Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

In his recent RSP interview, Dr. Robert McCauley provides a brilliant overview of some of the founding philosophical principles that have been a foundation for the study of religion. Dr. McCauley has been known as one of the key founders of the “Cognitive Science of Religion” (CSR) since he co-authored the book “Rethinking Religion” (Lawson & McCauley, 1990); ever since then he has guided the field with a keen understanding of the empirical, philosophical, and socio-cultural literature from which CSR draws.

In the interview, he touches on an aspect of the scientific study of religion that I would like to highlight: explanatory pluralism. I want to use this opportunity to offer a critical review of CSR in light of explanatory pluralism. It is my belief that the failure of CSR to adequately address its inherently interdisciplinary nature has been a detriment to the field and that by addressing these issues it will help the field to grow as well as to help non-CSR specialists understand more of the subtlety of this scientific approach to our subject. I, by no means, think I can settle the issues in the space here, but I would like to use Dr. McCauley’s interview as a springboard from which a discussion can be launched.

Explanatory pluralism

The primary aspect of the interview that I’d like to address is McCauley’s concept of “explanatory pluralism,” which holds that a phenomenon can be explained at different levels of inquiry. The explanatory pluralist maintains that there is no such thing as a final, full, or complete explanation and that each analytical level in science has tools and insights that can be brought to bear on any phenomenon of interest, including religion.

He notes that there are “families” of sciences, and these should probably not be taken as strong demarcations between fields. He also notes that this presumes a hierarchy whereby all events at one level are events of the level beneath it. For example, all events that are chemical events are physical events, but not all physical events are chemical events. McCauley did not explicitly state the “chemical sciences” as a family, but I have added it here since it is hard to imagine a biological event that isn’t chemical but we can imagine chemical events that aren’t biological (e.g. fire or Diet Coke and Mentos).

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science


Here, my critique is that this sort of explanatory pluralism is really only useful as a framework for constructing an interdisciplinary research project, aimed at understanding some phenomenon like religion, if there is theoretical continuity between the sciences being employed to explain a phenomenon.

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

First, it is hard to imagine a scenario where one should “skip” a level of his pyramid. Explaining socio-cultural phenomena exclusively at the level of biology misses the fact that any biological effects on culture or religion would be mediated by psychology. The endless debate of Nature vs. Nurture settled that one cannot reduce religion to our genes alone. However, our psychological capacities seem to have evolved, and these capacities do give rise to religion. So it is not to say that biology isn’t important (to the contrary); it is just that solely-biological explanations of religion are hollow when neglecting how it is that socio-cultural phenomena (like religion) are affected by psychology.

Theoretical continuity

Second, the theories being employed must have compatible axiomatic assumptions. If assumptions of one theory, which is used to explain some target phenomenon, violate the assumptions of another theory used to explain the same phenomenon at a different level there is an incongruity.

Think of it this way, if we are adding two numbers, X and Y, to get Z as an answer and there are equal assumptions about X and Y then the answers are clear; example: 6 + 6 = 12. However, if the theory from which we assess X and Y is not equal to the theory from which we assess z (i.e. the theory has asymmetrical assumptions), then the equation is not so simple and it is possible that 6 + 6 ≠ 12. To use a mathematical example, 6 plus 6 equals 12 (6 + 6 = 12) in our number system, which is based on the assumption of having a base of 10. However, in a senary number theory (base-6), the answer to our equation is 20 in base-10.[1] Without going deeper into number theory, suffice to say that this equation is not valid as we are adding variables from one theory in search of an answer in another theory. This creates an issue when we see a target phenomenon “Z” and hope to explain it in terms of lower level properties, when our theories don’t align.

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

This complication is spelled out quite clearly in mathematics, but may be more complex when looking at socio-cognitive systems like religious systems (or political systems, or economic systems). One of the reasons that this is complex is because the interactions at one level may not be directly reducible to the parts that it is built upon at a lower level; colloquially, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Here I would like to address a crucial issue in the study of religion, that of emergence. If something is “emergent” it is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence comes in two forms, strong and weak. Strong emergence is the stance that a phenomenon—observed at one level—cannot be reduced, even in principle, to the laws specified at a lower level. Weak emergence is the stance that a phenomenon is the result of interactions at a lower level, but the target phenomenon is not expected given the interactions at this lower level.

Many people hold that religion is an emergent phenomenon that cannot be reduced. These discussions are complex and a review of this literature is far beyond the scope of this response. However, let us just imagine how an interdisciplinary approach to religion, as an emergent phenomenon, could arise from lower level properties. Now, this assumes that religion is weakly emergent. First, because strong emergence is incompatible with scientific reductionism and is better fit for interpretive paradigms that seek to explain the social at the level of the social (ala Durkheim); I’ll address the idea that religion may be a causal force in just a moment. However, if we move beyond that—even if only for the sake of argument—religion must arise from some lower level properties.

So, to exemplify this, I’m going to use a very elementary analogy. Let’s return back to the “Pyramid of Science” above. If something at the cultural level is emergent in the strong sense, it means that there is no connection to the laws at the lower (i.e. psychological level). It is an unconnected cloud floating above the minds of people.

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

This approach is in many ways black and white. Culture is not directly connected to the rules that are followed by its constituent parts. Most individuals in the scientific study of religion (SSR) reject this claim because if one imagines a world without people we simply would not have culture. Therefore, there is posited to be some connection between “Culture” and the minds of individuals that hold, sustain, and generate that culture. This position is more in line with the weak emergent perspective. This holds that culture is not directly reducible to the lower-level laws of human psychology, but there is some connection. The current scientific explanation for culture and religion is that it is “generated” by the collective minds of all the individuals in a group. This allows for culture to have the shades of grey that result from all the colorful cognitive machinery with which humans are endowed.

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Now, one might ask: “Wait, this is too simple, why is it that different cultural groups behave differently?” Within complexity theory, emergent phenomenon can exert causal forces. Some even believe that no higher-level entity can change without exerting some force on its lower level parts (for a deeper discussion on emergentism see Kim, 1999); that is to say, within a complex systems perspective, culture can shape people, and people generate religion and culture.

What this has to do with religion: Taking the red pill[2]

Now, at this point in the rabbit hole, you may be wondering if I’ve gone off the rails. Well, yes, but only to exemplify an important point concerning how modern cognitive science has surpassed CSR and what religious studies could serve to learn from it.

Above, I outline a constant, complex, feedback systejimim whereby culture emerges from the complex interactions between humans’ mental facilities, and in turn, creates an environment within which these individuals live. This environmental input, indifferentiable from the plants, animals, and water, is an important aspect of the environment and therefore can appear to cause individuals to do things just as the presence of a snake would cause a person to jump. This feedback system is—in principle—not unlike the physical systems that cause guitars to screech when too close to an amp. One (culture) arises from the minds of interacting people, which are, in turn, affected by that culture. Furthermore, we can visualize them with our “culture cloud” like so:

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

Now, in order to understand this complex system, we have to hold the way in which we measure everything steady between the psychological level and the socio-cultural level. We wouldn’t want to use the metric system for one thing and the imperial system for another. Although it may seem like things are stable at first glance, such incongruity will not result in a viable approach to theory building. Furthermore, we need to change the way we approach measuring religion. Saying something is complex is no longer a viable excuse to say we cannot study it empirically. Complex statistics from recursion analysis (Lang, Krátký, Shaver, Jerotijević, & Xygalatas, 2015) to network analysis (Lane, 2015) allow us to discern non-linear patterns in the study of religion. Also, computer models are allowing us to study these relationships as well (see Bainbridge, 2006; Braxton, 2008; McCorkle & Lane, 2012; Shults et al., Submitted; Upal, 2005; Whitehouse, Kahn, Hochberg, & Bryson, 2012; Wildman & Sosis, 2011).


Many of those in the scientific study of religion argue that “culture” or “religion” is a causal force. This has led some in the scientific study of religion to ignore the great scholarship of religious scholars who acknowledge that religion is an academic abstraction invented by western intellectuals (Smith, 2004)—at times even leading those scientists of religion to implicitly treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon. However, by abandoning our linear thinking (and statistics!) we could start to investigate religion as emergent and not simply the additive “sum” of the constituent minds of people. Rather, we can look at it for what it is, the result of iterations of interactions among individuals in complex socio-biological environments (i.e. contexts) that is instantiated in an ever-recursive system between the cognitive and socio-cultural levels of analysis. As I hope it is plain to see, I wholly support Dr. McCauley’s commitment to explanatory pluralism. I only argue that we be more mindful of the theoretical continuity which is necessary to produce valid models[3] of religion.


Bainbridge, W. S. (2006). God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of religious Cognition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Braxton, D. M. (2008). Modeling the McCauley-Lawson Theory of Ritual Forms. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University.

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing.

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6.

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218.

Shults, F. L., Lane, J. E., Lynch, C., Padilla, J., Mancha, R., Diallo, S., & Wildman, W. J. (n.d.). Modeling Terror Management Theory: A computer simulation of hte impact of mortality salience on religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior.

Smith, J. Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201.

Wildman, W. J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Stability of Groups with Costly Beliefs and Practices. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 14(3).


[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here:

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here:

[3] I mean this in the conceptual and computational sense, including scholars of religion engaged in philosophical, historical, and empirical endeavors.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters


Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?





Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.


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[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.