Religion Explained?

The Cognitive Science of Religion after Twenty-Five Years

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Luther H. Martin, Donald Wiebe
Scientific Studies in Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For a young subfield like the cognitive science of religion (CSR), the publication of a retrospective volume bodes well for its future. Religion Explained? The Cognitive Science of Religion After Twenty-Five Years offers detailed reflections on the origins and development of CSR from scholars who have contributed to its growth. The strength of this book is the variety of disciplinary perspectives and the relationship of each scholar to CSR. To this end, editors Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe have included contributions from researchers at different stages in their careers and at various levels of engagement with CSR. In the fourth chapter, Uffe Schjødt and Armin W. Geertz list “six ‘foundational hypotheses’ in CSR” (59), which they describe as having “inspired several generations of scholars in a variety of sciences and disciplines” (59). It is worth noting that six of the seven names associated with these “foundational hypotheses” have contributed to this volume: Steward Guthrie, Justin Barrett, E. Thomas Lawson, Robert N. McCauley, Pascal Boyer, and Harvey Whitehouse.

Religion Explained offers an engaging introduction to the history and current state of CSR that could easily be integrated into an introductory course on theories and methods in religious studies. Unfortunately, the introduction by Martin and Wiebe is very brief for a book that includes such a variety of contributions. For readers who might want a more comprehensive introduction, the editors point to the final chapter by Justin Barrett as a thorough summary conclusion. Carefully weaving together the work of contributors to Religion Explained, this conclusion offers a thoughtful history of the subfield that traces the inclusion and contributions of natural and social scientists. Barrett critically evaluates what he identifies as a trend of scholarship focused on individual cognition and suggests that the strength of CSR lies in a focus on the level of groups, not individuals. In a forward-looking end to this reflective volume, Barrett emphasizes the need for scholars of CSR to keep balance between cognition and culture.

This emphasis could serve as appeal to those scholars of religion who remain wary of the integration of cognitive and evolutionary sciences with religious studies, or collaborations between the sciences and humanities more broadly. Although many of the various critiques that have been leveled at this growing subfield are identified and reflected upon in this book, the intended audience does not appear to be critics of CSR. In the fifth chapter, Guthrie identifies the increasing variety of approaches and contributions associated with CSR’s rapid growth, as fodder for its critics (71). CSR, like religious studies generally, has welcomed scholarly contributions from within and across numerous disciplines. This volume fairly represents the interactions and exchanges between these various perspectives that, through validation and challenge, have fueled the coalescence of CSR.

To one unfamiliar with CSR, reading Religion Explained? The Cognitive Science of Religion After Twenty-Five Years might seem like stepping into a party already in full swing. This is major strength of this book, as it allows one to witness scholarly discourse played out chapter-by-chapter. This is not a highly curated piece of propaganda aimed at winning over critics and recruiting fresh contributions to the cause. Rather, it is a series of earnest and frank reflections by scholars, established within CSR, who write passionately about their hopes for the future of the field they have helped to build.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward Surman is a doctoral student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Luther H. Martin is professor of religion emeritus at the University of Vermont.

Donald Wiebe is professor of religion, Trinity College, University of Toronto, Canada.


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