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Review: How Religion Works—Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion

How Religion WorksHow to conduct the scientific study of religion has been an important issue for several decades. The humanities, social sciences and natural sciences all contribute greatly to the understanding of religion. But how to combine these wisdoms? Ilkka Pyysiäinen’s book How Religion Works (Brill; 2003) provides a good example.

In the first chapter, Pyysiäinen poses the following questions: How can we study religion scientifically? Besides empathic participation and appreciative interpretation, can we explore religion also by examining the mechanisms underlying religious behaviors and beliefs through cognitive science? In response to the criticism that religion is mysterious and natural science can only touch the surface rather than the essence, he maintains that if religion is truly an unfathomable mystery, then no study, either from humanities or science, should be conducted. Moreover, no single theory can deal with all aspects of such a complex phenomenon as religion, just as we cannot have a theory of all white objects. It is too much to expect a theory about biological mechanism to answer questions about meaning. The author also asserts his belief in conceptual integration, holding that findings from different disciplines should be mutually consistent. Although religious phenomena are of various kinds, as human thought and behavior, religion must express universal human nature. Therefore, the cognitive science approach to the underlying mechanism of religion is more than valid.

Then Pyysiäinen examines what the appropriate subject matter of religious studies is. Religious phenomena have no clear boundary, and the concept of “religion” is an artificial construct, “not a scientific, explanatory category”(1). Where should scholars of religion focus? Pyysiäinen believes that the subject matter should be the recurrent patterns of religious ideas and behavior.

What is the defining recurrent pattern of religion? The author contends that it is the serious belief in God or supernatural-beings. By understanding supernatural beings as counter-intuitive agency, it is possible to render this idea more clear and amenable to empirical research. Counter-intuitive representations are formed by the violation of tacit and commonsensical knowledge, or “the boundaries of intuitive ontological categories”(235). Cognitive science shows that people more easily interpret counter-intuitive representations as being religious than natural representations. In other words, the counter-intuitive element is the cue, which can “activates a religious interpretation in subjects”(235).

How can cognitive science approach shed light on our traditional understanding of religion? The author offers two examples to show his point: Geertz’s cultural and symbolic theory and Durkheim’s sociological functional theory of religion. He points out the defects of these two theories and shows how cognitive science can help fix the problems. For example, Geertz might rightfully regard religion as a cultural system, yet fails to show what is special about religion compared with other cultural systems. The same happens with Durkheim, who did not point out why and how the mental representation of the authority of society can contain “immanent psychic energy” which evokes social members’ emotions.

Pyysiäinen continues to use cognitive science to examine the function of religious experience and ritual in generating and strengthening religious belief. He also examines why regarding religion as worldview or ethics cannot really explain religion.

In the last part of the book, Pyysiäinen lists cognitive research findings to back up his idea of counter-intuitiveness, and examines what is different between religious counter-intuitiveness as opposed to the counter-intuitiveness of science, fiction, and disturbing mental states. He comes to the conclusion that whether a representation is religious is not about its intrinsic properties, but is “based on the way it is used”(221). What is worth pointing out is his comparison between religion and science: they are both taken as literally true and to “describe what is ultimately real”(218); they both violate intuition but in different ways (religion favors agency explanation while science prefers mechanistic explanations); both contain spontaneous and reflective beliefs.

Pyysiäinen's focus on counter-intuitiveness as a bridge to connect humanities and social science studies of religion and natural science is a wonderful strategy. The key is that this concept renders empirical study possible. From his belief that religion has a structure in which the counter-intuitive representations play a central role, he renders it empirically testable by setting up the concrete scientific question of “How certain counter-intuitive representations come to be selected as objects of serious belief and are used in life management both individually and collectively.” It illuminates how to explore boundary issues, which requires cross-disciplinary understanding.

Moreover, the author is also acutely aware of the barrier for the collaboration between humanities and science—the abstract category problem. For example, “cultural systems”, used as a central concept in Geertz’s analysis of religion, are actually an “arbitrary abstraction postulated by the scholar, and are not represented as such by the individuals whom the scholar studies”(IX). There is an urgent need for more precise, concrete categories with more explanatory power. Only by finding those categories could we bridge the gap between humanities and science.

In this book, the author uses “counter-intuitiveness” as the connecting category. It corresponds to Wildman’s “intense experience” (see Religious and Spiritual Experience, 2011). Intense experience is not necessarily religious, but is the defining element in religious and spiritual experiences (RSEs). As a bridging concept, it renders RSEs amenable to scientific research. “Counter-intuitiveness” also corresponds to Ann Taves’s category of “special things”, which is used  to substitute “supernatural beings” in order to bridge the gap between science and religion. Pyysiainen says that scientific study of religion should focus on how “people are able to recognize certain beliefs and practices as being of special import, quite irrespective of whether they have an explicit concept of ‘religion’”(236).

This book is a great combination of social scientific studies and evolutionary cognitive science, and every argument is provided with philosophic depth and scientific rigor.

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