Nik Zanetti, “Defining Religious Genius”

Author: Nik Zanetti

This paper seeks to provide a working definition for the term ‘religious genius’. It seeks to do so first by defining the individual terms, ‘religious’ and ‘genius’. Then, after a few philosophical concepts are introduced, the paper will focus on using these concepts to develop a working definition for the concatenated term, ‘religious genius’. The paper will conclude with a consideration of factors that impact the application and misapplication of the term.

Neither the terms ‘religious’ nor ‘genius’ can be easily defined; the problem of defining the concatenated term is more difficult still. In large part this is because, rather than picking out some obvious thing in the world, these words refer to their objects as a matter of convention. However, because they refer as a matter of convention, does not mean that they refer in a purely subjective way. Symbols like these can and often do consistently mediate engagement with reality; when the fail to do so, reality frustrates our use of them and requires we revise their meaning or throw them out. Functioning as both conventional and yet consistent, understanding how reference works with symbols can be tricky. When we are able to use a symbol relatively effectively, it is easy to come to think of the symbol’s putative referent as being as real as our capacity to effectively use the term. For example, because we can use a word like ‘love’ in conversation with relative ease, it is easy to develop a sense that we are talking about some relatively distinct thing not so different than ‘taxes’, ‘dogs’, or even ‘that particular dog’. However, in many instances, on close inspection, symbols that appear to have very obvious referents turn out not to pick out the kinds of things we assume they do; 20th century analytic philosophy has taken great pains to show this. Ultimately, the inclination to assume that symbols we are good at using refer to real things can be misleading. Specifically, this habit creates a red herring out of some words’ doubtful, and potentially non-existent referents.

Even though we may experience ourselves as effectively using the term ‘religious genius’, this paper argues that the term does not have an obvious referent; that there are no religious geniuses simply “in the world”, and when we talk informally about them, we are not referring in the way we assume. In response to this assertion, the goal of this paper will be two-fold. First, to get clear about what we actually, or ought to mean when we say ‘religious genius’, and second, to identify what kind of thing we are referring to when we use a more articulated and elaborated sense of the term.


The spirit of this project is interdisciplinary. The definition of ‘genius’ furnished involves an attempt to formalize any and all criteria composing the definition of the term ‘genius’. This means two things. First, because the definition is tentative, and because this is an interdisciplinary endeavor, it is expected that dialogue will add to and change portions of the definition. Second, the definition is vague with respect to specific expressions of genius, favoring instead, exploring functional and formal characteristics of expressions of genius. That the definition be vague in this context means that it avoids characterizing genius in terms of any particular human capacities (such as music, athletics, or religious genius). Later, more specific characteristics will be stipulated about what a religious genius, but only after having generated these formal and non-specific definitions. Most scholarly literature in agreement that the term ‘genius’ cannot be exhaustively defined, is meaningless, or is highly arbitrary. The advantage of a vague definition is that it provides the most specific definition possible that is also not reductive. The disadvantage of this approach is that it does not specify any actual instance of genius capacity. This may not be a perfect outcome, but it is the only way to define a term that can mean so many things in so many contexts. That said, the following is offered as a definition for the term ‘genius’:

A genius is a human capable of consistently exhibiting some exceptional capacity or capacities that are rare or unique, and intelligible to a given population.

1. Consistently means: the exhibited exceptional capacity must be robustly repeatable; the individual cannot exhibit the exceptional capacity by accident or only once.

2. Exceptional means: whatever capacity is exhibited is…

1. Is rare, novel, or unique in a given population
2. Cannot be produced by others consistently, not accidentally [1], or at all in that population

3. Intelligible means that the capacity is…

1. (Potentially) publically observable
2. Intelligible to some population
3. Valuable to some population [2]

4. Capacity means: some mental and, or physical ability that has some momentary and, or permanent observable manifestation or effect

A number of these stipulations may seem idiosyncratic or incomplete; these will be explored in turn. Perhaps the most important stipulation in this definition is the extent to it requires that exceptional capacities be intelligible and valuable to some community. There are certainly many venues in which humans could exhibit exceptional capacities. However, many of them are not relevant or interesting to a given community. In instances wherein the capacity is of no interest to the community, or even interesting to the individual producing it, it will not be registered as an exceptional capacity, but instead as something peculiar, unusual, or of little import. The issue of community interest brings up a related point. Exhibition of the exceptional capacities requires the presence of the latent capacity as well as the circumstance that reveals it; without both, the capacity cannot be manifest. It is certain we have missed out on what would have been great geniuses because circumstances never elicited their latent capacities.

Certainly the most peculiar assumption posed by this definition is the extent to which being a genius requires a (potentially) publicly demonstrable effect. This stipulation is not suggesting that the manifestation of genius actually be observed, or ever demonstrated to any person. Instead, it requires that the exceptional capacity could have an externally verifiable effect that would be registered if it were exhibited. If the exceptional capacity is manifest in its outcome, then the outcome must be demonstrable, and the means of production are not important. If the capacity is manifest in its execution, then the execution, or some vestige of it must be demonstrable. This stipulation may seem counterintuitive insofar as it is conceivable that there is a possible world wherein a genius never manifests their capacities. For example, a world where Albert Einstein existed, thought a lot about physics, but never wrote down or discussed any of these thoughts. However, this is exactly the circumstance this stipulation seeks to challenge. Potential genius is not genius. If we imagine possible world Einstein, what we actually mean when we claim this Einstein is a genius is, “If this Einstein were to make his work public, then we would say he is a genius”. Simply having an unrealized latent, or a realized private capacity is not enough to be a genius. This is because genius does not describe a mental state so much as it describes a capacity, which is to say something one can do.[3] This means that being genius is not something you are; it is something you become by doing certain publicly meaningful things. It also means that geniuses are not simply “out there” in the world waiting to be identified. Instead, there are individuals whom, if they do certain things, will be socially regarded in a certain way, namely as geniuses. The idea of genius being an activity will be elaborated below in the section, “Becoming a Religious Genius”

It is because we are able to use the word ‘genius’ effectively in everyday conversation that we may experience ourselves as having a sense both that the word means something clear and specific and that refers in some obvious way to something external thing. However, even in a cursory examination, it seems likely that the word refers to a complicated and muddled state of affairs involving the adequately high regard of some undefined community, together with some set of demonstrable abilities whose value is not obviously established.


Defining the term ‘religious’ is more challenging than the term ‘genius’. Anyone familiar with recent literature in the theory of religion knows this term is regarded as highly problematic. Briefly, it has been suggested the term refers to so many different kinds of human activity, that it either groups activities that are not intelligibly similar, or that grouping generates a class with no adequately concise definition. The narrative establishing this critique is historically intelligible and not without merit, however, by restricting the scope of the term, an adequate definition can be made that does not create the undefined classes more detailed definitions have produced.

As a part of this project, Robert Neville has furnished a definition for the term ‘religious’ that is appropriately vague insofar as it suggests categories that are comprehensive, and yet flexible enough to account for any instance of potentially ‘religious’ behavior. This definition is satisfying because it is logically unassailable and descriptively exhaustive. At the same time, it is general in a way that might not satisfy the historian or sociologist.[4] The definition begins by considering the most basic ontological category, Being. Neville then proposes that insofar as we exist as a part of Being, we may elect to try to come to terms with that fact. Coming to terms with the fact of Being and our participation in it ought to be an ultimate concern for us, and any serious religious tradition seeks to do exactly this. Neville’s second critical claim is that, how Being is, is an axiological concern. That is to say, the most meaningful way to govern how to participate in Being is, is in terms of value. The evaluation of value is involves aesthetic judgment. This judgment attempts to identify elegance in whatever domain the aesthetic judgment is evaluating.[5]

So, the fact we participate in Being as beings means it must be a concern for us, and our comportment with respect to that concern must manifest in an attempt to live in a way that creates value. Pursuant to this ultimate concern, five ontological modes organize the scope of comportment. These categories can be read off of the basic ontological situation our existence presents: a) the fact of our being as a part of Being, b) the fact that we are as we are but could be another way, c) the fact of other beings in Being, d) why Being is such as it is and not some other way, and finally, e) that there is something rather than nothing. Restated in more concrete terms, Neville suggests the categories are: a) obligation established by the very fact of our existence, b) our effort to seek wholeness insofar as we are components of Being, c) our recognition of the value of alterity, d) our capacity to make meaning out of all the ways Being is, and finally, e) our effort to register the very fact of Being itself. Comportment in these modes is ‘religious’ comportment.

So, to be ‘religious’ is to make an effort to meaningfully cope with the fact of existence (our ultimate concern) in terms of five basic modes of comportment: obligation, wholeness, alterity, meaning, and Being itself. The effort to meaningfully engage these categories involves aesthetic judgment whose scope is the identification and creation of value. Religious traditions are socially orchestrated attempts to engage this ultimate concern.

Being a Religious Genius

We are now in a position to start putting things together. We have produced a working definition for the terms ‘genius’ and ‘religious’. Without reiterating the definition of these terms, we can offer a tentative definition for the term ‘religious genius’. This definition is incomplete insofar as being a religious genius is only part of the story; how one becomes a religious genius is at least as important an account since this is actually the process that establishes designation. But for the moment, it is reasonable to suggest that:

a) A religious genius is a person, who can robustly exhibit, (potentially) publicly observable, exceptional capabilities, that are intelligible and valuable to a given community, and which cannot be easily reproduced by other members of that community. And, these exceptional capabilities involve effectively engaging any, some, or all of the five ultimate categories, which are, existential obligation, wholeness, recognition of alterity, interpretation of meaning, and deep engagement with the Being itself.

Some Important Concepts

Two approaches suggest themselves in the effort to come to terms with concept of religious genius. One promising option is to try to pose appropriately vague, tentative definitions of the terms, and then attach them together; we have done this above. Another viable option might be to collect instances of figures esteemed to be religious geniuses and then try to distill characteristics they share. Each of these approaches is problematic for different reasons. If we begin with definitions, we run the risk of coming up with irrelevant (too vague and overly inclusive) or reductive (to specific and exclusionary) conceptual categories. We also run the risk of becoming confused about how the terms associated with our definition refer. Beginning with actual historical figures, we run the risk of ending up with overly specific and hopelessly messy practical categories. We also commit ourselves to a vicious regress insofar as we are deriving definitions by studying individuals we have already tacitly assumed are members of the class we are trying to define. In an effort to avoid these difficulties, the terms ‘natural kinds’, ‘family resemblances’, and ‘performatives’ will now be introduced in hopes they will clarify a way through.

The existence of natural kinds is an ongoing debate in philosophy. The nuances of the debate are complicated, but also not so important here. The essential question posed is: are there genuinely natural ways to organize the different things found in reality independent of how humans organize them? Or even more simply, are there genuinely natural ways nature is organized? The balance of the debate would suggest that there are no natural kinds beyond primitives and universals, such as red things, or chemical elements, but even those appear problematic in detailed debate. The inclination to organize kinds is particularly prevalent in the biological sciences wherein species are classified and then grouped. However, the biological sciences represent a field wherein taxonomies are applied to very complex objects that do not lend themselves to obvious grouping. This difficulty points to the presence of a general correlation between the complexity of the objects being classified and the extent to which such an effort is philosophically defensible: more complicated means less defensible.

Where the complexities in the biological sciences make natural kinds a hard sell, the notion of creating taxonomy of human personalities is infinitely more challenging because personalities are harder to organize into distinct categories and are far more nuanced. Arguing analogically and inductively, it is reasonable to assume that the appellation ‘religious genius’ does not, and cannot represent a natural kind; this is an ontological claim. It means there is no genuinely natural way people are that is captured by whatever the class ‘religious genius’ putatively picks out. If this is correct, it suggests there are actually at least two kinds of classes: classes picked out by conventional symbols and classes picked out by symbols associated with natural kinds. The difference between these classes is that some are established as the result of an attempt to organize objects already encountered in the world, that is to say, developed on the basis of inquiry. Other classes are first established and then populated with objects encountered in the world.[6] The class ‘religious genius’ is a conventionally established class rather than naturally discovered class; it is established and then populated.

This means our inquiry must exclude any notion that ‘religious genius’ refers to some unmediated natural thing. Instead, it must be defined in one of two other ways. Either it is a purely semantic, social convention involving the conference of a title, or it is a social convention that is also actually correlated with some of the ways that reality genuinely is. Eventually, it will be suggested that the best way to think of religious genius is in terms of both of these definitions.

Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced the term family resemblances as a way around just the sorts of confusion about reference and classes we have been exploring here. He pointed out that in conventional reference systems, class membership is not consistently agreed upon, and often includes unexpected or idiosyncratic objects, typically because class membership criteria are too general. Consequently, establishing class membership in practice is not so easy. To summarize, Wittgenstein’s suggestion was to think of class membership in conventionally established classes in terms of a list of characteristics that usually apply. The total set of characteristics that would be applied to the class in any possible world describes the total class of objects to which that set refers. The actual similarities between objects identified as members of the class share ‘family resemblances’; that is, the objects will have some characteristics in common, but may be very different in other respects.[7] These practical similarities allow a speaker and interlocutor to participate effectively in some activity, in this case, identifying and talking about religious geniuses. Because the total possible list of members belonging to a class includes members that most would agree do not belong, the exhaustive list is largely irrelevant. For Wittgenstein, words do not articulate actual classes, but clusters of possible objects. Relative familiarity with the more common characteristics of the class allows us to more or less effectively communicate and solve problems. As with other members of conventional classes, all characteristics that stipulate the class ‘religious genius’ will pick out too many members; most will not be religious geniuses. For better or worse, the final word will be a matter of consensus, agreement, and context.

J. L. Austin famously denied that sentences were necessarily true, false, or meaningless.[8] He suggested that there was a fourth class of sentence he called performative sentences that were able to do things. For instance, the sentence, “I now pronounce you man and wife” is not true, false, or meaningless. Instead it is a statement that does something. Namely, marry two people. He goes on to explain that to do things with this class of sentence, it is not enough just to assert it. In addition, the right person must say the sentence to the right people, in the right context. If the correct conditions are met, then the sentence does something. Put in more technical parlance, the performative is felicitously consummated. Consummated performatives are what transform individuals possessing the correct characteristics into religious geniuses. Below it will be suggested that the ambiguity introduced by the nature of conventional classes is resolved by the felicitous consummation of a performative.

Becoming a Religious Genius

It was argued that the term religious genius is not a natural kind. That is, separate from the activity of human classification, reality is not genuinely organized such that any person is of the kind: religious genius. It was also suggested that a more reasonable approach to defining the term is to examine it in terms of conventional use. This begs the question, what circumstances must obtain such that one may become a religious genius?

One way to explain the development of this kind of convention is as follows. The set of features associated with the term ‘religious genius’ are established in view of the actual history and narratives extant within a given community. This narrative will specify as well as elicit a variety of exceptional capacities someone might exhibit to receive the appellation. The total set of possible characteristics a community might use to define a religious genius defines the class. Individuals who qualify to become religious geniuses within a given community are those individuals who possess some portion of feature set described by the exhaustively articulated class. As was illustrated with above, unless the class is very simple, there is no practical way to specify all the attributes necessary for class membership and to assure all members populating the class, thus specified, be intelligibly alike. If the class criteria are highly specific, actual religious genius candidates are excluded. If the class is adequately general to include all possible religious genius candidates, many will be included that are not religious geniuses. Because it is necessary to be overly inclusive in order not to miss any possible members, the attributes must be appropriately general and include many non-genius members. For this reason, the use of the performative is the only way to resolve the inherent ambiguity present in the overly inclusive class.

Recall that only specially tasked individuals may consummate performatives. This project represents a peculiar effort insofar as it seeks to identify the characteristics and members of other communities than our own. This is potentially problematic because religious communities do not typically call their religious virtuosi, religious geniuses; they use synonyms whose meaning can vary significantly from the definition developed here. They may even use the same term, but could intend something else. If we agree that receipt of some derivative of title ‘religious genius’ can only be conferred by emic religious elites, then it is necessary to reflect on how can we reconcile our efforts with this fact?

A way around this problem is to recognize that religious communities will identify all kinds of virtuosi, each identified with different criteria. These individuals may have received the title for a variety of reasons that do not necessarily jibe with the definition being offered here. Perhaps they were named saints for their altruism, they were religious paragons, they were politically savvy, they occupied important religious roles, they had mystical visions, or even that they were regular individuals who were subjects of hagiographic embellishment. The only sure way around this issue is first to clarify that the geniuses identified in our project are not necessarily conventional classes for any particular community. Next, we must stipulate that the class of religious geniuses this definition picks out are always a subset of the class of religious virtuosi.

Having made these comments, it is now possible to add more to the definition:

b) A religious virtuoso is an individual who has been the subject of a successfully consummated performative. This successful consummation is bestowed in view of some socio-historical narrative. Once dubbed, the individual’s ontological status with respect to the community is changed. Some religious virtuosi are religious geniuses. A religious genius is an individual who is a successfully dubbed virtuoso and who meets the etic criteria established in a).[9]

Thus far two dimensions of the concept of religious genius have been examined; how the concatenated term may be defined and, in view of that definition, what criteria must obtain such that an individual ought be included in the class identified by the criteria. There are two further interesting issues associated with the clarification of this concept. The first is an examination of the kinds of the practical characteristics an individual might need to exhibit in order to be said to be a religious genius, yet which do not relate to their class membership. The second is an effort to identify comorbid factors in individuals’ makeup that explain their incorrect identification as members of the religious genius class.


This paper is written in dialogue with Robert Neville’s paper. In that paper Neville uses the terms virtuosi, elites, and genius somewhat interchangeably. Here it makes sense to further specify what each means. An elite will mean, any individual who possesses a socially recognized role and, or office within a community. As such, they have certain duties, expectations, and authority. A religious virtuoso will mean, any individual who is socially recognized as religiously important, but who does not necessarily hold a religious role or office. So, all religious geniuses are religious virtuosi, and some religious geniuses are also religious elites. And, some, but not necessarily all virtuosi are religious elites, and, trivially, some, but not necessarily all elites are virtuosi.[10] Candidates for religious genius must be religious virtuosi, but may or may not be religious elites. This scheme particularly highlights roles such as popes (elites) who were very likely not geniuses, or saints and other religious paragons who were virtuosi, but not geniuses. This second distinction will become important in the below discussion of comorbid factors.

To be a religious genius at least five factors must converge, arguably, only one of which the individual can control very well. The first two have been stipulated already: possession of properly disposed exceptional capacities, and being the recipient of a consummated performative; three more factors are drive, history, and luck.[11] Not all three need obtain in every instance. However, it is difficult to imagine these factors not explaining a great deal about identified virtuosi nominations’.

While it is an empirical question whether or not a particular religious genius worked very hard to be recognized in their community, for practical reasons, it seems likely that historically significant individuals were likely quite driven. Drive means simply that the individual vigorously pursued the realization and demonstration of their exceptional capacities. In the case of a mystic, it could be they were creating circumstances to have more mystical experiences, or the social visionary was vigorously seeking to effect change, or along different lines, these individuals were actively proselytizing, teaching and, or recording their activities. The set of all possible geniuses must be selected from the set of all virtuosi since there is no way to discuss the membership status of unknown individuals. While not very glamorous, personal drive seems necessary to becoming a religious genius, but is not related to the exceptional capacities that would make them actually be selected to be called one.

In order to understand the role of history in selecting for certain religious geniuses, it is easiest to explain a concept in systems theory. Systems theory develops a way of thinking about the behavior of complex systems over time. To this end, it introduces a useful way of conceptualizing the final state of complex system when there is some form of competition among the elements of the system eliminating that leads to iterations of elimination of certain membes; it calls what is left the ‘least discordant remainder’. This term is used to correct sloppy thinking about how evolutionary processes work in accounting for bio-diversity. The argument is that thinking about species development in teleological terms is problematic; primates did not become humans. Instead, human are the genetic remainder of hundreds of thousands of iterations of dying generations of primates. In this way, each successive generation is the offspring of only that portion of the species that managed to reproduce. This inversion of reasoning changes a story motivated by teleological thinking into a story about the de facto leftovers in that same story. The product at the end of the time lapse cannot be described as a story of teleological success but rather one of iterative modification by negation.

This logic describes many complex systems; human history is one such example. Recall that a variety of factors bear upon whether or not a potential religious genius will be able to actualize their capacities. First, it is an empirical question whether or not the historical milieu allowed for the manifestation of the religious genius’ capacities at all. Second, and more importantly, the survivability of the religious genius’ legacy is a function of the extent to which historical circumstances did not suppress the expression of that legacy as some form of canon. Some clarification is in order. It is certain that individuals have existed who possessed capacities they either never realized or that were not valued by their communities. These individuals’ genius would never be embedded in any community narrative, and so, they would never be identified as geniuses. It is also certain that there have been times when historical circumstance elicited the expression of many individuals’ exceptional capacities. However, at any of these times, there were necessarily matters of social circumstance that suppressed some and welcomed others; there must have been a great many prophets beside Jesus whose messages did not jibe so well with the times, and so were never transmitted forward.

A third criteria defining whether or not a religious genius’ capacities are recognized is luck. The case for luck argues simply that that the world is so wide and wild that in many cases there is no coherent account for why a particular idea or demonstrable capacity is better received than another; it could be something so trivial as a case of indigestion, or of being the nephew of the wrong uncle. The fact of the matter is that the complexity of factors bearing on the development of particular ideas presented by specific individuals is so vast that the advancement of one over another can often be totally unrelated to the quality of the ideas or the individual’s capacities.

Here, as well as throughout this paper, efforts have been taken to provide a maximally vague set of definitions and criteria with which to come to terms with religious genius. Moving forward, additional factors should be added, however, it is not clear the three already presented should be further specified, at least insofar as this definition is concerned. For example, further specifying the nature of the drive, luck, and historical circumstance that explain how some religious genius or geniuses became virtuosi candidates for their communities will almost certainly create categoreal injunctions that will begin to exclude what would otherwise be appropriate genius candidates. So, with this in mind, it is possible to add to the developing definition.

c) Becoming a religious genius candidate within a community involves a number of factors largely outside the individual’s control. They include, but are not limited to, personal drive, historical circumstance, and luck.

Comorbid Factors

Human personality presents as a highly complex unity, effectively separable only artificially. This undifferentiated nexus of personality is further complicated by a similarly complex set of variable within communities in which the subject appears. Consequently, identifying discrete sets of characteristics as definitive of a religious genius is practically impossible. The ongoing effort here has been to identify the religious genius by their fruit rather than by some essential makeup or set of characteristics. Insofar as this is true, identifying a religious genius involves separating factors that contribute to the achievement of this title, yet which are not actual manifestations of defining characteristics. Putting aside the possibility of reaching truly clear distinctions between elements of personality and interpenetrating community, it seems reasonable that comorbid factors may be good predictors for identifying religious virtuosi generally, but problematize separating those virtuosi from genuine geniuses. At least six potential comorbid criteria are charisma, political savvy, interested communities, ghostwriters, community infrastructure, and level of education. Here a few of these factors will be considered to illustrate this masking effect.

There are a great many religious virtuosi who were highly charismatic but were arguably not religious geniuses, even if they did wonderful things in their communities. Neville suggests for example that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a religious genius. Dr. King’s moral vision was wonderful and rare, but it was by no means unique. Whatever the case, while others may have shared his moral vision, they certainly did not have the charisma, courage, or force of personality he exhibited. What truly set Dr. King apart was not his moral or religious vision, but other aspects of his personality that made it possible for him to effect the changes he did. He was, a brilliant orator, highly insightful, courageous, and while undeniably exhibited great genius, it is not obvious that he was a religious genius.

Politically savvy involves a number of skills, such as cunning, forethought, and charisma to name a few. It is certain that many religious virtuosi and elites achieved their status in communities as a result of being very politically savvy. But many of these virtuosi are not geniuses, but rather individuals who have used other manifestations of genius and applied them to the religious sphere. Derivatives of the term ‘genius’ were certainly bandied about in reference to this or that big fish politico religious figure, however, their nomination as such in any particular case must be clarified with respect to whether or not they were so named because they were politically powerful, or because they possessed true genius. Just as art criticism can be faddish, and so called artistic geniuses have received great praise in their careers, it is not always the case that either the artist or religious virtuoso has not attained their praise as a function of power, influence, or cunning.

Ghostwriters represent a curious case for the nomination of religious geniuses. Consider circumstances wherein the putative author of a given text appears not to be the actual author. Or, the yet more problematic case of a body of work ascribed to a single author that appears to have actually been complied over the course of centuries by any number of different authors.[12] Notwithstanding the fact that these ‘authors’ may have been identified by their communities as religious geniuses, it is not clear to whom the term ‘genius’ properly refers, given these works were likely produced by different people than are named, and, or over the course of many lifetimes. It is not obvious how to manage this issue, but it does bring up an interesting question: how is a confirmed author of an iconic religious work different from an unknown author, or authors of another similarly esteemed work? Is one author more of a genius than the other ‘author’, or authors? It is much less problematic to make the case that a single unknown individual is a religious genius since their actual identity is less important than the facts of the work. But are all of the authors in second group religious geniuses? How are the two groups different? To further clarify the question: what is the difference between a work produced anonymously, or by a group, that exhibits characteristics of religious genius, as against the actual activity and identity of a specific individual who more or less certainly produced a given work? This is a complicated question that creates a number of problems for our work, and yet is too much to explore here; this could be one of many fruitful places to begin inquiry.

With this example of comorbid factors, it is possible to stipulate the last element of this definition as well as to attempt a fully articulated definition. Here added is:

d) In an attempt to discriminate among potential religious geniuses, insofar as is possible, an effort must be made to rule out individuals whose achievements as religious virtuosi occur as a function of exceptional capacities which do not match the criteria for religious genius established here.

A Complete Working Definition

It is now possible to synthesize each portion of the definition developed up until now into a single definition:

A religious genius is a person, who can robustly exhibit, (potentially) publicly observable, exceptional capabilities, that are intelligible and valuable to a given community, and which cannot be easily reproduced by other members of that community. These exceptional capabilities must effectively engage any, some, or all of the five ultimate categories, which are: existential obligation, wholeness, recognition of alterity, interpretation of meaning, and deep engagement with Being itself.

In addition to these criteria, a religious genius must have been the subject of a successfully consummated performative. This successful consummation is a matter of social convention. Once dubbed, the individual’s status with respect to the community is changed. Becoming a candidate to receive this performative involves a number of factors, many outside the individual’s control. They include, but are not limited to, personal drive, historical circumstance, and luck.

The set of all religious virtuosi is contains the set of all religious geniuses. In an attempt to discriminate among potential religious geniuses, insofar as is possible, an effort must be made to rule out individuals whose achievements do not occur as a function of exceptional capacities for religious genius established here.


[1] This term is used in place of ‘intentionally’ as there are examples of genius that are consistent yet not intentional.

[2] Valuation may be highly variable and will likely be different across communities and different within the same community across time.

[3] If it is something done with or through mental states, then those states must be made manifest if they are to be meaningful. If they are not made manifest they are nothing more than some particular set of neural states with no actual physical correlate or the means of translation to a physical correlate.

[4]Neville has provided some of the background for this account in the paper presented for this conference. However, he has given much lengthier accounts elsewhere.

[5] Neville defines elegance is the maximization of simplicity and complexity.

[6] This is simply a rehearsal of Levi-Strauss’ argument about the engineer and the savage’s different approaches to taxonomy in The Savage Mind.

[7] It is interesting to note that there will also be objects that share no similar characteristics. This is exactly what happens with highly specific definitions of religious genius include members that meet criteria, but share nothing in common.

[8] Austin, J. L. How to do Things with Words.

[9] Hereafter, for simplicity sake, unless otherwise specified, use of the term ‘genius’ will also imply the term ‘virtuoso’ since we are assuming that one is a subset of the other and we are not discriminating as to the difference at this time.

[10] Imagine a Venn diagram wherein virtuosi contains geniuses and elites partially overlaps with both virtuosi and geniuses.

[11] There must certainly be others.

[12] Consider for example, such ‘authors’ as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Pseudo-Dionysus, or authors of various portions of the Bible.