Philosophical Foundations of the Cognitive Science of Religion

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Robert N. McCauley, E. Thomas Lawson
Scientific Studies in Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The cognitive science of religion (CSR) has rapidly expanded over the last twenty years. New theories, more scholars, fascinating studies, and a slew of popularizing books have raised its profile. Nevertheless, some suspicion about its value remains, particularly in religious studies and related disciplines. Robert McCauley—one of the founders of CSR, a philosopher with training in religious studies, and the author of several interdisciplinary studies in philosophy, cognitive science, and anthropology—is one of the scholars best positioned to defend CSR. He does just that quite effectively in his new book, Philosophical Foundations of the Cognitive Science of Religion, which reprints several of his most important theoretical and philosophical essays and adds a new essay on the fruits of CSR.

McCauley thinks the worries of many scholars in religious studies are grounded in a long-refuted philosophy of science: logical empiricism. McCauley effectively presents many of the well-known (at least among philosophers) problems facing logical empiricism, including its deductive-nomological account of explanation. He proposes an alternative philosophy of science—explanatory pluralism—whose central notion is theoretical explanation. Several theoretical explanations of a given phenomenon can be given across various levels of analysis (e.g. physical, biological, psychological, social). So, for example, a certain sort of behavior in an organism can be explained sociologically, psychologically, biologically, and physically and these explanations don’t necessarily compete with each other. If anything, they usually can assist one another in coming to a better theoretical understanding of the behavior. McCauley argues that complete elimination or reduction of a theory at one analytical level to a lower level is exceedingly rare in the history of science, and that in fact scientists opportunistically grab at any tool at various analytical levels to assist their theoretical goals. Thus traditional work in religious studies has nothing to fear; it won’t be “reduced away” to mere biology. In fact, traditional work in religious studies and theoretical work in CSR can benefit each other. CSR’s theories need to be tested. Successful theories will fit with data about religions that has been provided by work in religious studies, and CSR theories can in turn help specify what kind of data religious studies scholars should be looking to produce. Theory drives data collection, and data selects theories.

One of the strengths of McCauley’s work is its direct engagement with important figures and movements in religious studies and anthropology. Many CSR scholars aren’t familiar with this work and so have a difficult time addressing the concerns of those in religious studies and anthropology. McCauley could have spent a little more time explaining some of this work (since many readers won’t be terribly familiar with it) before critiquing it, but on the whole his criticisms are fair and clear. He argues that religious studies and cultural anthropology are interested in interpreting the meaning of religious behavior for its participants, rather than explaining it. And those interpretations often proceed using hermeneutical tools. But, McCauley argues, this focus on interpretation has several problems. First, it leads scholars to focus too much attention on religions that are textual while unduly neglecting other religious behavior. Second, it isn’t scientific because it doesn’t aim to produce a theory of religious phenomena using a more abstract set of concepts. Instead it is more like a big list of facts. Third, cultural-level explanations such as those in terms of social power are often too imprecise to be tested. According to McCauley, CSR can avoid each of these problems: it prizes precisely-formulated theories using concepts at various levels of analysis, and it tests those theories with data about any broadly religious behavior. 

Some scholars argue that intentional human behavior cannot be explained by subpersonal causes, suggesting that CSR could not possibly succeed in explaining religious behavior and belief. McCauley responds that (1) behavioral psychology has in effect given good explanations of various such behavior, and (2) this argument is rooted once again in a logical empiricist conception of explanation. A broader conception such as McCauley’s is unable to ground this sort of argument. Others presume that religion is a unique human phenomenon and so requires its own unique method. McCauley notes that this argument is inconsistent with practice in religious studies, which relies on methods such as hermeneutics that apply to many sorts of human phenomena. He suggests that this presumption is grounded in a theological conviction that there is some unique, unexplainable human experience of the sacred.

Although McCauley’s defense of CSR is broadly persuasive, I think he ignores several other sources for concern about CSR. First, those in religious studies are convinced that religious beliefs and behavior have meaning. The logical positivist criterion of meaning, which many in religious studies still think philosophy of science accepts, would draw this into question. However, McCauley’s move of pointing out the false assumption—nobody accepts that criterion anymore—suffices to respond to this charge. The second, and more significant, concern is that scientific explanations of religious belief explain away religious belief—that is, these explanations attempt to show that religious beliefs are “nothing but” the byproducts of natural processes. But one of the basic stances of those in religious studies is staunch neutrality about whether any religious beliefs are true. There is a growing philosophical literature that addresses this concern; I suspect many interested in the viability of CSR would profit from exposure to this literature. McCauley’s argument would have been strengthened with a discussion of it.

In short, although it could have been improved with a couple additional discussions, Philosophical Foundations of the Cognitive Science of Religion is a valuable and distinctive volume. Veterans and novices to CSR—especially those in religious studies—will all benefit from studying it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua C. Thurow is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert N. McCauley is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor, as well as associated professor of philosophy, psychology, religion, and anthropology, and director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture, at the Emory University.

E. Thomas Lawson is honorary professor and research scientist at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the School of History and Anthropology, Queen's University-Belfast, Northern Ireland, as well as professor emeritus of the department for comparative religion at Western Michigan University.

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