Religion, Language, and the Human Mind

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Paul Chilton, Monika Kopytowska
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     536 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Things have not been the same since the “linguistic turn” of the 20th century. Entirely new fields of study have emerged, like cognitive linguistics, to enlighten (baffle?) curious intellectuals. Religion, Language, and the Human Mind is a recent book exploring the intersection of precisely those fields identified in the title—religion and theology, language and linguistics, and neuroscience and neuropsychology. 

I approached the book as a curious religious studies scholar with an interest in language. Reading Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology a year or so ago—a book cited frequently in the volume—opened my eyes to the profundity of how language works, and to concepts such as “metaphor.” I was glad to learn in opening this new book by OUP that I wasn’t alone; so profound is metaphor that almost every single entry in Religion, Language, and the Human Mind’s seventeen chapters touches upon it—most of them are even named after it. In fact, some of the authors have speculated about whether the mind operates fundamentally on the level of metaphor—and/or if the right hemisphere is inherently metaphorically inclined. (One can see already that language is apparently a big part of being a conscious human!) As the editors put it, “the whole phenomenon of metaphor is crucial to the theme of the present volume. Metaphor is fundamental to language and meaning; it is not just ornamental” (Xxxv).

Concepts like metaphor and others in linguistics are a constituent part of each of these three subjects for various reasons. Religious language is primarily metaphorical, for example. And something significant happens and is created when language performs certain functions in certain contexts. “Religion is conceived as a cultural complex by way of which people attempt to think about the conceptually ultimate, to think about previously unthinkable things” (Mcnamara and Giordano 116).

Language itself is symbolical, such that all communicated speech is virtually a form of metaphor. And for the human mind, meaning is forged in the “in-between,” the relationship between semantic domains and between “mapping.” We humans keep coming back to metaphor in our speech because speech has its origins in the experience of the concrete world. As one author (McGilchrist) puts it, “Verbal language originates in metaphor, and is grounded in the body … even words like ‘abstract’, ‘virtual’, and ‘immaterial’ take one back—sometimes by a circuitous route, but none the less—the physical, embodied reality of a thing being dragged away, to a man’s strength, and to a lump of wood” (146-147).

Neuroscience, thirdly, is in its utter infancy. And as the editors say (and it is hard to overstate this), “Relating religious experience and activity to the brain is an enormously complex and hazardous business” (xxx). But, there is plenty of evidence giving rise to connections between certain observable phenomena in the brain and conceptual discourse. Studying these connections is “unavoidable if we wish to understand our species” (xxx), even if we stumble in baby steps. One step, for instance, is Cognitive Metaphor Theory, which “advanced the basic claim that fundamentally our knowledge system is metaphorically organized. Abstract domains of experience appear to be systematically organized through metaphoric mappings from concrete, sensorimotor domains of experience” (64). 

The book’s many authors, then, take a different angle at this sophisticated intersection of concepts and disciplines. Does cognitive linguistics shed light on the nature of religion and religious experience (and if so, how?)? Does religious discourse shed light on the nature of the human mind? How important is language to thinking, and what do we learn about the human mind from language? Does all human language share a common denominator of functionality? How did language evolve in the first place? How does metaphor really work—both linguistically and semantically? These are but a short sample of the kind of questions that are addressed in this wide-ranging collection. 

The authors do not all agree on many of these controversial topics. There are different definitions of basic terms, and also different views of language itself. Some are more modern, and other more late/post-modern. Some are uncritical about the modern use of religious language (e.g., “Supernatural Agents” or “SAs” is apparently standard vocabulary for some of the disciplines) and can tend to be reductionistic. Others are critical about these new burgeoning fields (e.g., about how limited neuro-imaging really is) and more optimistic about the role of religious discourse in the future. Others are more independent, idiosyncratic, and ideologically disruptive. 

The introduction was a bit dense and intimidating for the non-specialist. It lays out the relevant fields, studies, and developments, including a concise introduction to the “cognitive science of religion” (CSR), “Relevance Theory” (RT), “Neurotheology,” and others But to my relief, many or most of the essays themselves are quite readable despite their academic tone and lengthy bibliographies. (There were also some typos: “casu” on 79, “performd” on xl, and a missing period before “Another” on xxiii). They were also terribly fascinating. I never expected to enjoy reading a book such as this one. It is, again, probably because of my own interests—though, as is the case with any collection like this, many essays were not as captivating as others.

Several entries in Religion, Language, and the Human Mind are bound to be dated before long because of the nature of neuro-sciences. But that’s just the nature of the subject matter—and this does not remove the necessity or value of the collection itself. Books like these simply need to be written to “take stock” and provide a birds-eye view—and that’s exactly what it does. Religion, Language, and the Human Mind is a superb snapshot about what is going on in cognitive linguistics, religious studies, neuroscience, and everything in between. Readers will find something to their liking either for the enjoyment of learning, being intellectually challenged, or for the refinement of their own discipline. Highly recommended. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is a former Dean and Associate Professor of Christian Studies and is currently an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Chilton received his doctorate from the University of Oxford. His research and writing have spanned several fields, including linguistics, discourse analysis, politics, international relations, and religious literature. He has worked in several universities, including Warwick, Lancaster, and Stanford, and has also lectured widely in China. His current research is in cognitive linguistics, discourse analysis, and their links with neuroscience. 

Monika Kopytowska received her Ph.D. from the University of Lodz, Poland, where she is currently affiliated with the Department of Pragmatics. Her research interests revolve around the interface of language and cognition, identity, media discourse and the pragma-rhetorical aspects of the mass-mediated representation of religion, ethnicity, and conflict/terrorism. She is co-editor of and contributor to Languages, Cultures, Media (2016) and Why Discourse matters: Negotiating Identity in the Mediatized World (2014), editor-in-chief of Lodz Papers in Pragmatics, and associate editor of Moral Cognition and Communication.


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