More than Belief: An Interview with Manuel A. Vásquez (Part 3)

(This is the final part of a 3 part interview with Manuel A. Vásquez about his recent book, More than Belief; see part 1 here and part 2 here.)

CM: Here’s a second critical question. I am open-minded about cognitive science approaches to the study of religion, but I tend to be skeptical. I’m often not sure that the work cognitive scientists are producing is all that relevant for understanding religious traditions. While it might be quite true that we are “hard-wired” as a species for animism, that fact does little to explain, for instance, why evangelicals but not Episcopalians tend to vote Republican—a sociological theory is necessary to understand what is going on in that territory. So while I was intrigued and engaged with your discussion of cognitive science approaches, I was wondering where you would go with them. You ended that section by saying that we have “much to gain from a frank conversation with the cognitive sciences,” but it seemed to me that cognitive science completely dropped out of view for the rest of the book. Where did it go, and does it have more than a token place in your theory? Have you used cognitive science in your extensive research on Latin American and US Latinos?

MV: Your skepticism is to some extent justified. As long as cognitive approaches continue to operate with a representationalist epistemology, equating cognition with the processing of symbols according to algorithmic rules within a self-contained brain, a brain disconnected from the body’s sensorimotor capacities and “parachuted into a pregiven world,” as Francisco Varela and associates put it, the usefulness of these approaches in the study of religion will be limited. In More than Belief, I argue that this representationalism leads to a very narrow and abstract understanding of religion, as being primarily about belief, about concepts and ontologies, which does not give us many tools to explore the diversity and multiple material effects of religious expressions. Although cognitive processes and biological evolution shape religious production and transmission, allowing us to engage in interesting cross-cultural comparisons of widespread religious phenomena, they underdetermine the diversity and fluidity of religious phenomena. To attain more specificity, that is, to move toward approaches that can account for the local variety and creativity of religion, while acknowledging the recurrence of certain cognitively optimal religious beliefs and practices, we need to focus on how history, society, and culture interact with biological and ecological dynamics. While neurosciences, cognitive psychology, and genetics have experienced major advances, I think the study of complex cultural-biological systems is still in its infancy. We are still figuring out how the brain works and how it affects and is affected by the body. We still need to bring the embodied mind and the embrained body into full dialogue ecology, culture, and history. And, even when we do this, I agree with philosopher Colin McGinn that we may never achieve consilience, a total synthesis of various disciplines. However, I believe we can strive toward some fruitful cross-disciplinary convergences that may allow us to produce rich accounts of the ways in which nature and culture inter-act to make the construction of religious practices and experiences possible. In Chapter 11, I proposed networks as potential trope that can help us move toward these cross-disciplinary convergences, linking socio-cultural, neuro-cognitive, and ecological processes. So, it is not quite true that enactive cognition drops out of view entirely.

I would say that the jury is still out on the neuro-cognitive approaches to religion. But I think it is unwise to disregard their potential and remain safely ensconced within the protective cocoon of social constructionism, which, as I argue, is closely connected with textualism and semiotic reductionism as part of the unsustainable claim of human exceptionalism. If we are really going to adopt a consistently materialist view of world, scholars in the humanities and social sciences must come to terms with what the natural sciences say about who we are and where we come from. I think enactive models of cognition, such as those advanced by Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson, may be particularly helpful in the study of the formation of religious habituses which require the training of the body, including the brain. This training, in turn, is often associated with particular socio-political and religious regimes, bringing the question of power to the fore. Here, I cite the work of Lutz, Dunne, and Davidson, who are developing inventories of various Buddhist meditative practices, such as breathing manipulation, chanting, adopting certain bodily postures, which are acquired through lengthy training. They are then identifying the neural and physiological correlates that accompany these practices, laying the bases for a cultural neurophenomenology of Buddhism.

The other area where neuro-cognitive approaches can help is on the whole question of religious transmission. You ask about my research on Latin American and Latino religions. In Chapter 11, I hypothesize about the rapid spread of Neo-Pentecostalism in the hemisphere and globally, drawing from and critiquing Harvey Whitehouse’s notions of doctrinal and imagistic modes of religiosity. Part of my argument is that in a thoroughly mediatized world, a world saturated with images, where the boundaries between the virtual and real are increasingly porous, those religions that stress the spectacular, that rely on dramatic, highly affective images, may be the most portable. And arguably there is nothing more spectacular than the cosmic battle between Jesus and the devil that takes place in the broken bodies of poor Latin Americans or Latino immigrants every day in many Pentecostal churches.

CM: What part of the book are you most proud of? What are you least happy with?

MV: Chapter 7 entitled “A Cultural Neurophenomenology of Religion” was the one that forced me out of my comfort zone the most, since it demanded readings in fields such as cognitive psychology, evolution, and the neurosciences, which I had hitherto not engaged. Moreover, a considerable portion of these literatures challenge the social constructionism that is the hallmark of my training as a religion scholar heavily influenced by the social sciences. In that sense, the chapter stands as one of the clearest examples of the kind of non-reductive materialism I would like to advance: an example of how a rich understanding of our embodiment in the study of religion calls for approaches that explore the interactions among the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. So, I am proud of the inter-disciplinarity behind the chapter, an inter-disciplinary that takes seriously cutting edge research in cognitive psychology, evolution, and the neurosciences without ignoring the important role that anthropology, history, sociology, and religious studies play in understanding religious practice and experience.

In line with my emphasis on anchored theory, I wish I had been able to integrate more of my own fieldwork to give more specific examples of how the frame would work to answer the empirical questions that motivated the book in the first place. I did not do this enough because I felt that it was necessary to excavate the epistemological bases of the hegemonic view of religion and provide an alternative, materialist reading of theories of religions from the ground up, as it were. These tasks required me to engage complex thinkers such as Descartes, Augustine, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. By the time I had fleshed out the work of these thinkers, I had already a lengthy manuscript. Adding anymore would have not only gotten me in trouble with Oxford University Press but it probably would have lessened the text’s accessibility. Depending on the reactions to this book, I hope I will be able to write another one that puts my framework to work in analyzing a variety of religious practices.

CM: What other projects are you currently working on?

MV: I am currently working on three projects. One deals with the construction of illegality and includes an exploration of tensions that emerge as congregations seek to welcome Latino/a immigrants in their midst, including many who are unauthorized. The results of this project are forthcoming in a co-authored book entitled Living ‘Illegal’: The Human Face of Undocumented Immigration. The second project is a volume on the global diaspora of religions originating in Brazil, which I am co-editing with Brazilian-Australian anthropologist Cristina Rocha. Finally, I have been working with an interdisciplinary research team on a very challenging but rewarding project looking at religious and ethnic minorities, as well as transnational immigrants, in London, Johannesburg, and Kuala Lumpur. We are hoping that we will be able to produce a comparative volume looking at religious place-making and identity construction in these three sites. I’d like to think that all these projects are informed by the non-reductive framework I develop in More than Belief. However, I think the work of bringing theory into conversation with fieldwork never stops.

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One Response to More than Belief: An Interview with Manuel A. Vásquez (Part 3)

  1. Cris says:

    Fantastic interview. Thanks for alerting us to this important work.

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