Non-Progressive Religions

In this stimulating Paris Review interview with essayist-psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, Phillips touches on themes — progress (link) and non-progress (link) — near and dear to this blog’s methodological heart:

One advantage of thinking about psychoanalysis as an art, instead of a science, is that you don’t have to believe in progress. The tradition I was educated in was very committed to psychoanalysis as a science, as something that was making progress in its understanding of people. As if psychoanalysis was a kind of technique that we were improving all the time. This seemed to me at odds with at least one of Freud’s presuppositions, which was that conflict was eternal, and that there was to be no kind of Enlightenment convergence on a consensual truth. The discipline was practiced, though, as if we were going to make more and more discoveries about human nature, as though psychoanalysis was going to become more and more efficient, rather than the idea—which seemed to me to be more interesting—that psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.

Religions, in this heuristic, should likewise be seen as arts. This evolutionary diagram or ball-shaped “tree” of religions properly depicts this non-progressive development:

World Religions TreeAddendum: We are having a good conversation about diagrams in the Comment section. This morning I came across a microscopic photo of the hair on a Gecko’s foot. It nicely captures some of our ideas about an ideal evolutionary diagram, one which is non-progressive and depicts hybridized (biological) or syncretic (cultural) lineages.


Dennis Kunkel/Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

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9 thoughts on “Non-Progressive Religions

  1. Gyrus

    Great quote. Makes me think of James Hillman, specifically his book ‘Healing Fiction’, which tries to rehabilitate Freud, Jung and Adler as workers in the field of story, or theory as fiction, and fiction or art as the key to healing as a non-progressive process rather than a utopian project. Of course, none of this is surprising when we look at the roots of healing in shamanism – story-telling, performance, art.

  2. Larry Stout

    Can’t seem to find a link to a readable enlargement of this extremely intriguing diagram.

  3. Michele

    As an artist, I relate to this diagram. Freud’s presupposition that “conflict is eternal” may allude to the mind being in direct opposition of our will. So Truths are constant, therefore, there can be no more enlightenment on it. I live quite differently with myself when I draw art. Science always needs proof. The mind is so complex, equating mind with art can be a governing factor to fill in the spaces of mind between physical to soul, soul to spirit within animate forces.

  4. jayarava

    I’m skeptical about the value of tree diagrams, even the more sophisticated cladistic versions. They ignore hybridisation and recombination. And hybridisation is one of the main characteristics of Indian religion (and of human evolution!). The tree is a bad metaphor for the processes involved. I’ve proposed the braided stream as a replacement:

    As a specific example I’ve now published two articles on the possible influence of Zoroastrianism on early Buddhism – Journal of Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Vol 3, and Journal of Buddhist Ethics (online any day now). Buddhism is widely acknowledged to incorporate aspects of animism, Brahmanical religion (especially cosmology), Jainism, and, if I’ve got it right, Zoroastrianism as well. The tree fails to acknowledge this. Additionally Tantricism is a grand synthesis of a broad range of Indian religious ideas and practices in the mid-6th century rather than a linear development of any one tradition. It combines elements of old Vedic religion, contemporary Hinduism, secular rituals, Buddhism, Shamanism, and more animism, Indian religion criss-crosses itself time and time again.

    Just look at how the diagram separates out Shingon and Tendai (Japanese Esoteric Buddhism) – the distinction is quite artificial since the two influenced each other substantially. What’s more modern Shingon is hybridised with Pure Land Buddhism so that for lay people the two are presently indistinguishable.

    It’s a beautiful diagram, but it is fundamentally misleading.

  5. Cris Post author

    All diagrams are simplifications of underlying data or ideas. Some diagrams are better simplifications than others.

    My particular interest in evolutionary diagrams revolves around the underlying message, which is often hidden. Tree diagrams are particularly misleading, as they convey a message of directional evolution toward more “advanced” or “modern” forms. These kinds of diagrams are progressive and gradistic.

    Ball or cluster diagrams treat all living or extant forms as equally evolved. There is no (hidden) message suggesting that some forms are more evolved or advanced than others. These diagrams are non-progressive and cladistic.

    It is of course always true that there is hybridization or recursion in various lineages. When it comes to the historical development of social-conceptual formations (such as “religions”), we would call this syncretism.

    I’m not sure how a diagram-maker could depict hybridization or syncretism without inserting lots of cross-secting lines and additional labels. At some point, these lines and labels would become chaotic. When this happens, there really is no reason to even have a diagram, the whole point of which is simplification and visual-conceputal digestibility.

    With these things in mind, I don’t think the diagram is (as you conclude) “fundamentally misleading.” I’m not particularly interested in the historical details of this diagram, or the various alleged relationships between religions. I’m interested in the underlying idea of progress.

    I like this diagram, and find it symbolically accurate, because it shows that all religions which exist today are on an equal par — no one religion is more “advanced” or “complex” than another. Some might even infer (correctly) that this means no one religion is more “true” than another.

    One potential solution would be to have a disclaimer at the bottom of these kinds of diagrams: “Note: this is a simplified representation of lineages which have, over the course of time, cross-fertilized one another.”

  6. Larry Stout

    Analogy is a useful and always tempting means of (over)simplification to make a point (e.g., “parables”). The tree diagram presented here, like it or not, IS inherently chronological — numerically chronological, at that. But it is not necessary to view chronology as progress, in the sense of improvement, and not everyone does that. I do appreciate the braided-stream analogy, and cross-fertilization of religions is quite evident and neverending.

    Why, we might even cross-fertilize the tree and braided-stream analogies by resorting to the strangler fig:

    We might also note that streams braid when the size/mass of individual rocks forming a substantial proportion of their bed load exceeds the stream’s capacity to transport (which occurs, for example, when glaciers leave behind huge boulders as well as finer sediment as they melt). Here we can look for and find (is so disposed) analogy in anastomosing religion: when existing doctrine and/or ritual fail to “move the load”, there is circumvention, and merging into other “channels” (without end).

  7. jayarava

    Sure. I agree that cladistics is a more useful way of representing evolution. Every living thing is equally evolved. I get that. And I concur on how that applies to the metaphysical claims religions wrt to say the afterlife or creation or the causes of suffering and means to salvation.

    But if syncretism is the norm, and it very much is in Indian religion and Japanese religion, then in what sense is it not misleading to portray religion developing with no syncretism at all? It’s not even a simplification, it’s just wrong. And the diagram is inaccurate to a quite gross level. Disclaimers don’t help, they never do.

    Yes, the diagrams become more complex, but certainly not chaotic – I’ve played around with braided diagrams and they can be made to work because there seem to be syncretic events, or periods of active syncretism and periods of conservatism. Change is not chaotic. Hybridisation seldom occurs between distant clades – though my example of Zoroastrian influence on early Buddhism is one of those.

    I think it’s worth emphasising because it is a systematic blind spot in evolutionary approaches. At least one evolutionary theorist agrees with me – link in that blog post.

  8. Cris Post author

    Until someone with the requisite diagram-making skills comes up with a braided strand, cluster-ball diagram, we’ll just have to live with the kinds of diagrams we have, perhaps with a disclaimer. While I prefer narrative over diagrams, I am told that most people prefer diagrams. Professional educators say this, and Sabio beats this drum on a regular basis. Perhaps we can get Sabio to design the ideal diagram we all seem to have in mind?

    More than one evolutionary biologist agrees with you; I can’t think of any evolutionary scientists who don’t recognize hybridization and recursion. The problem, it seems, is how to convey this in diagrams.

    Your braided strand suggestion fits with the idea (advocated by Milford Wolpoff and others known as “lumpers”) that hominin evolution is a single, evolving species, and that all currently recognized hominins (including all the australopiths) should be collapsed into the genus Homo. A diagram showing this would just be a single strand, with separate braids for each hominin species going back 4 million years.

    I’m not sure this adds any clarity to what may have happened in hominin evolution, but it does convey a particular kind of message. There are, of course, many paleoanthropologists opposed to this single-evolving Homo species idea, and they (generally known as “splitters”) would hate this kind of diagram. They would prefer a diagram that shows separate species, and would perhaps agree with some connecting lines between species to indicate hybridization. I’m not sure these connecting lines are any better than a disclaimer.

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