Ann Taves is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and, this year, is serving as president of the American Academy of Religion. After distinguishing herself as a historian, she has recently turned her attention to theoretical reflection. Her latest book, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, proposes a framework for scholars interested in using both humanistic and scientific approaches to study the experiential side of religion.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.—ed.
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NS: As the new president of the American Academy of Religion, how do you plan to make your stamp on religious studies?
AT: I think that the field should take more account of what is going on in the natural sciences—partly because I’m interested in that personally, and partly because science is such a big part of public discussions about religion. One of the plenary speakers for the Atlanta meeting in 2010 will be the primatologist Frans de Waal. We may even have a field trip to his Yerkes Research Center at Emory. I also invited Anne Harrington, a historian of science at Harvard, who is an authority on how people have thought about mind/body relationships, and Jonathan Z. Smith, who will give the plenary that honors a senior scholar in the study of religion.
NS: Are there institutional changes you’re planning to make to the organization?
AT: The AAR is still working through the implications of its split with the Society of Biblical Literature, and we’re learning to build a more viable working relationship. We’re also doing some restructuring to get a trimmer, more streamlined board of trustees, one more accountable to the membership. One of the most exciting initiatives is the development of an online social network for scholars. My predecessor Mark Juergensmeyer appointed a technology task force that will continue to advance that project. We have major technical support for it and enthusiasm from several other academic guilds that want to get involved as well.
AT: There have been certain problems in the study of religion that we keep coming back to and gnawing on without being able to solve very well. One is the relationship between experience and what we call religion; another is whether, when you’re defining religion, it is a unique—or sui generis—thing apart from other things; and a third is the threat of reductionism. All of these have been inhibiting our ability to bring scientific approaches to bear on the study of religion. What I try to do in this book is to open up pathways that will make it easier to engage the scientific literature on the study of the mind without simplifying the conceptual framework in ways that would frustrate scholars of religion. What I’m working on is just one possible avenue for doing this, but however we do it, we have to responsibly connect the study of religion to other disciplines. Humans are biological beings; we’re cultural animals, as one psychologist puts it. We therefore have to take our biology into account, as well as culture, and the way the two have interacted over the course of human history.
NS: Why do you begin with the category of experience?
AT: For much of the twentieth century, scholars of religion considered “religious experience” central to the study of religion. In the last 20 years or so that approach came in for sharp criticism. Many scholars wanted to get away from it because it seemed to suggest an experiential essence of religion and turned instead to analyzing discourses about experience. But I don’t think we can afford to throw experience out, because embodied experience is where culture and biology meet.
NS: How can experience be resuscitated?
AT: I argue for a few basic moves. First of all, we have to take religious experience apart, to disaggregate it. Rather than “religious experience,” we can talk about “experiences deemed religious.” This better takes into account the process of how we make sense of experience—as religious or not—at many different levels, not all of them conscious. Next, I locate experience under the broader heading of consciousness studies, ranging from highly reflective, self-aware meta-consciousness to unconscious processes. Once we can put experience in that kind of framework, it is possible to look at the interpretive processes, or what I call attributional processes, to understand how certain kinds of experiences in certain kinds of contexts come to be understood as religious. I also explore what it means to ascribe or attribute religiousness to an experience across cultures and times, even in contexts where people aren’t using the word “religion” or some obviously related term to describe their experience.
NS: Your turn to experience evokes William James, whose approach bore a preference for individualized spirituality over religious culture and tradition. Does your concept of experience do something similar?
AT: It is true that I’ve done a lot of work on James, and he has deeply influenced me. Like him, I find the more unusual experiences to be fascinating, so they tend to turn up in my examples a lot. But experience can’t be thought of in such a narrow way if it’s going to be useful to religious studies more broadly. There are a couple ways that I try to be mindful of that. In my “building-block” method, I distinguish between single experiences and the way that those experiences get caught up in more complex formations. I was challenged by Robert Sharf’s work to think about the way experience is reconceived in the context of ritual. Sharf writes about a Buddhist ceremony in which an abbot turns into the Buddha. I compare it with the Eucharist in Christianity; in both of those rituals, there is an experiential dimension. But the wafer turning into Christ or the abbot turning into the Buddha, according to each tradition, happens regardless of whether a given person who is present at the ritual has an unusual sensory experience. The social dimension, therefore, cannot be ignored; the event’s significance can’t be understood by focusing only on individuals.
NS: A lot of the most visible scientific work going on now about religious experience—for instance, Andrew Newberg’s SPECT scans—seems so fraught with oversimplifications to those who study religion in the humanities. Are you interested in trying to advance the discussion among the scientists themselves?
AT: Although I was envisioning humanists and social scientists as my primary audience, I hope natural scientists can get something out of it as well. I hope they will become much more aware, first of all, that in any given study they’re looking at just a component of what we may think of as religion or spirituality. When they’re looking at an experiential component, they need to be aware of the interpretive process, and part of how they can do this is by looking at similar experiences that are not interpreted as religious. It is interesting to me, for example, that researchers are finding parts of the brain that they can stimulate to cause people to have out-of-body experiences. While probably everybody who has an out-of-body experience is going to think it is unusual and interesting—if not scary—they will probably interpret it differently if they know that they’re sitting in a laboratory having neurological tests done than if they have that experience in the context of a religious worship service.
NS: How can these experiences be discussed across such different interpretive contexts?
AT: I’ve agonized a lot about the second-order terms that scholars should use, as opposed to first-order terms that people use on the ground, and I finally came upon the idea of “specialness.” Specialness has to do with ascriptions of value. In other words, it signifies how important something is to people. In some cases these things have a kind of Durkheimian sense of sacredness; they are considered so valuable that they’re set apart and protected by taboos. Specialness is a term that allows us to investigate where people position things along a continuum of value rather than simply assuming that people consider things in terms of binary oppositions such as “sacred” and “profane,” or “religious” and “secular.”
NS: Are there certain markers by which one can clearly identify something as special?
AT: There are a variety of ways we signal the value or specialness of something. Much of the time we put a price on things to signal its value; other times we rank things. Some things, though, we consider so special that we refuse to put a price on them. Most of us consider our children quite literally “priceless.” We can also signal that something is very special by refusing to compare it to other things or by refusing to mix it with other things.
NS: Can something secular, as well as something religious, be special? And can something religious not be special? Or let me phrase it this way: Would you assume that something deemed religious is therefore special?
AT: The idea of specialness will capture most of the things that people on the ground would describe with terms like “religious,” “sacred,” and sometimes even “secular” as well. It’ll also capture things that people refer to with derogatory terms like “superstition” and “magic,” because those terms refer to what some people consider special while those describing it don’t. There are, inevitably, some practices that scholars would think of as religious that are so much an everyday part of practitioners’ lives that they don’t think of them as special. But if we look carefully at how people behave in relation to those things, we might be surprised. For instance, the practice of crossing oneself with holy water when entering a Catholic church may be so habitual for longtime Catholics that it feels totally ordinary. But if the practice were challenged or questioned in some way, they would probably have a sense that, in fact, this is a thing that sets them apart from other kinds of Christians. It is thus a special sign, so to speak, of participation within that tradition.
NS: How can this kind of thinking inform ethnography, especially among the troublesome categories at work on the ground now—spiritual, religious, secular?
AT: I’m currently editing a volume with Courtney Bender called What Matters: Ethnographies of Value in a Not-so Secular Age. Terms like “what matters” and “value,” which are closely related to what I call specialness, struck us both as a helpful intervention in the discussions of the religious and secular. We initially wanted to look at “spirituality” as a third term that people often use these days to signal something that is neither religious nor secular. We ultimately decided that we didn’t want to focus simply on spirituality but on the various ways that people signal what matters most to them and how they position what matters in relation to conceptions of the religious and secular. We realized, working with a group of anthropologists, that ethnography was an ideal method for investigating what matters to folks on the ground. Actually, whether researchers are doing historical, experimental or ethnographic work, I would make the same point: that they should strive to pose their questions in generic, open-ended terms that do not predetermine what they will find in the world.