as follows:

Which are the theoretical or empirical criteria that allow us to test and demonstrate the presence of religion in some culture, without already presupposing that this culture has religion? To define “religion” in some encompassing way and suggest that it exists wherever there is belief in “spiritual beings” or “supernatural agency” is to evade this issue. The problem is not that of finding terms, definitions and descriptions sufficiently vague to encompass all entities that we believe to be religions. Instead, we are challenged to re-examine the extant descriptions of the presumed “religions” of Asia, Africa and the Americas, in order to demonstrate that these religious entities exist and that these descriptions are not dependent on theological foundations.
 The next problem which Jakob illustrated with facility is that the evolutionary biologists have taken these supposedly scientific findings of the universality of religion, lock-stock and barrel.

Let us briefly illustrate this. In his work on the evolutionary landscape of religion, Scott Atran (2002:52) states the following “fact” as self-evident: 
In all religions, and thus in all societies, people believe that agents unseen have intentionally generated the world we see. God created the world for us on purpose and knows what is true. Given that people believe in truthful and purposive supernatural agents, they are able to sanctify the moral order and hold the group to commitment (italics added). 
This claim is problematic. It is untrue that in all societies, people believe that invisible agents have intentionally generated the visible world. In some cultures, the various accounts of the origin of the world conceive of the world as the unintentional result of some sequence of events or acts. In the Indian traditions, for instance, there are several such accounts; Jains even deny any possibility of a creation of the universe or creator god (Balagangadhara 1994:398-412). Yet, Atran (2002:53) insists that all societies explain the world in terms of the supernatural establishment of order from the midst of primordial chaos. The order that is established derives from the thoughts and intentions of divine beings.”

How has Atran come to such generic but false statements about all societies? His facts derive from the way in which Christian-theological reflection has systematically conceptualized the “religions” and “gods” of non-western cultures over the centuries. The idea that the deities of all such religions were taken by their followers to be invisible agents who intentionally created and governed the world was central to the concept of “false religion.” In true religion, it was said, believers knew that the true God was the sole creator and sovereign of the universe, whose divine will governed all that was. In contrast, the followers of false religion did not realize this and mistakenly attributed the capacity to rule the world to certain creatures and worshipped these as divine beings. According to this theological explanation, these gods were false (among other reasons) because it was wrongly believed that their intentions governed the world and caused its events. This was essential to the theological notion of “false gods.” This notion gave structure to early modern European conceptions of non-western religions,which systematically described their “gods” or “deities” as intentional agents whose purposes are supposedly expressed in natural events (David Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757) is a well-known example).

While Atran renounces the terminology of “false gods,” he reproduces this notion by arguing that, in all religions and societies, people believe that agents unseen have intentionally generated the visible world. He is not alone here. Other authors of biological explanations of religion similarly give great importance to the “fact” that people in all religions believe that natural events are caused by the intentional agency of supernatural beings (Barrett 2000:31, Boyer 2001:144-8, Dennett 2006:114-7).
Jakob concludes:

When the evolutionary theorists of the twenty-first century appeal to the work of earlier scholars to assert the universality of religion, they are not giving any other evidence except what people in the West have believed to be the case for centuries. It is time for us to realize that something strange has happened. With appropriate modifications, the Christian theologian’s claim of consensus gentium has ensconced itself in western common sense in the form of the widespread intuition that religion is universal across all human societies. Many contemporary theorists of religion take this intuition as a given. “There is an innate sense of divinity in men” says one; “yes, but in the form of memes or genes,” says the other. If we really intend our study of religion to be scientific, then we shall have to critically re-examine the facts inherited from fifteen centuries of Christian-theological reflection about humanity.
My end-note:  one could easily take Balu and Jakob to be thinkers of one school and dismiss them. But when a philosopher, Grünbaum, from an entirely different direction takes on the "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and shows that the question is intelligible only in the context of Christian doctrine - and yet this question engages even the physicists of today,  it is quite illustrative of the unexamined philosophical ideas that underlie today's "common sense".

Further, I do request anyone who claims that "the science of cultural anthropology has shown that religion is universal"  or argues about "too narrow definitions" to show where in the timeline above it is that science intervened, and decided on empirical grounds that religion is universal.