Abstract

This paper aims to defend the application of tools and knowledge drawn from the natural sciences to the study of religion from the common charge that such approaches are overly “reductionistic.” I will argue that “reductionism” is ultimately an empty term of abuse—any explanation worthy of being called an explanation involves reductionism of some sort. Drawing upon the work of Charles Taylor, I will try to explain what “good,” non-eliminative reductionism—one that recognizes the reality of complex, emergent human-level structures of meaning—might look like. I will also argue that these human-level structures of meaning should not be seen as possessing special ontological status, but rather must be understood as grounded in the lower levels of meaning studied by the natural sciences, instead of hovering magically above them. Practically speaking, this means that scholars of religion need to start taking seriously discoveries about human cognition being provided by neuro- and cognitive scientists, which have a constraining function to play in the formulation of theories in religious studies. Moreover, adopting a “vertically integrated” approach—grounded in a post-dualist, embodied pragmatist perspective—will help the field of religious studies to get beyond the unhelpful, and intellectually paralyzing, social constructivist dogma that continues to inform most of the work in our field.

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