For reasons of temperament and training, I find it natural and exciting to make forays across what many scholars see as an unbridgeable divide between the humanities and the natural sciences. I must admit to a certain impatience with those of my fellow humanists who police these boundaries and caution against serious engagement with the natural sciences. In my view, it is better to construct rough and ready bridges than to wait for the construction of a perfect bridge that will stand for all time. This book is devoted to building some usable, albeit imperfect, bridges linking the study of experience in religious studies, the social-psychological study of the mind, and neuroscientific study of the brain.
I have written this book primarily for humanists and humanistically oriented social scientists who study religion using historical and ethnographic methods. My hope is that the conceptual tools provided here will embolden these readers to make greater use of scientific research that is illuminating the complex ways in which the brain-mind is both shaped by and shapes socio-cultural processes. I also hope that this book will be useful to experimentalists who study religion—to help them consider ways in which the resources of the humanities might enhance their experimental research designs or provide new contexts for testing hypotheses.
The focus of the book is on experiences deemed religious (and, by extension, other things considered special) rather than “religious experience.” This shift in terminology signals my interest in exploring the processes whereby experiences come to be understood as religious at multiple levels, from the intrapersonal to intergroup. To understand these processes, I argue that we need to work comparatively, but that we cannot limit our comparisons to “religious things,” as if “religious things” or “religious experiences” comprised a fixed and stable set. Rather, much as scientists compare experimental and control groups, we need to compare things that people consider religious with similar things that they do not. The phrase “experiences deemed religious” is contentious, as is each of the individual words “experience,” “deemed,” and “religious.” A chapter is devoted to each word, starting with “religion,” and followed by “experience” and then “explanation,” which takes up “deeming.” The fourth chapter—devoted to comparison—discusses how we might best set up comparisons between experiences that are sometimes considered religious and sometimes not.
Scholars of religion regularly raise certain objections to the approach I am advocating. First, they suggest that the subject matter is passé in