The Theory of “Religious Needs”

In the field of religious studies, one can frequently encounter the idea of “religious needs.” That is, the idea that there are certain needs that all people share which are met by religions, or not. This is usually employed in an explanatory fashion, such as, a religion being successful because it meets people’s religious needs, or being in decline because while it once met people’s needs, it no longer does. (I’m using the term “religion” here broadly, that is, to include both institutionalized religions and much more informal “spiritual” movements.)

Such a usage indicates a causal understanding—religious needs cause certain outcomes, though there may be various intermediary steps either stated or implied. The fact that the causal character is employed implicitly indicates that the concept is under-theorized (at least none of the usages of the concept that I have encountered are adequately theorized). It is, in other words, simply used as if everyone already understood what it means, but without any explanation or justification. It is offered as an explanatory concept without evidence that the putative referent actually exercises any causal agency. (I say “putative” to emphasize that there may be no referent beyond the rhetorical use. Such an analysis acknowledges à la Wittgenstein that the the phrase has a meaning, but at the same time has no objective referent that can act as a causal agent.)

If it is intended simply as a descriptive term, then it might be exemplified. When examples of putatively religious needs are given, the most common ones seem to be “meaning,” and “belonging.” These two, however, exemplify one of the problems of religious needs theory. Neither of these are in any way particularly religious in nature. It is true that religions may meet these needs, but that is different from saying that they are religious needs. By analogy, one may have a need for food that can be fulfilled by donuts, but one does not have a “donut need” (except, perhaps, humorously).

The vacuous character of “religious needs” theory (i.e., it functions as an empty signifier) does point to a more significant issue. That issue is the way in which certain aspects of human existential reality are structured in terms of needs and in terms of religion, and then conjointly as religious needs. Acknowledging the Maslowian “hierarchy of needs,” the needs identified there are abstract, that is, they operate at the level of “meaning,” and “belonging.” More concretely, much of what people experience as needing is strongly conditioned by consumer capitalism. While it is easy to trivialize this reality with examples such as “you deserve a break today,” the construction of the self in accord with the very sense of identity as a consumer and as being fulfilled by consuming is at the very core of contemporary subjectivity. In contemporary society, to have religious needs means consuming religious products.

The idea of religious needs is probably supported by a diffuse, implicit acceptance of the Eliadean notion of “homo religiosus,” that is, the idea that humans are in some way irreducibly religious, or have an inherent religiosity. (The concept of “homo religiosus” itself is effectively polemical in nature, rather than having any objective status.) The current deployment of religious needs theory, however, places it in the context of consumer capitalism and the analysis of religion in terms of rational choice theory. The neoliberal social organization implicit in rational choice theory includes the idea of individual agents acting in their own perceived self-interest. (It is this latter that rational choice theorists seem mean by “rational,” not some more abstract notion of logical or reasonable.)

Thus, this seemingly unproblematic notion presented as if everyone accepts and understands it, in fact turns out to be deeply enmeshed in a particular construction of the subject and a particular political economics. Its uncritical use as an explanatory device is more indicative of a lack of theoretical reflection, than of explanatory power.

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7 thoughts on “The Theory of “Religious Needs”

  1. Hat dies auf The Non-Buddhist rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Very interesting short article by Richard K. Payne about “religious needs”. It states that basically so called religious needs are an empty signifier with a mere rhetorical than a causal explanatory use. Payne makes the point that there are indeed “needs” but that these needs may be produced by consumer capitalism. Religious needs thereby become visible as something very different than something putative natural: “To have religious needs means consuming religious products.”

    “[…] [T]his seemingly unproblematic notion presented as if everyone accepts and understands it, in fact turns out to be deeply enmeshed in a particular construction of the subject and a particular political economics.”

    Important thought about x-buddhism as a sleeping pill administered by capitalism.

  2. Hello Richard,

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. (as always)

    Firstly,

    … in other words, simply used as if everyone already understood what it means, but without any explanation or justification. It is offered as an explanatory concept without evidence that the putative referent actually exercises any causal agency.

    My first thought on reading this was ‘ I wonder how many times I have done that?’

    The horrible thing is that if you do it, you do it in unawareness, and most probably will continue to do it unless it is pointed out to you. Which is why everyone needs a philosophical mentor, someone a great many levels above him; and why its not wise to try to push thought in a vacuum. The problem is if you are not academically trained where can you find a ‘thought guru’ who will play the role of ‘shepherding’ you until you can safely go your own way? Maybe that’s how it was in ancient Greece, when Philosophy was a ‘spiritual’ practice, or is that also just another myth?

    Anyway:

    …I say “putative” to emphasize that there may be no referent beyond the rhetorical use. Such an analysis acknowledges à la Wittgenstein that the the phrase has a meaning, but at the same time has no objective referent that can act as a causal agent.

    There’s something here about the problem of where in any instance we posit the seat of agency; as an example lets take a more ‘concrete’ need-the need for food. Does that need operate in an automatic way? ; the way, for example, rust forms on iron exposed to rain? Or is there always a Subject involved, one who mediates needs via language?

    I think there is always a Subject, which is another way of saying that, for humans, there is only desire-only needs mediated by language. Am I being too extreme? If I am not then it follows that, in the context of human need, an agent is always present; This applies whether the need involved is for food or for meaning, religious or otherwise.

    That is to say, all human ‘needs’ are experienced as thinking, as ‘need’ co-joined with language; as desire. That’s another way of saying that there is no qualitative difference in the need for food and the need for meaning, one is not an animal need and the other a human one; both are human desires and involve language and thought. (although the failure to meet the human desire for food will be more catastrophic in the short term than the failure to meet the desire for meaning)
    And the desiring Subject is socially formed via language ( as the language-act of another subject, real or virtual) and acts on her desires in a social context. Its not that there is some ‘force of conditioning’ innate to language but that we are conditioned as Subjects by the accumulated language-acts of other humans in pursuance of their own desires

    Was this what Marx was getting at when he wanted, in his theses on Feuerbach, to emphasise the ‘active side, the side of the Subject over and against what he saw as a ‘mechanical’ understanding of conditioning? an over reliance on some sort of ‘force of conditioning’ rather like the example of iron turning to rust. There is something in all of this about what Marx got from Hegel; about Human freedom being paradoxical ( to a certain form of thought) ; its dialectical nature of being at once free and conditioned.

    This is a horribly round about way of asking you this; while I agree with you that;

    … this seemingly unproblematic notion presented as if everyone accepts and understands it, in fact turns out to be deeply enmeshed in a particular construction of the subject and a particular political economics.

    isn’t it the case that this issue applies to all human needs and not only ‘certain’ ones.

    I mean that the problem lies with the term need rather than with the ‘non-existent objective referent’; that in all cases the word need as applied to Human beings is an empty signifier without an objective referent; and that when the word desire is substituted, the problem of an empty signifier in the case of religious ‘needs’ is solved because as far as Human beings are concerned we are always ‘deeply enmeshed in a particular construction of the subject and a particular political economics’ and always in the presence of the causal agent—-the Subject of desire.

    You seem to hint at this with the statement;

     ‘… (the) issue is the way in which certain aspects of human existential reality are structured in terms of needs…’

    • Dear Patrick,
      I’d agree that all human “needs” are mediated by language and therefore are what you are calling “desires.” I do think, however, that not all of the “desired objects” are of equal ontological status, and that reducing the system of categories to a single one, i.e., “desire” if I’m understanding your suggestion properly, is reductionist in the sense of reducing differentiable categories in such a fashion as to preclude consideration of whether or not the differences are significant. In other words, while it may be true that there is no need that is not mediated by language, there is a difference between desiring food that one does not need (although I might enjoy and desire a second bowl of ice cream), and the need for food as such. It seems to me that the possibility of exploitation exists exactly in the (purposeful) obscuring of the difference.
      My primary concern, however, is with the failure of the concept of “religious needs” as a theory for religious studies. This failure results from its only appearing to be explanatory, while not actually functioning in any coherent fashion as an explanation as such. An explanation should allow one to explore different kinds of causal structures, and “religious needs” serves a rhetorical function without identifying any specifiable causal relation. There is a circularity inherent in the use of the concept: “religious needs” define what religion is, and religion is the evidence of religious needs. This circularity maintains the ideology of religion as an autonomous realm within human existence, one that cannot be explained in terms of anything else. Not intending to use “Buddhism” as an authority in support of this critique, I do find myself reflecting on how the idea of interdependence offers a radical alternative to any foundationalism–either to a reified idea of “religious needs,” or to an economic or to an ideological foundation. There are, rather, multiple relations supporting any religious praxis and to “explain” it as an instance of “religious needs” is to adopt blinders that allow one to ignore the complexity.
      Thank you for your comments, I find that they have helped me to think more about this critique.
      yours, Richard

      • Thanks Richard for your thoughtful reply to the points I made. On hindsight I think I was reading my own concerns into your text rather than addressing what was there. I suppose what I was trying to address was the ‘rhetoric of human needs’. There is an overlap of course.

        …I do find myself reflecting on how the idea of interdependence offers a radical alternative to any foundationalism–either to a reified idea of “religious needs,” or to an economic or to an ideological foundation. There are, rather, multiple relations supporting any religious praxis

        And yet in any set of ‘multiple relations’ there will be a hierarchy from the least influential to the most..although with vacancies at apex and base to relieve worries about foundationalism.

        I always look forward to reading your posts.
        Patrick

  3. I’ve just finished reading “Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy” by David Webster which makes the same point. Webster would simply drop the “religious” from “religious needs”. They’re more like psychological needs.

    My own reflections recently have revolved around substances. There seem to be two basic substances in Western ontology: matter and spirit. Once you have seen the corpse of a loved one it’s hard not to believe in this duality. Other experiences also point to a matter/spirit duality for many people – and not just the morons either. Some quite intelligent people I know find this a compelling argument.

    I realised that the abhorrence people express to me for materialism is rooted in a view that there is an absolute dichotomy and that studying matter will never tell us about spirit. And consciousness is associated only with spirit. Not with matter. Materialists on the other hand, who do not believe in spirit at all and understand the world in terms of matter and energy, get annoyed when we talk about spirit.

    However it also put me in mind of the book length study of tantric magical healers in Varanasi conducted by Ariel Glucklich (The End of Magic). Glucklich reviews the major Western theories of such practices and finds them all wanting – since none of them explain the success and popularity of such healers except by invoking the idea that everyone is stupid.

    What Glucklich proposes is that we are all naturally in tune with the people around us. That sense of belonging you mention. And this sense of interconnectedness can be broken, especially by disease. What the healers do is attempt to re-establish that sense of connectedness through various means that appear unrelated to the problem which is most obvious to materialists – rituals, use of sympathetic magic, symbolic manipulations etc. If someone is sick the materialist assumes that the only thing to do is treat the material cause of sickness, because there is nothing else. The Tantric healers mostly leave the disease alone and treat the sense of disconnection instead – often with quite positive results. No doubt they also invoke some placebo effect which we now know to be a powerful disease fighting effect (much to the constanation of materialists since it is an apparent action of spirit).

    The other aspect of spirit you mention is ‘meaning’. As living creatures we are more or less programmed to survive at all costs. We share this with all living things. But as conscious beings we know that come what may we’ll die. This creates a level of cognitive dissonance that overwhelmes most people, or at least anyone with an ounce of imagination. It’s a psychical train wreck. So somewhere we hope to mitigate the tragedy of death – to find meaning in life. Religions do this on the whole with stories about the afterlife which require a spirit that survives the death of the body. So when we’re feeling our mortality we like an official representative of the afterlife to visit and reassure us that although we will die, that it’s not a total loss.

    Under the circumstances I understand why people speak of ‘spritual needs’ or even ‘religious needs’. And while I don’t believe in spirit in that same way, I can empathise with the feelings that underlie it. And for the most part meeting those needs is done by volunteers or people paid by religious organisations. So, what the fuck? It’s costs us nothing and it soothes peoples fears about problems they can never solve. The only comfort a nihilist can offer is that your pain will end – but of course so will every connection with every person, place and thing which is the last thing anyone wants to hear.

    I understand that in the USA fundamentalist Christians have been spurred into political activity by cynical conservatives thus creating something of a monster. There is a real danger that they will drag the USA back into medieval ideas and practices. Thus the responses from Americans must be seen in this light. But here in the UK the problem has much less intensity. Here the threat from fundamentalism comes mainly from Muslim extremists, and most people are united against them and their goals.

    • Dear Jayarava,
      I read Glucklich a long time ago, and you certainly make it seem worth going back to. The concepts as you describe them sound like they are formulated in a fashion that would allow them to be actualized as theoretical ones for religious studies.

      In part my concern arises out of a pedagogical involvement in educating graduate students in Buddhist studies and religious studies. One goal I have is to instill in them the habit of thinking critically, questioning the meaning of apparent explanations. At the same time they need to be educated well enough that this is not a sophmoric or flippant knee-jerk response in which, for example, an otherwise valuable work is dismissed because of failing to meet some more contemporary standard of analysis.

      One of my favorite works for this purpose is Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan by Winston Davis (Stanford Univ. Press, 1980). Some students arrive in class believing the ideological claim that religion is inherently beneficial and that anyone who has a negative view of religion can’t truly understand it. The work is a very systematic and insightful study, one that to my reading reveals a profound understanding of the religion being examined, yet, in his introduction Davis explains that his motivation was that he found the religion so personally offensive.

      The monstrous creature created by the (dare I say “unholy”) alliance of socially reactionary religious forces and corporatist political opportunists you mention is in large part held above critique by the notion that religion is inherently positive, that it is sacrosanct, above criticism–and indeed, this is being pushed to the extent that personal religious commitments are being held to be above those of one’s personal commitment as a citizen. It also seems that any consideration of the social and psychological effects of religion as either positive or negative quickly get caught up in apologetics, of either the pro-religious side or the vehement atheists, and thus nothing constructive can be pursued.

      Thank you for your thoughts, Richard

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