The Somatic Approach to Religion

Religions have protected much that is genuinely indispensable for human life and flourishing of a kind. These are values, codes of recognition, rites and rituals for sex, death, the family, work and play, cosmologies of the cosmos which issue into science (although in the long run it is hard to decouple those two things). They also protect, in ways that necessarily evoke a distinctive word, the most important information about human possibilities. This information has to be organized and systematically transmitted; it has to be monitored, coded, rehearsed, practiced, and passed on from person to person and from generation to generation. It is a form of education.

As such, it is a system for organizing the human body’s potentialities and making them explicit, and hence accessible, to the individual and the community. The exploration of what is possible for a body in its context, in the social and biological worlds in which it is embedded, is essentially religious.

The concept of religion, however, is problematic. Most attempts to define it have been “monothetic,” that is, they have assumed that every instance of the term must share a property which makes it a religion. Some have been pan-human, in the sense that they have defined religion as the beliefs and practices which generate social solidarity. These include the totemism of the sociologist Emile Durkheim and that of other 19th-century savants such as Salomon Reinach, Robertson Smith, and Sigmund Freud.

In the last several decades, a different approach to religion has emerged from the study of sociobiology and other social sciences. This is the somatic approach to religion, which assumes that a body is capable of a range of potentially religion-like activities, and that it is these activities which make it a religion in the sense of the term.

This way of understanding religion, which is essentially a framework for exploring the possibilities of a body, is also called “religion without doctrine” or “religion in a secular society.” The emergence of this approach has not only challenged monothetic approaches to the definition of religion but has led to a broad range of new approaches to the study of religions, from the history of religions and the anthropology of religion to the sociology of culture and the philosophy of language. This book explores the variety of these new approaches. All of them are based on the assumption that there is something about a body that makes it possible to engage in somatic exploration. These explorations are a source of both fear and confidence, and they make possible the existence of religion as a social phenomenon. They are a crucial part of the human evolutionary story. They are also a source of many of the world’s most enduring, timelessly moving and creative creations. Long before Hollywood began dreaming in dollars, religions were mounting spectacles heightened by terror and enhanced by high degrees of audience participation. In the end, they are a medium for education as well as entertainment.