doi:10.1558/jch.v2i1.30990

Review

Dimitris Xygalatas and William W. McCorkle Jr. (eds.), Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion (Durham: Acumen Publishing, 2013; republished in 2014 by Routledge, London and New York), 268pp. ISBN 978-1-84465-742-1. $29.95 (pbk).

Reviewed by: Donald Wiebe, Trinity College, University of Toronto, Canada

Email: [email protected]

This volume is intended to be both an apologia for and introduction to the “cognitive science of religion” (CSR). According to the editors – Dimitris Xygalatas and William W. McCorkle Jr. – the study of religion from a cognitive perspective is seen by many in the “religious studies” community as revolutionary and alien to the methodologies currently employed by humanists and social scientists. Although Xygalatas and McCorkle admit that making use of the cognitive sciences in trying to understand and explain religious phenomena amounts to a “paradigm shift” in the field, they also maintain that this “cognitive turn” is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary development in the field. Thus, they were aware of “the need for communicating the relevance and relation of CSR to the broader study of religion” (p. 9), especially since, as they put it, the CSR had already come to “maturity” early in the 21st century.

In response to that need, Xygalatas and McCorkle invited a group of scholars in the field of religious studies – variously trained in the humanities, history of religions, or the social sciences, and subsequently “captured” by the explanatory “charm” of the cognitive sciences – to contribute papers to a special volume on the CSR that would show the continuity of purpose between CSR and the traditional humanistic and social scientific approaches in the academic study of religion, and at the same time highlight the methodological harmony between those approaches and the new cognitive science of religion.

Their first task, as they saw it, was to lay to rest the fear that the CSR is methodologically exclusivist and reductionist. The first chapter in the volume, therefore, is an essay by Robert McCauley on “Why Scholars in Religious Studies Should Stop Worrying About Reductionism”. McCauley provides a cogent argument that there are various levels of analysis involved in scientific understanding and, consequently, there is a need for openness to what he calls an explanatory pluralism in all scientific endeavours. And such explanatory pluralism shows that traditional religious studies, which draws on humanistic studies and the social sciences, and now the cognitive approaches to understanding religious phenomena can be mutually enriching. McCauley’s essay, therefore, undermines any supposed pretension that the CSR will be able to “go it alone” in seeking a naturalistic explanation for religious thought and behaviour.

As important as McCauley’s essay is to this project, the editors’ main objective is to show the evolutionary continuity between several specific classical theoretical approaches in “religious studies” and current work in the cognitive science of religion. To this end, the volume comprises ten papers that attempt to show that traditional sociological (Marx, Durkheim, Weber), anthropological (Horton, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, Geertz), and psychological (James, Freud, Piaget) approaches to the study of religious phenomena have made significant contributions to the field of “religious studies” and that those contributions are not inconsistent with the research results of the CSR. The final paper in the volume by Edward Slingerland, like McCauley’s opening paper, is distinctive in that its focus is not on the CSR’s relationship to earlier theorists of religion, but focuses, rather, on historical problems in understanding the Analects of Confucius which have significant import for hermeneutics in general.

Although there is no space in a brief review of this kind to provide an overview of each of the papers in the volume, a general comment or two may be in order. There is no clear criterion stated for the selection of the “traditional” scholars/authors to be treated and, in my judgement, the inclusion of some of them is questionable. While some of the essays in the volume make a positive contribution to the “discussion” sought by the editors, I found others to be less than exciting, some interestingly eccentric, but few teeming with insight. Pascal Boyer’s treatment of Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, I find exemplary, given the objectives of the editors, and significant for understanding “the brilliant and problematic ancestor”. The editors themselves, it should be noted, provide a glimpse of each of the papers in their introduction and a more critical overview of each essay is provided in the conclusion to the volume (“Moving Towards a New Science of Religion; or, Have We Already Arrived?”) by Luther H. Martin and Ilkka Pyysiäinen, senior scholars in the CSR community. They also include an overall assessment of the achievements of the CSR to date. I agree with these assessors that the essays in this volume are rather uneven in fulfilling the objectives of the editors in outlining the contributions made by the traditional social sciences to explaining religious thought and behaviour and in pointing out developments in those sciences relevant to the approach to understanding/explaining religious phenomena. I am also in agreement with their overall assessment of the use of the designation “Cognitive Science of Religion” as, at present, an umbrella term for a diversity of research agendas and strategies rather than as the coherent field of study put forward by the editors (p. 213). The editors disagree with this conclusion however, pointing out that McCauley’s essay “emphasizes this methodological and explanatory pluralism precisely as one of the strengths of CSR” (p. 10). McCauley’s essay, however, does not provide protection against an extension of the plurality principle producing a rampant, runaway explanatory plurality that accepts even metaphysical or supernatural explanations of the kind found, for example, in Justin Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira Press, 2004), Aku Visala’s Naturalism, Theism and the Cognitive Study of Religion (Ashgate, 2011; Routledge, 2016), James A. Van Slyke’s The Cognitive Science of Religion (Ashgate, 2011; Routledge, 2016), or Tanya Luhrman’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012, and her essay in this volume). The editors are generally justified in claiming that there is a set of shared assumptions among CSR scholars including “the naturalistic basis of religion (and thus the negation of the sui generis argument and the a priori rejection of the explanatory relevance of supernatural claims); the material unity of brain and mind; the existence of universal (pan-human) mental capacities and predispositions; the role of Darwinian evolution in shaping human cognition and behaviour; and the interaction between cognition and culture” (p. 10). However, I am doubtful about the suggested unanimity of the import of those assumptions among CSR scholars. In my judgement, therefore, it is simply over-optimistic to claim, as the editors do, that the CSR “came to maturity” in the 21st century.

Faults (including the oddity, if not inappropriateness, of a negative response by the editors to the critique of the volume they sought from Martin and Pyysiäinen) and all, the goal for this volume was a good one. It is important that scholars in the field of “religious studies” understand that there is a connection/continuity between classical social theory about religious thought and behaviour and the significant extension of their explanatory range in the theoretical resources brought into the academic study of religion by the cognitive sciences and, especially, the CSR.