Cognitive Approaches to Religion

Religious Studies 202
University of Pennsylvania
Fall 2002

This course introduces students to a new approach to the psychology of religion, an approach founded in and inspired by work in cognitive science.  Within the last five years, this field has begun to take on the shape of a true, interdisciplinary subfield in its own right:  it now has a journal, in its second year of publication, and several introductory handbooks, two of them scheduled for publication later this year.  There are no prerequisites for this course.

In this course we will be able to read most of the important scholarship in this area, going back to Dan Sperber's early work on symbolism (1975) and Frits Staal's first publications on the syntax of ritual (1979); we will read the major contributions to theory; and attempts to critique, extend and apply the results of these major works.  Much of what we encounter in this course will therefore be cutting-edge scholarship.

The course will begin with a brief introduction to cognitive science and to religious studies.  Since we will be approaching our subject from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, this will provide us with common concepts and a common point of reference.  It also will allow us to ask some basic questions about the nature of religion and the nature of mind:  we will return to these questions throughout the course and try by degrees to answer them.  This introduction will conclude with a reading of a classic of traditional psychology of religion, Freud's Future of an Illusion. This is designed to remind us that the cognitive approach is only one of many approaches within the psychology of religion; it also will allow us to see in what ways the cognitive approach is innovative, and in what ways it is a continuation of earlier approaches.

We then will look at Sperber's work on symbolism.  This presents a critique of early theories, and presents both a new model of what symbolism is and how it works.  This new model is interesting because it is a cognitive model:  it provides a theory of cognitive architecture, or a description of how the mind is arranged so as to perform its functions.  This section concludes with a critique of Sperber's views by Toren.

We then examine the notion of a mental representation and how this contrasts with other sorts of representations, for example public and collective representations.  Beginning with Durkheim's classic treatment and a recent critique of Durkheim, we then return to later work of Sperber, focusing on the idea of an "epidemiology of representations".  We conclude with a representative paper by the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse.

Almost a month will be devoted to Pascal Boyer's Naturalness of Religious Ideas.  Boyer has used Sperber's epidemiological approach in an especially productive fashion, and has defined a path now pursued by other scholars.  We conclude this section with applications of this approach by Benavides (a professor in the Philadelphia area) and Barrett.

Most of the research in the developing field of "cognition and culture" is now being done by experimental psychologists, so less work has been done on the information processing that underlies ritual action.  We will spend a day looking at the synactic model of ritual developed by Frits Staal, and a week on the somewhat similar model of Lawson and McCauley.  We conclude with a detailed look at an ethnography that brings together many of the ideas we have seen earlier in the course, Humphrey and Laidlaw's book on Jain ritual.  Many of the scholars who began to develop this approach to religion were either trained as anthropologists (Sperber, Boyer) or have practiced ethnographic fieldwork (Staal), so this seems appropriate to end the course by going back to a pratical application of these theories.

In addition to introducing students to a new and original approach to religion, it is hoped that this course will provide a novel way of thinking about both religion and mind.  More particularly, it should become clear that the cognitive aspects of religious action, expression, and thought have only just been touched on so far.  The definition of the field and the inchoate orthodoxy that is now being formed (valuable as they are for communication between scholars and the development of this type of study) should not distract us from the larger concerns that motivated this research in the first place, or limit the scope of future research.