THERE – Theory and Empiricism of Religious Evolution: Foundation of a Research Program

5.1. General Communication-Theoretical Considerations

“What happens in the heads of the uncountable individuals can never build up ‘religion’—except through communication” (Luhmann 1998, 137). Imagination, experiences, and actions of individual persons become only religion through utterance that generates follow-on operations of communication, through socially ensured ascription of something as part of the domain that is determined by the code transcendence/immanence. The terminologically reflexive, metonymically condensed, ascription is religion—including family resemblances of this term and respective attributes (Kleine 2010). Religion is a genuinely communicative matter. Equally, as language itself is not the sum of some phrases of people, religion does not evolve and perform in intersubjective communication, negotiation, or agreement. (1) It is rather socially generated and adopted by psyches through socialization and learning. The addressing of the organic and physical environment as religiously meaningful is also a matter of communication. A religious event, a religious theme, a religious object, a religious time, a religious space, a religious action, and a religious experience do not exist as such, but only in the respectively communicative determination (Taves 2009). Religion unfolds within the communicatively evolved and communicated distinctions between inside and outside (as the founding structuring of the semantic space), between the before and after (time) as well as between ego and alter ego (society) (Luhmann 1995c, 74–82).

From the communication-theoretical perspective, the epistemology of religion (as genitivus subiectivus and obiectivus) needs to be newly designed. First, it is not about the communication from human to human, but about communication, which, in the self-description, largely originates from transcendent beings and powers and addresses these, which, however, need to be communicated and depicted with immanent means. Second, religious communication itself comes to the fore instead of communication between actors (according to the sender-receiver model). Religious communication includes persons but addresses them in various ways (Kippenberg, Kuiper, and Sanders 1990). Therefore, persons, including their experiences, intentions and motifs, are not the starting point, but one among many forms of attribution of religious communication. “Not motifs explain societal differentiation, but societal differentiation explains motifs. Particularly in the case of religiously qualified motifs, nothing else applies” (Luhmann 1989, 344)

Based on the boom of action-theoretically directed approaches within the social sciences, it has become especially common to emphasize on the analyses of actors as well as their interests, motivations, and intentions within the fields of philology and cultural studies in general as well as within the study of religion in paricular. The question is, though, who and what counts as an actor, and under which circumstances is which event socially attributed to whom or what. From the perspective of the approach represented here, which primarily conceptualizes communications as events, which are out for communicative follow-on operations, it is not self-evident that the social attribution of the actor’s status is exclusively implemented on individual persons or collectives of persons. Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, and others justifiably draw attention to the fact that concepts and objects can be ‘quasi-subjects’ in communication. Therefore, on the contrary, individual and collective actors can be ‘quasi-objects’ in the sense of Michel Serres (1982b) und Bruno Latour (1993). (2)

In order to understand religion scientifically and to not only paraphrase it, advancing underneath the surface of the subject-object differentiation is due and to put the focus on the communication processes themselves. (3) A specific communication event constitutes an autonomous entity and generates a scope with the possibility to communicatively address events or parts of them as actions of actants. Actants are thus not the starting point for events, but a communicative product. The metalinguistic concept of agency refers to this. To understand communication as an autonomous agency means that it does not work out in the mere aggregation of individual expressions related to each other by individual actors. “If reproduced autopoietically though recursions, communications form an emergent reality sui genesis. Human beings cannot communicate; only communication can communicate. Like communication systems, consciousness systems (and brains, cells, and so on, on their other side) are operationally closed systems that can maintain no contact with one another. There is no nonsocially mediated communication from consciousness to consciousness and there is no communication between the individual and society” (Luhmann 2012, 57–58). This view is not only but especially relevant for the study of religion, because something very often happens in religious communication which, in the self-description, is not or at least not primarily and exclusively attributed to human actors. In the religious domain, one finds superhuman spiritual forces and beings (Tylor 1871, 5; Spiro 1966), including ghosts, demons, goddesses and gods or one single god, who are considered to act. If these were pure projections from consciousness (Feuerbach, Marx), one could not understand how the vigorous imaginations of different consciousnesses could get together. The metaphor of negotiation, taken from economics, or the metaphor of agreement, taken from law, contradict religious self-description and do not suffice to explain its scientific reconstruction. How should issues be negotiated or agreed upon that refer to the unconditional and ultimate? (4)

The perspective taken here does not exclude the consideration of human actors as forms of attribution but does not reduce the processes to them. Assuming an organic-mental-social unity called ‘human being’, the focus of communication in its autonomy gets lost while evolutionarily formed boundaries between mental, organic, and social processes are blurred. Moreover, the focus on processes of the negotiation of interests of individual actors reproduces all too often only object-linguistical semantics outside the religious and therefore prevents the possibility of analyzing religion. The “atomistic paradigm of sociality”, according to which sociality is conceptualized as the mere aggregation of single actions of single actors in contrast to a “relational approach” (Simmel 1989, esp. 130), enjoys great popularity within the study of religion, but contains above all epistemic aporia. This is because what is semantically and sociostructurally addressed as ‘human’, varies immensely contextually, historically, and in different cultural settings—not least in the history of religions (Kippenberg, Kuiper, and Sanders 1990; Assmann and Stroumsa 1999). (5) It is therefore questionable what is meant by ‘human actors’, and consequently, they cannot be made the starting point of scientific analysis. (6) Moreover, an “atomistic paradigm of sociality” leaves no space for the agency of religion; from this perspective, religion can only be structured as the mere imagination of actors (and from there it is not far to arrive at ideologically-critical ‘exposure’ of religion) or as an anthropological constant (7) (then, all people, who do not understand themselves as religious, must be missing a constitutive mode of human existence). Possibly, it is not a matter of the study of religion, but rather of the ‘study of humans’. (8) When in scientific description attribution is primarily or even exclusively directed to ‘human actors’, differentiation processes and relations cannot be focused on; neither those between socio-cultural reality and externalized nature nor those between societal subsystems with different system rationalities. What is addressed as a human being is always an amalgamation consisting of numerous and various systemic processes—of physical, chemical, organic, and psychic processes within the social environment. (9) From a sociological perspective, persons are entities of attribution of societal subsystems and social forms (Luhmann 1995a). Humans belong to the environment of society; if addressed with a focus on other-reference, they are each a bundle of role differentiations—or in the words of Georg Simmel (2009): “the intersection of social circles”—and become thematic only under certain aspects.

These considerations have important consequences for the scientific description of religion. The inner logic of the religious is not congruent with the interests of political power, with class-related status (such as age, sex, economic situation, ethnic and cultural belonging, etc.), economic profit, technical coping with everyday life matters, and so on. It does not even produce intersections with the issues mentioned above—unless the respective features become parts of religious communication and are transformed into religious meaning. Furthermore, it is not always clear within religion who or what is subject and object of the happening. (10) In order to understand religious communication, the subject-object scheme must be left behind and the operating mode of semiosis taken into consideration, which is dealt with in the next chapter.

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