Innovation and tradition: towards an institutional theory of religion

Disbrey, Claire (1990). Innovation and tradition: towards an institutional theory of religion. PhD thesis The Open University.



Philosophical theories of religion often appeal to supposed facts about the way religions change and, in particular, to the role of innovators. This, is true of theories that stress the priority of experience and the priority of language. In this thesis an historical case study of innovation in religion is used as evidence of the inadequacy of both these sorts of theories and to suggest that same form of 'institutional' theory would form a base for a more satisfactory theory of religion.

Consideration is given to William James' and Alasdair McIntyre's accounts of religion and the implications of these for the roles of innovators. A case study of George Fox, wham they both invoke, is shown to validate neither, but to raise several general requirements for a theory of religion if it is satisfactorily to characterize innovation.

The problems that arise in meeting these requirements in both empiricist theories and current theories derived fran Wittgenstein's ideas about language are surveyed. Problems encountered in attempts at setting up institutional theories in the field of aesthetics are considered.

Any sort of essentialist theory or theories which see institutions solely in terms of bodies of people are rejected. Institutions are characterized'rather as repetitive forms of behaviour that have special representative or expressive meaning for a human community.

It is demonstrated that the central concepts of religions - religious activities, religious objects and religious experiences - are institutional concepts.

The criticisms that an institutional theory will inevitably lead to unacceptable forms of essentialism, relativism and naturalism, are faced and shown to be unfounded. It is concluded that it is possible to set up an institutional theory of religion that offers a satisfactory characterization of innovation in religion.

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