A semiotic and emergent theory of religious communities
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Two influential twentieth-century theorists of religion, Émile Durkheim and Roy Rappaport, analyzed religious communities in terms of distinctive features that emerge under special circumstances from the complex dynamics of ordinary human sociality. Durkheim was deeply impressed by the emergent features of religious sociality, to the point that he interpreted a religious community as expressing the way society - thought of as a system of active forces arising from and operating on the constituent individuals - can become self-aware, thinking and feeling through individuals. The status of Durkheim's strong language about religious communities having states of consciousness is a matter of debate but, however his usage is construed, he does make a strong claim on behalf of the emergent properties of complex social systems. Rappaport proposed that a religious community is an adaptive system maintaining itself in an environment, in a manner formally similar to biological organisms. In both cases, emergence is a central theme, yet it is insufficiently explained and theorized. This dissertation argues that emergence theory as it has been developed in the years since Durkheim and Rappaport published, most notably by Terrence Deacon, illuminates the arguments of Durkheim and Rappaport and can render their claims about emergent properties and adaptive social dynamics more precisely and more fruitfully. In general terms, emergence theory analyzes the way relational and organizational features of an aggregate play a causal role in system dynamics, resulting in new system capabilities and qualities. Deacon's achievement is to characterize different kinds of emergent systems in terms of the different ways meaning and reference (semiotics) function in system dynamics. This conceptual linkage between emergence and semiotics is extremely promising for interpreting the emergent features of forms of sociality in which religious meanings and beliefs play vital roles. In applying Deacon's account of emergence to the theories of religious community presented by Durkheim and Rappaport, this dissertation characterizes religious communities as semiotic-emergent systems, and from this perspective analyzes the organizational form of religious community dynamics.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University
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