Cognitive Science and History of Religions: A Match Made in Heaven

A mere decade ago, Thomas Lawson explored the applicability of cognitive science to religion in an article titled “Towards A Cognitive Science of Religion.”  At the time he wrote, there were relatively few scholars using cognitive science to analyze the aspects of mind that cause supernatural thinking.  Since 2000, however, there has been an explosion of such scholarship and it can now be said that the broad outline of a cognitive science of religion is in place.  It has yet, however, to be synthesized and brought together in one place.

A relatively complete cognitive science of religion will not, however, be enough to explain religion.  Standing alone, such a science will remain largely theoretical and psychological.  There is nothing wrong with that, and it is an essential first step.  An additional step must be taken, and cognitive science must be find its place within the history of religions.

In his 2000 article, Lawson presciently noted this and commented on what will be required:

Of particular importance to the discipline of the history of religions at this time is the development of explanatory theories of religion by scholars who are not only tuned to the sciences, but also have a deep knowledge of religious traditions.

This is precisely the case, but it is also a tall order.  The cognitive science of religion requires, on the one hand, a thorough grounding in primate and hominid brain evolution.  The history of religions requires, on the other hand, an understanding of history that includes not simply the origins of modern religions from the Neolithic to the present, but also the history of the supernatural that encompasses the Paleolithic.  For this, extensive archaeological knowledge must be combined with ethnohistoric and ethnographic knowledge of the many spiritual traditions which preceded modern religions.  In the emphatic plural, Piers Vitebsky calls these traditions “shamanisms.”

Given the nature of academic research and the emphasis on specialization, it is not surprising that we do not yet have a monograph that combines all these perspectives.  I expect, however, that it shall be done and the synthetic result will be particularly illuminating.

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