For those of us who view some features or aspects of religion (such as ritual or religious experience) as adaptive, their sui generis character presents few obstacles to the scientific study of religion. The evolutionary history of these aspects of religion is assumed to have stabilized the features that proved beneficial or that promoted reproductive success in the individuals who possessed or practiced them. Nor do the findings on religious experiences and practices emerging from the neurosciences seem that surprising from this perspective. If some aspect of religion is adaptive, then it should exhibit consistent design features that can be detected in brain and behavior. Similarly, from this perspective, religion’s affect on health is also predictable and unsurprising. However, there are very serious problems with this “religion as adaptation” position, many of which have been discussed ably by others in a variety of venues. One of the most intractable problems for this position is the issue of the nature and putative function of experiences deemed religious. In Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, Ann Taves rightly recommends the somewhat more cumbersome phrase, “experiences deemed religious” rather than the more familiar “religious experiences” because this shorthand expression obscures some important facts about religion and “religious experiences” in particular.
The simplistic version of the evolutionary approach to religion has no account of how religions change over time, despite the fact that evolutionary theories are supposedly inherently theories of dynamic change. As far as we can tell, our forebears thought of everything around and in them as “religious.” The history of religions, at least in the West, has been to some extent the gradual withdrawal of the religious from everything into some things, things “set apart” and deemed taboo and/or sacred. In the modern era, taboo is both everywhere and nowhere and the focus has retreated further into the interior, into the realm of intrapsychic experiences. Any adequate theory of religion has to be able to account for the change in religious expression and the emergence of new religious phenomena. If there is a stable set of experiences, beliefs and practices that can reasonably called “religious” (and I think there are) then how do we get new religious expressions and phenomena? There must be a social and psychological mechanism that accounts for the change from nonreligious into religious phenomena and vice versa. To take just one example from the anthropology of sacrifice, when a group needed to produce a proper sacrificial victim they might take a captive, set him apart from all others, treat him like a king for a year, and only then ritually kill him. Such an individual was once nonreligious (a captive) but became religious in preparation for the sacrifice (“King”) and then was killed either becoming nonreligious again or becoming religious in perpetuity.
Taves suggests that group processes of (composite) ascription whereby individual experiences and practices that are identified as “special” (“simple ascriptions”) constitute “religion.” Taves argues that by adopting her version of the attributional approach to religion we can study experiences of all kinds without dismissing the claims of the experiencers themselves concerning the meaning and value of their experiences. The attributional approach also allows better comparative methodologies to be brought to bear in the study of religion. This makes sense as it is better to enter a village open to what the people themselves call religious than to enter a village looking for your preconceived idea of religiousness and missing out on the array of practices they themselves deem sacred.
In Taves’ hands the attributional approach sheds its many shortcomings vis-à-vis the study of experiences that plagued it in its past. She jettisons the claims that attributions should be understood as causing the experiences in question. Instead, attributions concern interpretation and meaning as well as valuation and social interaction and this is a real advance.
Another advance presented by Taves relates to her contention that special experiences will bear “marks” or special features that make it easier for people to deem the experience special. Here she seems to agree with the perennialists who tend to link religious experiences with altered states of consciousness. However, unlike most religion scholars, Taves knows the debates in the cognitive sciences on how to study subjective experiences and she clearly appreciates their relevance for studies of religious experiences. For example, she discusses the literatures on dreams, which is highly relevant for understanding the evolution of religions and religious experiences.
We have had over a hundred years of intensive study of religious experiences, launched by William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. The field has seen its share of passionate debate and a tug of war between the people who claimed a stable set of features for religious experiences and others who pointed to the wide variation in religious experience across cultural, historical, and personal contexts. Taves’ masterful work shows us the way between the extremes of particularism and the errors of decontextualized essentialist analyses of experiences deemed religious. She seems to endorse the “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” advocated by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) that would bring into the scientific study of religion findings from all the other relevant disciplines including evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, economics, cognitive science, and the humanities. She notes that the “implications of the paradigm for setting up experientially related objects of study that can be examined across disciplines have not been adequately worked out.” Nevertheless, the conceptual tools she has put forward in this book go a long way toward that goal.
Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN13: 978-0-691-14087-2
For more information on Religious Experience Reconsidered see here.