Reification: Packaging Abstractions

Modular_God_mediumTo the right is the illustration I used in “Your Modular God“(2010) to show how people use the word “God” to package up functional modules which contain concepts, feelings, preferences, behaviors and more.  In this model, “God” is not an invisible being — though that is the contention of theists — but instead, “God” is a way for theists to hold together certain valued modules easily so they can comfort themselves, bond with like-minded people and/or manipulate others into their values.

Theists use “God” as a reification of their hopes, fears, desires and loves.  “God” is an abstraction that they concretize. This is true even if, by any slightest chance, there is an actual all-caring, all-knowing, interventional critter out there. In other words, even if a god exists, it is certain that “God” is a tool for most, if not all believers.

Objectifying that abstract term “God” is done unconsciously by a believer in order to talk quickly and easily about their hopes, fears, desires and loves.  This objectifying of an abstraction is called “reification“.  And as I explained in my post, “Secular Gods“, even though atheists may reject religious reifications of “God”, they also create reifications — we all do it. We largely don’t understand reification in general — we don’t see behind the curtain.  So in a sense, Atheists incarnate their desires, hopes, fears and loves too — as if they were creating secular gods.

Below I have created a diagram to try to illustrate my point.  On the right you see a particular Christian’s reification of “God” while on the left you see an atheist doing it with the word “Patriotism” (as an example).  The atheist, like the theist, could then go around with his/her Patriot myth telling folks what a “real” Patriot is and what “real” Patriots should do.  He may never see behind his own term.  He may never understand all the cool feelings he gets when he thinks about “Patriotism”, because it is real to him — perhaps as real as an theist’s god.

If you don’t like my example, pick another, add or subtract your own modules — either way, I hope you get my point.


Some rightly attack religion by pointing out its contradictions, but I feel pointing out the process of reification gives us deeper insights and make the accusation less personal because it is something we all do.

For atheists, nothing should be sacred or closed to doubt or to questioning or to demands for evidence.  So, discussing reification should be easy.  I think most will have no trouble talking about religious reifications, but some may be defensive of their secular reifications — which illustrates that hands-off sacred attitudes exist in everyone.

Question to readers: Can you give another example of reification?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Reification: Packaging Abstractions

  1. Abel

    I can hear the song: “Your Own Modular Jesus…”
    Depending on how much of Pascal’s Wager is involved, “Your Gambling Hobby” should also have a line to God…
    I’ve encountered several religious people, generally Catholics or Buddhists, who count their appreciation for music and architecture as reasons why they like their religion. When I am walking my Dog (only fair I get to capitalize it…), the local Catholic church is indeed one of the nicest structures in town. It is hard not to have bitter thoughts about how they (the Catholic Church) got the money to build such nice structures (fear, superstition, murder, deception…). Some people think that pretty buildings indicate some sort of Truth that the owning organization must have. The Might–>Right formula may be expanded to Might–>Money—>Fancy Stuff—>Appearance of Insider Knowledge–>”Right”
    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts about ‘reification’ in general. I’ve been mentoring some at-risk youth for a couple year and think a lot about ‘community’ and ‘society’ and how some people choose to be ‘members’ with respect for the rules, and others define themselves as ‘outsiders’ even if they are taking support from the ‘insiders’ (welfare, HUD housing, food stamps, etc.). There is much to contemplate here…

  2. TWF

    Thanks for the post, Sabio. I figured that the concept you’ve given here was what you were driving at in your previous post, but I think you’ve done a better job explaining it here. It’s far less ambiguous.

    I can’t provide any better examples than what you had given in the previous post.

    My only point of contention now is that I would suggest that there is variability in the degree in which people use “God” (or Patriotism, or whatever other reified abstraction) as a tool.

  3. @Abel
    You are absolutely right about structures implying “right”.
    The mind is easily deceived. And I imagine much of what we call beauty in life would disappear without self-deception. But clarity (non-self-deception) brings beauty too.
    Odd, that.

    Glad it was more clear. I, of course, agree that there is HUGE variability in the way people use “God” as a tool.

  4. Hi Sabio, I agree with the even-handedness of your approach, and that ‘God’ can on occasion mean all of these things. However, none of them appears to engage with what ‘God’ can more deeply mean, either to theists or indeed to anyone else. What about God as an archetype? I have a blog post about this here .
    I think you also need to distinguish between what God means and the implications of belief in God. Theists are distinguished from others not by the meaning they find in God but by the fact that they believe in his existence.

  5. @ Robert Ellis,
    Thanx, Robert — a lot to sort out there. Let me try a bit:
    I am Wittgensteinian, I think, in that “meaning” = “use” to me. So your phrasing of “deeply mean” doesn’t resonate with me. I may have to go to your article. And so likewise, “what Gods means” (your phrase) and “the implications of belief in God” (your phrase), are the same in my head [at least just this second] and telling me that you think I need to distinguish them also doesn’t make sense to me.

    In my above model, the agglutination of modules to a word is with the intent of “using” the word — of taking action [internal or external] and thus creating “meaning”.

    Wow, lots of hairy categories and needs for agreement before we can preceed.
    But such abstract conversations are hard for me.

    So though you feel my approach is even handed, I can’t tell if you find it useful given your caveats (which, as you can see, I can’t untangle.)

  6. PS, Robert, I scanned your post — I’ve never been a huge Jung fan — archetypes included. Reading your post, it seems our minds often work very differently. Part of that is probably exactly because you package your abstractions very differently from mine.

  7. Hi Sabio, My approach to meaning is very much influenced by the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who show meaning to be based in bodily experience and metaphorical extension of that experience. I don’t agree with Wittgenstein’s reduction of meaning to the requirements of communication, and Lakoff and Johnson’s work (which is grounded in cognitive science and linguistics) also suggests that there is far more to meaning than that. An introductory article on embodied meaning is here , and Lakoff also has some videos on Youtube. I also recommend Mark Johnson’s book ‘ The Meaning of the Body’.
    This all has quite radical implications, I think, for how we view questions like what God ‘means’. Jung’s take on God is another way to the same basic conclusion that what we mean by God must be what we most basically experience in connection with that symbol. The embodied meaning thesis also suggests that we have no justification in assuming that belief is solely based on, or is the same as, meaning.

  8. @ Robert M Ellis,
    (1) It would be good if you interacted with my post a bit more. Tell me how you think it is useful (or not useful) in understanding people uses of abstractions — be they “God” or other reifications.

    (2) My take on abstractions and meaning is very practical and not based on philosophical systems I’ve studied. I have been told I sound like a mix of Wittgenstein and Nietzsche but have not read either to any extent, no plan to at this point. I finding meaning very tied up with body experience too and almost take that as given. But I am not sure it matches anything close to Jung, Johnson’s, Lakoff or your uses of “meaning” — neither having read any of those men or yourself. But arguing “Meaning” is not my primary aim in this post or in the comments. Though interesting, and perhaps I will explore later if inspired, it is actually a distraction away from my objective just now. No matter how “radical” you tell me their positions are.

    So, for dialogue purposes, if you disagree with my model as one way of usefully seeing how variety exists in the use of abstractions and how people pack abstractions, I’d love to hear it.

    You see, your comments feel like: “read me, read me, read me — I will fix you.” I would need a lot more bait to pursue that. 🙂

    I’m sure your comments are not intended that way, and are meant to be helpful, but more interaction may cure my bodily-mistaken-impressions (if you want to ‘cure it’, that is.)

    But who knows, I just checked and already1 reader has clicked your links, so it may be helpful for them. Oh wait, that was my click.🙂 Meanwhile, I am putting your links into HTML to make them look a little less like self-advertising.

  9. Hi Sabio, I thought I’d made the response to your post rather clear. It’s useful up to a rather limited point, but doesn’t say very much about what ‘God’ means to people who use that term. I could not explain that opinion without explaining how and why I think your philosophical assumptions are limited, and it is much more constructive and useful to do that whilst offering alternatives rather than just criticising it. Alternatives have a bigger context that can only be offered by linking. Are you not interested in the wider context of intellectual assumptions in which your arguments are placed?

  10. @Robert Ellis,
    (1) Do you feel that when people use the word “God” that they have several things tied up in that word including feelings about family, country, fears of death and more than just theological notions?
    (2) If yes to #1, do you feel that non-religious folks similarly have clusters of bodily-feelings, reasoning habits, hopes-and-fears tucked into abstractions which they talk about with a sort of fervor that goes beyond the appearance and commonly understood “definition” of the word?

  11. (1) When people use the word ‘God’ by itself that is not necessarily what they mean, no. For example, when I use the word ‘God’, it is certainly not what I mean. I don’t believe in God, but I find ‘God’ highly meaningful archetypally. However, when people ‘believe in’ God, these different group identifications are important. In my view metaphysical beliefs like that in God are group-dependent rather than meaningful in terms of experience, and your observations show that group-dependence.
    (2) Yes, with the same caveat that I think you should be talking about belief, not meaning.

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