The Reductionist and Anti-Reductionist Approaches to Religion

Subject: Philosophy
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Study level: PhD


Religion can be studied from a variety of paradigms. One of the paradigms is the reductionist vs. anti-reductionist approach. Eliade is one of the religious scholars who subscribe to the anti-reductionist religious-philosophical school of thought. Eliade and other anti-reductionists hold that religion cannot be explained as by-products of some other need, tendency, or desire. This view implies that religion can only be understood sufficiently when it is studied as a whole and/or in terms of something religious. This case is opposed

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to the school of thought held by religious-philosophical scholars such as Segal in that, they believe that religion can only be best understood by studying it from the dimension of its constituent components that comprise a whole. This argument is an attempt to advance the individualism school of thought in philosophical studies of religion.

Reductionism reflects a strong perspective, which casually treats explanations of some phenomena. This assertion is significant by considering that reductionists’ theoretical frameworks argue that religions are only possible to explain exhaustively via evaluations of their relations with other more basic phenomena, which are termed epiphenomenon. However, it is important to note, “reductionism does not preclude the existence of what might be called emergent phenomena, but it does not imply the ability to understand those phenomena completely in terms of the processes from which they are composed” (Jones (a) 13). Contextualization of religion in terms of reductionists’ perspective is thus completely different from what may be referred to as the emergence of the phenomena. Antireductionists consider the region as an emergence. Emergence suggests that a phenomenon that comes into view is always larger than all the processes leading to its emergence. Antireductionists believe that religion can only be studied as a whole since the whole is larger than the constituent components, which is an assertion that reductionists would argue against with fury. Based on these different paradigms of studying religions, this paper argues that religion is not unique. Therefore, it can be understood via other (outside) forms of analysis.


This research proposal plans to use literature review as the main methodology for conducting an in-depth critical comparative analysis of the reductionist and antireductionist approaches to religion and religious studies. The research will utilize books and journals, which discuss the subjects of anti reductionist and reductionist together with issues that relate to religion. Individualism is deployed as the school of thought for informing the theoretical discussions that are developed in the research. This school of thought is inspired by powers that relate to oneself by insisting on the powers possessed by an individual about other people in authority. The justification for use of this school of thought is that it is essential while attempting to address anti-reductionist issues since it emphasizes critical aspects, which relate to religion. Indeed, conducting an in-depth literature review and comparative analysis of research findings of various secondary sources of data is essential in providing an abstract view of a given theoretical construct. The only anticipated drawback is the capacity of the literature materials deployed to reflect on the status of the theoretical approaches to reductionist and anti reductionist in religions and religious studies.

Literature Review

Religion is one of the areas of study that have attracted a lot of scholarly interest. Some the scholars such as Eliade view religion as a phenomenon that can only be studied as a whole. Others such as Robert Segal consider religion as one that comprises various facets and that a clear understanding of it can be realized by studying various components that make it a whole. The reductionists hold the first line of argument while the latter line of argument is held by antireductionist.

Reductionists believe that religions can be understood by fragmenting them into various nonreligious causes. Various scholars have cited various ways in which reductionists’ perspectives on reduction can be explained. For instance, Chan and Roland claim that religion is possible to reduce into some humanity perceptions such as right or wrong (216). This argument implies, “religion is fundamentally a primitive attempt that is aimed at controlling our environment” (Clayton and Davies 32). Consequently, by studying various ways in which religion can help in attaching meaning to the environments in which people live, it is possible to gain an understanding of how religion shapes the lives of people. It also becomes possible to question some of the beliefs that are spread by religious affiliations in the extent of how they influence people either in the right or in the wrong way. From a reductionist perspective, religion can be interpreted as encompassing ways for explaining the physical world to confer coupled with enhancing the survivability of various people who make up global populations (Clayton and Davies 43). In this context, one of the processes that can help to explain religions is natural selection.

The dilemma of religion is not only an issue of concern to religious scholars but also other scholars in the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Examples of anthropologists who have found religious reductionists’ theoretical paradigms important in influencing their works are George Frazer and Burnett Tylor who argued in their anthropology works that religions are incredible in influencing people’s cultural artifacts (Clayton and Davies 51). Consequently, attempting to study cultural artifacts of people including how they dress, their morals, and codes of ethics, also calls for an understanding of how religion has evolved for a given group of people under consideration. This assertion reinforces the argument that religion is only possible to study by studying various individual facets that comprise it. Psychologists are also interested in the reductionists’ school of thought while interpreting religion. For instance, Sigmund Freud argued that religion is a form of illusion or some form of mental illness. On the other hand, Marxists view religion as a means for the oppressed to seek solace.

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In their book Beyond Determinism and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person, Chan, and Roland argue that, if events are to have a complete explanation, there should be no more than one theory explaining each of the events (215). Unfortunately, religion has taken several years to shape up and evolve. Such evolution processes emanate from a variety of issues, which make people subscribe to different beliefs. This argument means that a scholarly inquiry as to why people believe in certain ways and not others may give rise to some historical events, which can be associated with the sporadic change of the people’s beliefs. The argument here is that any development in religion can be attributed to several processes as opposed to one process. A clear understanding of religion is thus only possible to gain by studying these individual processes and then drawing inferences to the whole. This school of thought is directly congruent with reductionists’ perspective of contextualization of reality. Reductionists believe that the laws, which govern reality, are few and quantifiable (Chan and Roland 223). Is it possible to quantify religion, which has taken several processes to shape up, with a single law?

Response to the above query gives rise to the antireductionist school of thought. In recent years, there have been two tendencies to explain religion from the paradigms of eliminative and naturalistic reductionists from the realm of science, cultural reductionists, and political reductionists. Eliminative reductionism constitutes “the various cognition theories coupled with philosophical and psychological justifications” (Flood 92). Cultural reductionism implies various accounts that are organized in a manner that religion is interpreted from only the perspective of political representation and power structures. The conceptualization of religion from the dimensions of cultural, eliminative, and political hegemonies implies that it is immensely difficult to study it without breaking it down into various forces, whether cultural, political or even social forces, which give rise to its emergence. This assertion reflects the reductionists’ school of thought, which aims at reducing whole parts and explaining higher levels in terms of lower ones as the ultimate direction for all scientific researches (Kunin 69).

From the account of reductionists, explaining religion is tantamount to locating the cause (appreciation of genetics, social, and political aspects) coupled with an explanation of various external accounts that are associated with it. Flood supports this line of thought by further asserting, “Both kinds of reductionism share incredulity to religious truth claims besides offering explanations and critique that are rigorously externalist in their explanation of religion and thoroughly materialist in their ontological and ethical pre-commitments” (69). Indeed, attempting to explain religion by locating its causative elements is also rooted in theology.

Theology traces the cause of religion to God. On the other hand, science also attempts to explain religion by attempting to locate its cause. However, scientists differ from theologists in the approaches of examination of the causes of religion in that science sees the arguments raised by theologists as incredibly based on falsified accounts (Wildman, Sosis, and McNamara 170).

In some quotas of interpretation of religion, it is interpreted in terms of the operational framework. From this paradigm, every phenomenon, which may be deployed to explain processes of religion, is reduced to explanatorily sacred meanings. Many scholars who have inclined to this school of thought runways from the reality that they subscribe to the reductionism approaches to studies of religions since they claim to be distanced from it. However, they borrow the reductionist interpretation of religion since their strategies for interpreting religion are aligned with “explaining complex phenomena in terms of simpler components taken to be the basis for adequate explanations” (Flood 103). This approach is opposed to the approach of anti-reductionists in studies of religion. According to Jones (b), anti-reductionist believe in the autonomy of every theory that can be utilized in explaining a given phenomenon (Wildman, Sosis, and McNamara 170). This argument means that no single examination or set of theories can be utilized exhaustively to provide a complete understanding of causation and the conceptualization of a particular phenomenon.

Considering the different arguments raised by reductionists and anti reductionists in the approaches of studying religion, Stausberg argues that the two schools of thought influence ideologies and theological approaches to religion (51). In particular, Stausberg is quick to point out that phenomenologists of religion maintain that religion operates as an entity that stands on its own (53). This means it cannot be fragmented into its constituent components. However, Kunin is opposed to such a view by claiming that anti-reductionists do not fail to embrace the fact that wholes can be analyzed in parts (69).


Antireductionists raise a myriad of counterarguments against the arguments raised by reductionists in matters of religious studies. Reductionists believe that to explain the existence of something, it is important to lay fundamental principles, which hold all components that make up an object. As evidenced by the arguments raised in the literature review section, epistemologically, anti-reductionism believes that the ability to isolate the universal principles that hold the components of something together is not enough to understand it (Chan and Roland 223).

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From an ontological perspective, anti-reductionism argues that some forms of high-level existence require going beyond the principles governing their constituents (Jones 118). This argument implies that all things that exist in their real forms must comprise the same elements. Ultimately, there exists an account for anything that happens including social transformation that is experienced by people either culturally, politically, and/or religiously. In explaining such an account, the path of transformation is traceable. This argument perhaps nullifies the argument that religion could emerge sporadically as a whole without having to undergo various processes from some past to the present state. Consequently, from the dimension of higher forms, and arguing from the perspective of reductionists, phenomena, and objects are aggregate forms of lower-level ones. Thus, they are reducible to lower-level realities (Stausberg 54). This argument causes the antireductionist to raise a counter-argument that, in some instances, people have limitations that are attributed to their incapacity to understand a phenomenon completely so that the lower forms are well known such as the case of explaining the process of the emergence of religion.

In case people are not able to provide explanations to an abstract phenomenon, Kunin argues that they seek information elsewhere to supplement the limitations associated with inadequate mental capacities (64). Therefore, attempting to understand religion from a wholesome perspective, as anti-reductionists would suggest, amounts to some kind of illusion as suggested by Sigmund Freud. Consequently, since anti-reductionists would never opt to subcontract justifications or simply allow different interpretations based on various schools of thought such as anthropology and sociology, their arguments in terms of interpretations of religion suffer scholarly criticisms.


As clearly brought out in the discussions raised in the literature review, the subject of contextualization of religions attracts valid views and interpretations depending on whether one is inclined to the reductionist or anti-reductionist school of thought. From a scientific approach, all phenomena comprise wholes, which can further be subdivided into smaller ones. While reductionists support this assertion, it is a contentious issue from the antireductionists’ perspective to think of religion as being fragmented into small elements to ease its study. As argued in the paper, anti-reductionists suggest that religion can be studied as a whole in its own right instead of attempting to theorize its causations. This position was debated in the context of the position of the paper that region can be understood via other (outside) forms of scrutiny.

Works Cited

Clayton, Philip, and Paul Davies. The Re-emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Flood, Galvin. The importance of religion: religion and reductionism. Oxford, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, 2008. Print.

Jones, Richard (a). Analysis and the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. New York: Jackson Square Books, 2013. Print.

Jones, Richard (b). Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality. Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 2000. Print.

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Kunin, Seth. Theories of Religion: A Reader. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

Stausberg, Michael. Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion. Oxon: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Wildman, Wesley, Richard Sosis, and Patrick McNamara. Reductionism in the scientific study of religion, Religion, Brain and Behaviour 1.3(2011): 169-172. Print.