Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Re-enchantment

Seven Ways of Looking at Religion

Toward a kind of balanced perspectivism.

Benjamin Schewel

A raven on a snow-covered tree branch (detail), c. 1910, by Ohara Koson/Shoson (1877–1945); private collection, Alfredo Dagli Orti/Art Resource, NY.

Among the twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

The blackbird in Wallace Stevens’s famous poem is many things at once. It is a living center of perception, a creature that inhabits the earth, an entity swirling through the natural world, an expression of the universal whole, a beautiful melody, a passing shadow, and various other things, depending on the observer’s perspective. Yet in making his point about point of view, Stevens does not argue that the blackbird has no essence. Indeed, he tries to suggest a more profound truth: that the blackbird is something that exists beyond the ways it can be viewed. My intention here to suggest that something similar holds true for religion. Up to a point.

There is nothing new about approaching religion in a perspectival way. Indeed, it is commonplace today to find long lists of the things religion is: It is practice and observance. It is prayer. It is tradition and culture. It is morality and belief and faith—and much else as well. We are routinely enjoined to appreciate the particularities and differences that characterize religious traditions, and there is something useful in this relativizing move. It helps us avoid collapsing rich religious diversity into an abstract and constructed ideal. Nevertheless, it would be false to conclude that religion is nothing more than the many different things that assorted religious traditions do.

I want to suggest that we can proceed toward the kind of balanced perspectivism Stevens champions by examining the various ways scholars narrate the history of religion. I suggest focusing on these narratives because one of the greater challenges in thinking about religion today comes precisely from the multiplicity of approaches to explaining how, and to what effect, religions change. Certainly, we know that religion has somehow evolved from its tribal beginnings through the archaic, axial, and medieval periods. We know how it changed under the pressures of modernity, and we are beginning to speculate about its transformations in the current global age. Yet there is no clear consensus about the dynamics—social, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, cultural—that have driven these changes. Has religion been gradually declining? Has it been “improving”? Do the same dynamics appear again and again and work in the same ways? Have we fallen away from some ideal religious orientation of an earlier time? Or has religion undergone a series of qualitatively neutral changes? Regardless of the story they ultimately adopt, even the most learned observers can and do see religious history in profoundly different ways.

To show what we might learn from these various explanations of religious change—but also to argue how one of them in particular might help us benefit from the insights of the many—I will focus on seven major narrative frameworks that shape the contemporary and largely (but not exclusively) academic discourse on religion. I call these narratives (1) subtraction, (2) renewal, (3) trans-secular, (4) construct, (5) perennial, (6) post-naturalist, and (7) developmental. Each narrative tells us something important about the history of the world’s various religious traditions, even while displaying certain limitations that insights from the other narratives help compensate for. The challenge is to appreciate the deeper complementarity holding these seven narratives together without overlooking their respectively unique insights and features.

The Subtraction Narrative

The so-called “major religions” or “universal religions,” far from being the quintessential embodiment of religion, are in fact just so many stages of its abatement and disintegration. The greatest and most universal of them, our own, the rational religion of the one god, is precisely the one that allows a departure from religion. So we must change our perspective. When dealing with religion, what appears to be an advance is actually a retreat. Fully developed religion existed before the bifurcation which, somewhere around 3000 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt, plunged us into another religious world, one capable of existing without religion—our own.
—Marcel Gauchet11xMarcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World, trans. Oscar Burge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 10.

Subtraction narratives depict religion as a means of dealing with the ignorance and powerlessness that characterized early human societies. By this account, as humans grow in knowledge and extend their mastery over the world, they become less religious. Not surprisingly, subtraction narratives posit an inverse relationship between modernity and religion: The more modern we are, the less religious, and vice versa.

Auguste Comte (1798−1857), the French philosopher often credited with founding modern sociology, articulated one of the first fully developed subtraction narratives. He argued that humanity was steadily moving away from its primitive belief that all things possessed a human-like spirit, and toward a modern “positivist” view that rejects supernaturalism and concentrates entirely on the immanent tasks of science, technology, and practical morality. In Comte’s telling, this process involved three intermediary stages. Humans first went beyond animism by positing a plurality of semi-transcendent divinities.22xAuguste Comte, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, ed. and trans. Harriet Martineau (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 202. Originally published 1853. Then they collapsed these divinities into a single transcendent God. Later, they began treating God as a “mere abstraction, which can furnish no basis for any religious system of real efficacy, intellectual, moral, or, above all, social.”33xIbid., 231. Finally, this abstract deistic philosophy began to give way to the age of positivistic naturalism, in which supernatural belief would entirely disappear.44xIbid., 550–53.

Although many scholars still tell similar subtraction stories today, they must now explain why religion has not disappeared as quickly as Comte and others imagined it would—and even why, during the last several decades, it has appeared to make a vigorous resurgence. Often instanced in this regard is the eminent sociologist Peter Berger, who in 1968 famously declared that “by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”55xCited in Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York, NY: Norton, 2011), 1. In 1999, however, Berger was among the first to acknowledge that the world was “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.”66x“The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter Berger (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 2. Although this realization led him to abandon his subtraction narrative outright, other scholars have simply modified it to make sense of religion’s continued importance.

One of those who have made such adjustments to subtractionism is the philosopher Daniel Dennett, whose work on consciousness has made him a favorite among neuroscientists. Describing the evolution of religion in broadly Comtean terms, Dennett acknowledges that religion remains attractive for many people today and is therefore unlikely to disappear soon. Yet far from embracing or even celebrating religion’s persistence in the way that, for example, Berger does, Dennett seeks to mitigate its influence. To that end, he calls not just for better science education and stronger natural-scientific explanations of religion, but also for policies and media campaigns that would seek to minimize what he sees as religion’s more pernicious social and psychological effects.

Subtraction narratives are of most value in showing how certain aspects of religious belief or practice are likely to fall by the wayside—or at least come under wide suspicion—with the advance of human knowledge and mastery over the world. Indeed, most thoughtful people believe that sun worship, voodoo, caste systems, systematized gender inequality, child sacrifice, witch-hunts, inquisitions, and Bible-based science were deserving victims of civilizational progress. However, acknowledging the merit of these subtractions does not mean we must also believe that all religious practices and beliefs ought to eventually decline.

Indeed, many great religious thinkers have celebrated the fact that their traditions have shed certain problematic practices and beliefs, and have often called for further “subtractions.” Yet they insist that this subtractive process need not eliminate everything about their respective traditions, and they argue that religion is an indispensable corrective to the excesses that beset purely materialistic modes of thought. “Science can purify religion from error and superstition,” wrote Pope John Paul II, while “religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”77xJohn Paul II, “Letter of His Holiness John Paul II to Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, June 1, 1988;

The Renewal Narrative

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
—Alasdair MacIntyre88xAlasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 263.

Supporters of the renewal narrative claim that the decline of some specific religious configuration—high medieval Catholicism, polytheistic pre-Socratic Greek spirituality, “Golden Age” Islam—caused the many problems we face in the modern world, and that the only way to solve these problems is to restore parts of the lost dispensation. Renewal narrativists agree with subtraction narrativists that modernity brings about the marginalization and decline of (true) religion. They simply reverse the subtractivist claim that this marginalization and decline is a good thing.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has presented a highly influential version of the renewal narrative. His basic claim is that the “virtue tradition” of moral inquiry, which arose in ancient Greece and culminated in Thomistic Catholicism, gave rise to the best moral intuitions that we now associate with the West. However, modern Western civilization fell into a state of pernicious moral confusion after Enlightenment thinkers rejected the virtue tradition. Indeed, MacIntyre argues that the only way out of our current state of moral degeneration is for small groups of people who recognize the virtue tradition’s truth to abandon the modern world and begin working to build up “local forms of community within which [the virtue tradition] can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”99xMacIntyre, After Virtue, 263.

The challenge facing every renewal narrative is to show both how the decline of a specific religious dispensation caused the problems of the modern world—anomie, moral confusion, cultural decline, materialism, gross economic inequality—and how its renewal might help us overcome these afflictions. The burden of proof is quite high for such categorical claims. Indeed, the simple fact that multiple renewal narratives persuasively argue that the decline of their preferred religious dispensation caused the major problems of the modern world suggests the tenuousness of all such exclusivist claims. Thus, for example, whereas MacIntyre attributes the moral chaos and degeneration of the modern world to the decline of the virtue tradition, Martin Heidegger claims that it arose as a consequence of the ancient Greeks’ decision to elevate a unified, monotheistic account of Being over a more pluralized, polytheistic one.1010xSee Mark Wrathall and Morganna Lambeth, “Heidegger’s Last God,” Inquiry 54, no. 2 (2011), 160–82. For his part, the famed Pakistani philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal sees the source of decline in the collapse of the evolutionary worldview that characterized the “Golden Age” of Islam.1111xMuhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013). Originally published 1930. Though subsequent interpreters have challenged certain elements of each of these authors’ historical narratives, thoughtful and learned people continue to embrace their renewalist critiques of the modern world.

The Trans-secular Narrative

Religion is not essentially a conversation-stopper, as secular liberals often assume…. Neither, however, is religion the foundation without which democratic discourse is bound to collapse, as traditionalists suppose…. Each of these positions thrives mainly by inflating the other’s importance. They use each other to lend plausibility to their fears and proposed remedies. Each of them needs a “force of darkness” to oppose if it is going to portray itself as the “force of light.” The result of such posturing is the Manichaean rhetoric of cultural warfare.
—Jeffrey Stout1212xJeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 12.

Subtraction and renewal narratives both assert an inverse relationship between modernity and religion. The crucial difference is in whether they consider the advancement of modernity, and hence the decline of religion, to be a good or bad thing. Trans-secular narratives aim to overcome this dichotomy by presenting modernization as a force of religious change.1313xIndeed, the trans-secular narrative and each of the subsequent four narrative frameworks seek to move beyond the dialect of subtraction and renewal narratives in their own particular way. Such narratives assert that the disruptive dynamics identified by both subtraction and renewal narratives are the cause not of religion’s marginalization and decline, but of its transformation.1414xBecause of the connection of this narrative to the ideas advanced by both subtraction and renewal narratives, I choose to use the term “trans-secular” instead of “trans-subtraction.”

Prominent among trans-secular thinkers is the philosopher Charles Taylor, who argues that the “conditions of belief” in Western culture were transformed during the modern period.1515xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 2–3. Whereas medieval peoples could hardly envision the possibility of atheism, we moderns see unbelief as a viable position. This does not mean that the modern West is now dominated by unbelief. Modern Westerners simply learned how to view the world without reference to a transcendent realm or being. Dubbing this new perspective the “immanent frame,” Taylor argues that its emergence has stimulated an ever-expanding “supernova” of new religious perspectives and beliefs. It is therefore not religion as such that has declined during modernity, but, rather, the kind of unreflective and unproblematic belief that characterized premodern periods.

Although trans-secular narratives play an invaluable role in helping us move beyond straightforward visions of religious decline or renewal, they often suffer from the tendency to replace the Eurocentrism of subtraction and renewal narratives with an American-centric vision of modernity. Thus, whereas subtraction and renewal narratives present secularized Western Europe as the culmination of the modernizing project, trans-secular narratives often identity the much more religious United States as their proper telos. This tendency is evident in many recent trans-secular accounts of the “resurgence” of religion. Consider the opening remarks of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in God Is Back:

Ever since the Enlightenment there has been a schism in Western thought over the relationship between religion and modernity. Europeans, on the whole, have assumed that modernity would marginalize religion; Americans, in the main, have assumed that the two things can thrive together…. For most of the past two hundred years the European view of modernity has been in the ascendant…. [Yet] the world seems to be moving decisively in the American rather than the European direction. The American model of religion—one that is based on choice rather than state fiat—is winning.1616xJohn Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009), 9–25.

Though sophisticated trans-secular thinkers such as Taylor do not make such aggressive pronouncements, they still tend to favor the analysis of American religious life in their efforts to understand our (trans-)secular age.

The Construct Narrative

All of this raises the question of how and when people came to conceptualize the world as divided between “religious” and “secular” in the modern sense, and to think of the religious realm as being divided into distinct religions, the so-called World Religions.
—Brent Nongbri1717xBrent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 5.

Construct narratives also challenge the assumption that modernity entails the marginalization and decline of religion. But instead of advancing this challenge by presenting modernity as a force of religious change, construct narratives question the very idea that there was something called “religion” that could decline or be transformed in the first place. Rather, constructivists believe, the idea of religion as a general phenomenon that is variously instantiated throughout history and around the world was constructed by modern Western thinkers and projected outward and backward onto non-Western peoples.

The historian Brent Nongbri, for instance, argues that the modern concept of religion arose through a “projection of Christian disunity onto the world.”1818xIbid., 174. In response to the period of conflict in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries known as the “Wars of Religion,” modern Europeans developed the idea that “different religions stand in tension” with one another and offer “competing ways to salvation.”1919xIbid., 86. People cannot decide among such competing religious visions by resorting to reason or empirical data. Hence, modern Europeans felt that religion must be removed from the public sphere in order to prevent further social conflict. Although the development of such a secularized vision of modern society is significant in its own right, Nongbri is particularly interested in how modern Europeans subsequently used this new concept of religion to interpret and control the diverse cultures they encountered through their imperial and colonial projects.

Not all construct narratives are so critical of the modern discourse on “religion.” The historian Guy Stroumsa claims that the development of a general concept of religion was one of the great scientific discoveries of early modernity.2020xGuy G. Stroumsa, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Of course, early modern thinkers tended to conceptualize religion through what now appears to us to be a narrow biblical lens. Nevertheless, Stroumsa argues, these scholarly efforts to develop a notion of “religion in general” provided researchers with a powerful tool for investigating and comparing the many aspects of human culture that relate to the divine. Furthermore, a growing number of construct narratives seek to show that the modern discourse on religion is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. Another historian, Steven Wasserstrom, has shown how modern European notions of religion were deeply influenced by the extensive comparative inquiry pursued by the twelfth-century Islamic scholar Al-Shahrastani,2121x“There is general agreement among historians of the history of religions that Islamicate civilization produced the greatest pre-modern historical studies of world religions. Indeed, Western scholarly approbation of this literature has been sustained and enthusiastic, based on the observation that historical science was pioneered by Muslims. Considering the extent to which the Muslim contribution has been neglected, this point can bear reiteration…. But the history of religions waited until the nineteenth century for any other historian to take the religions of others as seriously as Shahrastani did.” Steven M. Wasserstrom, “Islamicate History of Religions?,” History of Religions 27, no. 4 (1988): 408. while the anthropologist Peter van der Veer has illustrated how modern India and China developed their own distinct notions of religion through their ongoing interactions with the modern West.2222xPeter van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 63-89. Instead of banishing the concept of “religion” because of its problematic Western formations, as Nongbri and others2323xSee Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012). seek to do, the insights of the construct narrative framework call us to develop a sharper critical awareness of the origins and contemporary usages of “religion,” as well as greater care in our use of this increasingly ubiquitous term.

The Perennial Narrative

The most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce—sporadically it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external circumstances—a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” We meet these persons in the east and the west; in the ancient, mediaeval, and modern worlds. Their one passion appears to be the prosecution of a certain spiritual and intangible quest: the finding of a “way out” or a “way back” to some desirable state in which alone they can satisfy their craving for absolute truth.
—Evelyn Underhill2424xEvelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002), 9–10.

Perennial narratives assert that all religions display a certain unity or likeness. The word perennial can be used to describe either eternal or recurrent phenomena. The golden rule is a perennial (eternal) truth, while perennial (recurrent) flowers blossom every year. That same duality appears in the perennial narrative lens, with some renewal narratives highlighting eternal religious truths and existential structures and others describing recurrent sociological patterns of religious life. Nevertheless, all renewal narratives explain religious diversity in terms of a more fundamental commonality.

Many eternal-perennial narrators argue that all religions are pathways to the same higher truth. This perspective is particularly common among those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Indeed, the very idea of non-religious spirituality arose through the interaction of Enlightenment notions of a universal “natural” religion and new, esoteric visions of a trans-traditional mysticism.2525xAdvocates of this mystical perennialism have included Emmanuel Swedenborg, H. P. Blavatsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldous Huxley, and Swami Vivekananda. See Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 13-74. Yet not all eternally oriented perennial narratives proceed in this direction. The arguments of scholars who say that all religions arise from similar experiences—an encounter with transcendence2626xJohn Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 1. or an experience of mysterium tremendum2727xRudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 26. —also exemplify the eternal-perennial approach.

Though unreservedly cyclical visions of religious history are less common than in previous epochs, many perennial narratives still emphasize recurrent historical processes. Consider, for example, how Arnold Toynbee and Ibn Khâldun narrate the history of religion according to the cyclical rise and fall of religious civilizations.2828xArnold Toynbee, A Study of History, vols. 1–2, ed. D. C. Somervell (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987); Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, ed. and abridged N. J. Dawood, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969). Furthermore, a wide variety of existential thinkers claim that our religious life operates in a cyclical manner. In this regard, consider how the Buddhist thinker Steve Hagan asserts that the “perennial problem” of human life is our tendency to become trapped in an illusory cycle of suffering and desire,2929xSteve Hagan, Buddhism Plain and Simple (Boston, MA: Broadway Books, 1997), 13–24. while Søren Kierkegaard similarly explains that religious consciousness gradually matures as we proceed through a perennial cycle of inauthenticity and despair.3030xSøren Kiergegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 38. Originally published 1849.

The main charge leveled against both kinds of perennial narrative is reductivism. If we want to claim that different religions are, for example, manifestations of the same underlying experience of mysterium tremendum, are we imposing a Procrustean one-size-fits-all on what are, in reality, distinct living traditions? Some who employ a perennial narrative framework are clearly unable to defend against that charge. For example, the famed Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, who played a major role in the founding of the historically important Theosophical movement, elaborated a perennial narrative that makes outlandish and reductive leaps in order to show how “every theology, from the earliest and oldest down to the latest, has sprung not only from a common source of abstract beliefs, but from one universal esoteric, or ‘Mystery’ language.”3131xH. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy, ed. Boris de Zirkoff (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Society in America, 1978), 266. Originally published 1888.

Some perennial narratives do a better job of defending against the reductivist charge. The philosopher John Hick, for example, bases his claim that all religion emanates from the human encounter with transcendence on the commonsensical observations that human nature is one and that all people interact with the same reality.3232xHick, An Interpretation of Religion, 1–3. It would therefore be wrong to entirely reject the perennial narrative framework because of the immodesties of some of its more enthusiastic supporters.

The Post-naturalist Narrative

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).
—Alvin Plantinga3333xAlvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), xii.

Champions of the post-naturalist narrative argue that modern science rightly disrupted premodern views of nature but has subsequently been burdened by a false identification with naturalism. Indeed, they argue that naturalism’s influence has actually hindered the advance of our scientific understanding by preventing us from investigating non-material entities and forces that humanity has long known to exist. Post-naturalist narratives also argue that recent developments in natural science are leading us to a place where we can begin considering the reality of these non-material entities and forces anew.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel has articulated a fascinating and controversial post-naturalist narrative.3434xFor a review of the controversy surrounding Nagel’s work, see Andrew Ferguson, “The Heretic: Who Is Thomas Nagel and Why Are So Many of His Fellow Academics Condemning Him?,” Weekly Standard March 25, 2013; Nagel argues that neo-Darwinian naturalism has hindered our ability to investigate the world by forcing us to discount all ideas that appear to legitimize a religious worldview.3535xAs Nagel says, “The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counter orthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of legitimate interest.” See Thomas Nagel, Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002–2008 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009), 42. Nagel is particularly concerned that neo-Darwinism blocks us from engaging with the quite obvious fact that mind is a non-material reality.3636xThomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1986). His reasoning on this front is clear: If we accept the idea that mind is non-material, then we must also accept the idea that the metaphysical structure of the world contains non-material dimensions, a claim that appears to legitimize certain religious worldviews.3737xNagel, Secular Philosophy, 16–17. For other influential post-naturalist narratives, see David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (New York, NY: Routledge, 1980); Bernard D’Espagnat, On Physics and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); Henry P. Stapp, Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Springer, 2009); Pim van Lommell, Consciousness beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, ed. Laura Vroomen (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010); Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1997), originally published 1925. Though himself an atheist, Nagel concludes that we should entertain such directions of thought, and he specifically recommends that we begin considering again the kind of Platonic-teleological visions of nature that religious believers of various sorts have long embraced.3838xNagel, Secular Philosophy, 16–17.

Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead offered another interesting post-naturalist narrative, arguing that modern science is one fruit of the new scientific mentality that arose during the modern period.3939xWhitehead, Science and the Modern World, 1–3. Whitehead described this scientific mentality as a “union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization,”4040xIbid., 3. and explained that it arose in modern Western civilization through a combination of religious, philosophical, social, economic, political, and technological developments. Unfortunately, the rapid advance of modern science led modern Europeans to falsely claim that embracing the scientific mentality required us to also accept a naturalistic worldview. Nevertheless, Whitehead, writing in the first half of the twentieth century, believed that recent developments in philosophy and post-Newtonian physics were facilitating a dissociation of naturalism from the scientific mentality and the re-situating of scientific inquiry within a much wider, and more spiritually oriented, worldview.

Though post-naturalist narratives significantly advance our understanding of the relationship between science and religion, they tend to overestimate the role naturalism played in diminishing the legitimacy of religious ideas in the modern West. The intellectual historian Stephen Gaukroger, for example, has persuasively argued that historical critical studies of the Bible did far more than reductive materialism to undermine the intellectual authority of traditional Christianity.4141xStephen Gaukroger, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210–1685 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 23–24. Additionally, Guy Stroumsa argues that the “intellectual and religious shock caused by the observation of formerly all-but-unknown religious rituals and beliefs” during the Age of Discoveries challenged Europeans’ taken-for-granted belief in Christianity’s truth, particularly when they observed the sophistication of other traditions and the savagery displayed during the European Wars of Religion.4242xGuy Stroumsa, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2–7. None of this suggests that the emergence of naturalism was the key cause of religion’s intellectual displacement, or even a central cause. We would wrongly assume that defeating naturalism would somehow restore religion to the position of eminence it enjoyed in the premodern world.

The Developmental Narrative

But the progression [of finite religions] is a condition for the arrival of religion at its absolute truth.… These determinate religions are definite stages of the consciousness and knowledge of spirit. They are necessary conditions for the emergence of the true religion, for the authentic consciousness of spirit.
—G. W. F. Hegel 4343xG. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One-Volume Edition, the Lectures of 1827, ed. and trans. Peter C. Hodgson (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), 204–05.

Developmental narratives claim that religion has long been undergoing a process of evolution. The developmental narrative framework took root in the modern West among thinkers who wanted to present all religions as rungs on a progressive ladder, the topmost of which being something resembling European Christianity, usually of a Protestant sort. As Guy Stroumsa explains, the idea was that

there was an evolution in history and that God revealed Himself and His will gradually: Moses offered a religion truer than that of the Sabians. Jesus permitted a higher, more spiritual way of serving God than the ritual laws of Moses. And finally, the Reformation proposed a better Christianity than Catholicism, a religion with too many rituals, remnants, as it were, of earlier stages of religious life.4444xStroumsa, A New Science, 97.

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel presented one of the most extensive versions of this developmental story.4545xHegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, passim. He argued that religion began with a kind of diffuse pagan nature worship and culminated with the Protestant realization that the triune God manifests himself in the development of the Christian community. Along the way, magical religion, Daoism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian religion, Greek religion, Judaism, and Roman religion (in this particular order) intervened, advancing humanity’s understanding of God.

Although some authors still advance Christo- and Western-centric developmental narratives,4646xSee Rodney Stark, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007). most endeavor to develop more open-ended and globally nuanced accounts. The late Robert Bellah, for example, argued that the evolution of religion played a central role in stimulating the advancement of human cognitive capacity.4747xRobert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), passim. He made this argument by highlighting the isomorphic resemblances between the mimetic, mythic, and theoretic stages of cognitive capacity4848xBellah borrows his account of humanity’s tree major cognitive capacities from Merlin Donald. See: Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). and the tribal, archaic, and axial phases of religious history. This isomorphism exists, he explained, because at each stage of history religion concentrates human energies upon creating and sustaining cultural structures that sustain our continued cognitive advance. During the tribal phase of religious history, religion launched the very process of cultural evolution by establishing sacred rituals. It was only through indefinitely preserved ritual that humans who lacked complex narrative language and external symbolic storage could generate knowledge. During the archaic phase, religion facilitated the emergence of an encompassing mythological framework by concentrating society on the mediating role of a divine king. And during the axial phase, religion helped generate theoretic capacity by centering humanity’s energies on sacred texts derived from the teachings of prophetic figures.

In evaluating the developmental narrative framework, one must acknowledge the ambiguity that complicates our use of the term development. On the one hand, we use this term to describe neutral processes of growth: a cough develops, and so does a culture of migration. On the other hand, we use it to describe ideal or progressive processes. This is what we mean when we speak of social, moral, and spiritual development. Bellah’s developmental narrative exemplifies the neutral perspective well. As he said, “Religious evolution does not mean a progression from worse to better. We have not gone from ‘primitive religion’ that tribal peoples have had to ‘higher religions’ that people like us have…. Religious evolution does add new capacities, but it tells us nothing about how those capacities will be used.”4949xBellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xxii–xxiii. Hegel’s philosophy of religion exemplifies the second, progressive perspective. Yet it is possible to articulate a vision of religious progress without embracing Hegelian triumphalism. Following Karl Jaspers, one can argue that humanity’s powers of self-consciousness and understanding of universality have steadily expanded throughout religious history without necessarily positing a concrete endpoint of religious evolution.5050xKarl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953), passim.

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Each of the seven narrative frameworks makes a weighty claim about the history of religion. Yet it can be difficult to know how to make sense of their often contradictory conclusions. Is there any way to reconcile subtractivist and renewalist accounts of the modern disruption of religion? Can perennialist claims about the unity of religion, developmental visions of religious evolution, and constructivist efforts to show how “religion” was created during the modern period all be true? Although trans-secular accounts of modern religious transformations and post-naturalist re-evaluations of science make less polarizing claims, authors often use them to support one of the other, more ambitious narrative views. Thus, for example, philosopher Alvin Plantinga advances his post-naturalist narrative as part of a broader project of orthodox Christian renewal,5151xSee: Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011). while Alfred North Whitehead’s post-naturalist narrative grounds the developmental account of religious history he presented in other works.5252xSee Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967, originally published 1933); Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, reissue ed. (New York, NY: Free Press, 1967, originally published 1926); Whitehead, Science and the Modern World. How, then, should we interpret the truth-value of each of these seven narrative lenses?

I see three possibilities. First, we can approach each narrative as a largely incommensurable view of religious history that must compete with the others in order to vindicate its truth. Second, we can embrace the kind of perspectivism Wallace Stevens employs in his poetic meditation on the blackbird and see each narrative as a partial yet authentic insight into the irreducibly complex phenomenon of religion. Or, third, we can try integrating the insights of each narrative into a broader narrative whole.

My personal view is that the third approach provides the best way forward. More specifically, I find it helpful to approach the subtractivist, renewalist, trans-secularist, constructivist, perennialist, and post-naturalist dynamics as facets of religion’s broader developmental trajectory. Such an approach indicates that, as part of religion’s historical development, certain aspects of earlier religious epochs are rightly left behind, while others are problematically abandoned and ought to be revitalized; that the distinctive forces of modernity stimulate religion’s transformation, not necessarily its marginalization and decline; that recent developments in natural science help us see beyond naturalism and understand non-material phenomena more deeply; that a problematic concept of religion has taken hold of modern Western discourse and skewed our perceptions of both historical and contemporary religious dynamics; and that many religious structures, cycles, and ideas perennially appear in different contexts and settings.

Such a broadened developmental narrative provides us with a flexible yet coherent framework within which to think about the changing place of religion in the world today. Thus, when we see, for example, secularists deploying subtraction narratives in order to argue for further curtailing religion’s ability to influence the public sphere, fundamentalists drawing upon the renewal narrative lens in order to argue for some renewed form of public orthodoxy, or those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” employing perennialist tropes in their attempts to articulate some vision of modern spirituality, we can perceive all these efforts as facets of the global process of religious transformation that will lead, through various fits and starts, into a new stage of global religious evolution. Admittedly, our understanding of what precisely this new stage will entail must, for the time being, remain somewhat vague. Yet by keeping this broadened developmental perspective in mind, we are able to interpret the many profound and often contradictory religious stirrings that are taking place throughout the world today as part of a coherent, global process of religious evolution.5353xFor an example of how this posture can lead to novel analyses of contemporary religious dynamics, see Richard Madsen, “The Future of Transcendence: A Sociological Agenda,” in The Axial Age and Its Consequences, eds. Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 411–29.