November 17, 2018

One Man's Superstition Is Another Man's Religion

“AS A HISTORIAN of religions, I have been studying religion comparatively for three decades now. At late mid-career, I have entered what I affectionately call my “crabby stage.” “Crabby” because people continue to speak and write about religion without really engaging the humanistic study of religion, which is two hundred years old, and fantastically sophisticated. This review is an expression of that crabbiness, which I want to own as my own and not as a reflection on the obvious integrity and insights of this book and its author.

If I had to sum up my reactions to this recent example of academic psychology and cognitive science — a study of the psychology of belief and disbelief — I would say that I genuinely like the author (this is not an empty compliment, as Clay Routledge reveals a good deal of himself and his biography); and that I have little problem with his social scientific research results or theoretical arguments about the cognitive nature of religion taken in their weak forms. But that I have a very big problem with those same arguments when they present themselves in their strong forms, that is, as a full or even remotely adequate explanation of religion, much less of the supernatural. In the end, “cognitive” does not come close to capturing the life-changing ecstasies and sheer terrors of supernatural presences actually encountered or experienced, although it may well capture more of what we mean by “religious belief” and “ideation.” Allow me to take you quickly through this liking, this no problem, this big problem, and these actual encounters.”

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