A comparative study of religion rests on comparison and generalization. Both require that the object of study, the subject matters of various religions have something in common - certain properties that warrant their juxtaposition in analyses. If they had nothing in common, "the study" of religion would not make any sense. But it seemingly does, thus "religions" presumably form a subject matter with certain regularities. Such regularities may be "emic universals" on the level of socio-cultural formations and they may be "etic universals" on the levels of the analysts' stock of general terms - and the two levels are connected. This article focuses mainly on the role of universals as general concepts in method and theory, i.e., on the status and use of etic level generalizations such as models, maps, metaphors that are constructed in order to explain and make sense, as general terms, of emic level entities, properties, functions, structures etc. The last part concerns the use of universals in four modes of comparison of material, cognitive and symbolic matters.
For many centuries, the relations between philosophy and religion were very close—at times indistinguishable. That is not so in the modern secular academy, which houses philosophy along with the study of religion but without noticeable mutual relations between the two. Kevin Schilbrack has ably dealt with that situation in his latest publication ‘Philosophy and the Study of Religion’. Schilbrack’s diagnoses are acute and most scholars in the study of religion will consider them worth heeding—except, most likely, his calls for more metaphysical concerns based on ideas of ‘unmediated experience’. His arguments proceed from current philosophical positions and theories of situated cognition and his appeals are quite convincing. However, they do have one remarkable drawback as this critic sees it: That metaphysics move from the ontological realm to the epistemic (!). That is no mean feat, because as no one really seems to know what metaphysics are in this ‘post-metaphysic age’, Schilbrack’s proposal seems to indicate that metaphysics now become humanly approachable and intellectually tractable. As such, they could justifiably become an integral part of the study of religion—as could philosophy.
This special issue revolves around two main problems that need disentangling: the emic–etic debate and the insider–outsider problem. As the appointed discussant to the workshop in which this issue’s papers were first presented, I noted the emergence of some related and recurring problems on which I further elaborate in this article. These problems can be summed up as differences in methods and theories in various disciplines that create “gaps” between their results. Moreover, there are problems concerning matters of scale, type–token relations, questions about the relations between the public and private character of religion, the seemingly inevitable ambiguities of relativism and, finally, the various modes of discourse on religion\s.
Religious traditions abundantly demonstrate how norms, rules, constraints and models are installed and transmitted in multiple media: myth, dogma, ritual, institutions, etc. These abound in cosmologies, classification systems, morality, and purity and they influence individual and collective human practice. The term ‘normative cognition’ is introduced here as a covering term for such enculturated and socio-culturally governed cognition. The ‘normative cognition’ approach deals with ‘cognitive governance’ effects of higher-order cognitive products on those of lower levels. Higher-order cognitive products range from religious purity rules, over highway codes to normative scripts, schemata and frames for all kinds of behavior. In short: socio-cultural products allow individual biological brains to interact and act on the world and thereby facilitate the existence of human society. I suggest that research on normative cognition not only casts new light on religion but that it contributes to a general understanding of the complex relations between cognition and culture.