What Is Religion? Continuing With Taylor’s After God


So the reading continues from yesterday’s post.

In the previous episode, Taylor introduced his definition of religion and the main crux of his argument that religion is everywhere and is very dangerous seemed to be contained in the phrase “figure(s) schemata” – religion is a type of network of symbols, myths and rituals that “figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose.” However, Taylor adds, this would seems like a very traditional definition if not for an additional element: religion is also a network of symbols, myths and rituals that “disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure.” When I first read this definition, I thought Taylor was trying to say something like this: religion is a certain type of network of elements that, as a network, acts in a constructive and a destructive way. Now that I’ve looked at it again, due to the form of the verbs “figure” and “disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure,” it seems that Taylor is referring not to the network’s figuring and disfiguring, but to the work of the “symbols, myths, and rituals” which, I suppose, means that religion is a type of network that manages to put together symbols, myths and rituals that act here creatively, there destructively.

Once Taylor returns from his description of “complex adaptive networks” that he borrows from physics, he launches into a rather interesting, even if somewhat imaginary, description of how our “cognitive activity” works: here one finds all kinds of interesting diagrams, suggestions (“data” – “information” – “knowledge” – “meaning” movement), insightful comments and more. The basic idea is to understand how understanding works, or to be more precise, how “schematization” functions. After Taylor is done with the basics, he writes:

At the highest level of schematization, symbols and myths integrate sense experience, information, and knowledge into patterns that provide meaning and purpose. Since the relation among these different levels and operations is simultaneous rather than sequential, different cognitive operations mutually condition each other. The images, concepts, and symbols through which the world is organized emerge from and change with the data of experience, which they simultaneously shape. The nonlinearity of these operations creates an interactive cognitive network. Even at this microlevel, the structure and operational logic of the cognitive network conform to the complex adaptive systems. Proliferating connections lead to adaptations, which lead to new connections, which lead to further adaptations… (19)

This is a very exciting and interactive, even if not completely innovative, way of describing the working of human cognition – reminds me of some of Leibniz’s discussions, minus the jargon of “complex adaptive networks.” So clearly the word “figure” is going to be very important for Taylor’s argument which makes one wonder why, instead of sticking with some more or less ready-made theory of what it means, he decides to consult American Heritage Dictionary? Why this particular dictionary? (Random cartoon reference: “Why the cemetery? I wondered, but my dreams were too strong…”) “Drawing on the multiple meanings and nuances of figure, the imagination can be understood as the activity of figuring through which figures emerge.” (20) This activity of figuring is a complex activity of creation of figures and disfiguring that keeps imagination working and is a necessary condition of further refiguring. Where all of this comes from is not very clear – is it an exercise in cognitive psychology? is it a lesson from physics of networks? Taylor never cites any sources in this particular section. Why is it so important? Not because there are no sources cited, he has a right to present his own view of cognition, even if it is only based on his own intuitive grasp of the matter. It is important because the whole argument is based, in a way, on this very description – things will get increasingly more complex, theories and examples will come from increasingly more distant intellectual places, but the main idea will remain the same: “These two sides of imagination,” Taylor writes, that is the two sides of figuring and disfiguring that he just presented as being at work, “correspond to the two moments of religion. While figures structure and stabilize, figuring disrupts, dislocates, and destabilizes every ostensibly stabilizing schema, even as it invites a new schematization.” (20)

This is where my understanding of the book’s argument got stuck – I kept returning to these pages again and again after discovering the next cool thing Taylor got carried away presenting to the reader – how does it work, again?

  • Religion is defined as a network of elements that figure and disfigure;
  • Cognition is investigated and it is discovered that at its core is imagination that “informs cognitive processes through the activity of figuring” (20);
  • This activity of figuring is described in terms of necessary forming and deforming, putting together and taking apart, stabilizing and destabilizing, i.e. basically “doing it” and “undoing it”;
  • Voila, religion is discovered to be corresponding to these moments of imagination – how convenient!

Is it just my inquisitive mind or does it sounds a bit fishy? Why not say: “So it looks like what I have originally defined in terms of ‘religion’ turns out to be a simple basic function of human cognition… Bummer! Good night, everyone…”

Now, of course, it is easy to see how religion is so invisibly active everywhere and why no one really understands what it is and how dangerous it is – if basic cognitive activity of “making sense” and “making meaning” are already “religious,” then it is easy to see where this is going to be going, isn’t it? But let’s tag along, maybe something cool will happen on the way – who knows?

Well, perhaps we are being a bit impatient here. Taylor tells us that since religion is a network of symbols, myths, and rituals that figure schemata, it is important to take a look at these symbols, myths, and rituals. From what I understand so far, religion is a symbolic network that is defined as a network of elements that figure schemata and create meaning and purpose. However, this is how any network that figures works, according to Taylor, so all he said so far was simply that religion is like any other network that figures schemata – what makes this network a special kind of network is the type of issues it is dealing with: “To function religiously, symbolic networks must address theological, anthropological, and cosmological issues.” (22, my emphasis) Does that mean that religion is a symbolic network that functions religiously? Does that mean that any symbolic network becomes religious as soon as it addresses certain issues (a certain combination of issues)? Religions then is redefined here as a specific function of any symbolic network with figuring-disfiguring as an activity of any network. If Taylor wants to maintain his original proposition that it is religion that we see everywhere with its symbols, myth, rituals figuring and disfiguring and (this one comes in quietly but stays throughout the book) refiguring things, then he must either argue that everything is religious (and then nothing is religious) or try to specify what makes something religious. The book starts with a mood that makes one suspect that the first option will be pursued, but now only 20 or so pages into the argument, the second option appears to be an option Taylor will at the very least attempt to prove. Or does he want it both ways because in the end, he argues, everything is connected to everything else anyway?

5 thoughts on “What Is Religion? Continuing With Taylor’s After God

  1. I haven’t read the book, but these two posts on Taylor’s After God are well, perplexing. These two passages stuck out:

    it seems that Taylor is referring not to the network’s figuring and disfiguring, but to the work of the “symbols, myths, and rituals” which, I suppose, means that religion is a type of network that manages to put together symbols, myths and rituals that act here creatively, there destructively.

    “These two sides of imagination,” Taylor writes, that is the two sides of figuring and disfiguring that he just presented as being at work, “correspond to the two moments of religion. While figures structure and stabilize, figuring disrupts, dislocates, and destabilizes every ostensibly stabilizing schema, even as it invites a new schematization.” (20)

    Ok, but I have to ask, what is the insight Taylor is offering here? On the one hand, thinking religion in terms of this “complex adaptive network” lets Taylor to simply dismiss those pesky “big” differences both between and within religious traditions. Really, though, come on, we know that er…nature and culture interact. Again, what’s the insight? Really, the definition Taylor sets up with the creative/destructive bit seems to be more tacky postmodernism: “want to identify as Jewish, but don’t always believe in God?” Cool, dude, just vacillate endlessly between each opposition! Just do it! I know it’s not the best example, but off the cuff, without any coffee, not bad! I don’t know, the whole interactive network thing while seductive is a bit troubling because it implies (unless I’m reading it wrong) that even though I may be an avowed secularist, never have thought of Jesus or Vishnu or Allah, that I’m still in some sort of binding and changing interactive relationship or to use the biological terminology, symbiotic relationship. Ok, I get the whole complex adaptive network thing, but in terms of religion, I’m not so sure. The question then, at least for me, is how broad or narrow is this symbiotic relationship? Who benefits?

    From both of the posts, it seems to me Taylor thinks religion is everywhere. Given your outline in the last post, a question: does Taylor think that secularists are actually religionists? Or that the secularity, say, from the Enlightenment on is actually religious in nature?

  2. What precisely is Taylor’s big insight is still unclear to me – I think he wants to produce a comprehensive theory of religion but knows only too well that it’s been done before and it didn’t really work – now he’s using new theories of physics and biology to basically say the same thing: religion is not an institution, it’s a way of making meaning which is sort of boring. However, there seems to be a strange apocalyptic streak in the book, a kind of longing for 1968 when things were unsettled and unpredictable which is ironic because that’s what Taylor himself labels a kind of eternal resistance to change and desire for simplicity. It’s a kind of “cool conservativism”: “I long for good old days of the revolution that never happened.”

    does Taylor think that secularists are actually religionists?

    He does! and yet he does not because… well you’ve pointed out the rather obvious problem – if religion is simple a kind of symbolic network, i.e. one of many and, in fact, there are many religious networks (we identify them as religious, according to Taylor, by a certain set of criteria – also a mysterious issue as this point in the book), then how is it so penetrative and dangerous? I mean there’s clearly a symbolic network of racism – note all the commentators’ gasps from yesterday’s NC primaries: “Oh well, Bill, it’s surprising but it seems that Obama did quite well even in the very rural areas of NC…” – read: “I can’t believe those racist hillbillies voted for a black guy, aren’t they suppose to be truck-driving gun-shooting moonshine-guzzling racists?” Which only exposes the racism of the commentators themselves. This racist symbolic network, i.e. a “complex adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals” is clearly more dangerous than a symbolic network of say people who like opera – it seems to me that Taylor wants to argue that religion is and isn’t like any other symbolic network… I have another theory in the workings here at the Elitist Compound – stay tuned!

  3. Pingback: The Insight That Never Was: More on Mark C. Taylor’s After God « Perverse Egalitarianism

  4. Also haven’t read the book. It sounds from your description like a nice little piece of Fred Sanford conceptual entrepreneurship. Or is he more Elmer Gantry, trying to get us all under the big tent?

    On “figuring and disfiguring,” if I said that religion is dialectical, how far off would that be?

  5. I’d say it’s a nice little piece of intellectual promiscuity – I’m on the way to class, I’m hoping to get to this whole Hegelian underbelly of the book in later posts (maybe)…

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