Publication details

The Return of the Prodigal Son: Cognitive Science of Religion and the Re-Emergence of the Problem of Explanation in the Study of Religion



Year of publication 2015
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description (1) Theoretical interest in the phenomenon of religion throughout the western intellectual tradition may be divided into two distinct and mutually exclusive paradigms: Naturalistic paradigm explains religious phenomena by reducing them to their non-religious cause(s); protectionist paradigm aims at a description, interpretation and, ultimately, understanding of religious phenomena, explicitly denying the possibility of their reductive explanation. (2) From a historical perspective, naturalistic paradigm emerges as early as presocratic philosophy; rudiments of the protectionist paradigm are formulated in early Christian literature. (3) While founding figures of modern study of religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century adopted both naturalistic and protectionist stance, widespread adoption of phenomenology as the preferred method in the study of religion thwarted explanatory approaches in the field for the most part of the twentieth century. (4) CSR is best seen as an attempt to explain religious beliefs and actions as by-products of the evolved cognitive machinery of our species and marks the return of the explanation to the study of religion. (5) In spite of the claims to the contrary by both naturalists (e.g., Justin Barrett) and protectionists (see the basic concept of phenomenological bracketing), a broad overview of the history of the study of religion clearly shows that theory formation in the study of religion may be axiologically neutral, yet it can never be neutral with respect to the truth value of the propositions accepted by religious actors. (6) As a consequence of the incommensurability of naturalistic and protectionist paradigms, religious scholars have worked and will work under the protectionist paradigm; non-religious scholars under the naturalistic one.
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