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

4.2. The Differentiation of Religion

“There can never have been a state of society in which every communication was religious communication. In such circumstances, religious communication would not have been distinguishable; it would moreover have been impossible to signify it as religious. If there is religious communication, there always has to be nonreligious communication as well” (Luhmann 2013a, 133). This difference-theoretical approach is an argument, first, against the assumption of a pan-sacrality, according to which all societal development had its beginning in religion; for instance—though already requiring an advanced society—in the shape of theocracy and temple economy. (1) Second, a consequence of this approach is that religion differentiates from general societal evolution. The take-off of religion consists of identifying topics in its specific environment and transforming them into specific religious information. This equals output 1 that stimulates processor 1 and founds the system/environment differentiation in the system being modeled in the chapter on system-theoretical foundation of evolutionary theory (cf. Figure 1, above). Topics are fluid, frequently change and therefore are difficult to control, as elementary face-to-face interactions and social gatherings still demonstrate today. Religion, therefore, exposes itself to strong environmental influences by topic-based differentiation. The reason for other-referential orientation is that religion at the early evolutionary stage still cannot systematically differentiate—from a system-theoretical perspective—between self-reference and other-reference as well as—from an evolutionary perspective—between variation and selection. The evolving religious system, therefore, uses environmental conditions for building up structures, which it could not perform from within itself. The environmental conditions religion is exposed to consist of societal processes, of mental perceptions, and—mediated by them—of physical as well as organic processes. Hence, for a long period of religious evolution a mode of evidence exists, which coordinates communicative processes with mental and—mediated by them—organic as well as physical processes, without systematically differentiating between self-reference and other-reference as well as between variation and selection. (2)

Other-referential orientation of religion towards the perception of psychic systems enhances the chance of supernatural semioticized powers to emerge and to become imaginable—particularly anthropomorphized (Guthrie [1993] 1995) and embodied in material objects that have an agency of their own; for instance, as special powers, objects, ancestors, spirits as well as goddesses and gods. (3) One of the most crucial paradoxes of religion consists in the fact that one cannot directly see, hear, smell, and touch everything that has an effect and therefore cannot behave in an ordinary everyday manner towards those powers. To interact with sacred powers, they are averted by embodying and sensualizing them in the shape of specific images, objects, and behavior. This applies to the early stage of religious evolution and equally so for the kind of modern-era religion that is strongly oriented towards other-reference with regard to mental, organic, and material processes and states (Houtman and Meyer 2012; Pintchman and Dempsey 2015).

Religion initially experiments with distinctions that are rather unspecific and therefore not appropriate for internal stabilization, such as invisible/visible, beyond/here, (4) desensualization/sensualization, disembodiment/embodiment, unfamiliar/familiar, secret/public, and guilt/expiation or atonement. Because of the topic-based differentiation oriented alongside other-reference, the evolving religious system must discipline itself and restrict the abundance in variation, which evolves through considering unbridled mental imagination in religious communication. This happens via the re-entry of distinctions such as those mentioned within themselves on the side of immanence (in this world, in the familiar, in the embodiment, etc.). (5) For the evolving religious system, the following also applies: There is no information from the outside. Religion must, but also can autopoietically begin in the unconditional, yet determinable world and build up recursions. To discipline itself, religion forms a specific code, which controls the re-entry of distinctions on the one side of the distinction and may include the previous, unspecific differentiations and determine them religiously. So far, the theoretically most plausible and empirically evident candidate for the evolutionary formation of a specific religious code, the differentiation transcendent/immanent comes into question (Pollack 1995; Luhmann 2013a, 40–82; Kleine 2012; 2016). Formally speaking, this distinction is at work in communication in general and—as a second-order distinction—in religion in paricular. Both societal communication and religion are a matter of transcending—not just, and indeed with regard to the history of religions, generally not at all in the sense of the Christian-Western temporal and spatial symbolization of transcendence, but in a universal, modal-theoretical and epistemological sense, namely as the reference to something not in the sphere of experience of here and now. This is due to the transcending character of language as the elementary medium of communication(Rentsch 2003). And this may be the highest common denominator of what philosophical anthropology (especially Helmuth Plessner [1975]), the socio-phenomenologically oriented sociology (Alfred Schütz [1932, 109], Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann [1966,1967] as well as Hans-Georg Soeffner [1991, 2010]) and the pragmatic theory of religion (Joas [2008]) understand by the term transcendence. But social systems, too, have an “immanent transcendence of perception”(Luhmann 1971, 31). Based on this general conceptualization, there are many ways of transcending apart from religion: sign processes in general, history, sociality (the consciousness of alter ego), ideal perception of order, future, dreams, surprising events, the arts, etc. (6) If one does not distinguish between the principle of transcendence in general and its religious characteristic as transcendence of transcendence (7), then everything outside one’s immediate experience of the here and now is religious, or to use the German idiom: ‘All cats are grey by night’. (8)

With regard to the empirical data, it makes sense to distinguish the kind of reference to transcendence called religion from other kinds in the following manner: religion has to deal with the question of how to designate transcendence, which, in principal, cannot be represented in normal experience, with immanent means—i. e. how the absent can be transformed into the present, the unavailable into the available, the not depictable into the depictable or, by means of the theory of communication, the unspeakable into the speakable. (9) This way, religion manages the task of “transferring the indeterminacy and the indeterminateness of the world horizon into determinacy, or at least into approachable determinability” (Luhmann 1972, 11). Hence, the religion-specific distinction transcendent/immanent is systematically tied to the societal function of ultimately coping with undetermined contingency. The special feature of religion only consists in the combination of both determinative elements, and, in turn, the coping with undetermined contingency and the distinction transcendent/immanent are exclusively designated as religious in the systematic connection.

To make transcendence, which is unavailable in principal, available is, of course, paradoxical (10) and—more permanently—unachievable. Mysticism, for example, is a form of religion that again and again draws attention to this paradox (Luhmann and Fuchs 1989). Following the tendency towards transcendence, religion would have to completely volatilize itself so that consequently—in any case “as an eminently social thing” (Durkheim [1912] 1995, 9)—it would not exist any longer, and society would not have a form of ultimately coping with undetermined contingency at its disposal any more. Religion can internally develop and support itself in societal communication by designating transcendence with immanent means. The necessary tropical character of religious communication results from this. The main reason is that the transcendent (the absent—in whatever semantic designation), which religious communication refers to, is not communicable itself and therefore needs to be designated with immanent (known, present) means. In religious communication, issues that are said to be new and different (e. g. subjective perception that cannot be communicatively covered with established schemes of experience) are made communicable with recourse to the known, i. e. the unfamiliar is translated into the familiar. This way, religion can take topics from the social environment and label them with specific religious sense. Religion treats the problem of how to transform the unobservable (i. e. indistinguishable) into something observerable (i. e. determinable). Following Luhmann (2013a, 24), I locate “the source of the problems treated as forms of religious meaning and exposed to evolution in this domain of unobservability where observation and the world (as a precondition of observation) cannot be distinguished (in the ‘unmarked state’). […] Religion has to do this with the inclusion of the excluded, the presence of an absence that is first objectified then localized and universalized.”

Besides topic-based differentiation, situational differentiation occurs within religious evolution. It brings along an initial self-specification of religion. This means that religious communication proceeds under certain spatio-temporal conditions. Religion binds itself to certain places and times, within which intensive religious experiences are communicatively addressed, evoked, and updated. This is the beginning of rituals and ritual complexes in the form of cults. Religious rituals are the earliest form of religious self-centering and still belong to this very day to religion’s most constant forms (Durkheim 1995; Rappaport 1999). Ritual communication consists of temporally and/or spatially exceeding a liminality (Turner [1969] 1977) as well as of jointly and reciprocally observed perception of objects, bodies, and events as “quasi-objects”. (11) Quasi-objects are structural links between religious communication and its mental, organic, and physical environment. For religious communication, the communicatively addressed material side of quasi-objects serves as a “material anchor” (Hutchins 2005). Quasi-objects are a functional equivalent for narratives that are to be remembered, serve as additional safeguards of remembrance, or help to generate narratives. Religion remains strongly and situatively bound, if it depends on cults, but one can clearly distinguish religious and everyday relevant contexts in situational differentiation: If the oracle has bad news, the world of gods must be propitiated via ritual; if one does not have the tools for performing the ritual at hand, one needs to procure them.

By establishing self-referential religious rituals, there develops a need to reform the other-reference. It is covered by the development of narratives (in research mostly called myths (12)). The formation of narratives is stimulated by ritualization. They are “a semantic construction parallel to a boundary that must be (ritually) performed as a ‘liminal phenomenon’. It was a guideline for differences that can then be used in narratives in order to contrast present time and the reason for the ritual with something else” (Luhmann 2013a, 136). Narratives are part of the formation of religion as a societal subsystem differentiating itself from its environment: “the identity of a traditional tale, including myth, independent as it is from any particular text or language and from direct reference to reality, is to be found in a structure of sense within the tale itself” (Burkert 1979, 5). However, religious narratives are related to the other-referential environment, which religion gains its semantic energy from, and transfer it into system-relevant information. This happens via distinctions such as cosmos/chaos, birth/death, origin/presence, abundance/lack, immortal/mortal, pure/impure, soul/body, sexless/sexual, gods/titans or heroes—or more generally: continuity/metamorphosis. Narratives gain relevance, if self-referential religious communication becomes in need of meaning within the communicative environment; i. e. the performance of religion and/or its societal function becomes questionable for other social systems and the society, respectively. Narratives contain ascriptions of events to supernatural and human actors in the shape of actions as well as the sequential passage of time and therefore facilitate the formation of analogies, notably transmitting „the wisdom of myths in situations of daily life" (Luhmann 2013a, 136). This process equals the output 2 of the modeled system described in the system-theoretical chapter (cf. Figure 1, above). The output of narratives serves as the starting point for further system-internal processes of religion, or is released into its environment, where it can be taken up as an offer of meaning (e. g., by the political system, or by psychic systems). The fact that rituals belong to the self-reference of religion and narratives to its other-reference explains why the perfomance of rituals, though not fixed, is rather norm-oriented and redundant, whereas narratives (including the explanation of rituals) are rather abundant in variation, “because it would not make sense to standardize environmental circumstances that could not be influenced”(Luhmann 2013a, 137). The evolutionary advantage of self-referential situational differentiation in the shape of rituals for religion is based on the opportunity to bind itself to places and times, without having to primarily orientate itself along topically varying environmental conditions.

The coordination of other-referential topic-based differentiation and self-referential situational differentiation causes a deeper need for institutional regulation. The more transcendence becomes thematic, the higher the need for mediating the two sides of the emerging distinction between transcendence and immanence, as well as the need for social regulation of what can be regarded as transcendent is. This need is first satisfied by the formation of specific roles. With increasing institutional differentiation, redundancy and variance must equally be secured ritually and narratively. Rituals are made flexible by narratives, and narratives are specified by ritual performance. Religious roles especially are responsible for this (in relevant literature called, for instance, sorcerer, shaman, priest, manticist, prophet, master, or founder of a religion). The evolving religious system establishes a double distinction via this form of social differentiation: between role (self-reference) and person (other-reference) as well as between specifically religious roles (self-reference) and differently attributed behavior (other-reference). (13) This double differentiation is evolutionary successful, because variance and redundancy, flexibility and stereotype can be equally ensured this way. Furthermore, institutional differentiation enables the accumulation of religious forms; for instance, prophets evolve from trance states, cosmology refers to the distinction between the visible and the invisible to accommodate the world beyond in this word, too, and narratives affect, in turn, organizational Change (14).

Moreover, reinforced medialization (including especially image- and text-based medialization) leads to the synthesis of action roles and narratives as well as cosmological programs. This happens, for instance, after the introduction of writing, in text-ritual-complexes or in text rituals. In this respect, texts function as more than mere ritual manuals in the sense of instructions for a ritual practice that is based on physical behavior with reference to objects. In fact, reciting and reading of respective texts themselves may function as ritual. In this case, ritual experts become literary actants as part of the plot structure of the text. From there, it is not far to the formation of religious doctrines and respective teachings so that ritual behavior, cognition, and everyday life can be coordinated with each other. (15)

With increasing organization, the religious system must refer to non-religious activities, include them into the system and designate them with religious interpretation; for instance, matters of administration, physical structures of buildings, exchange of services (later payments), coordination of personnel, and certain societal relations that are, however, external to the religious system. The system is now based on a twofold systemization, i. e. in both a sociostructurally and semantic regard. It arrives at a state of “double closure” (Luhmann 2013a, 139 referencing Foerster 1984, 305), with a restabilized system differentiation as a consequence. “On the one hand, the operations were determined in view of the current state of the system and of their capacity to connect with the system. On the other, their orientation derived from a construction of the world aligned with the system. There transitions were carefully monitored, and inconsistencies were avoided (if possible) or depicted as merely ostensible contradictions” (Luhmann 2013a, 139). Consistency is achieved by no longer facing opposites such as chaos/cosmos, death/birth, light/darkness, etc. as paradoxes, but including them into a unifying cosmology. This leads to initial approaches of dogmatics, which does not limit religious cognition to only other-referential narratives any more, but rather forms reinforced self-referential concept complexes in difference to everyday life experiences. Besides ritual-oriented behavior, religious cognition also gets into the side of self-reference, which, in turn, reinforces the differentiation of religion. (16) By intensified system formation, religion draws its own boundaries between itself and its environment. In this condition, religion by means of self-observation, and regardless of externally given topics, situations and roles, starts to make decisions itself concerning the question, which operations belong to the system and which are not part of it (Figure 4). With reinforced coordination between other-reference and self-reference, something occurs, which organization theory likes to call “uncertainty absorption” (17): Other-referentially oriented narratives and cosmologies draw certain conclusions from the environment of the evolving religious system. However, self-referentially directed rituals and other religious institutions then no longer base their follow-on operations on the other-referentially perceived issue, but rather only on the conclusions that are drawn from narratives and cosmologies. In the restabilized state, religion proceeds under the condition of system-internal epistemic openness but is operatively closed towards the environment. It emancipates itself from direct external determination of its eigenstate and only engages in such structural couplings with its environment „that channel those disturbances (and exclude others) that are treated as irritations in the system and thus reworked into manageable information" (Luhmann 2013a, 141).

By stabilizing via semantic and social differentiation in the form of cults, roles, and narratives coordinated to each other as well as cosmologies, it becomes possible for the religious system to systematically distinguish between variation and selection and to coordinate those two evolutionary mechanisms. In this evolutionary condition, however, the religious system does not manage to systematically separate selection from restabilization. First, this is because religions of advanced civilizations provide the society with a complete description, which makes it difficult for the society to acknowledge and communicatively process the differentiation of religion. “Society accepted religion’s positing of the world [Weltsetzung]” (Luhmann 2013a, 142). Second, religion in this condition is oriented by the principle of stratified societal differentiation, which is situated transversely to functional differentiation. Then, religion interacts with other societal domains (particularly: politics, law, economy, science, education, health, and arts), within which selection and system stabilization are intertwined in many ways; for instance, with regard to politics as the ruler cult in the ancient world (Brisch 2008) and as relation between imperium and sacerdotium in the European Middle Ages (18), with reference to the arts in the financial patronage of artistic production (Russell-Smith 2005), concerning health as strong interaction between and partially as symbiosis of, ritual and medical techniques (Csepregi and Burnett 2012; Zysk 1991; Stanley-Baker 2012) as well as in the case of education as influence of religious educational institutions (cf., for instance, Christian:Wood 2005; Muslim: Pedersen and Makdisi 1986). The lack of systematic differentiation of selection and destabilization is not only but significantly due to the fact that religion for a long time is directed along and embedded in the two most important collective forms of segmented and stratified societal structure: in the political community (polity) and in the family/kinship/clan(Malina 1986). (19) Religion only achieves the systematic differentiation between selection and restabilization as soon as it orientates itself based on the principle of functional differentiation (and possibly is stimulated to do so by environmental adaption).

If the three pairs of differentiation mentioned in the system-theoretical chapter (sacred/profane, transcendent/immanent, and religious/secular) are related to the theory of societal differentiation, we are able to realize the following correspondencies:

  • The ascription form of action (above all ritual) proceeds within the distinction sacred/profane and corresponds to topic-based, situational, and role differentiation of archaic and advanced societal structures.
  • The ascription form knowledge as cognitive differentiation rationalities of various social domains corresponds to stratified societies—in cases where religion occurs as system formation based on the distinction transcendent/immanent.
  • The ascription form experience/attitude as behavior of persons towards the rationalities of societal subsystems under the condition of reinforced attribution to persons (individualization) within the functionally differentiated society—in the case of religion as faith and subjective experience in contrast to differently determined convictions and experiences. ( 20 )

However, the analytically differentiated dimension of acting, knowledge and experience/attitude cannot be pulled apart to such extent that the respective components find themselves isolated from one another. Knowledge, acting and experience/attitude as different forms of communicative attribution reciprocally refer to each other in socio-cultural reality. Accordingly, religion in its pronounced form also consists of the interplay between knowledge, experience/attitude, and action provided with religious meaning—and not least the recourse on media and materiality, which as well can be provided with religious meaning. (21) Regarding the relation between knowledge and action, various determinations of the relation between narratives, doctrines, and dogmas (knowledge) as well as ritual and the conduct of life (action) are relevant in the history of religions. Concerning the semioticization of materiality, it is of particular importance whether objects are instrumentally (other-referentially) used as media in religious communication or whether they receive a religious meaning themselves, i. e. function as religious media (self-referentially)—as in the form of the concept called fetish, or in the case of image-related communication as unity of the depicting and the depicted (22). The analytical pattern of the attribution forms of knowledge, experience, materiality, and action may help describe the various figurations of differentiation (including its absence und de-differentiation) and coordination of the three evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection, and (re)stabilization.

The words written here, when read, are a part of communication—even though they may be assessed as nonsense and rejected. Therefore, the combination of the system-theoretical discription of religion and the theory of religious evolution is to be integrated in a communication-theoretical framework. This is the only way the performance conditions of the research program as well as of its object can be considered. Therefore, the next chapter is devoted to the communication-theoretical framework

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