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Review: Rethinking Religion

Rethinking ReligionIn this groundbreaking book, E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley proclaim the birth of the field of cognitive science of religion by presenting a unified cognitive theory of religious ritual action. In their expression of cogitations that had been percolating among cognitive anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers such as Dan Sperber, Dorothy Holland, and Naomi Quinn, Lawson and McCauley suggest the usefulness of cognitivist methods to explicate, interpret, and predict symbolic-cultural systems.


Borrowing concepts and modeling techniques from linguistics and cognitive processing, their theory organizes the elements, properties, and patterns of human action – especially within religious ritual systems. Being the first comprehensive theory of its type, the work is highly speculative and vulnerable to critique. In fact, in a subsequent book, Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundation of Cultural Forms, the same authors refine and test the theory presented in Rethinking ReligionNonetheless, the book's theoretical framework, and its detailed justification of utilizing such frameworks, remains an important and lasting contribution to the scientific study of religion.

The first four chapters of Rethinking Religion are characterized by systematic analyses of conflicting and alternative approaches. These discussions methodically contextualize the authors’ approaches and defend their theoretical perspectives. In Chapter One, they present the first of two metatheoretical theses: the endorsement of an interactionist approach, characterized by a balanced dialogue between interpretation and explanation, for studying socio-cultural systems – of which religions are the “paradigm case.”

Thus, they argue against approaches that exclude either interpretation or explanation (exclusivist) and ones that subordinate explanation to interpretation (inclusivist). Having established their support for an interactionist approach, they mention that the task of interpretation has been “overemphasized” and so the bulk of their present focus is more explanatory; that being said, Chapter Six offers an extensive argument for their preferred form of semantic interpretation that is both holistic and referential.

Chapter Two presents what Lawson and McCauley take to be the three “most prominent” theoretical approaches to the study of religion: intellectualism, symbolism, and structuralism.  They demonstrate that although each of these three approaches takes seriously the analogical relationship between language and other forms of symbolic materials, none of them fully explore the potential of this analogy for analyzing symbolic-cultural systems such as religion, as Lawson and McCauley aim to do. Similarly, in Chapter Three, the authors describe and critique three approaches to studying ritual as language: ritual as performance, communication, and formal system.

The authors’ second metatheoretical thesis, presented in Chapter Four, supports the application of Noam Chomsky’s competence approach from generative linguistics to theorizing about socio-cultural systems.

The competence approach in linguistics theorizes about the speaker-listener’s internalized, sometimes unconscious, knowledge and intuitions about grammar and semantics. Likewise, Lawson and McCauley suggest that the competence approach can help describe the agent-participant’s intuitions and representations of ritual systems. Although Lawson and McCauley note several significant differences between learning one’s native language and developing a competence of a religious ritual system (namely, that religious ritual systems are less pervasive and less complicated), they maintain the usefulness of the analogy.

Importantly, Lawson and McCauley explicitly state that their focus is on religious rituals and ritual systems and not religious traditions in general. They further narrow their definition of religious rituals to ones that directly or slightly indirectly include the action of a “culturally postulated superhuman agent.” As opposed to other religious actions, ritual action necessitates an agent, its action, and the object of its action. Lawson and McCauley’s "Principle of Superhuman Agency" indicates that the rituals in which a superhuman agent functions as the ritual agent – when the superhuman agent is perceived to act/create change in the world – are the most central to a religious system. More generally, the "Principle of Superhuman Immediacy" holds that, whether the superhuman agent is the ritual agent or not, the more immediate the action of the superhuman agent (in the present or an enabling ritual), the more central the ritual to the system. The bulk of the theory consists of twenty-seven rules for action formation that function to model a religious ritual system, and to categorize rituals in terms of their number of enabling rituals and what role the superhuman agent played in the ritual.

As one of the formative books for the cognitive science of religion, Rethinking Ritual sets an admirable precedent for articulate argumentation and thoughtful integration of theories of cognitive science into the study of religion. The fact that the theory lacked any empirical support at the time of the book's publication is not only addressed in the text as something to work toward, but was mitigated in following years with the publication of McCauley and Lawson’s Bringing Ritual to Mind in 2002. However, two primary concerns remain. First, aside from one quick reference to Chomsky’s exploration of the evolutionary roots of linguistic competence, the authors largely neglect insight from evolutionary approaches. The evolutionary formation of cognitive systems offers considerable insight into their functioning; for example, the importance of emotion and feeling in the construction of the agency detection device. This omission is somewhat mitigated in McCauley’s later book, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (2011), but it remains worth mentioning, as further integrative interdisciplinary work is still needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of religious ritual. Without adequate attention to evolutionary perspectives that emphasize the importance of social emotion, cognitive science might easily fall prey to a mechanistic, computer-like understanding of the human brain.

Secondly, I take issue with the authors’ definition of religious ritual. Their definition excludes such actions as worshipful singing, group or individual prayer, chanting, or dancing. Although they explicitly state the parameters of their definition, emphasizing that rituals in which the superhuman agent is the acting agent cannot be faked, I am not convinced of this distinction. The fluidity, or lack thereof, of a ritual participant’s ability to judge the “well-formedness” of religious rituals according to the stability of the ritual’s formation and rule-abidance remains an empirical question. Without attention to the other biological, neurological, and social factors operating in religious rituals (for example, emotion, collective energy, peer pressure, etc.) it seems short-sighted to claim that the success of a ritual depends on its technical formation and fit within a system.  Moreover, neglecting to theorize about the myriad other religious rituals that do not entail the action of superhuman agents sorely limits the generalizability of the theory.

Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1990; 194 pages) 

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