By Ipsita Chatterjea
In Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2011), Ann Taves operationalizes one the most challenging and controversial concepts in research on the religious: religious experiences. In affirming how cognitive scientists chart religious experiences, Taves frees analysts from being mired in the cultural and theological debates of the authenticity of such experiences. Taves does this without absolving religion scholars from dealing with the contexts of religious experiences or the socio-political aspects of the reception of religious experiences.
Among the most useful analytical constructions in her book are “experiences deemed religious” and “special things.” Taves’ delineation of “special,” or, sufficiently resonant in meaning to engender personal and social effects, enables an analyst to identify points of comparison between religious, political, and social ideologies or activities without the three trajectories being reduced into one another. The combination of “experiences deemed religious” and “special things” makes it easier to stabilize religious activities as (fleetingly fixed) objects of observation, acknowledge the limits of the data we can acquire, and structure falsifiable studies of large scale social composites. We can talk consistently and clearly about the data of things religious and things deemed special in a manner comprehensible to those outside of our field. Or, we have means of “showing our work” and we can continue to develop and proliferate replicable techniques of analysis.
Taves allows us to focus finally on the acquirable data of religious phenomena rather than a definition of religion. This allows us to talk about whether a phenomena is representative and how agents represent their own religious activity including religious experiences – or we have the basis for mapping arrays of activity before drawing conclusions, relieving us from the burden of having to establish an eternal final word.