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

5.3. Religion as a Semiotic System

Against the backdrop of the considerations on semiotics, the question of what constitutes a complete religious sign as the elementary unit of religion is to be dealt with. The general semiotic code must be specified so that religion can distinguish itself (and be distinguished) from other forms of semiosis and fulfill its societal function of ultimately coping with undetermined contingency. In its differentiated form, religion is based on the code transcendent/immanent in order to proceed systemically, to distinguish itself from other social subsystems, and to fulfill its social function of ultimately coping with undetermined contingency. In accordance with the assumption that the religious code in nuce comprises all that is necessary for religious communication (as is the case with the genetic code for organic development), the binary distinction together with its mediating unity must be found in the religious code. Taking the distincions between self-reference and other-reference as well as between transcendence and immanence, including their unity, into consideration, the complete religious sign can be modeled as follows:

Any specific semiosis “needs to start from exceeding a representamen” (Leone 2014, S50). A religious sign system therefore begins with the representamen of a previous sign form (R1). As the sign system is in the process of being formed, the representamen R1 has the value of immanence. However, it only becomes an immanent sign element through the closure in the direction of self-referential transcendence with the value of I1; designating something as immanent only makes sense in connection with transcendence. The self-referential closure based on the code transcendent/immanent is the first system-constitutive distinction. If, as a result, the sign system is determined to be religious, the paradigmatic opening to the second system level must also be based on the religious code. It occurs, however, in the direction of the value of other-referential transcendence. This is the first step of the emergence of religious information as a metaphorical translation of the metonymic transcription. This is where the forming religious sign system takes the path to the other-referential unity of transcendence and immanence. The sign object O1 has this value, because on the one hand, it is the result of the metonymic inclusion of transcendence, but on the other hand, it opens other-referentially towards the immanence. This paradigmatic reopening towards the position of the other-referential immanence completes the second step of the emergence of religious information as the translation of the transcription—that is, the difference of a difference. Eventually, the other-referential immanence at the semiotic position of O2 is transferred to the self-referential unity of transcendence and immanence at the position of R2.

As soon as the religious sign system is closed, the closure process can retrospectively be outlined as follows: The representamen of the observing sign form (R2) is the point of transformation between the distinction of system and environment (Scheibmayr 2004, 283). In the case of a religious sign, it ensures the self-referential unity of transcendence and immanence. The representamen R2 signifies the sign object O2, in the place of which the other-referential immanence is to be located. The interpretant of the sign form (I2) mediates between the representamen R2 and the sign object O2. As it is a religious sign, it is the other-referential transcendence that can be found in the place of the interpretant I2, because I2 is pragmatic and context-sensitive. The representamen R1 and the interpretant I1 of the observed religious sign content together process the self-referential code transcendent/immanent. Located at the position of the sign object of the observed sign content (O1) is the other-referential unity of the distinction between transcendence and immanence. This unity is objectified, because it is observed by the sign form. It is other-referential, because it always refers to a dynamic object in the environment to which the semiotic system, via the immediate sign object, can only ever approach. (20) If individual signs are components of a self-referential organization as a “semantic closure” (Pattee 2012), they are determined in a complete religious sign as religious. In this model—as with the model of the general complete sign—it must be taken into account that the sign components are in a state of permanent oscillation, and their semantification can therefore also change their values. It is only on this basis that semiosis can remain flexible and enable follow-on operations. In addition, the two components of the religious code, in principle, refer to one another. Transcendence exists only as the reflection value of immanence, and immanence, in turn, can only come about in connection with transcendence. The model presented in Figure 9, therefore, represents only a snapshot of an oscillating process.

An example may help to show how a specific religious sign comes about. An observer (that might be any semiotic entity, e. g., a text, or a sequence in an oral conversation, where a person communicates a respective information) observes the following:

  • HERE is a CHURCH. (Contexture 1) (21)
  • A PERSON enters the CHURCH. (Contexture 2)
  • The PERSON speaks a PRAYER. (Contexture 3)

According to the semiotic model outlined above, the three contextures have the following position:

The indication HERE is, aside from the fact that THERE is not indicated, initially indeterminate. It only indicates presence and can refer to anything. A first clarification is made by the reference to A CHURCH. But A CHURCH is still not determined semantically and pragmatically either. It could, for example, refer to a sign on a map or to a statement made during a guided tour for tourists. With the statement “A PERSON enters the CHURCH” the case starts to be closed. The CHURCH’‘is now determined as a building that PEOPLE can walk into. However, its closer determination remains undefined. If the PERSON is, for example, an ART HISTORIAN who would like to carry out restoration work on frescoes in the CHURCH, the CHURCH becomes a PLACE TO PRACTICE ART-HISTORY. It is only the subsequent and final contexture “The PERSON speaks a PRAYER” that determines the CHURCH as a SACRED SPACE. At the same time, CHURCH’ is determined as a triadic sign in this case: as a concept of SACRED SPACE (thirdness), as a PHYSICAL BUILDING (secondness) and as a notion of ​​a church with certain QUALITATIVE CHARACTERISTICS (firstness).

The example illustrates the oscillation between the syntactic closing and opening as well as between immanence and transcendence actualized in religious semantics (Figure 11). The sign component HERE is semantically open in its own right, it can activate anything. The syntagmatic closure begins with the relation to the sign element A CHURCH’. But it is not yet determined either. The following relation between the two interpretants, A CHURCH’, and A PERSON’, is a paradigmatic opening, because A CHURCH’, though determined by HERE, can be connected to many things. (22) Opening means that A PERSON’ is also semiotically open; it can behave in many ways and does not necessarily have to be related to A CHURCH’. The syntagmatic closure of the relation that follows makes THE CHURCH’‘semantically unambiguous, because it determines it as a BUILDING ONE CAN ENTER. The subsequent paradigmatic opening points at the sign THE PERSON’’, which can, once again, BEHAVE in various ways. The final syntagmatic closure folds in the other sign components and makes the final sign complete. A PRAYER as the representamen of the observing sign form determines the entire sign system in religious terms.

The semiotic syntax is linked to the semantification of the religious code in the following way: HERE has the value of self-referential immanence, which is related to the religious code via A CHURCH. The sign of A CHURCH occupies the value of self-referential transcendence and thereby gains potentially religious significance. The sign A PERSON has the value of other-referential transcendence, which bears a relation of other-referential closure to the value of the other-referential unity of transcendence and immanence. This is the value of the sign THE CHURCH’‘. This sign merges transcendence with immanence insofar as THE CHURCH’‘is, on the one hand, enclosed by transcendence and, on the other, it is immanent in other-referential terms, as it refers to a PHYSICAL BUILDING. The path of the emerging religious sign system then leads to the sign THE PERSON’‘via the second paradigmatic opening. As a reference to the PSYCHE or the MENTAL BEHAVIOR of THE PERSON’‘, this sign occupies the position of other-referential immanence and is transferred to the self-referential unity of transcendence and immanence via a system-referential closure process. The sign A PRAYER, which takes this position, folds in and completes all elements of the sign system and defines them in religious terms. Accordingly, A CHURCH’ in the sign object function on the left sign triad is defined as a SACRED BUILDING with an other-reference to the physical environment, in the interpretant function of the observed sign content it is determined as a SACRED SPACE in the sense of a religious space concept, and in the representamen function of the right triad it is defined as the quality of a SACRED SPACE—in this example as a quality that invites PERSONS to engage in religious behavior in the form of PRAYER.
Readers may surmise that all this is only ‘plain’ or ‘dull’ theory or even mere speculation. What is the relationship between empirical analysis and a theoretic model, between religion and its scientific description? The following chapter is devoted to this question.

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