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

1. Introduction


A new idea is rarely fully developed when it first occurs. [...] Indeed, when one reads an author’s first expression of an idea, one is usually surprised at how vague it is. Also it may be intermingled with extraneous or even contradictory elements” (Mayr 1982, 840).

“Is it that the incomprehensible can only be dissolved through the increase of intelligibility and ambiguousness at the same time?” (Luhmann 1981, 170).

How can a theory and empirical analysis of religious evolution be approached in a way that is timely, and therefore dependent on its time, i. e. being carried out having recourse to contingent, non-necessary, but also non-arbitrary truths? (1) This question is at least twofold. First, research on religion in the 19th and 20th centuries provided outlines of religious evolution which, in a series of stages, perceived a process which was partially teleological, and as such does not hold water (general: Luhmann 1975b, 195; regarding research on religion: Geertz 2015). (2) Second, quite a few scholars have disagreed upon the assumption in principle that religion actually exists as a societal domain of its own (McCutcheon 1997; King 1999; Fitzgerald 2000, 2007 ; Peterson and Walhof 2002 ; Dubuisson 2003 ; Masuzawa 2005). The first aforementioned problem can be approached, not by describing religious evolution as a sequence of stages, but as the emergence of “self-substitutive regulations” (3), an overlap of respectively new layers over old ones, without the old layers disappearing. Moreover, the reconstruction should not ab ovo be carried out in a chronological and linear sense, but as layers to be unfolded from today’s perspective, oscillating between the present and past in the sense of a retrospective genealogy (cf., regarding the genealogy of Islam, Schulze 2015, and of Buddhism, Berkwitz 2006). The second difficulty mentioned above refers to epistemological questions, research objectives, and the concept of the object. If the study of religion is reduced to deconstructing discourses about religion, the object of research is conceptualized differently compared to attempts to reconstruct religion itself, i. e. that what discourses about religion refer to. Due to the axiomatic differences, the debate about empirically adequate objectives of the study of religion will hardly be handled with arguments and respective empirical analyses. Therefore, the only possibility that remains is to create the plausibility of an object called religion and its evolution through the coherence of basic assumptions, empirical analyses, and the formation of a theory. Consequently, the theory of religious evolution is doubly dependent on itself (the theory of evolution) and its empirical object (religious evolution). The theory of religious evolution itself cannot be explained beyond its reconstruction. This problem is related to the question of the absolute beginning, which leads to the paradox of the unity of before and after (Luhmann 2013a, 155). Moreover, not all questions raised in reference to its objects may be answered by means of the theory of religious evolution. Therefore, a triangulation of the theory of evolution with the systems theory and the semiotically informed theory of communication seems appropriate ( Luhmann 1975b—though without reference to semiotics). These theories found, complement, and limit each other reciprocally. System-theoretical approaches have become more popular since quite some time in the study of religion.(4) It is even more so the case with evolutionary approaches (5), though less with the theory of communication (6). However, I am not aware of any approach, except for the one of Niklas Luhmann, which systematically relates all three theories to each other with respect to the research on religion. The following basic assumptions and explanations, due to the character of a research program, are kept rather thetic and abstract, but have been developed based on an abductive interaction between the formation of hypotheses and first empirical analyses. Furthermore, the theses are organized circularly and recursively as both the study of religion and its object proceed in this way. Therefore, I ask for the patience of the reader: redundancies are unavoidable, and not everything is immediately comprehensible. The following text unfolds fundamental paradoxes of religious evolution and its theoretical coverage as well as leading to both.

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