Phylogeny of Religions

Sooner or later any serious student or historian of religion will encounter Jonathan Z. Smith, he of the infamous quip — “there is no data for religion.  Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study.”  A curious statement indeed coming from one of the most prominent historians of religion, whose entire career and oeuvre is dedicated to the study of religion.

I am working my way through Smith’s writings, beginning with the collection of essays from which the quip comes, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown.  As is Smith’s wont and method, each essay is anchored in some aspect of religious history or text which is in turn used to demonstrate a larger point.  I have decided to examine most of the essays here and highlight some of these larger points.

The first essay, “Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism,” deals with the ways in which we classify and create phylogenies of religions: “All of the issues raised with respect to biological classification recur in the study of religion and its taxonomic agenda” (p. 5).  This is a threshold and foundational issue; anyone who purports to explain the origins of religion must confront this problem ab initio — those who do not (and they are many) usually miss the mark by a wide margin.

Simple classification schemes — e.g., from shamanism to polytheism to monotheism — implicitly deal in unilinear evolution and fail to capture the several lines of descent that culminate in what we today consider to be religions.  Smith thus observes:

It would be possible as well, in principle, to construct a satisfying evolutionary classification of religions.  But this would have to eschew the impossible presupposition of a common ancestor, replacing it with a model of multilinear evolution.  But I know of no such attempt.

Smith asserts that classification is a necessary first step but for religious history to be a science, “explanation is required.”  More than a century ago, the philologist and historian of religion F. Max Muller insisted on something similar: “all real science rests on classification, and only in case we cannot succeed in classifying the various dialects of faith, shall we have to confess that a science of religion is really an impossibility.”

This will be no easy task, Smith observes, given that we habitually and wrongly essentialize faith traditions, creating static and unified entities where there are none:

What has animated these reflections and explorations is the conviction that students of religion need to abandon the notion of “essence”…as well as the socially impossible correlative of a community constituted by a systematic set of beliefs.  The cartography appears far messier.  We need to map the [varieties of each tradition], which appear as a shifting cluster of characteristics which vary over time.  (p. 18)

This is precisely the case and is something I assayed in Fractured Faiths — The Myth of Unified Religious Traditions.  The explanations that account for religions will result in phylogenies considerably more complicated than the simply so stories of group level selection, costly signaling, social cohesion, moral glue, and increased fertility.

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