A new approach to the study of religion is using cognitive science to try reach a new understanding of religious behavior and thought.
Cognitive science of religion is a 20-year-old field that uses methods from disciplines such as anthropology, philosophy and psychology to understand how our minds acquire and transmit religion. The first undergraduate course in North America dedicated to this study is being taught in CSUN’s department of Religious Studies.
“The actual area of research started in the 1990’s when a group of scholars…got together and were disgruntled with a few things within the study of religion,” said Claire White, assistant professor at CSUN who teaches the new course titled: Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion.
Traditionally the approach to religious studies had been to study and analyze a specific religion. Scholars prior to this created an approach to religious studies that focused on discovering the similarities amongst religions rather than focusing on the particulars of any one religion.
“Rather than studying Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity they said ‘well can’t we just understand what’s common about religions cross-culturally?’” White said. “Across the world, there must be something that’s the same. And, how can we explain that similarity?”
To explain the similarities among religions, researchers in cognitive science of religion take an interdisciplinary approach to examining religion, which means they use theories and research methods from a range of fields to evaluate religions.
What this interdisciplinary approach allows them to do is not only analyze religion from say a cultural perspective like an anthropologist would but also from a physiological or philosophical perspective. And, by using theories and methods from a variety of disciplines they can comprehensively examine a particular religion or a religious practice to find components in it that are common among all religions.
“What will happen is an anthropologist and some other people of different disciplines studying religion will notice that there are some similar features in different religions across ethnic backgrounds or different countries and times,” Robert Kelly, graduate student at Buffalo University and CSUN alumnus who studied under White, said. “So then they will say ‘maybe there is something about cognition that allows religion to be expressed in the way that it is and there are similarities’ and so they all will try to explain it.”