Posted: 05 Sep 2013 06:54 AM PDT
This semester I am teaching a course on cognitive science and religion. It is called The Bible and the Brain, and I am writing a book under the same title. The course is exploring ways that religion can be better understood when we take into consideration the cognitive abilities and limitations of human beings. More on these ideas as the semester progresses.
As I am teaching this course, I am aware that there continues to be an uproar about whether the humanities should be in dialogue with the sciences and if so to what degree. Steven Pinker has written for the New Republic an impassioned plea for humanities' scholars to get with it and engage the sciences HERE. He articulates in this piece a call for humanities scholars to show more interest in science, especially in the downward spiral that is strangling us in the wake of post-modern critique. There have been many responses, most like Leon Wieseltier, also published by New Republic, HERE. The title of his piece summarizes pages of his own impassioned plea which he calls "Crimes Against Humanities: How Science Wants to Invade the Liberal Arts. Don't let it happen."
There was a time in my life when I was very content to go along teaching and writing what I would call strictly humanities content. I saw very little connect between anything scientists did and my own work and interests. That is until I married a physicist. I realized three things very quickly.
First, the scientific understanding of the world is our reality. We live it everyday. We have no choice but to engage it.
Second, scientists are studying the universe and human beings, the same subjects that I study as a humanist, and they have information that is essential to how we all understand ourselves and our world today. This information is so essential that it will likely alter the way we have been perceiving our academic disciplines. I see this particularly in terms of cognitive studies and embodiment which can help us reformulate the way we "do" history and understand religion.
Third, if we as humanists don't jump into the conversation that scientists are engaging in very public ways, we will be leaving the interpretation of knowledge about humans and the world to them. Frankly I think we have been so slow on the uptake that this has already happened. In other words, scientists (and social scientists for that matter) are going to continue to run well-funded experiments on our subjects, subjects that we as humanists hold near and dear. And then they are going to control its interpretation, when in fact, they know very little about the subjects we study, like religion, for instance.
A case in point. I read a fascinating book this week by Drs. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili, called Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. I couldn't put it down, riveted to the results of their SPECT scans on Tibetan monks and Catholic nuns during meditatively induced states of Unitary Being. Since I study mysticism, their findings really caught my attention. But what also caught my attention was the fact that their understanding of religion is under the weather so to speak. They equated religion with a form of mysticism that is relatively recent in human history (derivative of Underhill and James) and tried to overlay that on Neanderthal burial and cult practices. They argue that all religion originates from someone's mystical experience and that the purpose of religion is to perpetuate those experiences of unitary being. So here we have scientists with really good experiments, but with little knowledge of the field of religious studies in which to make good sense of them. But their views are popular and well-cited in the literature.
So from my position, Wieseltier's advice is really bad advice. If we don't engage the sciences as humanists, we are not just doing ourselves a disfavor, but the public too. We are leaving the interpretation and popularization of our field open to scientists like Richard Dawkins, rather than doing it ourselves and doing it better.