Semiotic Approaches to Religion

Robert Yelle

The following is a paper prepared that was prepared for the purpose of stimulating discussion at the initial meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion’s Working Group on the Semiotics of Religion in November, 2009. It attempts to lay out some of the key topics in the semiotics of religion, in both the structural and historical branches of that discipline, in outline form, without presenting the evidence, analysis, and citations normally expected in a scholarly document. The goal is to provide an overview of the semiotics of religion, to indicate some of the important issues within the field, especially neglected issues, and to sketch connections among different topics so as to create a kind of “network” that begins to map the terrain of the semiotics of religion. The treatment of certain issues may therefore appear cursory, idiosyncratic, or underdeveloped. In particular, much less attention is paid to the structural dimensions of the Semiotics of Religion than to its historical dimensions, in part because the structural dimensions are better known, and in part because of the author’s own interests and competence. Overall, the paper presents the case that more attention both to the semiotic properties of religious phenomena, and to the semiotic ideologies that are embedded in particular religious traditions, is necessary for an adequate account of both the structural and historical dimensions of religion.


There was a brief efflorescence of interest in semiotic methodologies from the 1960’s to the 1980’s within religious studies, coinciding with a parallel efflorescence in other disciplines, and particularly within anthropology, where, among others, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work on myth, Victor Turner’s work on the ritual process, and Mary Douglas’ work on ritual symbols all applied structuralism to religious materials in innovative ways. Following the poststructuralist critique of structuralism in other disciplines and a general shift of emphasis from the analysis of symbols to that of social processes, religious studies has largely moved away from explicit engagement with semiotic methodologies and questions, especially from an engagement with certain types of “hard core” semiotics still being pursued in other disciplines, as for example by linguistic anthropologists such as Michael Silverstein. However, some scholars of religion exhibit lingering interests in semiotic perspectives, as evidenced by, among others, Wendy Doniger’s continuing use of structuralist analyses of myth; Jonathan Z. Smith who has occasionally (as in To Take Place, Chapter Five) directly addressed the semiotic dimensions of ritual; the continuing application (often without careful critique or development) of theories of the “speech act” or “performative utterance” (following J. L. Austin and John Searle) to certain forms of religious language or behavior; and, now, the emerging field of cognitive science of religion, which often addresses religious phenomena with explicitly semiotic dimensions (such as religious transmission, communication, and ritualization), and occasionally borrows concepts from semiotics (e.g., the concepts of “icon” and “index”) or semiotic theoreticians, but applies these concepts in ways that may be different from the ways in which they have been applied by students of cultural semiotics. In addition to these various applications of semiotics to the structural dimensions of religious phenomena, the past several decades have witnessed important work on the historical dimensions of the semiotics of religion, ranging from Umberto Eco’s work on earlier religious projects for a “perfect language,” to accounts of the religious dimensions of the semiotic shift in early modernity and the Reformation (Peter Harrison) and the rise of a self-definition of modernity as a mode of linguistic or more broadly semiotic transparency, and the ways in which such a difference in linguistic ideologies has informed the colonial encounter between European and non-European cultures (Webb Keane; R. Yelle).

Despite these developments and lingering interest in older methodologies, it nevertheless appears that semiotics has made little progress in persuading the field of religious studies as a whole of the importance of its potential contribution. This is likely for various reasons. Religious studies as a discipline was never as productive in developing new theories and applications of semiotics as were several other disciplines, including not only anthropology but also literary studies. Much of the semiotic work done in religious studies has been derivative. Semiotics is viewed by many as an esoteric subdiscipline, now long past its prime, that has been largely discredited by poststructuralist and more broadly postmodern critiques. Moreover, semiotics is often couched in an abstruse and off-putting terminology, which requires an investment of time to learn. Without being given further evidence of the value of semiotic theory for an understanding of religion, it is highly unlikely that many scholars of religion will choose to make that investment. It must also be frankly stated that, too often, semiotics has deployed its terminology for talismanic purposes, rather than for purposes of explanation. Part of the intention of this Working Group is to explore the largely unexplored relevance of semiotics for religious studies, and vice-versa, by elaborating a series of issues and framing a semiotic perspective, rather than initiating scholars of religion into the sometimes arcane terminology of semiotics.

In fact, the study of religion needs semiotics in order to understand not only such key phenomena as myth and ritual, but also the secularization or “disenchantment” of the world, which (as mediated through Protestant literalism and iconoclasm) has had profound consequences for religious experience and the construction of modernity. Both original versions of the idea of “disenchantment” described this as a semiotic event, a transformation in linguistic ideologies. According to early Christian tradition, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross silenced the pagan oracles and abrogated the Jewish ceremonial laws, ushering in a new mode of semiotic transparency opposed to such obscure and figurative discourses. The entire edifice of Christian typological interpretation was based on such concepts. Elements of these originally mythological accounts, as mediated through Protestantism, have influenced the semiotic ideology of modernity in important ways. Protestant attacks on mythological and ritual language, which were nowhere more evident than in the colonial encounter, contributed to what we think of as the “secularization” of the world.

From a longer-term perspective, the neglect of the semiotic dimensions of our modern culture, as well as the critique of the excessively symbolic dimensions of indigenous or traditional cultures, reflect in part an inherited bias against symbolism and the very successful self-representation of modernity as a mode of realism or literalism. Yet this bias arguably stems from inherited theological categories and tropes that have yet to be examined in any detail. Despite Mircea Eliade’s interest in symbolism as a means of approach to religion, and account of the dependence of the “archaic ontology” on “archetypes” (which differed in crucial ways from the “types” of Christian typology) as a defining characteristic of “sacred” as opposed to “profane” experience, there have been few efforts recently to define broader processes in the history of religions in semiotic terms. Semiotics affords at least one perspective from which to approach both the overall history of religions and the specific properties of different religious systems, and to integrate the structural and historical dimensions of the study of religion.

As this brief summary indicates, for its own development, semiotics needs religious studies every bit as much as religious studies needs semiotics. Attention to the historical dimensions and cultural embeddedness of semiotic theory, in which religion and religious ideologies figure prominently, and not only of particular modes of semiotic praxis, can help to liberate semiotics from its contemporary fixation with scientistic and culturally parochial modes of analysis.

The primary reason for why this has not yet been done is the history of the development of the modern discipline of semiotics, as well as the nature of the ways in which semiotics has been appropriated until recently, especially within anthropology and literary studies, where the emphasis has been on the synchronic study of either texts or entire cultures. Within the discipline of semiotics, the emphasis, since the time of the founders (de Saussure and Peirce), has been primarily on the development of an account of the coherence of the signifier-signified relation, of a typology of signs, and of the structural analysis of the properties of language as a system (langue) or of other analogous cultural systems such as those exhibited in literature, mythology, ritual, etc. Consequently, there has been relatively less attention paid to a description of the historical differences among different semiotic systems or phases.

During the modern emergence of the discipline of semiotics, following Ferdinand de Saussure, the insistence on the arbitrary nature of the sign, which consequently has value only in terms of its position within a system, has been a cardinal discovery. For various reasons, this discovery of the arbitrariness of the sign, although not wholly unanticipated (it was, for example, firmly established at least by the time of Locke in the late 17th century), marks a break with many earlier semiotic ideologies, which consequently have been reinterpreted, in light of this discovery, as “pre-scientific” and fundamentally misguided, or at least untrustworthy as guides to a science of signs, properly speaking. This may help to explain a corresponding tendency to ignore the semiotic theories of earlier cultures, except possibly as curiosities.

The typologies of signs developed within both European semiology and Peircean semiotic themselves contain no reference to the historical dimensions of signification. Whether the duality of Jakobsonian metaphor and metonymy is in question, or the Peircean triad of icon, index, and symbol, these categories of relation between signified and signified not only are presented as exhausting the logical range of possibilities, but as ever-present alternatives for constructing sign relations. And so they may be, to a significant extent. Yet the presentation of this typology as the key to an atemporal, one-size-fits-all “science” of semiotics obscures the fact that different modes of sign relation have been emphasized within different semiotic ideologies, and that there have been, within this overall variety, some larger trends that allow us to characterize the semiotic ideology of modernity as distinct in some important respects from that which has obtained in earlier historical periods. In defining or influencing these broader trajectories, religious systems have played a crucial role. Hence our present interest in the topic.

Further, the otherwise valuable impulse of semiotics to constitute itself on a scientific basis and thereby to secure recognition of its legitimacy as an independent academic discipline has led in many cases to a “scientism” or bias against historical and cultural approaches that has, instead of strengthening the discipline, limited its explanatory power and appeal. The view of the Semiotics of Religion that we propose is quite different. It incorporates both structural and historical dimensions as necessary components of a semiotics of culture, and aims to develop a flexible theory capable of accounting for semiotic difference, rather than aiming for the perpetual reconfirmation of some predetermined model. If this goal can be met, then in our view, semiotics offers the prospect of connecting the human, social, and cognitive sciences, while recognizing the prerogatives of each of these areas of enquiry.

Part One: Structural Dimensions

Myth, ritual, and magic are some of the key religious phenomena to which semiotic theories, originally developed to account for the properties of language, have been applied. Although there continues of course to be a vigorous debate over the possibility of defining these phenomena in any terms, semiotics has proposed some fruitful definitions and analytical typologies.

We will spend little time here on myth. According to Lévi -Strauss’ well-known account, myth negotiates the binary opposition between nature and culture by playing with these categories and their metaphorical analogues in narrative form. Myth, as distinguished from contemporary thought, engages in a form of practical reasoning or “bricolage,” using what is at hand (e.g., animals and plants, or natural processes) as the tools with which to reflect on contradictions inherent in the human condition. Although some contemporary theorists continue to deploy aspects of Lévi -Strauss’ method, the more important recent developments in the semiotics of religion have concerned ritual.

Ritual has been evaluated as a semiotic phenomenon or mode of “performance,” going back several decades. Stanley Tambiah’s “performative approach” already combined several semiotic approaches to ritual as a mode of communication, rhetorical performance, and “indexical icon,” borrowing the latter concept from Charles Sanders Peirce. Tambiah also framed the problem of “ritual involution,” the paradox that the same formal features of ritual—such as repetition, stereotyping, and the coordination of multiple registers—may lead either to a sense of the heightened significance of ritual, or to its loss of meaning and cultural efficacy. In many ways, this was a false problem, created by the attempt to derive the function of ritual solely from its structural features, while neglecting the importance of historical context. The phenomenon of the “repudiation of ritual” in recent centuries, noted by such scholars as Peter Burke, Catherine Bell, and Talal Asad, has important connections with transformations in cultural attitudes toward certain modes of ritual. (See Part Two below.)

More recent approaches to the semiotics of ritual have tended to bifurcate into two directions. One contemporary theory substitutes for ritual the category of “ritualization,” which has the advantage of focusing on ritual performance as a self-reflexive and agentive behavior that also calls attention to itself, and therefore possesses communicative power. In keeping with the contemporary insistence on the arbitrary nature of the sign, “ritualization” is normally viewed as a flexible strategy that uses any means conceivable—such as repetition, sing-song, unusual behaviors, or combinations of actions not normally coordinated—to heighten the function of ritual as a sign, in the first instance, of the bare fact of ritual.  Ritual achieves whatever power it has by virtue of the sheer “difference” that it announces from ordinary behavior. The idea of ritual as sheer “difference” is widespread, and coordinates with poststructuralist views of the function of signs. Some of Catherine Bell’s work may be classified under this heading.

A different approach adopted by some other semioticians has been to define ritual through its frequent proliferation, beyond a degree normally found in discourse or conduct, of certain types of signs, such as especially icons and indexes, or of the “poetic function.” (Within the Peircean triad of signs, icons are based on similarity, indexes are based on contiguity, coexistence, or co-occurrence, and symbols are arbitrary. Roman Jakobson’s use of “metaphor” and “metonym” overlapped, to some degree, with icon and index, respectively.) Such an approach converges to some degree with the older account of sympathetic magic, by E. B. Tylor and James Frazer, as invoking relations of similarity and contiguity to create the illusion, or occasion for the mistaken inference, of a causal connection. Arguably, the deployment of such ostensibly “non-arbitrary” or, in some sense, “motivated” signs serves to heighten the effectiveness of ritual as a sign of that which it seeks to bring about. The notion of the “indexical icon,” which Tambiah attributed to Peirce, has been developed most systematically by Michael Silverstein, following his teacher Roman Jakobson’s effort to intergrate Peircean semiotics with the insights of structuralist poetics and the Saussurean tradition of semiology. The “indexical icon” can be interpreted as a sign that mimics or imitates causation through the construction of an indexical sign relation. This is an especially prominent feature of many magical rituals, which use both icons (similarity) and indexes (contagion) to reinforce an underlying indexical or quasi-causal relation between the ritual and its goal. Icons and other relatively motivated signs appear to have a rhetorical function in these cases (Yelle 2003). The same phenomenon can be observed in many rituals of punishment, which also construct an analogy, based on similarity or contiguity, between the crime and punishment. Although the indexical relation in this case is retrospective, the principle is the same.

Another example that does not appear to be fully accounted for by the “ritualization” hypothesis is the proliferation of poetic devices—rhyme and other forms of repetition—in ritual language. Although, in many cases, this may simply signal the sheer “difference” of ritual discourse from other types of language, in other cases it appears to serve the function of rhetorical reinforcement. The prevalence of rhyme in many pre-modern oaths and magic spells, of which “to have and to hold” is a lingering vestige, may have contributed to the memorability of such formulas. Yet it also contributed to their function as a mode of rhetorical persuasion, as suggested by the continuing use of such formulas in political and advertising slogans. It was, in part, the recognition of the rhetorical function of such devices that led to their decline, as we can observe in the Puritan critique of “vain repetitions” in prayer, discussed further in Part Two.

A study of Hindu Tantric mantras (Yelle 2003) exemplifies that such devices may also be used to create the illusion of a “natural” language, one that bears an essential connection to physical reality, and may therefore be deployed for magical purposes. Tantric mantras use a range of poetic devices, including chiastic or palindromic diagrams of various culturally figured processes of creation, to make mantras “effective” (siddha). In this case, icons are used to reinforce a claimed indexical relation between language and reality, and the syllables of the mantra literally “lead up to” and virtually bring about the concrete objective spoken at the center of the mantra. This indicates the importance of a focus on the pragmatic dimensions of ritual, rather than merely the semantics of religious symbolism, and coordinates with an orientation toward ritual performance.

While such examples suggest the incompleteness of the “ritualization” hypothesis as an explanation of the semiotic dimensions of ritual, they also point to some important differences between the semiotic ideology of traditional cultures and modernity, respectively. According to Tantra, mantras are not only a natural language, but also embody the gods; language is consubstantial with both physical reality and divinity. This theory of linguistic immanentism, which was never the only or even necessarily the dominant theory among Hindus, came under severe attack by British Protestants in the colonial era. For the British, such forms of ritual language threatened the separation of divinity and language from each other, and from nature; they were both contrary to reason and a form of idolatry.

Should we then posit a latent tendency to view icons and indexes, as opposed to symbols, as “non-arbitrary”? This would help to explain the propensity to deploy such signs to rhetorical effect in ritual, as well as, in part, the attack on such uses as a mode of specious rhetoric. To better understand this cultural difference, we must shift to an account of the Historical Dimensions of the Semiotics of Religion.

Part Two: Historical Dimensions

Religion and the Semiotic Shift in Modernity

Let us begin to characterize some of the broader trends within the semiotics of religion, as they relate to semiotics more generally. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the more important trends:

1)    The decline of myth, ritual, and magic.

2)    The shift away from theories of the “natural” status of signs, or what is sometimes called a “magical” theory of language, and the ascendancy of a dominant concept that the sign is arbitrary, conventional, and bears no essential connection to that which it represents.

3)    The decline of many modes of oral performance, and the rise of a culture of the printed book, especially after the discovery and widespread application of moveable type in European culture beginning in the 15th century, and subsequently around the globe.

4)    The general decline of a symbolic, allegorical, or typological view of the world, and the gradual ascendancy of realism, literalism, or a prosaic view of the world.

5)    The rise of projects for a purification of language from errors, and the substitution of a perfect, universal, or rational language.

Each of these major trends is related to all of the others. The distinction among them therefore is partly misleading, and is mainly for analytical or heuristic purposes. In important ways, religion is implicated in each of these semiotic shifts. Our goal in what follows is to offer an outline of each of these broader trends, and to point to the role of and consequences for religion in each.

Briefly, although each of the above transitions has been noted previously and examined from different perspectives, the role of religious developments in regard to these transitions has been neglected or underestimated. The general bias has been to associate these transitions with the ascendancy of reason or science, as contrasted with religion. Without dismissing the contributions of developments in other areas of society, however, closer scrutiny of the genealogy of these developments suggests that transformations in religious ideas played a central role. Such movements we refer to as “Protestant literalism” and “iconoclasm,” for example, contributed not only to “scientific” polemics against mythological language and efforts to develop a universal, rationalized language or system of writing, but also to a broader “disenchantment” of language and, through this, of cosmology.

From Natural to Arbitrary

One major difference is that the premise of many pre-modern ritual systems—the belief in the possibility of a “natural” relation between language, or other cultural signs, and that which they represent—has been decisively rejected by the modern ideology, despite the impossibility of the complete eradication of such beliefs and the consequent persistence of magical thinking.

One point at which to locate this shift, although this was gradual and incomplete, is in 17th-century England, where Francis Bacon’s original call for a “real character” or system of writing that could serve as universal language was subject to differing interpretations. Some responded to this call by attempting to create a “natural” language that bordered on the magical in its ideology and claimed practical potential. Others, such as John Wilkins, insisted on the necessarily arbitrary nature of a “real character,” and John Locke, who criticized the project, can be credited with developing most clearly and insistently the theory of the arbitrary or conventional nature of language, more than two centuries before de Saussure.

This watershed moment in both semiotic and religious history, which Brian Vickers has referred to as the shift from the theory of the “identity” of words and things maintained by magical systems, to the theory of “analogy” maintained by scientific systems, was carried along with the Baconian tradition’s attack on the habit of “taking words as things,” which included such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Horne Tooke, and Jeremy Bentham. This tradition, which focused on an etymological reduction of language to its basic components, usually thought to be nouns, and connected these in turn with objects in the material world, was simultaneously nominalist and empiricist. Carried to different parts of the globe during the colonial era, this British tradition often clashed with other linguistic ideologies (Webb Keane). In India, for example, the British explicitly recognized and opposed the Hindu theory of the immanence of the divinity in language and nature, and the consubstantiality of these three categories, attacking this in terms borrowed from both the Baconian tradition and the Protestant attack on idolatry.

Although this semiotic transition has usually been identified as an innovation of the scientific movement, the Baconian tradition, going back to Bacon’s attack on “idols of the mind,” invoked Protestant iconoclasm and extended this beyond plastic to verbal images. There were religious precedents for so doing. Zwingli’s insistence that, in the phrase in the Latin Mass, “hoc est enim corpus meum,” the “est” must be taken in a symbolic rather than a literal sense, can be seen in its relation to Protestant attacks on various aspects of the Mass and of Catholic ritual generally as “idolatry,” as well to Protestant literalism and the attack on the symbolic view of the world that informed much of pre-Reformation Christianity.

As this last example indicates, the new mode of thought that arose is not appropriately designated “literalism.” Indeed, this view attacked the habit of taking words “literally” as things. What transpired was instead a sharpened distinction between literal and symbolic modes of interpretation, as well as an attack on the belief in the “identity” of words and things, as Vickers pointed out.

The “Decline” of Myth, Ritual, and Magic


The tradition definition of myth is “a story of the gods” which is believed, in some sense, or at least invested with sacred authority. Under this definition, it appears that myth has declined in modernity. Not only have certain sacred stories lost some of their authority, especially in their application to daily life (as has happened for many with the Bible), but the very notion of a sacred story that possesses ultimate authority, in part as a result of being revealed, rather than authored in a contemporary sense, seems incompatible with modernity.

Instead, modern culture has experienced a proliferation of contrasting genres, ranging from technical, scientific discourse to fictional works, such as the novel, none of which precisely matches the worldview or function that created the mythology of, say, the Bible, which was certainly neither “fiction” nor “science.”

Modern Western culture has exhibited a marked tendency to interpret myth as both literally false and, in some cases, as expressing a truth in allegorical or symbolic form. Whereas the latter mode of interpretation is now associated primarily with Romanticism, these were itself in part responses to a wholesale reduction of mythological language in accordance with nominalist and literalist philosophies. Thus, Romantic efforts to create a “new mythology” that would respond to the problem of the disappearance of divinity from nature were preceded by critiques of myth by the Baconian tradition and by a Christian and especially Protestant tradition of comparative mythology concerned to explain the origins of idolatry. Thomas Hobbes, who reflected both of these traditions, attacked in his Leviathan the “demonology of the gentiles” as stemming from the abuse of language. Following earlier comparative mythologists such as John Selden and Gerard Vossius, Hobbes attributed the mistaken beliefs of the pagans to the attribution of existence to what were only empty names. The theory of myth as a “disease of language,” in which “nomina become numina,” is most famously associated with Friedrich Max Müller in the second half of the 19th century. However, the same idea, often in the same terms, emerged from earlier comparative mythologists who were working more explicitly within the framework of Christian tradition. The reduction of mythological language was inspired in part by efforts to recover the true meaning of the Bible through historical philology. Müller merely extended this effort to the Hindu Vedas and scriptures of other peoples. With growing knowledge of both classical and contemporary non-Christian cultures, such literalist reduction contributed to an overall effort to reconcile history and ethnography with Biblical chronology or sacred history.


The shift from the interpretation of signs as natural to their interpretation as arbitrary is closely connected with the modern tendency to view ritual as a symbolic mode of behavior, as opposed to pragmatic or utilitarian conduct. In this case, “symbolic” is often a euphemism for “useless” and “requiring explanation,” although sometimes a semiotic reading of ritual contributes to a more positive evaluation of the social function of ritual as a mode of “performance.” Although the “repudiation of ritual” in modernity has been noted by a number of scholars, the semiotic dimensions of this phenomenon have less frequently been addressed.

From the perspective of any of these semiotic theories of ritual, ritual appears to have declined in modern culture. Such cultural invocations of metaphor and metonymy as were represented by either sympathetic magic, or the lex talionis and related modes of ritually styled punishment, have diminished though not disappeared. It would be as wrong to say that modernity has no rituals as it would be to say that it has no myths. However, there are some relatively clear differences between the semiotic ideology of modernity, and the semiotic ideologies that informed the myths and rituals of many pre-modern cultures.

Protestant literalism and iconoclasm contributed to a broader denigration of ritual language and performance. The general condemnation of Catholic ritual as “idolatry” stemmed in part from a reinterpretation of an ancient distinction between true, internal, “spiritual” religion and empty, external, “fleshly” ritual (cf. Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory). This distinction was based on Saint Paul’s definition of Christian “grace” against Jewish “law,” meaning, in the first instance, the ritual laws that enforced a separation of the Jews from other peoples. With Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, supposedly, the Mosaic laws, and in particular the “ceremonial laws” of the Jews, had been abrogated. They were part of the “Old Testament” or dispensation that had now been replaced by the New Testament.

The rise of a self-conscious notion of “ritual” as opposed to “non-ritual” behavior may be partly a product of early modernity, including especially the Reformation. However, the division of the Mosaic law so as to separate its “ceremonial” component was based on early Christian readings of Pauline theology, and the tripartite division into natural or moral, civil or judicial, and ceremonial laws was part of Catholic orthodoxy, and appears in Aquinas, long before the Reformation. Protestants merely deepened the attack on “ceremonial.”

Long before Mary Douglas provided a structuralist account of the dietary prohibitions in Leviticus, other scholars had found the rituals detailed in the Hebrew Bible puzzling and problematic. With the rise of Christian scholarship on Hebrew sources following the Renaissance and Reformation—an endeavor rendered vital by the Protestant insistence on the understanding and translation of scripture—these rituals were increasingly scrutinized. There were several further reasons for this, apart from the general interest in scripture. One was the question of which of the Mosaic laws remained in force under the Christian dispensation. The Protestant address of these questions de novo following the separation from Catholic tradition raised this question again to consciousness. Another was the general Protestant distrust of ritual as either “empty works” or outright idolatry, which led to a wholesale attack on the ritual economy of the medieval Church (as described by Max Weber). A further reason was the encounter with other cultures, such as the Hindus, which appeared to follow modes of worship similar to those of the Jews, raising the general problems of the explanation of the phenomenon of ritual from which Protestants were increasingly estranged, along with the need to reconcile the Biblical chronology so as to account for both similarities and differences among the rituals of different cultures.

It may not be a coincidence that, just around the time that Locke was writing his Essay, in which he elaborated his version of the doctrine of the conventional nature of the sign, another English scholar was insisting that ancient Jewish rituals also constituted arbitrary signs, or rather that the Mosaic “ceremonial laws” were instituted by God to mark the separation or difference of the Israelites from those idolatrous peoples by whom they were surrounded. The theory that Jewish rituals were designed by artifice and legislative fiat—albeit the deity’s—to mark out a sheer difference from, often as an inversion of, the rituals of pagans such as the Egyptians, was taken by John Spencer in his De legibus hebraeorum ritualibus (1685) partly from the Jewish scholar Maimonides (Guy Stroumsa), and may reflect the Egyptian historian Manetho’s earlier criticism of Judaism as an imitation of Egyptian religion (Amos Funkenstein). Other explanations of Jewish ritual emphasized that these rituals enforce, in real rather than merely symbolic terms, a social separation which has the same consequence.

It is highly questionable that ancient Jews themselves viewed their rituals in this way, although to answer this question is beyond our competence. The reading of Jewish ritual as sheer difference anticipates the modern concept of “ritualization,” as well as the general perspective, shared by adherents of that later theory, of ritual as a “puzzle” in need of solution. (The same perspective informs Douglas’s project, to some degree.) It also serves to connect this concept with the rise of a general concept of linguistic arbitrariness in the 17th century, and with Christian typological readings of the Bible.

The Protestant critique of “vain repetitions” in prayer (Matthew 6:7, 1560 Geneva Bible and 1611 Authorized Version), which can be traced back to John Calvin’s gloss of this verse, was deployed initially against such Roman Catholic practices as the chanting of the Ave Maria, Paternoster, and Litany. Protestants condemned such repetitions as rhetoric, magic, and idolatry. Such practices used poetry in a vain attempt to persuade God to work miracles in the world; as such, they were premised on the erroneous conception of an immanent and anthropomorphic deity. In British India, the same critique, with its attendant rationale, was applied to Hindu practices (such as Vedic recitation (svadhyaya) and the chanting of mantras (mantrajapa)) that resembled those of the Catholics. It would be mistaken to assume that this was a simple projection or category error, as many such Hindu practices were explicitly premised on a belief in an immanent deity, the magical power of mantras, and the consubstantiality of language with both nature and divinity. What such polemics reflected instead was a real difference in cosmology or linguistic ideology.

Like contemporaneous interpretations of Jewish ritual as “symbolic” and, therefore, potentially false behavior, the Protestant critique of vain repetitions in prayer evinced a greater awareness of the semiotic dimensions of ritual discourse (i.e. an emergence from semiotic innocence or the condition of a “naturalized” semiotic ideology), and was associated with broader trends in the acceleration of semiotic self-reflexivity, such as Protestant literalism, the development of philological science, and the rise, in Britain, of nominalist and empiricist theories of language.

Like the attack on mythological language as stemming from a falsely literalist reading of symbolic language, the Protestant critique of vain repetitions in prayer represented a valorization of not only literalism but the semantic dimensions of language, its content or substance, as opposed to its pragmatic or performative dimensions, its style and social function. The emphasis of the nominalist reduction of language on nouns, as opposed to verbs or entire sentences, as the roots or primary units of language was another manifestation of this tendency, which has now been rejected by a more scientific and ethnographically informed linguistics.

The anthropologist Webb Keane has presented a series of important studies of the semiotic ideology of Protestant missionaries in Sumba, Indonesia, and argued that the contrast between this ideology and the various indigenous ideologies that it opposed was premised on the Protestant condemnation of the “fetishizing” of certain forms of language, especially formalistic or performative ritual language, and a countervailing emphasis on sincerity and spontaneity in speech. Keane has argued for a Protestant genealogy of various modern efforts to “disenchant” language, and made a compelling case for the co-emergence of Protestant semiotic ideologies with modern notions of subjectivity and autonomy.

The Semiotic Dimensions of Disenchantment

The idea that the world has been “disenchanted” was not a product of Romanticism, despite Talal Asad’s contention to that effect. As Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Marcel Gauchet, among others, have suggested, disenchantment drew on ideas native to early Christianity (or even ancient Judaism). Protestantism and Deism reinterpreted and applied these ideas in new and powerful forms. According to the original version of the myth, the central “event” in human history was Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice. This was, supposedly, what had disenchanted the world. From then on, the efficacy of Jewish sacrifice and other rituals, and with this any obligation to perform the same, ceased. This singular event was signaled by the rending of the Temple Veil in Jerusalem, and by other wondrous occurrences. According to Eusebius (d. 339 CE), it was the death of Christ that silenced the pagan oracles, by driving the demons from the world and silenced their misleading pronouncements. Protestants insisted further that, with the Passion, all miracles, magic, and mystery ceased, and the obscurely figurative language of both the pagan oracles and Jewish rituals was replaced by the illuminated “plain speech” of the Gospel.

The fact that Weber converted the theological trope of “disenchantment” into a thesis of objective, universal history has created all sorts of confusion. Our concern at the moment, however, is solely with the semiotic dimensions of this “event.” According to both versions of the original myth outlined above, disenchantment is largely an event of discourse, the advent of semiotic transparency. Reinterpreted and coordinated with Protestant literalism and iconoclasm, this has contributed substantially to the self-definition of modernity as a domain of plain speech, opposed to the fictions of a superstitious past. This suggests immediately both the potential promise of a Semiotics of Religion to illuminate some of the distinctive features of modernity vis-à-vis the past, and some of the difficulties involved in thus framing a general history of religions in such a way that it does not merely replicate theological tropes.

“We use great plainness of speech…”

The notion of disenchantment was closely connected with Christian typology, which took various forms, and was related to but distinct from the allegorical modes of interpretation that arose within the same tradition. All such modes of reading scripture (or even other texts, or historical events) were, in a sense, anti-literalist, although they also contained (as in the standard four levels of interpretation of scripture) a “literal sense” (sensus literalis) that was much more heavily emphasized by Protestant theologians beginning with Luther. In general, however, the focus of typological readings was on the reading of the Hebrew Bible as prefiguring or predicting events recounted in the Gospels. Thus, Moses, who led his people out of captivity, was a “type” of Christ, who represented the “antitype.” Similarly, Isaac, almost sacrificed on Mount Moriah, was a “type” of Christ. We will not go too far astray by glossing the terms “type” and “antitype” by their modern counterparts “sign” and “referent.” The general thrust of Christian typology was to subordinate the so-called “Old Testament” to the New; in fact, such readings were a crucial part of the Christian self-presentation as that tradition which had superseded Judaism, just as the “antitype” replaces its “types,” which, having served their purpose, may now be discarded.

The denigration of the Hebrew Bible is expressed also in the various synonyms of “type”: shadow, emblem, figure (figura), even hieroglyph. Indeed, the term “to foreshadow” or “shadow forth” finds its etymology here. In modern literature foreshadowing is a device found exclusively in fantasy or surrealism. Although various Protestants produced their own versions of allegory and typology, the valorization of the sensus literalis over others contributed to a further devaluation of the “shadows” of the Hebrew Bible, and especially of its rituals. Both the reading of Jewish ritual as symbolic, and as having been replaced by a more literal truth, are encapsulated in Second Corinthians 3, which converts the veil worn by Moses upon his descent from Mt. Sinai into a sign of ignorance and darkness. This was interpreted by subsequent Christians as the veil of the Jewish ritual law. The Authorized Version (1611) of this chapter presents this as a distinction of modes of style or speech: in contrast to such obscure discourse, “we [Christians] use great plainness of speech…” The first references to “plain speech” or a “plain style” of speech in the English language appear to have been made in reference to either the Gospel or Saint Paul’s preaching.

What emerges from this brief summary of the intersection of Christian typological interpretations of Hebrew ritual with Protestant literalism, is that the very idea of the present moment as a transformation or conversion in modes of semiosis is also part of Christian soteriology. On some readings, indeed, it is just the rise of “plain speech” that signals salvation. Hence the utopian, millennialist dimensions of some related projects for clearing up linguistic error, as pursued by the Baconians, among others. Like many other proponents of a philosophical language or system of writing, John Wilkins invoked the contrasting stories of Babel, at which human beings were condemned to linguistic diversity, and Pentecost, which partly redeemed them from this fate, as both reason and precedent.

In some versions of the birth of modernity, Don Quixote appears as the first truly modern work of literature. Without adopting any opinion as to the merits of this thesis, it seems worthwhile to point out that this novel proceeds in part through an ironic rejection of or distancing from Christian typology (as represented farcically by Quixote’s “tilting at windmills”), and the concomitant development of a new mode of subjectivity (Anthony Cascardi).

In passing we may mention Mircea Eliade’s theory of archetypes, which identified these as paradigms for significant human action in the present. Of interest here is that Eliade’s theory of archetypes encoded a theory of decline from an original perfection, a wholeness that can only be approached asymptotically by each of its later tokens. This is in complete contrast with orthodox Christian typology, according to which the unfolding of meaning is progressive; there is evolution rather than devolution. The types merely foreshadowed imperfectly the events of the Gospel, though it is also true that, following the closure of the canon, Christian vision also assumed retrospective dimensions. Eliade indicated that the Christian notion of history may have contributed to the disruption of the original pattern of “archetypes” in the “archaic ontology.” Yet he offered no account of how, on the level of semiotic ideology, this might have happened.

The Ideology of Print Culture

Many of these developments were associated with the rise of the technology of the printed book, and the culture associated with this (“print culture”). Numerous scholars have discussed the influence of printing on society and culture, including Jack Goody, Walter Ong, and Elizabeth Eisenstadt, who argued that printing may have contributed more to both the “disenchantment of the world” and the “decline of magic” than either Max Weber or Keith Thomas acknowledged. Indeed, when we focus on the semiotic dimensions of what we call “disenchantment,” there appears to be a close connection between printing and various modes of iconoclasm.

To begin with, if images are the books of the illiterate, as Pope Gregory the Great argued, then it is natural that, with the rise of literacy, there would be less need for the communication of religious (or other) ideas through the vehicles of pictures and plastic images. A deepened emphasis on textual interpretation associated with Protestant literalism, the extension of the religious requirement to engage with scripture, and the spread of literacy and focus on the “common sense” meaning of the Bible that made all of this possible, arguably encouraged the reduction of mythological and metaphysical language described above.

A further indication of the importance of printing to these developments is the nature of the forms of language selected as targets of the Protestant critique of “vain repetitions.” Vedic recitation and the chanting of mantras in India were practices that reflected the preeminence of oral modes of religious transmission and practice in a culture that possessed only manuscript writing prior to the arrival of European colonialism. Attacks on these practices suggest the importation into South Asia of an ideology of print culture that was disposed to devalue such forms.

Conclusion; Excursus on the Tasks of the Semiotics of Religion and the Need for Engagement with the Cognitive Science of Religion

I am very much aware that this is only one author’s opinion. The purpose of this document is to stimulate discussion concerning a broader range of intersections between semiotics and the study of religion that could be explored to the mutual benefit of both disciplines. My intent is certainly not to foreclose any topics by proposing a rigid program. In order to be successful, this Working Group, and the Semiotics of Religion itself, must be a collaborative effort.

Nevertheless, the brief, necessarily idiosyncratic survey above of some of the structural and historical dimensions of the Semiotics of Religion will, I hope, already have suggested that the importance of this prospective discipline—the realization of which lies in engagement with the broader discipline of Religious Studies, and not in isolation from that discipline—is far greater than is ordinarily believed by those who have not inquired into the topic. The Semiotics of Religion may contribute to the elaboration of general theories of the formal features and pragmatic functions of a range of religious ideas and practices, including especially the traditional concerns of the discipline, namely ritual and myth. More significant, and less well understood, is the contribution that the Semiotics of Religion stands to make to the development of a typology of different religious traditions, an overall account of the history of religions that has been lacking in the field, and even a genealogy of modernity, which owes part of its self-definition to originally theological mythemes of “disenchantment” that were fundamentally concerned with defining Christian soteriology as a conversion to a “plain style” of speech.

The structural dimensions of the Semiotics of Religion are closely related to the Cognitive Science of Religion, which is the field in which such issues of semiotic importance as ritualization (cf. Jesper Sørensen) and modes of religious transmission (Harvey Whitehouse) are currently being addressed most directly. The Cognitive Science of Religion, with its discussions of “icons” and “indexes,” has borrowed some of the terminology of semiotics. Such categories as “icon” and “index” clearly are cognitive in nature, and it would be good to bring them outside the field of speculation into the experimental domain. The focus of a Cognitive Science of Religion on elaborating  universal theories, albeit ones that establish in some cases differentiated typologies (e.g., Whitehouse’s “two modes”), needs however to be qualified by a deeper recognition of the embeddedness of religious praxis within emic theorizations or what have been called “linguistic” or “semiotic ideologies.” These display tremendous variety, but also certain cross-cultural patterns, as for example with the resemblances among cultures that employ “magical” rituals, on the one hand, and cultures that aim for iconoclasm or semiotic transparency, on the other. The path to the recognition of the influence of such semiotic ideologies lies trough the deeper engagement with anthropological and historical study of semiotic systems.  The brief survey given above should serve to indicate already how important the role of religious studies in this engagement will be.

Above all, there needs to be a rapprochement between the “scientific” and “cultural” approaches to both religion and semiotics. By focusing attention especially on the neglected historical dimensions of semiotic inquiry, the present discussion paper aims to stimulate this necessary rapprochement. But it will take the respectful engagement of scholars of religion of all inclinations and competences to carry this out.

Representative Bibliography

Eric Auerbach, “Figura,” Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 1959), 11-78.

Richard Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few: Symbolism of Speaking and Silence among Seventeenth-Century Quakers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs, Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Jack Goody and Ian Watt, AThe Consequences of Literacy,@ Comparative Studies in Society and History 5 (1963): 304-45.

Margreta de Grazia, “The Secularization of Language in the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 41 (1980): 319-29.

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom & Fetish in the Mission Encounter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

, AFrom Fetishism to Sincerity: Agency, the Speaking Subject, and their Historicity in the Context of Religious Conversion,@ Comparative Studies in Society and History 39 (1997): 674-93.

, AReligious Language,@ Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997): 47-71.

, ASincerity, Modernity, and the Protestants,@ Cultural Anthropology 17 (2002): 65-92.

Paul Korshin, Typologies in England 1650-1820 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

Robert N. McCauley and E Thomas Lawson, Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981).

Friedrich Ohly, “Typology as Historical Thought,” in Sensus Spiritualis: Studies in Medieval Significs and the Philology of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 31-67.

C. John Sommerville, AThe Secularization of Language,@ in The Secularization of Early Modern England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 44-54.

Jesper Sørensen, A Cognitive Theory of Magic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

Frits Staal, Ritual and Mantras: Rules without Meaning (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996).

Guy Stroumsa, “John Spencer and the Roots of Idolatry,” History of Religions (2001): 1-23.

Stanley Tambiah, Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

Brian Vickers, AAnalogy versus identity: the rejection of occult symbolism, 1580-1680,@ in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 95-163.

Harvey Whitehouse, Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

, Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).

Robert Yelle, Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural Language in Hindu Tantra (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).

, Modernity and Disenchantment: Christianity and the Secularization of Colonial India (unpublished manuscript).

, ATo Perform or Not to Perform?: A Theory of Ritual Performance versus Cognitive Theories of Religious Transmission,@ Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 18 (2006): 372-91.

, ABentham=s Fictions: Canon and Idolatry in the Genealogy of Law,@ Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 17 (2005): 151-79.

, APoetic Justice: Rhetoric in Hindu Ordeals and Legal Formulas,@ Religion 32 (2002): 259-72.

, ARhetorics of Law and Ritual: A Semiotic Comparison of the Law of Talion and Sympathetic Magic,@ Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69 (2001): 627-47.


  1. In reality, is there in fact any other approach to religion than a semiotic one?

  2. if you have to share on indian english literature concerning semiotics and myths i will be thankkful to you if you send it via email to me. it was indeed pleasure and informative to read into your article.

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