Religion and the Individual
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Religion and the Individual

Belief, Practice, Identity

Abby Day, Abby Day

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eBook - ePub

Religion and the Individual

Belief, Practice, Identity

Abby Day, Abby Day

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What does religion mean to the individual? How are people religious and what do their beliefs, practices and identities mean to them? The individual's place within studies of religion has tended to be overlooked recently in favour of macro analyses. Religion and the Individual draws together authors from around the world to explore belief, practice and identity. Using original case studies and other work firmly placed in the empirical, contributors discuss what religious belief means to the individual. They examine how people embody what religion means to them through practice, considering the different meanings that people attach to religion and the social expressions of their personal understandings and the ways in which religion shapes how people see themselves in relation to others. This work is cross-cultural, with contributions from Asia, Europe and North America.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2016
ISBN
9781317067801
PART I
Belief

Chapter One

Cultural Intensification: A Theory for Religion

Douglas Davies
Nor love thy life. Nor hate: but what thou liv’st
Live well, how long or short permit to Heav’n.
Here, as throughout its length, John Milton’s Paradise Lost presents a volume in a phrase (Book XI:550). Such poetically descriptive brevity permits a wisdom not easily achieved in prose. Its power lies in a literary intensification of thought and feeling: cognitive and affective dimensions of life unite in a heightened impact upon the hearer. Drama, too, takes recognizable problems normally requiring decades to play themselves out in life and presents them in an hour. Religious ritual, for its part, also integrates texts and drama, and often enhances this pervasive process. Yet, despite its omnipresence, there is no general analytical category available to embrace these social contexts in a manner that allows sociological and psychological factors to complement each other in such a way that the individual may reappear within sociological studies.
One potential candidate for this theoretical vacancy lies in the notion of ‘cultural intensification’. Accordingly, the purpose of this chapter is to define the term and consider reasons for its acceptance as such. While Milton’s lines reveal a literary case of ‘cultural intensification’ other examples could as easily be drawn from iconographic, ideological or musical domains as from historical, contemporary or mythical individuals and their social effects. To approach such contexts in terms of ‘cultural intensification’ is, potentially, to gain a new and expanded socio-psychological perspective upon familiar things.
‘Cultural intensification’ can be taken both as a category embracing a wide variety of behaviours and as a process identifiable within them in which the values of a group are brought to a behavioural focus and emotionally appropriated. It assumes an integration of sociological and psychological ideas in the interpretation of social life whilst providing a reference category for diverse and well-known social scientific analytical concepts not least those of embodiment and rites of passage, as well as less familiar notions such as rites of intensification from which this category has been developed by extension. The rest of this chapter explores these issues on the assumption that the individual is the focal point of embodiment.

Uniting Divisions

Historically speaking, the sociological study of religion has often assumed the procedural necessity of distinguishing between methods utilizing what it defines as social facts on the one hand and psychological ones on the other. Here Durkheim’s formal influence in seeking sociological explanation only in terms of what he saw as social facts and not from psychological causes has been overly effective irrespective of whether he followed the distinction himself in accounting for totemic ritual, and despite his affirmation that ‘the study of psychological facts’ is valuable for the sociologist (1938, 111). In the process the individual was lost amidst the social group. Other contemporaries, including anthropologists Rivers (1916, see Slobodin 1997) and Bateson (1936), did seek to integrate these domains as did numerous later anthropologists (for example, J. Davies 1982) though sociological work on religion could easily ignore these dimensions and also leave the individual in theoretical exile. David Lyons’ (2006) recent reflections on the body, for example, has a focus more upon the 1990s including Bryan Turner (1996) and Mellor and Shilling (1997), with an absence of anything anthropological (for example, Blacking 1977). This divide between anthropology and sociology is widespread and as regrettable as that between sociology and psychology, though there is no guarantee that either will bring the individual as such into greater prominence
Today, however, little is to be gained by isolating the social facts constituted by values, beliefs and the social organization of life from the psychological facts constituted by emotions and varieties of feeling states as is increasingly acknowledged within religious studies at large (Rue 2005), even though the formal study of emotions is, itself, in its early stages (Frijda 1986). It is with that recognition in mind that this chapter explores the notion of ‘cultural intensification’ as a means of fostering the integration of cognitive and affective streams of life.

Cultural Intensification: Theoretical Issues

Theoretically, cultural intensification has obvious intellectual roots beginning with the fundamental sociological, psychological and theological challenge of understanding the relationship between individual and society. Within those disciplines the interface of socially or divinely established rules for social life and the personal and collective emotional engagement with them assumes primacy of place. More specifically, within the social sciences of sociology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology ‘meaning-making’ has generally been credited with a philosophical background, especially in phenomenological philosophy, an issue I have analyzed in association with the question of how ‘meaning’ might relate to the notion of ‘salvation’ in religious traditions (D.J. Davies 1984). Psychology, by contrast, has been more experimental in pursuing the meaning achieved in and through the processes of human cognition as well as their limits (Pinker 1997). What is often ignored is just how individuals achieve meaning within the broad bands offered by their society and by their personal temperament. Here the study of biographical narrative is invaluable, but demands a sense of plasticity between ‘the social group’ and personal construal of life.
The more specific origin of ‘cultural intensification’ in this chapter, however, is anthropological, developed from Chapple and Coon’s (1947) anthropological notion of ‘rites of intensification’, ritual moments in which a group gathered to re-engage with their basic values, an approach clearly echoing Durkheimian notions of society generating the very categories of thought and fostering the emotional experiences bringing them to practical life. Chapple and Coon do, however, offer a specific term that easily identifies the issue of a person’s affective engagement with the values of their society and it is unfortunate that it never gained the popularity of Van Gennep’s notion of rites of passage. While the latter have not only become popular but are often abused through inappropriate application the former have been largely ignored. In seeking to correct this omission it might be valuable, for example, to identify rites of passage as one subset of rites of intensification, for Chapple and Coon’s concept denoted ritual behaviour in which participants do not engage in transition but in a repeatedly renewed familiarity with and commitment to their group’s values. In this sense, for example, Christian participation in the Eucharist or daily prayer, or the Muslim’s daily prayers all serve as rites of intensification even though some loose interpretation might be tempted to see them as rites of passage into and out of ’holy’ states. The sheer familiarity with concepts is a temptation for inappropriate application, certainly as far as rites of passage are concerned. A wider familiarization with rites of intensification could, alone, be valuable in fostering more appropriate application of ideas and allow for individual appropriation of values and not simply for shifting status positions.
The move from Chapple and Coon’s rites of intensification to the idea of cultural intensification is relatively simple, involving a shift from the specific to the general. Cultural intensification simply describes the wider process of which rites of intensification are narrower manifestations. It describes a wide collection of rites, events and phenomena in and through which the values and beliefs of a society are related to the emotional and sensory dynamics of individuals as members of a society. Cultural intensification is a concept able to direct analyses of a multiplicity of social events whilst also giving them both a sense of direction and of family resemblance. The remainder of this chapter sets out a variety of such events and discusses a selection of more theoretical concepts in current use to illustrate the value of this relatively abstract and unifying notion of cultural intensification.

Culture

Despite the potentially crippling critical possibilities that a commitment to notions of ‘culture’ may involve this chapter maintains its use in the firm opinion that ‘culture’ is, itself, a compound notion in need of benefit from an integrating of cognitive and affective elements within any particular society or group. Accordingly I take ‘culture’ to be the outcome of the processes by which values and beliefs pattern social and individual identity and are, in turn, influenced by them. On that basis ‘cultural intensification’ is adopted as a shorthand expression summarizing many ideas at once, including ‘sociological’ and ’psychological’ ideas, to furnish a perspective that otherwise might not be so easily available. What cannot be ignored, however, is the fact that creative individuals can radically influence the cultural life of a society, indeed of the world, as studies of prophets and political leaders would demonstrate.
Cognitive and Affective Dimensions
There are, of course, many ways of approaching this configuration of concept and affect, here I mention only Durkheim, Turner, Bloch and Geertz. Durkheim (1915) argued for an essentially sociological treatment of ritual as a process in which members of a group bring their basic ideas to mind and engage with them in and through the acts performed, the objects used and the place of performance. Yet his work is rooted in the experiential mood shifts of ritual participants. Geertz (1973) by contrast, admits moods into the motivations of devotees in the symbolic ritual of religious institutions as his much debated cultural definition of religion made clear. In a very similar fashion Victor Turner (1996) also directly linked thought and feeling in his notion of ritual symbols as constituted by ideological and sensory poles and by the process of condensation of many ideas onto a single focus that echoes Freud’s psychological notion of condensation. That kind of integration of the rational and emotional, the cognitive and affective domains of life, in ritual performance exemplifies Chapple and Coon’s rite of intensification and can, as already indicated, be taken as a subset of ‘cultural intensification’. Finally, Maurice Bloch’s (1992) theory of rebounding conquest can also be interpreted as an expression of cultural intensification, especially in the way he developed both van Gennep and Victor Turner‘s emphasis upon liminality in transition rites to stress that individuals do not simply change status through initiation but may also be emotionally or existentially changed to some degree.

Values, Beliefs and Identity

At this point it is worth trying to clarify the meaning of the ‘values’ that are manifest in ritual and identify them as ideas invested with a degree of emotional intensity. Most often such values are the ideas by which a society directs its communal life with the members of society not being neutrally related to them. The very process of socialization involves the inculcation of values that become second nature to the individuals concerned whose sense of identity is partly composed of these values, but there is always the possibility of idiosyncrasy emerging whether perceived as deviant or revelatory.
It is also useful to distinguish between ideas and values, taking ideas to be foundational concepts grounded in basic social categories that are constitutive of a society’s way of life. An idea is usually a word or phrase that summarizes a way of understanding part of the world around us and, indeed, of understanding ourselves. Ideas are often names of or for things, helping us relate to our environment, they are foundational to the process of meaning-making that is a characteristic activity of human beings. The expression ‘to have an idea’ takes this process a little further, describing the way in which a person makes new connections between things, and this reveals the creative capacity to adapt to the world. And there may be no emotional charge associated with such an idea. Ideas may, however, come to assume the status of a value in which emotion is vested and identity aligned. Such is the contemporary situation with the idea of evolution when it comes either to frame an atheist identity or an anti-evolutionist stance whose identity is emotionally lodged in creationism. In the latter case ‘creation’ becomes transformed from an idea into a value.
So, not all ideas are values. Many ideas are abstract labels for things both in the tangible world as in the realms of imagination, but values emerge from ideas as those ideas becoming increasingly significant for identity, for the organization of life and its many forms of relationships. The idea of a ‘father’ for example can remain simply at the level of an idea and can be compared in different societies in which the ‘father’ is viewed in a wide variety of ways. But when individuals speak of the place of the ‘father’ in their own smaller world then ‘father’, or perhaps we might say ‘fatherhood’, comes to be a value: it is an idea in which particular forms of emotion are invested.
What then of the notion of ‘belief’, how does that resemble and differ from ‘idea’ or ‘value’? Here I will not examine even a fraction of the extensive academic discussion that has gone into analyses of belief (for example, Needham 1972) but will simply regard beliefs as the way in which people describe the values they perceive as central to their own sense of identity and to the meaningfulness of the social group to which they belong. So we may say that key or prime values function as beliefs. The focus lies on the subjective and social function of the belief within identity formation and the meaningfulness of the world rather than on any objective content of the belief.
By approaching beliefs by this route of values as ideas vested with emotional significance, there is no need to argue for beliefs as pertaining essentially to what is often called religion. Religious beliefs can simply take their place alongside other forms of belief for these are simply ideas relating to what a particular society may define as religion, politics, the natural environment or whatever. I will not assume that a belief concerning what a person regards as invisible and supernatural beings or powers is any different from a belief that there are laws governing how history unfolds or how individuals align themselves through marriage, work or play. Finally, it is worth mentioning ‘attitude’ as a means of pondering the nature and degree of the emotional charge brought to bear upon an idea. Quite often we find that attitudes bear a very strong family resemblance to values in that they involve a degree of emotional attachment or detachment. In many contexts an attitude would be thought to express a lower degree of investment of emotional energy than would a ‘belief’. When ideas are invested with an emotional energy to form a value we often find it occurs through some kind of group activity, and when values are described as beliefs that activity often takes the form of ritual behaviour.

Embodiment

To pay so much attention to the emotional charge vested in ideas to yield values, and to identify the core values of a group in terms of belief that involves ritual behaviour, means that it is inevitable that we arrive at a discussion of what has come to be called embodiment (for example, Csordas 1994). By embodiment I refer to the process by which beliefs come to be part of the very way in which a person comes to be constituted and behave, acknowledging the integration of ‘nature and nurture’ factors within the individual. In more traditional terms one often speaks of ideas as something one thinks about, in the present context one would wish to speak more in terms of values as something practised. If those values hold primacy of place such that they may be viewed as beliefs then one could easily speak of ‘behaving belief’. To behave, practise or perform a belief is a perfectly natural way of ‘thinking’ about human life.
The entire process of human socialization as babies and children, along with the many subsequent learning experiences as people become parts of new groups or institutions, involves the acquisition of new behaviour patterns. As a body we imitate others amongst whom we live, and we learn new f...

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