Science on Religion

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Review: How Religion Works

How_Religion_WorksWith a refreshing outlook in a discipline long dominated by the social sciences, Ilkka Pyysiäinen in How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion (Brill, 2001) approaches the study of religion through the lens of cognitive science. He advocates for an analysis by way of neural and cognitive mechanisms, persuasively drawing upon a tremendous amount of empirical research in the process.

After a brief consideration of customary attempts to categorize religion and an exhortation against being too strict in this regard, the book begins with a redefinition of terms in Chapter 2 that forms the basis for much of the argument to follow. Pyysiäinen replaces more traditional concepts such as “transcendent” with the term “counter-intuitive” by which he means “violations against or transferences across the boundaries between ontological categories” (20). In this way, Pyysiäinen is able to argue that these concepts emerge as a result of an innate cognitive apparatus defining what is, and what is not, intuitively understood about the world.

Chapters 3 and 4 each provide a fairly detailed overview of the theories advanced by two prominent sociologists, Clifford Geertz and Émile Durkheim, respectively. Pyysiäinen criticizes both views for much the same reason, focusing on their “arbitrary use of the notion of symbolism, and a lack of attention to the psychological mechanisms of religious representation” (55). He denies the legitimacy of viewing culture as a system of symbols (or, in the case of Durkheim, society as the rather ambiguous “collective consciousness”), meaningful in its own right and existing largely independently of human cognition. Mere abstractions of processes actually occurring in the individual, these perspectives are accordingly incapable of explaining the transmission, acquisition, or significance of religion without recourse to cognitive science.

In by far the longest section, Chapter 5, Pyysiäinen marshals a formidable amount of research to provide a detailed overview of current trends in the neurophysiological and cognitive sciences. On this basis, he points to deep microseizures in the brain known as “temporal lobe transients” (TLTs) and argues that “there is a quite specific neural mechanism…[that] produces an experience in which one feels that everything in the world has a meaning and that one is invested with knowledge of some great cosmic plan, of which one is also…a part” (128). By virtue of their counterintuitive nature, in fact, religious concepts engender intensely emotional responses which optimize our ability to recall them and ensure both their longevity across time and transmission through space. Dealing as it does with such complicated and technical topics as the hierarchical dimensionality of consciousness and the neural circuitry underlying experience, one naturally expects this section to prove incredibly challenging. A few particularly dense parts notwithstanding, however, Pyysiäinen deftly navigates these subjects in an intelligible and thoroughly enjoyable manner.

Pyysiäinen follows with a discussion on ethics, arguing against the traditional association of morality with religion and instead implicating innate “cognitive processes that make it possible for us to represent knowledge about social relationships and also to regulate behaviors related to these relationships” (172). Though interesting, this chapter contains hardly any references to counterintuitive agents and, as a result, seems a bit out of place amidst the otherwise consistent focus on this feature.

In his final chapter, Pyysiäinen denies the existence of any specific domain of the mind exclusively dedicated to religion. Rather, religious concepts all emerge from the same processes responsible for other forms of cognition such as scientific knowledge. After discussing alternative types of counterintuitive representations, he concludes with a consideration of their differences and the manner in which religion can be distinguished from science, fiction, and mental disorder.

Overall, this book does a great job of preemptively addressing concerns so commonly found in the study of religion about reductionism. Pyysiäinen frequently affirms the importance of viewing religion as “at once cultural and individual, public and private, individual representations being based on public ones and these in turn being expressions of individual representations” (52). Dwelling briefly upon this interplay by way of a comparison between Christianity and Buddhism in his chapter on ethics (Chapter 6), in fact, he explores a number of ways in which differences in the prevailing sociocultural environment surrounding each of these traditions shaped their respective conceptual priorities and characteristics in different ways over time. This demonstrable appreciation for the interaction of variables operating on multiple levels of analysis surely goes a long way towards fostering the receptivity of academics in the field of religious studies not only to this book specifically, but to the scientific study of religion, as well.

That said, this book is not without its weaknesses. To focus on one in particular, Pyysiäinen fails to sufficiently establish anything specific to religion by his notion of the counterintuitive. Though he acknowledges that counterintuitive concepts constitute other domains like science, his efforts to distinguish religion from this domain are ultimately ineffective. Scientists, for instance, “have the explicit intention of describing reality as accurately as possible, of using empirical evidence, and of proposing coherent theories” that refrain from using “evocative symbolism of the kind that typifies religious cognition” (218). Unfortunately, one is able to recall a number of great theologians and philosophers of religion alike, each propounding thoroughly “detailed explanations of how their models, analogies, and theoretical concepts refer to reality” (ibid.). In the end, regarding religion as merely symbolic betrays a very specific, not to mention speculative, interpretation of that domain and goes nowhere towards describing it in a way that does justice to how it is actually perceived by most adherents.

Even leaving this denial of literal legitimacy aside and forgetting for a moment that claims regarding the nature of referents in religion are well beyond the current capacity of cognitive science, however, Pyysiäinen also maintains that “religious representations are acquired without explicit tuition, whereas scientific representations need to be explicitly taught” (219). Despite singling out the more nuanced explorations of theology as clear exceptions to this rule, he ignores the fact that the very type of science requiring such extensive education is no less than just the more nuanced subset of a common understanding of the physical world based upon intuition and “acquired without explicit tuition.” Pyysiäinen himself eventually draws the curtain on this straw man, in fact, standing “highly reflective” theoretical insights in science on the order of general relativity up against “ordinary religious representations” (222) to purportedly demonstrate the unique need for training in science.

In all fairness and in spite of such assertions, however, he does confess that “counter-intuitiveness alone is not a sufficient criterion for something being an instance of religion. Nor is it possible to say what more is needed” (227). In part, the difficulty he encounters in distinguishing this domain is likely a result of evidence against the existence of any domain-specific cognitive processes dedicated to religion alone. Thus, according to Pyysiäinen, religion makes use of the cognitive tools borrowed from domains associated with various other forms of cognition.

In the end, Pyysiäinen offers a persuasive, if thoroughly counterintuitive, saunter through the labyrinthine complexities of consciousness and neural circuitry. Built upon an impressive foundation of empirical research, this book is sure to be counted among the more powerful forces emerging from the burgeoning scientific study of religion.

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