Gregory Dawes gained his first graduate degree at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1988) before completing PhDs in Biblical Studies (1995) and Philosophy (2007). His earlier work examined the challenges to belief that arose from the historical study of Christian origins. This led him to the study of the relations between science and religion and, more generally, of the various ‘modes of thought’ found across cultures. His recent books include Galileo and the Conflict between Religion and Science (Routledge, 2016), Religion, Philosophy and Knowledge (Palgrave Pivot, 2016), and Deprovincializing Science and Religion (Cambridge Elements, 2021). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
When hearing the phrase ‘comparative philosophy of religion’, you may think of a comparison of major religious traditions, in particular the ‘big five’: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Such comparisons are surely valuable. But in the context of the longue durée of human history, religions of this kind are in the minority. They resemble each other insofar as each has been reshaped (in varying degrees) by the ‘axial age’ revolutions in human thought. These revolutions led to a distinction between divinity and what came to be known as the ‘natural world,’ coupled with a strong focus on individual ethical behavior with a view to an otherworldly salvation or liberation. For most of their history, human beings have lived in communities whose religious practices had a very different character. We can understand this difference by way of a distinction that has recently become influential in the study of religion. It is that between transcendentalist and immanentist forms of religiosity.
This distinction has been popularized by the work of Alan Strathern and Marshall Sahlins. But its earliest use appears to have been in the work of Iwao Munakata, a scholar of Japanese ‘folk religion.’ For Munakata, the indigenous religious practices of Japan were characterized by a conviction that ‘although the gods reside in the world of souls, they have ready access to this world’, engaging in ‘continual intercourse with village life.’ Divinity is represented by such practices as immanent in the world.
Strathern’s development of this idea generalizes it, setting out ten characteristics of immanentist religion. These include a ‘promiscuous attribution of personhood,’ a pragmatic orientation towards collective flourishing in the here and now, gods (or ‘metapersons’) whose activities are characterized by power rather than ethics, and little interest in questions of ‘belief.’ In all these respects, immanentist religions can be contrasted with ‘transcendentalist’ ones (like the ‘big five’). Transcendalist religions restrict the range of entities to whom personhood is attributed, are oriented towards ‘otherworldly’ and individual rather than collective goals, have a strong ethical component, and develop of bodies of doctrine.
Strathern’s important insight is that even transcendentalist religions retain significant elements of immanentist practice. In medieval Europe, for example ‘people continued to populate their environment with a multitude of sprites, ghosts, goblins, witches, demons, [and] tree spirits,’ while Roman Catholic practices became merged with ideas that their opponents regarded as magical. Foremost among those opponents were the Protestant Reformers, whose movement can be regarded as an effort to purge Christianity of its immanentism, an effort that seems doomed to failure. Pentecostal Christianity, for instance, has returned to forms of religious practice that bear some of the marks of immanentism.
My suggestion is that a comparative philosophy of religion should broaden its scope to include the more purely immanentist forms of religiosity. There are already a few examples of this, such as the recent volume on Animism and Philosophy of Religion, edited by Tiddy Smith. But as Smith himself notes, this is an outlier in the field. So we need more works of this kind. Including immanentist forms of religiosity in the scope of our work would enrich the philosophy of religion in a number of ways.
A first is that such ‘religions’ – the term is not helpful here, since these forms of religiosity are neither institutionalized nor set apart from everyday life – have little interest in matters of belief, and even less in systems of theology. To ask of practitioners what they ‘believe’ is unlikely to yield a consistent picture. So a study of immanentist religiosity will involve abandoning the conception of religion that thinks of its defining feature as belief. Immanentist religiosity is primarily a matter of practice, with ‘beliefs’ (in the sense of ways in which practices are understood) being varying and context-dependent. To understand such ‘religions’ philosophically, we will need to reflect on their practices. What do such practices do? What effect do they seek to have? What is their value?
A second important feature of such religions is that they are (in Strathern’s words) ‘empirical, pragmatic, and experimental.’ Philosophers are fond of saying that religious beliefs have a low degree of empirical content, being largely unfalsifiable. But because the focus of immanentist religious practices is well-being in the ‘here and now,’ practitioners can assess the efficacy of those practices. If they are apparently failing – if children die, crops do not grow, or animals do not flourish – the practice (and the ‘beliefs’ that go with it) may be abandoned. The anthropologist Joel Robbins cites a story from Papua New Guinea in which the arrival of Christianity resulted in elders putting the new religion to the test. They planted two gardens, treating one with Christian prayer and the other with traditional incantations. Some Polynesian peoples even had rituals for getting rid of gods that were judged to be no longer useful.
Finally, a focus on immanentist ‘religions’ can remind us of the separability of religion and ethics. The gods of immanentist societies are not particularly ethical, even by the standards of the society that interacts with them. Plato, for example, proposed censoring Homer and Hesiod because of the ways in which they depicted the behaviour of the gods. Gods of this kind are characterized primarily in terms of their power to bring about certain effects. Nor are immanentist notions of the afterlife associated with morality. While practically all peoples assume that humans continue to exist (for a period, at least) after their death, immanentist societies do not link this assumption with the idea of post-mortem reward or punishment.
It was not uncommon for Christian missionaries, when encountering immanentist religious practice, to deny that these peoples had a religion at all, so different was it from the religions with which they were familiar. My fellow philosophers may not be pleased by the suggestion, but their focus on the ‘big five’ religions (or, more commonly, just one of these) suggests they may share this missionary prejudice.