Chasing Down Religion

In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences

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Panayotis Pachis, Donald Wiebe
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , August
     584 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While the academic tradition from which this book emerges has, at times, been at odds with and even antagonistic to, the broad-umbrella approach to religious studies which is inclusive of theology and philosophy of religion by keeping a much narrower focus on the study of religion and restricting it only to those empirical social sciences, Chasing Down Religion demonstrates that even from within that much narrower focus a wide offering of very eclectic—some quite speculative and theoretical—essays can be merged within one volume. Truly there is something for everyone in this assemblage even though it keeps its commitment to historiography, and the cognitive sciences. In Chasing Down Religion, editors Panayotis Pachis and Donald Wiebe extend a surprisingly varied, multidisciplinary-methodological lens upon religion and its study, and in its own way, this volume mediates some of the tensions found more broadly within academic studies of religion, most particularly the reductionist (science) vs non-reductionist (humanities) tension. How so? By adding the human touch.

To explain, the methodological grounding of this volume—itself birthing a further innovative variety of inchoate research topics of their own consequence—is reflective more of a person than an academic field. Chasing Down Religion is a festschrift in honor of Luther H. Martin, whose interests reflect the methodological composition of this collection, and whose career has seen much in the way of development and diversification within that narrower academic field of religious studies. He is a founding member of both the North American Association for the Study of Religion and the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion and it is the former association which reflects the “academic tradition” that I referenced, has, at times, been antagonistic to the broad-umbrella approach to religious studies, and to which Luther’s efforts have yielded much productive fruit by creating a venue which, by virtue of its narrower focus, has perhaps not so ironically, expanded the research horizons of religious studies. The selections contained in this volume echoes that reality.

Martin’s early interests and efforts resulted in the book Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1987), which commands a wide audience including anyone seeking a primer on Ancient Greece, to those beginning more in-depth research into the topic. His brief overview of Greek religion received accolades for its use of primary sources yet presents the topic in a concise and clear manner for students at any stage of their education. It stands as a model of academic writing par excellence and established Martin as a significant figure in the field of religious studies.

The bridge from ancient religions (historiography) to the cognitive study of religion (cognitive sciences), and then their subsequent nexus, could only result in the mind of humanity as it seeks new ways to understand its existential reality. These essays, each of which strives to eek-out of the human record using innovative strategies from within these dual methodologies, represent the leading edge in this newly founded field that the honoree himself helped create. One contributor notes about Martin that “his own example demonstrated how cognitive theorizing can help advance our knowledge of ancient religions” (209).

There are twenty-six contributors to this volume who possess backgrounds in everything from the classical religions (Greco-Roman, late antiquity and Gnosticism), history of religions (European, African, Native American, Melanesian), anthropology, feminism, philosophy of science, evolutionary psychology, and the newly-emerging and developing field of the cognitive-neuroanatomical approaches to religion and religious behavior. And as is to be expected, several essays explore the methods and theories employed in the study of religion, which are always the subject of self-reflection and criticism in this academic tradition. Again, “[h]is work on ancient mystery cults in general and the Mithras cult in particular has significantly advanced the history of religion those areas” (209).

 Chasing Down Religion, thanks to the dedicated curiosities of one scholar of religion, lays out an innovative schema that can then begin to map out future areas of focus in the study of religion, areas in which scholars can exercise their theoretical and speculative (innovative) efforts. The result is the forging a more nuanced discipline.     

Essays topics include the exegetical examination of the Gospel of Mark (31); the “cognitive poetics and ascetic ideals” of Nag Hammadi literature (99); religion, violence and psychoanalysis (151); the comparative study of relics and what constitutes their “presence” (325); neuroscience and music in Buddhist-Christian comparison (373); identifying religious experience in Paleolithic art (441); and a most thought-provoking essay by one of the founders of the cognitive study of religion—Robert N. McCauley—on “How Science and Religion are more like Theology and Commonsense Explanations Than They Are Like Each Other: A Cognitive Account” (216), to list a sampling.

The most serious flaws of this book are those of production. Poor editing has left the volume riddled with typos—and on an introductory page no less—inconsistencies of capitalization of names, unaligned page numbers in the table of contents, blank-yet-numbered recto-verso pages, a clumsy-to-read general bibliography as a result of indented entries but with second line left margin justification—the reverse of what a clean read requires, and missing entries in the Bibliography—for example, I could not find the reference for Jack Goody in a very interesting anthropological essay on historical memory in Melanesian context (414). Also, two photos of the author, one early and one late in his career, are included in the beginning and documentation of their dates and /setting would be nice in aiding the sense of awareness that our fields really are built upon the efforts of individuals, and those same individuals stand upon the shoulders of his or hertheir forebears, and on the steps of institutions torching a stogie (III). Being a festschrift, I would think that it should have been apparent to the editors to include photo-biographic information. Finally, the print was awfully faint making the text unusually difficult to read—hopefully a single copy anomaly. But alas, individuals manufacture books as well.

These concerns aside, Chasing Down Religion demonstrates a theoretical curiosity coupled with a methodological humility reflected in its self-conscious awareness of its own limitations, recognizing that “its achievements will be commensurate with the combined strengths of its constituting disciplines” (490). This reveals a commitment to science and to the humanities from which all studies of religion may benefit and can contribute. Formed from the curiosities and competencies of one human being whose life has been committed to both science and the humanities, this book could serve to guide future research. In fact, since this book was published Martin has published The Mind of Mithraists: Historical and Cognitive Studies in the Roman Cult of Mithras (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014). Scholars may evaluate for themselves, and from their respective disciplines, just how helpful such research is in the understanding of religion. In spite of any tensions in the broader academic study of religion, this still-inchoate field of religious studies has successfully bridged the gap between science and the humanities by providing an innovative forum for volumes such as this.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Blair Alan Gadsby is adjunct faculty in religious studies at Mesa Community College.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Panayotis Pachis is professor of religious studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. His publications include Religion and Politics in the Graeco-Roman World: Redescribing the Isis-Sarapis Cult (Barbounakis, 2010) and many articles on the Graeco-Roman religions and the cognitive study of religion. He is also the author of five books in Greek and co-editor of four volumes, most recently Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences (with Donald Wiebe; Equinox, 2014).

Donald Wiebe is professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Toronto, Canada. His primary areas of research interest are philosophy of the social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the history of the academic and scientific study of religion, and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of Religion and Truth: Towards and Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (De Gruyter, 1981), The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), Beyond Legitimation: Essays on the Problem of Religious Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 1994), and The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999). He is a founding member of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, and served as President of that Association twice (1986/1987; 1991/1992).


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