NAASR Notes: Luther H. Martin


by Luther H. Martin

I have always been interested in a scientific approach to the study of religion, i.e., in explanatory models for that study. I was trained as a biblical scholar, and upon whatever theological trajectories biblical scholars might embark, they do know what theory is (even though most still operate out of nineteenth-century theory), they do know what counts as evidence, and they do know how to distinguish between explanation and religious understanding—at least the best of them do.

When I was teaching, I began to notice that students would come to my classes from other departments where explanatory models were offered for their subject matter, while in religious classes, they would be presented only with phenomenological descriptions. The reason, I suppose, is that explanatory models are critical and “reductionist” whereas departments of religion generally offer what I have called “religious appreciation courses.” For “religion” (or faith, or spirituality) seems to bear an a priori cultural assumption of virtue—in contrast to what is labeled in popular sources, and even in the halls of academia, as “inauthentic” or “corrupt” religious practice; flying airplanes into high buildings in the name of god, for example, is not “true” religion. Consequently, I became, in the 1990s, a strong advocate for the cognitive science of religion as offering the most promising explanatory paradigm to date for a scientific study of religion. Since my retirement in 2010, I have continued publishing and reading in this scientific vein of evolutionary and cognitive theory—the latest being E. Clark Barrett’s The Shape of Thought: How Mental Adaptations Evolve (Oxford University Press, 2015).

In 2014, I published a collection of essays that represent my intellectual history from the 1950s to the present (Deep History, Secularly Theory: Historical and Scientific Studies of Religion, Berlin: de Gruyter) and, in 2015, I published another collection of essays with a focus in my historical specialty of Hellenistic religions (The Mind of Mithraists: Historical and Cognitive Studies in the Roman Cult of Mithras, London: Bloomsbury). As the subtitles of both of these volumes indicate, I have always sought to apply a scientific perspective to a historiography of religions (and to the real-life data controlled by historians as a confirmation/falsification of artificial laboratory findings). While I welcome empirical and experimental evidence for the study of religion, it is the “presentism” of that research by many cognitive scientists of religion, i.e., their neglect of human history that has most recently begun to bother me. (See my review of Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods.Religion 44.4 (2014): 628-637).

The recent intellectual history of Western scholarship is marked, from the beginnings of the twentieth century, by a “turn within.” This emphasis on interiority, and consequently on subjectivity, is apparent in fields as diverse as psychology, medicine, literature, and art. (See the remarkable historical study by Harvard neurobiologist Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012). One of the exciting outcomes of this twentieth-century turn within is, of course, the contemporary fascination with and research on brains and on cognition. As a species, however, Homo sapiens have a geopolitical as well as an evolutionary history. In addition to our shared behavioral and cognitive proclivities, human populations are phenotypically adapted to particular times and places, and while these adaptations to geography and to our deep history are not deterministic, their legacies do constitute a constraining weight upon our present. Consequently, I have now begun reading, in addition to evolutionary and cognitive theory, such books as Norman Yoffe’s, Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations, Cambridge University Press, 2005; Peter Turchin’s, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, New York: Plume, 2006; Ian Morris’, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010; and Robert Kaplan’s, The Revenge of Geography, New York: Random House, 2013.

Alas, despite my readings in what might be considered scientific historiography that complements a cognitive science of religion, I have, in my dotage, become quite resigned to the probability that any scientific approach to the study of religion will never become dominant in our modern universities (see L. H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80.3 (2012), 587-597). But, apart from the aforementioned cultural bias that “religion” is somehow quintessentially “good” (sacred?) and, therefore, beyond the pale of criticism and explanation, the question remains: why not? While I have no purchase against the pursuits of religious interests (in an appropriate context), why is it not possible to attend any professional conference on religion anywhere in the world that is devoted, for those of us that are interested, solely to a scientific study of religion? And, why isn’t religion taught in the modern secular university according to the same scientific criteria that most other disciplines have embraced for over 150 years, even within the humanities (apart from “literary theory”)?

Despite my curmudgeonly remarks, I nevertheless look forward to auditing the NAASR discussions on theory in Atlanta, and I still have very good friends in the academy that I look forward to seeing again, both in Atlanta and in Erfurt.

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