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4.2. The Differentiation of Religion
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  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 ), 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 ) 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  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  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
3. System-Theoretical Foundation of the Theory of Evolution
The general theory of evolution is based on prerequisites that it cannot control itself, but which can be clarified with the help of systems theory. This particularly applies to the reconstruction of the distinction and coordination of the three evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and (re)stabilization (selective retention) (Mayr 1982). “While evolutionary theory distinguishes variation, selection, and restabilization, it also assumes stability (the state of being restabilized) with the idea of Variation.(1) In addition, it builds this distinction into a systems theory, presupposing that a distinction to a system’s environment can only be distinguished with a system” (Luhmann 2013a, 151). To clarify: differentiation does not mean isolating separation, according to which the distinguished elements have nothing to do with each other. Differentiation, on the contrary, means that the distinguished components reciprocally refer to each other. Differentiation, as an interruption of interdependence, is the enabling foundation for interaction. (2) “Systems theory begins with the unity of the difference between system and environment. The environment is a constitutive feature of this difference, thus it is no less important for the system than the system itself” (Luhmann 1995c, 212). The study of religion reconstructs the religious system by focussing it in difference to other objects. The religious system as the object of the study of religion empirically constitutes itself via the difference system/environment and therefore gains identity, based on which it becomes identifiable. It is, therefore, a question of the difference from a difference.
Based on second-order cybernetics, the newer systems theory highlights that for each system there is a non-specific environment, within which only noise prevails for the system, as well as a system-specific environment. With respect to meaning-constituting systems (Sinnsysteme, i. e., psychic and social systems) this means: “An environment functioning for a system is […] necessarily a two-part reconstruction of the environment itself, it is horizon and transcendence, expectation and disappointment, selection and risk, order and disorder. It is only on this basis that an interest in the environment can develop, that there can be attempts at influence and correction be given, and learning processes evolve” (Luhmann 1982, 16). Moreover, the systemic difference consists of the unity of the distinction between self-reference and other-reference so that the difference of system/environment occurs twice: “as difference produced through the system and as difference observed in the system” (Luhmann 2012, 19). As a result, a double input-output-process occurs, which can be modeled as follows (Figure 1):
A system constitutes and reproduces itself as a system-environment-difference through output 1 (externalization), which the system processor 1 initiates from. In systems theory, this process is called autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela 1980). In terms of the reconstruction of religion this means: Religion evolves and reproduces from religion itself—and from nothing else. From a system-theoretical point of view, religion is thus a sui generis issue, without turning to anything else than a socio-cultural issue based on historical development. (3)
Apart from the first processor, the system requires a second one, because: “[…] self-reference on the level of basal processes is possible only if at least two processing units that operate with information are present and if they can relate to each other and thereby to themselves” (Luhmann 1995c, 138). By means of the second processor, which enables selection, the system draws energy from either the system-specific, or, mediated by the system-specific environment, from the unspecific environment in the form of input 1 and transfers it, whilst possibly filtering noise, via input 2 into system-specific information. (4) This process corresponds to Gregory Bateson’s understanding of information as “a difference which makes a difference” (Bateson 1987, 276, 321 et pass.). Eventually, the system produces a new output. This output is partially released as output 2 into the environment, i. e. is not processed further by the system. Otherwise, the output generates the starting point for the reproduction of the system-internal difference between the system and environment in the form of output 1. Input 1 and output 2 are localized at the crossover between the unspecific and the system-specific environment. (5)
The religious system, too, has a system-specific and a non-specific environment. Anything that religion observes as non-religious but interprets in a religious way is a part of the system-specific environment; i. e. religion projects its own pattern onto the environment and then selectively takes the environment into the system, for instance, as cosmological and/or social disorder, as ‘false’ cognitions (disbelief, superstition, atheism, magic, folk religion, etc.), or considered ethically as behavior deviating from divine commandment and prohibition, (6) but also as a legitimation of the status quo, or as with dignity provided freedom of the observed environment. In ancient societies, the distinction between the religious system and the system-specific environment was sacred/profane; a distinction which is comparatively strongly tied to the physically semioticized space. (7) This restricts the possibility of variation of religious communication, but, on the other hand, makes answering the social question of where religious communication can be carried out easier, and therefore increases the chance of follow-on operations: Physical places including their objects (buildings, squares, ritual objects) are provided with religious meaning and function as a “material anchor” (Hutchins 2005) for religious communication. The evolutionary distinction of transcendent/immanent increases the spectrum of variation based on rising deterritorialization. From here, the development of religious-semantic spaces which tend to be independent of physical space, but make metaphorical reference to it, as well as renewed material embodiment and territorial relocation, is possible (Glei and Jaspert 2016). In the functionally differentiated society, the distinction between the religious system and its system-specific environment is religious/secular; however, this distinction may sometimes considerably vary semantically (Burchardt, Wohlrab-Sahr, and Middell 2015). The distinction religious/secular regulates the relationship between religion and other social subsystems such as politics, economy, law, science, education, arts, health, or social aid. It only makes sense to speak of, for example, secular law or secular science, if law and science are to be distinguished from religion, but thereby still are related to religion, or, conversely, if religion refers—positively or negatively—to law and science. The three pairs of distinctions (sacred/profane, transcendent/immanent, and religious/secular) are in a relation partially to a historical process (in the sense of overlapping, and not replacement!) and partially in an epistemic relation. Due to the historical occurrence of the respective following distinction, the respective preliminary distinction comes into (reinforced) reflection (Schulze 2015, 124–147). The reconstruction of the distinctions transcendent/immanent and sacred/profane starts with today’s distinction of religious/secular and proceeds by unfolding the evolutionary layers that have been formed earlier, but which are still in force today. (8)
Religion has no relation to the unspecific environment. The unspecific environment of every system “contains no information. The environment is as it is” (Foerster 1984, 263). The non-specific environment can only come into question from an outside observation, for instance, in the study of religion. It is an empirical question of concrete historical research to determine what belongs to the system-specific and what to the non-specific environment of religion. There are two relevant criteria for the scientific consideration of the unspecific environment within the study of religion: as environmental conditions (being possibly ecological, physiological, and psychological substrates of religion), and as a take-off for the emergence of religion. The unspecific environment is only relevant for scientific research on religion if the emergence of religion can be reconstructed by means of respective observations. For the description of the varying, selective and (re)stabilizing proceeding of religion itself, the unspecific environment is of no relevance. The difference between unspecific and system-specific environment of religion is relevant for the discussion about the question whether religion adopts to its environment or is to be understood as an evolutionary by-product. For example, those communicatively addressed religious experiences, which have certain neurophysiological and corresponding behavioral patterns as environmental correlates, can prove themselves during evolution. However, correlation does not necessarily only mean adaption (Bulbulia 2004a , 2004b ; Alcorta and Sosis 2005 ; Sanderson 2008 ; McNamara 2009, 248 ; Sosis 2009 ; Rossano 2010, 151 ; Heimola 2013), but also at least selection, which ex-post turns out to be successful and therefore is an evolutionary by-product (Kirkpatrick 1999 , 2006 ; Boyer 2003 ; Atran and Norenzayan 2004 ; Pyysiäinen and Hauser 2010 ; Norenzayan et al. 2016). But even if religion is understood as an adaptation to the environment, its autonomy in the form of religious concepts, experiences and practices must be subject to the basis on which it can adapt to its environment (Kunz 2009). In order to avoid unilateral causality assumptions, it makes sense to distinguish between adaptive religious elements and religious elements as accidental evolutionary by-products and to reckon with both possibilities (Voland 2009). (9) Advantages of the selection of religiously coded experiences in connection with general socio-cultural and psychic evolution are often scientifically seen in the fact that religion is based on the release of endorphins(Dunbar, Barrett, and Lycett 2005, 166) and the messenger dopamine (Previc 2006; Wilson 2014, 89), or by means of specific ethological and psychological-cognitive patterns such as group adherence(Sosis and Kiper 2014), providing an especially pertinent reference to the physiological, psychic and social environment. However, in their own right, physiological, and psychological processes of this kind are not necessarily concerned with religiously determined experiences and communicatively ascribed behavioral patterns, and the mentioned process only explain extra-religious factors and consequences. A pronounced religiosity may also display high statistical correlations with fertility rates (Frejka and Westoff 2008; Weeden, Cohen, and Kenrick 2008; Zhang 2008; Blume 2009). But this connection is only then part of religious evolution if the social form of the family, of parenthood and offspring, is attributed a specific religious sense—be it related to humans or with regard to gods and goddesses (regarding Christian religion, cf., for example, Böhm et al. 1995; Jacobs 1999;Jacobs and Krawiec 2003; Albrecht and Feldmeier 2014;Reynolds and Witte, Jr. 2007; religious-historically spanning:Nielsen 1922, 68–144; Browning, Green, and Witte, Jr. 2006;Nissinen and Uro 2008). The same applies for determined correlations between religion and subjective well-being (Witter et al. 1985; Emmons 1999; Joshi, Kumari, and Jain 2008; Baker 2011), mental health (Hackney and Sanders 2003; Gilbert 2011), the feeling of happiness (Ferriss 2002), group solidarity (Voland 2009, 15), and cooperation (Bulbulia and Frean 2010; Norenzayan 2013)—especially under the conditions of subsistence economy (Peoples and Marlowe 2012). This may all be of use for the environment of religion. However, a particularly efficient form of coping with undetermined contingency based on the code transcendent/immanent is the distinct feature of religion within socio-cultural evolution, differentiated from other societal processes that cope with contingency determined respectively, for instance through law, technology, and insurance. The religious coping of undetermined contingency may include family, well-being, health, group solidarity, cooperation, as well as other elements, by means of analogies and providing these topics with specific religious meaning. Only if this happens, can factors such as those mentioned belong to religious evolution. From there, religion can serve as a component of socio-cultural evolutionary performances for other societal subsystems and social forms as well as psychic systems in the form of offering sense and realize the societal function of coping with undetermined contingency, in difference to determined contingency that other societal subsystems deal with (e. g., by means of law, technology, and insurance).
The distinction between unspecific and system-specific environment correlates with the distinction between system-environment-relations and system-system-relations. “Reference to the ‘environment’ contributes nothing to system operations. ‘The environment’ gives no information. It is only an empty correlate of self-reference. If we are dealing with system-system relations, however, indicatable entities do occur in the environment. In this case, too, the system cannot cross its boundaries operationally (if it did it would have to operate in the environment), but it can observe, that is to say indicate what specific states of affairs in the environment (other systems) are specifically relevant for it. In the relationship between system and environment, the system operates universalistically, in the form of a crosssection of the world. In relations between systems, it operates specifically, in certain, contingent modes of observation” (Luhmann 2013b, 10). The transition between the unspecific and the system-specific environment of religion is mediated via other systems. For each system, as mentioned, a specific environment exists. Economics, for instance, observes its specific environment based on the system-internal distinction paying/not paying. This distinction, in principle, belongs to the unspecific environment of religion, but may also become relevant for religion, if relations between religion and economy are taken into consideration. In this case, economic processes get into the system-specific environment of religion and can be encoded system-specifically, for instance, by observing usury as sinful and therefore prohibiting interest, (10) or conversely, viewing profit as a sign of divine election(Weber  1992).
The output released into the environment by the religious system may be ignored, rejected, or accepted as an offer of sense by other societal subsystems and psychic systems through transferring the noise into respective system-specific information. The religious system, however, has no direct influence on either its specific or, above all, its unspecific environment. The specific environment of the religious system is relevant to the study of religion, if the religious system refers to it, namely only then, if the religious system operates other-referentially with regard to other societal subsystems (for example, as political religion) and psychic systems (such as person-related religion with self-disciplining impacts or in the form of subjectification).
Religion, as a societal subsystem, has three system references: The relation of the religious system to the comprehensive societal system (function), the relation to other societal subsystems (performance; German: Leistung), and the relation to itself (reflection) (Luhmann 1982, esp. 56) (Figure 2). There is no hierarchy of any of the three system references over the others. In a functionally differentiated society, every societal subsystem—including religion—has to consider all of them synchronically. Otherwise, it would collapse.
The acceptance or rejection of performance and function belong to the specific environment of the religious system. They are other-referentially observed by religion and may be taken into reflective consideration. The system itself also consists of three levels (Salthe 1985), which in literature are labelled differently, such as “the level of interest” (the system), “the level without” (the system environment) and “the level within” (the components of the system) (Patten 1975), or as the “composition” of the system, its “environment” and its “structure”(Bunge 1979). From those three system levels, the three references, according to Niklas Luhmann, are the self-reference, the other-reference, and the system reference. But how can the differentiation of religion be understood? This question can be approached from an evolutionary theory perspective, which is the topic of the following chapter.