GRE Prep: Hard-level Reading Comprehension Questions (Part 6)

GRE Prep: Hard-level Reading Comprehension Questions (Part 6)

In our two previous posts, we dealt with a difficult passage on prudential and moral reasoning, and worked through three challenging questions.

In this post, we give you a long passage on the concept of religion, followed by two moderately difficult questions. Try to annotate the passage as you go along so as not to lose track of the argumentative flow.

After years of intense debate, scholars of religion now agree that the category ‘religion’ is not a natural kind. This need not imply, however, that ‘religion’ cannot play a productive role in the cognitive science of religion, and should be eliminated. More precisely, it might be that the term refers to a loose cluster of phenomena that are usually found together and are causally and historically entangled. These entanglements would then allow scientists to generate explanations and generalizations about religious behavior. Thus, even if this cluster does not reflect the deep structure of reality, it might, in this shape, function as an epistemically productive and legitimate category. This view is compatible with the existence of religions that lack some of the features that are commonly associated with religions, such as beliefs in supernatural agents or ritual behavior.

In order for this argument to hold, however, it has still to be shown that the great majority of what is traditionally called ‘religion’ can be described in a moderately uniform way. This claim, which was presupposed by the majority of explanations and definitions of religion in the recent history of western thinking, has been heavily criticized in current anthropology. More specifically, several anthropologists have convincingly argued that ‘religion’ is a western concept that has been projected onto cultures around the world by ethnographers. These authors show that religion only seems universally applicable across different cultures because ethnographers have interpreted the habits of these cultures in a way that fits with western culture. It seems then that we should think of the term ‘religion’ as an example of intellectual imperialism rather than as a productive scientific concept.


1. Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the argument?

A) Many anthropological studies show that there are some features, such as ritual behavior and worship of supernatural agents, that recur in many of the cultures studied by anthropologists.

B) Many anthropologists with Asian or African background subscribe to the view that ‘religion’ is a concept that applies across all known cultures.

C) There is no single feature that is common to all religions known to anthropologists.

D) Despite the lack of universal features, the concept ‘religion’ features in many successful explanations of behavior and practices that would remain unexplained if we were to abandon the concept.

Explanation:

A) Many anthropological studies show that there are some features, such as ritual behavior and worship of supernatural agents, that recur in many of the cultures studied by anthropologists.

No, the argument of the passage is that these studies use a westernized concept, so even if they do show recurring features, they should not be trusted.

B) Many anthropologists with Asian or African background subscribe to the view that ‘religion’ is a concept that applies across all known cultures.

No, the concept is westernized, not the scientists.

C) There is no single feature that is common to all religions known to anthropologists.

No, this would strengthen the argument in an indirect way.

D) Despite the lack of universal features, the concept ‘religion’ features in many successful explanations of behavior and practices that would remain unexplained if we were to abandon the concept.

Correct. Note the argumentative flow of the passage: 1) religion remains an acceptable and productive term if it features in explanations; 2) it can do this if it is a cluster concept; 3) it seems to be a cluster concept; 4) it is not a cluster concept in view of intellectual imperialism.

So, if it turns out that the concept is necessary for these explanations, it must be that there is something wrong with the above argument, namely with 2) or 4).

Answer: D.


2. The author discusses ‘intellectual imperialism’ mainly to:

A) argue that ‘religion’ can be a useful concept even if it is not a natural kind.

B) argue that ‘religion’ cannot be a useful concept if it is not a natural kind.

C) argue that it is unlikely that there are any features that are common to all occurrences of religion.

D) argue that many anthropologists have incorrectly assumed that there are features that are common to all occurrences of religion.

Explanation:

This question is easier than the previous. Taking up the 4-step flow of the argument, we’d quickly notice that “intellectual imperialism” enters at the fourth step to show that the “cluster concept” of religion fails to hold, because the universality of religion is a result of ethnographers imposing a western interpretation on other religions. This ties in with option D.

Answer: D.

If you benefited from this post, read on to our last post in this series on difficult RC questions.