On merging esotericism with the cognitive science of religion: In search of precursors

The cognitive science of religion (CSR) and the academic study of Western esotericism are arguably the two most exciting new subdisciplines to emerge from religious studies in recent decades. The ambition of the Occult Minds project is to bring them together.

Since the early 1990s, CSR has taught scholars of religion to look at old problems in completely new ways, and has provided an increasingly sophisticated toolbox for working with phenomena such as ritual, belief, morality/values, and group formation. Parallel to this development, the study of esotericism has uncovered a vast unexplored continent of Western intellectual history that has been at the center of how the academy has come to distinguish “religion” from “magic” and “science”. Both fields challenge the way scholars view “religion” – CSR by providing new methods and theories that root religion firmly in human cognition and behavior, esotericism by excavating little understood empirical material that undermines historical categories that have been taken for granted, painting a new picture of the history of religion (and of philosophy, science, and art) in the western world. Bringing these two revolutionary fields together could prove quite explosive.

Over the past year I’ve been preparing a set of articles on this subject and drafted about half a book manuscript on how to make esotericism available for CSR. It’s not a straight forward process, and requires quite a lot of careful analytical work and translations between disciplines. Working on this, what I have found most surprising is how little has been done in this area before. This lack of engagement is all the more surprising because esotericism scholars have often been quite interested in broadly psychological aspects of their subject matter. One particularly seminal scholar of esotericism (Antoine Faivre) even defined it as a historically situated “form of though”. Moreover, a sizable amount of people interested in esotericism also tend to follow topics like “consciousness”, “altered states”, or research into psychedelics, while another cast of scholar happily applies psychoanalytic material recycled through continental philosophers like Lacan, Irigaray or Derrida. (Then, of course, there are the Jungians, transpersonal psychologists, and parapsychologists – but let’s not go there).

There may be some useful insights to glean from these perspectives (certainly there is much valuable and under-appreciated research happening in the area of psychedelics and consciousness), but they hardly represent “normal science”, to use Kuhn’s phrase. They are not the obvious place to start if we want to build on our most solid, tried-and-tested knowledge about how the mind works.

CSR is a much better bet. Drawing on fields like evolutionary psychology, cognitive linguistics, and (increasingly) cognitive neuroscience, scholars involved with CSR are genuinely attempting to apply our most cutting edge knowledge of the mind to the problems of religion. There are now research labs dedicated to this work in places like Aarhus, Belfast, Oxford, and Brno; there are organizations like the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion, and CSR scholars can publish their research in specialist journals like Religion, Brain, & Behavior, the Journal of Cognition and Culture, and Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion. Many also publish in standard psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience journals.

So far, this burgeoning literature has made no impact at all on the study of esotericism.  There are, however, some modest precursors to find in neighboring fields. There is a relevant (although problematic) psychological literature on phenomena that would fall under generic headings like “alternative spirituality” or “New Age”, some of which may also be considered as “contemproary esotericism”. Similarly, Olav Hammer recently argued that much of what gets classified as New Age (sensu lato) can be understood as forms of “cognitively optimal” popular religion, the expressions of which are rendered fairly predictable by considering evolved inferential processes, heuristics and biases in reasoning, and so forth.

Lundhaug Images of Rebirth cover

Cognitive linguistics applied to the reading of Gnostic texts.

The most developed CSR approaches are, however, found in studies of ancient esotericism. Hugo Lundhaug’s work on Gnosticism is particularly notable. Drawing on Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s conceptual blending theory, Lundhaug’s PhD dissertation (Images of Rebirth; Brill, 2010) developed a new line of interpreting the dense textual sources (a “cognitive poetics”) of the Nag Hammadi library, as well as new ways of contextualizing these sources and setting up intertextual comparisons. The approach deserves further consideration by scholars looking at writing and reading practices characteristic of esoteric texts in other periods. Another Gnosticism scholar, April De Conick, also draws on tools from linguistics (esp. the conceptual metaphor theory associated with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) in her work (check out her articles on “Crafting Gnosis” and “The Road for the Soul is through the Planets”), and has recently argued for a framework of “cognitive historicism”. This work can be fruitfully integrated by esotericism scholars interested in “gnosis” as a generic type of knowledge claim or epistemic attitude particularly salient to material we consider esoteric.

That scholars of antiquity have taken the lead in incorporating CSR approaches is not as surprising as it may perhaps seem at first sight. One of the earliest and most seminal proponents of CSR, Luther H. Martin, is a specialist of Graeco-Roman religion, and material from the Mediterranean basin of late antiquity has frequently been used as test cases in historical applications of CSR theorizing (see, for example, the first issue of Journal of Cognitive Historiography, and contributions to the volume Theorizing Religions Past).

Future studies of esotericism and cognition will do well to consider the approaches developed for the study of Gnosticism and related sources. However, there is a lot more to CSR than conceptual blending and metaphor theory. There is, for example, much to be gained by bringing esotericism into conversation with the large body of work coming out of evolutionary psychology, focusing on modularity, domain-specificity, metarepresentations, and epidemiology. Moreover, several exciting experimental paradigms for research on unusual experiences are currently emerging, deserving the full attention of esotericism scholars. I am thinking of Tanya Luhrmann’s work on things like learning to hear the voice of God, but also the Aarhus team’s work on how principles of suggestibility and predictive coding allow experimentalists to produce unusual experiences in a controlled environment. For those of us who are interested in a broader scope of building blocks of the esoteric, there is clearly much work still to be done.



One thought on “On merging esotericism with the cognitive science of religion: In search of precursors

  1. I do hope to meet up with you in Atlanta….I am going to offer a clinical approach to Wouter which hopefully he will like S x

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