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We are witnessing the birth of a new field and a new approach to understanding religion. Spurred on by two decades of advance within the field of cognitive science, scholars within many disciplines have begun to apply cognitive science concepts to a diverse array of phenomena. Although considered by some to be sui generis, the domains of religious experience, belief, and behavior have not been exempt from such treatment. Indeed, in the last decade, scholars from varied disciplinary arenas increasingly are willing to tackle, both individually and collaboratively cognitive theories of religion in general and the neural bases of religion in specific. Activity has coalesced around the emergence of a coherent area of research and writing, what I refer to here as a “cognitive science of religion” following Lakoff and Johnson's (1999) recommendation that we replace the “philosophy of x” with the “cognitive science of x.” This so-called cognitive science of religion is, first and foremost, a scientific and explanatory endeavor that draws on findings from the various sciences of mind. Like Lakoff and Johnson's loosening of philosophy from its analytic-cum-transcendent moorings, our endeavor is similarly “bottom up” – we propose to free religion from the realm of metaphysical speculation and to anchor it instead in the empirical. At the same time, we seek to respect deeply the integrity of religious qualia, the phenomenology of religious experience, and the sincerity of religious belief. We therefore engage the general problems of belief and subjectivity while eschewing reductionism. Although we attempt to explain certain facets of religious experience, belief, and behavior, we do not, by any stretch of the imagination, attempt to “explain them away.”
My title, which obviously tips its hat to Lakoff and Johnson's (1999) excellent retooling of philosophical methodology, underscores the importance of staying current with research in many fields as we continue to search for new ways to understand religion. Interdisciplinary collaborations of the past decade or so have demonstrated that methodologies from one single discipline often fail to capture the conceptual and lived nuances of complex phenomena. We therefore must remain flexible and fluid, adopting more rigorous forms of empirical study and staying attuned to more detailed expositions of phenomenological realities. Cross-cultural, ethnographic data raise the importance of individuals' interpretations of their symbolic, religious worlds within the complex contexts of communities and larger social groups. This research likewise suggests an underlying human commonality in the types of religious worlds represented, and in the mode of representation, both of which belie the dependence of religious states and processes upon the human brain.
Frake's (1997, 33) description of methodology as “theoretically motivated notions of what to do when faced with the real world” is appropriate – methodology links data, i.e., what we construe to be observations of some particular reality, to theory, i.e., our proposals for understanding reality in general. But because academic fields often are defined by a set of problems and a range of research methods (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997, 5), multidisciplinary endeavors always raise the question of just whose method will be used.
Religion in Mind is a 2001 text which summarizes and extends the advances in the cognitive study of religion throughout the 1990s. It uses empirical research from psychology and anthropology to illuminate various components of religious belief, ritual, and experience. The book examines cognitive dimensions of religion within a naturalistic view of culture, while respecting the phenomenology of religion and drawing together teachers of religion, psychologists of religion, and cognitive scientists. Expert contributors focus on phenomena such as belief-fixation and transmission; attributions of agency; anthropomorphizing; counterintuitive religious representations; the well-formedness of religious rituals; links between religious representations and emotions; and the development of god concepts. The work encourages greater interdisciplinary linkages between scholars from different fields and will be of interest to researchers in anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, and cognitive science. It also will interest more general readers in religion and science.