The Theory of “Religious Needs”

In the field of religious studies, one can frequently encounter the idea of “religious needs.” That is, the idea that there are certain needs that all people share which are met by religions, or not. This is usually employed in an explanatory fashion, such as, a religion being successful because it meets people’s religious needs, or being in decline because while it once met people’s needs, it no longer does. (I’m using the term “religion” here broadly, that is, to include both institutionalized religions and much more informal “spiritual” movements.)

Such a usage indicates a causal understanding—religious needs cause certain outcomes, though there may be various intermediary steps either stated or implied. The fact that the causal character is employed implicitly indicates that the concept is under-theorized (at least none of the usages of the concept that I have encountered are adequately theorized). It is, in other words, simply used as if everyone already understood what it means, but without any explanation or justification. It is offered as an explanatory concept without evidence that the putative referent actually exercises any causal agency. (I say “putative” to emphasize that there may be no referent beyond the rhetorical use. Such an analysis acknowledges Ă  la Wittgenstein that the the phrase has a meaning, but at the same time has no objective referent that can act as a causal agent.)

If it is intended simply as a descriptive term, then it might be exemplified. When examples of putatively religious needs are given, the most common ones seem to be “meaning,” and “belonging.” These two, however, exemplify one of the problems of religious needs theory. Neither of these are in any way particularly religious in nature. It is true that religions may meet these needs, but that is different from saying that they are religious needs. By analogy, one may have a need for food that can be fulfilled by donuts, but one does not have a “donut need” (except, perhaps, humorously).

The vacuous character of “religious needs” theory (i.e., it functions as an empty signifier) does point to a more significant issue. That issue is the way in which certain aspects of human existential reality are structured in terms of needs and in terms of religion, and then conjointly as religious needs. Acknowledging the Maslowian “hierarchy of needs,” the needs identified there are abstract, that is, they operate at the level of “meaning,” and “belonging.” More concretely, much of what people experience as needing is strongly conditioned by consumer capitalism. While it is easy to trivialize this reality with examples such as “you deserve a break today,” the construction of the self in accord with the very sense of identity as a consumer and as being fulfilled by consuming is at the very core of contemporary subjectivity. In contemporary society, to have religious needs means consuming religious products.

The idea of religious needs is probably supported by a diffuse, implicit acceptance of the Eliadean notion of “homo religiosus,” that is, the idea that humans are in some way irreducibly religious, or have an inherent religiosity. (The concept of “homo religiosus” itself is effectively polemical in nature, rather than having any objective status.) The current deployment of religious needs theory, however, places it in the context of consumer capitalism and the analysis of religion in terms of rational choice theory. The neoliberal social organization implicit in rational choice theory includes the idea of individual agents acting in their own perceived self-interest. (It is this latter that rational choice theorists seem mean by “rational,” not some more abstract notion of logical or reasonable.)

Thus, this seemingly unproblematic notion presented as if everyone accepts and understands it, in fact turns out to be deeply enmeshed in a particular construction of the subject and a particular political economics. Its uncritical use as an explanatory device is more indicative of a lack of theoretical reflection, than of explanatory power.