Religious Conversion and Identity: The Semiotic Analysis of Texts (Routledge Studies in Religion)

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The distinction among them therefore is partly misleading, and is mainly for analytical or heuristic purposes. In important ways, religion is implicated in each of these semiotic shifts. Our goal in what follows is to offer an outline of each of these broader trends, and to point to the role of and consequences for religion in each. Briefly, although each of the above transitions has been noted previously and examined from different perspectives, the role of religious developments in regard to these transitions has been neglected or underestimated.

The general bias has been to associate these transitions with the ascendancy of reason or science, as contrasted with religion. Without dismissing the contributions of developments in other areas of society, however, closer scrutiny of the genealogy of these developments suggests that transformations in religious ideas played a central role. This tradition, which focused on an etymological reduction of language to its basic components, usually thought to be nouns, and connected these in turn with objects in the material world, was simultaneously nominalist and empiricist.

Carried to different parts of the globe during the colonial era, this British tradition often clashed with other linguistic ideologies Webb Keane. In India, for example, the British explicitly recognized and opposed the Hindu theory of the immanence of the divinity in language and nature, and the consubstantiality of these three categories, attacking this in terms borrowed from both the Baconian tradition and the Protestant attack on idolatry.

There were religious precedents for so doing.

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Under this definition, it appears that myth has declined in modernity. Not only have certain sacred stories lost some of their authority, especially in their application to daily life as has happened for many with the Bible , but the very notion of a sacred story that possesses ultimate authority, in part as a result of being revealed, rather than authored in a contemporary sense, seems incompatible with modernity.

Modern Western culture has exhibited a marked tendency to interpret myth as both literally false and, in some cases, as expressing a truth in allegorical or symbolic form. Whereas the latter mode of interpretation is now associated primarily with Romanticism, these were itself in part responses to a wholesale reduction of mythological language in accordance with nominalist and literalist philosophies.


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Following earlier comparative mythologists such as John Selden and Gerard Vossius, Hobbes attributed the mistaken beliefs of the pagans to the attribution of existence to what were only empty names. However, the same idea, often in the same terms, emerged from earlier comparative mythologists who were working more explicitly within the framework of Christian tradition. The reduction of mythological language was inspired in part by efforts to recover the true meaning of the Bible through historical philology. With growing knowledge of both classical and contemporary non-Christian cultures, such literalist reduction contributed to an overall effort to reconcile history and ethnography with Biblical chronology or sacred history.

The shift from the interpretation of signs as natural to their interpretation as arbitrary is closely connected with the modern tendency to view ritual as a symbolic mode of behavior, as opposed to pragmatic or utilitarian conduct. From the perspective of any of these semiotic theories of ritual, ritual appears to have declined in modern culture.

Such cultural invocations of metaphor and metonymy as were represented by either sympathetic magic, or the lex talionis and related modes of ritually styled punishment, have diminished though not disappeared. It would be as wrong to say that modernity has no rituals as it would be to say that it has no myths.

However, there are some relatively clear differences between the semiotic ideology of modernity, and the semiotic ideologies that informed the myths and rituals of many pre-modern cultures. Protestant literalism and iconoclasm contributed to a broader denigration of ritual language and performance.

Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory. Long before Mary Douglas provided a structuralist account of the dietary prohibitions in Leviticus, other scholars had found the rituals detailed in the Hebrew Bible puzzling and problematic. With the rise of Christian scholarship on Hebrew sources following the Renaissance and Reformation—an endeavor rendered vital by the Protestant insistence on the understanding and translation of scripture—these rituals were increasingly scrutinized. There were several further reasons for this, apart from the general interest in scripture.

One was the question of which of the Mosaic laws remained in force under the Christian dispensation. The Protestant address of these questions de novo following the separation from Catholic tradition raised this question again to consciousness. A further reason was the encounter with other cultures, such as the Hindus, which appeared to follow modes of worship similar to those of the Jews, raising the general problems of the explanation of the phenomenon of ritual from which Protestants were increasingly estranged, along with the need to reconcile the Biblical chronology so as to account for both similarities and differences among the rituals of different cultures.

Other explanations of Jewish ritual emphasized that these rituals enforce, in real rather than merely symbolic terms, a social separation which has the same consequence. It is highly questionable that ancient Jews themselves viewed their rituals in this way, although to answer this question is beyond our competence.

Semiotics of Religion

It also serves to connect this concept with the rise of a general concept of linguistic arbitrariness in the 17 th century, and with Christian typological readings of the Bible. Protestants condemned such repetitions as rhetoric, magic, and idolatry. Such practices used poetry in a vain attempt to persuade God to work miracles in the world; as such, they were premised on the erroneous conception of an immanent and anthropomorphic deity. In British India, the same critique, with its attendant rationale, was applied to Hindu practices such as Vedic recitation svadhyaya and the chanting of mantras mantrajapa that resembled those of the Catholics.

It would be mistaken to assume that this was a simple projection or category error, as many such Hindu practices were explicitly premised on a belief in an immanent deity, the magical power of mantras, and the consubstantiality of language with both nature and divinity. What such polemics reflected instead was a real difference in cosmology or linguistic ideology. Like the attack on mythological language as stemming from a falsely literalist reading of symbolic language, the Protestant critique of vain repetitions in prayer represented a valorization of not only literalism but the semantic dimensions of language, its content or substance, as opposed to its pragmatic or performative dimensions, its style and social function.

The emphasis of the nominalist reduction of language on nouns, as opposed to verbs or entire sentences, as the roots or primary units of language was another manifestation of this tendency, which has now been rejected by a more scientific and ethnographically informed linguistics. As Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Marcel Gauchet, among others, have suggested, disenchantment drew on ideas native to early Christianity or even ancient Judaism.

Protestantism and Deism reinterpreted and applied these ideas in new and powerful forms. This was, supposedly, what had disenchanted the world. From then on, the efficacy of Jewish sacrifice and other rituals, and with this any obligation to perform the same, ceased. This singular event was signaled by the rending of the Temple Veil in Jerusalem, and by other wondrous occurrences. According to Eusebius d. Reinterpreted and coordinated with Protestant literalism and iconoclasm, this has contributed substantially to the self-definition of modernity as a domain of plain speech, opposed to the fictions of a superstitious past.

The notion of disenchantment was closely connected with Christian typology, which took various forms, and was related to but distinct from the allegorical modes of interpretation that arose within the same tradition. In general, however, the focus of typological readings was on the reading of the Hebrew Bible as prefiguring or predicting events recounted in the Gospels. In modern literature foreshadowing is a device found exclusively in fantasy or surrealism.

Both the reading of Jewish ritual as symbolic, and as having been replaced by a more literal truth, are encapsulated in Second Corinthians 3, which converts the veil worn by Moses upon his descent from Mt. Sinai into a sign of ignorance and darkness. This was interpreted by subsequent Christians as the veil of the Jewish ritual law.

What emerges from this brief summary of the intersection of Christian typological interpretations of Hebrew ritual with Protestant literalism, is that the very idea of the present moment as a transformation or conversion in modes of semiosis is also part of Christian soteriology. Hence the utopian, millennialist dimensions of some related projects for clearing up linguistic error, as pursued by the Baconians, among others. Like many other proponents of a philosophical language or system of writing, John Wilkins invoked the contrasting stories of Babel, at which human beings were condemned to linguistic diversity, and Pentecost, which partly redeemed them from this fate, as both reason and precedent.

In some versions of the birth of modernity, Don Quixote appears as the first truly modern work of literature. This is in complete contrast with orthodox Christian typology, according to which the unfolding of meaning is progressive; there is evolution rather than devolution. The types merely foreshadowed imperfectly the events of the Gospel, though it is also true that, following the closure of the canon, Christian vision also assumed retrospective dimensions.

To begin with, if images are the books of the illiterate, as Pope Gregory the Great argued, then it is natural that, with the rise of literacy, there would be less need for the communication of religious or other ideas through the vehicles of pictures and plastic images. Attacks on these practices suggest the importation into South Asia of an ideology of print culture that was disposed to devalue such forms.

The purpose of this document is to stimulate discussion concerning a broader range of intersections between semiotics and the study of religion that could be explored to the mutual benefit of both disciplines. My intent is certainly not to foreclose any topics by proposing a rigid program. In order to be successful, this Working Group, and the Semiotics of Religion itself, must be a collaborative effort.

Nevertheless, the brief, necessarily idiosyncratic survey above of some of the structural and historical dimensions of the Semiotics of Religion will, I hope, already have suggested that the importance of this prospective discipline—the realization of which lies in engagement with the broader discipline of Religious Studies, and not in isolation from that discipline—is far greater than is ordinarily believed by those who have not inquired into the topic. The Semiotics of Religion may contribute to the elaboration of general theories of the formal features and pragmatic functions of a range of religious ideas and practices, including especially the traditional concerns of the discipline, namely ritual and myth.

The structural dimensions of the Semiotics of Religion are closely related to the Cognitive Science of Religion, which is the field in which such issues of semiotic importance as ritualization cf. The path to the recognition of the influence of such semiotic ideologies lies trough the deeper engagement with anthropological and historical study of semiotic systems. At this point, the semiotic system draws energy from the self-referential environment in the form of mentally represented body perception.

This sign element completes the entire sign, and as a metonymic metaphor it represents the starting point for further semiosis. During the follow-on communication in the form of reading or reciting this text, the reader as an environment of communication can take the place of the lyrical ego. Since the lyrical ego presents itself as one with God, 24 the reader or reciter and thus the listener can comprehend the uttered experience. The lyrical ego becomes the religious performing entity: an empty, context-free framework into which the readers or reciters can easily slip Linden , and turn from external observers to communicatively addressed participants in religious communication Nemes , In this way, religion can feed itself with further semantic energy, which it draws from the mental environment, and transform it into religious information.

Every scientific model has a metaphorical character Black ; Hesse ; Boyd ; Kuhn ; Holland , —; Hallyn ; Brown ; Drewer ; Kretzenbacher ; Gutmann, Rathgeber, and Syed , 15— Through mutual observation, religion and its scientific study cause interferences in the respective system.

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Saints and Signs

The opposite is true as well. From a sociological perspective, however, the church is nothing more than a religious organization, a certain, albeit complex, social form. The draft of a theory and empirical analysis of religious evolution programmatically presented here is, among others, based on approaches in natural sciences. As was suggested, this is possible due to a homomorphism between religious, social, mental, organic and physical evolution. However, the possibility alone does not tell us anything about its usefulness. The purpose of this transfer is to bring the study of religion to areas beyond other-referential elements of hermeneutics i.

Against this background, the scientific description i. Signs are as aggressive as genes and they push for reproductive and mutating development. But the analogization of biogenetic and semiotic code—at least in the approach advocated here—does not involve a naturalized understanding of socio-cultural reality and therefore also of religion, namely for two reasons. First, an analogy does denote similarity in some respect i. Scripture and the ability to read it are absolute metaphors as conceptualized by Hans Blumenberg They characterize not only cultural studies and social sciences, but also the natural sciences.

Just like communication, the biogenetic code has in information-theoretical, syntactic and semantic terms a demonstrably high error tolerance and adaptability Natterer , 92; cf. This is the empirical-sociological correlation between semantics and social structure.

The semiotic code contains the arrangement of the mechanisms that are essential for communication and it unfolds in discourses as well as in fixed socio-structural arrangements.

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Socio-cultural evolution, the autonomous part of which is the evolution of religion, is therefore not to be interpreted as an extension of biological evolution—that would be an incorrect form of reductionism—, but once again: in the sense of analogy to it. In the following passages, this will be explained on the basis of analogies between semiotic processes and cell processes. I am far from understanding cell biology and its theory models.