Theory & Religion Series: Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered in the study of atheism


by Thomas J. Coleman III

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Finally at age 27 in the fall of 2012, I had decided what I wanted to do in life, or at least where I wanted to start the “doing”. The psychology of religion and cognitive science of religion (and currently theory in cognitive science in general) was what struck my interests. Admittedly, and to digress, I currently see the former two as more similar than distinct from one another. The first book I read was Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane (1959) at the direction of my professor, and now frequent collaborator, Christopher F. Silver. With my interests in studying atheism(s), I began plotting out (naively so) how I would go about my research looking at “secular hierophanies”. Thankfully, that book is not the topic of this blog post – I have since realized the error of my ways – and Silver more or less recommend the book, I only later discovered, in hopes of providing me with some back ground about where much of the study and research on religion had since evolved from. Unhappy with my reading of Eliade for many reasons, the one that stands out as pertinent to the current topic was his insistence that “secular experience”, which he characterized as mundane and rather disenchanted, could never compare to “religious experience”, which was of course inherently sacred, special and enchanted – off limits to nonbelievers. Enter Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered (2009), the antidote to the Eliadeian tradition and the second book I read.

There is no such thing as religious experience, only experiences deemed religious. This is a methodological mantra that no researcher should forget, and scholars in all fields are in debt to Ann Taves for elucidating this point. Religious Experience Reconsidered, has much to offer anyone studying or researching religion, and has proved formative in my own initial studies and research into understanding meaningful experiences in atheists (Coleman, Silver & Holcombe, 2013; Coleman & Arrowood, 2015; Coleman, Silver & Hood, in press). Although the impetus for writing her book was to provide a way for scholars and researchers to work across disciplines, studying “religion” from multiple viewpoints, it has also opened up new avenues of research into what she characterizes as “special things”. Special things, loosely summarized, are a subset of some things that might commonly fall into the category of religion, while others might not. In this framework it is up to the scholar or the individual to do the deeming of what is or is not religious and/or special.

While Taves did not necessarily set out to provide a framework for the study of atheism, her ascriptive approach allows for just that. Human experience falls along a continuum regardless of the labels used to characterize experience, and Taves mobilizes Kopytoff’s notion of “singularization” to just this effect. The question I pose, and that Taves’ framework allows us to both pose and answer, is this: Does the atheist have anything comparable to “religious experience” that might be of interest to researchers of religion and nonbelief? There is both wide qualitative and quantitative variation in the psychological makeup of atheists, and perhaps there is secular experience that might even be realized as more awe inspiring and wondrous than some experiences commonly thought to be “religious”. While I answer the first question in the affirmative, it is one that is certainly open to further empirical investigation under her ascriptive model. The second question, however, awaits much more theorization and research before speculation could commence; nonetheless the idea is there.

Do atheists feel awe, wonder, moments of ineffable moving experience – perhaps even mystical experience (Hood, 2013)? Of course, but importantly (pace scholars of “implicit religion”), nothing previously mentioned necessitates the label of religion – either explicitly or implicitly – be used to characterize the experience either by the researcher or the individual. Taves framework doesn’t privilege religion a priori, and doesn’t eschew an individual for framing an experience religiously either. Moreover, it allows us to explore how experiences, objects, and even words, transition from something “mundane” to something “special” to something “religious”.

Taves approach to religion is both humanistic and cognitive. It has much to offer the cognitive science of religion (CSR) as well as the humanities in avoiding setting up any theoretical postulate as something purely or inherently religious. For example, some researchers in the CSR express that there is no “religion module” or “religious system” to be found in the brain, this is a welcome and correct notion in line with Taves framework. “Religion” is a natural phenomenon just like atheism. However, a strong deviation from her methodology, I argue, typically follows these statements when researchers posit, for example, that a “normal” Theory of Mind combined with a hypothesized “normal” Agency Detection Device leads effortlessly and automatically to a belief in supernatural agency. While this may or may not ultimately be correct, these same researchers then seem to conflate the systems with their content (god beliefs). Thus while they admit on the front end that there is no religious system, they end up sneaking one in through the back door by aligning what should be an agnostic cognitive system(s) devoid of ontological commitment to any notion of the Transcendent, with the very object they seek to explain. To them, then, these systems are religious systems, ultimately. This is curious brand of naturalism indeed!

Importantly, Taves framework does not conflate a cognitive system or pathway with small portions of its operational content. Her methodology allows us to find out how, why, and for what reasons some individuals are beholden to using a religious label or worldview in their lives, as well as studying how, why, and for what reasons various researchers understand some cognitions to be “religious cognition”, even if the person does not believe in God or label themselves as religious. If “religion” is a cognitive universal, then this ends up being about as interesting at the end of the day as discovering that everyone who is alive is breathing, it is simply a truism bearing little meaningful content with which to study the distinctions that make research valuable. What becomes interesting then, to reiterate, is the higher order construction of how an individual and or groups take lower level cognitions – the term “religion” seems rather inappropriate to use at this lower level of analysis – and understand them religiously, secularly, or as something “special”.

While Taves’ book has garnered both praise and critique, as any book worthy of reading inevitably does, it marks not the beginning of an era symbolizing a change in the study of religion and special things, but offers promising answers to that era itself. Importantly, it allows us to view all experiences as equally potentially meaningful and value laden, at least initially, and study processes of meaning making at individual and group levels while investigating the ever changing science behind these processes as well. Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered occupies a unique place on my bookshelf. It has a well-worn cover, tattered pages full of highlights and notes which is set apart from the other books as something special.



Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F. & Holcombe, J. (2013). Focusing on horizontal        transcendence: much more than a “non-belief”. Essays In The Philosophy Of        Humanism, 21 (2), pp. 1-18.

Coleman, T. J. III, & Arrowood, R. B. (2015). Only We Can Save Ourselves: An atheists    ‘salvation’. In H. Bacon, W. Dossett & S. Knowles, Alternative Salvations: Engaging the   Sacred and the Secular. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (in press). “ … if the universe is             beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – a “neither religious nor spiritual” biography    as horizontal transcendence. In H. Streib & R. Hood (Eds.), The semantics and       psychology of spirituality. Dordrecht: Springer.

Eliade, M. (1959). The sacred and the profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Hood, R. (2013). Theory and Methods in the Psychological Study of Mysticism. International Journal For The Psychology Of Religion, 23(4), 294-306.             doi:10.1080/10508619.2013.795803

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton        University Press.

Thomas J. Coleman III is a graduate student in the Research Psychology Masters program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) studying the psychology and cognitive science of religion. He is the Director of the Ralph W. Hood Jr. Psychology of Religion Laboratory at UTC, and an Assistant Editor for The Religious Studies Project and the journal Secularism & Nonreligion. His email is [email protected].

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2 Responses to Theory & Religion Series: Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered in the study of atheism

  1. Karen Zoppa says:

    I have a very different take on Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered. My persistent question is how, if at all, “things deemed religious” are fundamentally different from things named/assumed/designated religious as a sui generis category? I think Taves has tried very hard to find a way around this binary, but I was not convinced she succeeded. We are still faced with the same methodological and taxonomical aporia in approaching “things deemed religious” as we are in either endorsing religion as sui generis or in rejecting it as such. Taves taxonomical grids are organizationally useful but not theoretically decisive.

  2. Tommy says:

    Dear Karen,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, and your comment is well thought and direct. Indeed a point that has been similarly drawn before (McCutcheon, 2007; [on the codependency of the sacred and the secular]), and rightly so as you imply. In a manner of speaking, I see Taves’ framework as a position that embraces the fallibilism of the humanities and sciences. A turtles all the way down kind of view, we could always be wrong and often are, there is no guarantee. Our best science and scholarship might be flawed. However, I would agree that Taves does not get out of the binary, but I do not think that is her ultimate purpose, or at least should not be. In my view, she is more or less providing a pragmatic option to maneuver within that, and other binaries, by acknowledging the contested ground on which they stand and studying the processes by which importance is ascribed to a phenomena, whether it be the decision to ascribe importance made by the researcher, or the data being researched, or both as co-constructive processes. The framework provides a starting place for the study of cognitive and societal processes (tracking the discursive sacred-secular binary) on which the phenomena, however specified, exists.

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