Key terms for study of the evolution of religion

Terms are key in the study of religions.

It’s important to take care with terms in the study of religions.  This post goes through some of the most basic and common, and how I use them.  I conclude with a statement on general methodological stance.

religion vs. religions

First, let’s distinguish “religion” from “religions.”  Where the word is used in the singular, it indicates religion as a natural class (with all the attendant problems that entails, as we shall see).  In the plural, it indicates the collective body of historical phenomena lexically defined as belonging to that class.  The unsatisfactory nature of this terminology is acknowledged.  An attempt is made to speak in historical terms whenever possible, using the plural form.  The natural class, in the singular form, is reserved for specific engagements with the concept of religion as such.

God vs. god(s)

Second is the distinction between “God” and “god(s).”  The capitalized singular form is reserved for specific engagements with concepts of the divine posited by historical monotheist traditions.  Gender may or may not be specified, depending on the tradition in question (while this issue is significant to religious studies, it is extraneous for the specific purposes of this paper).  Un-capitalized, the word refers to any divine entity, monotheist or otherwise, deriving from any historical tradition, and connoting any gender.  The words “deity” and “divinity” are occasionally substituted as synonyms.

fitness vs. benefit

Third, with regard to evolutionary processes, “fitness” and “benefit” must be distinguished.  The former applies solely to differential success at replication in an evolutionary context.  The latter denotes a wider variety of boons, including but not limited to reproductive value, potentially including items of value to human individuals but neutral or even detrimental to reproductive success in the game of evolution.

methodological agnosticism

Finally, the general approach of this paper is “methodological agnosticism.”  That is to say, this paper looks at the concrete historical manifestations of religions, and does not comment in any way on the metaphysical realities posited by specific theological traditions.  The latter is placed in brackets.

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