Expanding the cognitive science of religion wiki

Posted on October 15, 2010


I have taken another step into cyberspace and edited a wikipedia article. The article, on cognitive science of religion, is now much expanded upon its previous version and, hopefully, an improvement. I have added sections on history, theoretical basis and main concepts, trying to give the readers an overview of what the discipline is about and the kinds of approaches it uses. Never having done anything of the sort before, however, I am not sure if I have not managed to somehow breach netiquette. Only time and the revision history of the article will tell. For now, here is the history section:

Although religion has been the subject of serious scientific study since at least the late nineteenth century, the study of religion as a cognitive phenomenon is relatively recent. While it often relies upon earlier research within anthropology of religion and sociology of religion, cognitive science of religion considers the results of that work within the context of evolutionary and cognitive theories, transforming what had been seen as moribund disciplines. As such, cognitive science of religion was only made possible by the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and the development, starting in the 1970s, of sociobiology and other approaches explaining human behaviour in evolutionary terms, especially evolutionary psychology.

While Dan Sperber foreshadowed cognitive science of religion in his 1975 book Rethinking Symbolism, the earliest research to fall within the scope of the discipline was published during the 1980s. Among this work, Stewart Guthrie’s “A cognitive theory of religion” Current Anthropology 21 (2) 1980 was significant for examining the significance of anthropomorphism within religion, work that ultimately led to the development of the concept of the hyperactive agency detection device – a key concept within cognitive science of religion.

The real beginning of cognitive science of religion can be dated to the 1990s, however. During that decade a large number of highly influential books and articles were published which helped to lay the foundations of cognitive science of religion. These included Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture and Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms, written by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, Naturalness of Religious Ideas by Pascal Boyer, as well as Guthrie’s book-length development of his theories in Faces in the Clouds. In the 1990s, these and other researchers who had been working independently in a variety of different disciplines, discovered each other’s work and found valuable parallels between their approaches, with the result that something of a self-aware research tradition began to coalesce. By 2000, the field was well-enough defined for E. Thomas Lawson to coin the term ‘cognitive science of religion’ in his article “Toward a cognitive science of religion” Numen 47.

Since 2000, cognitive science of religion has grown explosively, similarly to other approaches that apply evolutionary thinking to sociological phenomena. Each year an ever greater number of researchers is becoming involved in the field, with theoretical and empirical developments proceeding at a very rapid pace. The field remains somewhat loosely defined, bringing together as it does researchers who come from a variety of different traditions. Much of the cohesion in the field comes not from shared detailed theoretical commitments but from a general willingness to view religion in cognitive and evolutionary terms as well as from the wilingness to engage with the work of the others developing this field. A vital role in bringing together researchers is played by the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion, formed in 2006.