Controversy in the Aesthetics of Religion: when religious studies go cognitive, visions on how to study religions clash
Mareike Smolka (Maastricht University)
Paper short abstract:
The trend to merge research in the cognitive sciences with humanities scholarship has stimulated a controversy in the Aesthetics of Religion (AoR), a sub-discipline in religious studies. Studying this controversy reveals how visions about the future of AoR have fueled epistemic conflicts.
Paper long abstract:
Scholars in the Aesthetics of Religion (AoR), a sub-discipline in religious studies that investigates the sensorial qualities of religious experience, have recently joined their colleagues in the humanities who are eager to 'go cognitive'. Attempts to bridge the gap between cognition and culture have turned into an academic trend that scholars do not want to miss. However, those who aim to pursue this trend in AoR have been confronted with harsh criticism. Conflicting visions about the future of the discipline have resulted in a controversy. This controversy concerns disagreements about how to position AoR in relation to other disciplines, specifically the Cognitive Science of Religion, and methodological questions about how to study religious experience. To explore how conflicting visions fuel controversy in AoR, I conducted conference ethnography and qualitative interviews with a network of scholars who institutionalized the discipline in Germany. My research reveals that conflicting epistemic claims about how cognition should be conceptualized rest at the core of the controversy. An old debate about whether to understand cognition as input-output information processing or as embodied and embedded is revived in AoR. Although scholars do not find consensus, they stop arguing in the open and seem to accept the coexistence of the two conflicting models. The relevance of this research is twofold. First, it demonstrates how visions about the future of a discipline and epistemic claims are co-produced. Second, it highlights the power of the cognitive trend in the humanities which pressures scholars to tolerate epistemic tensions.
Politicizing futures. When conflicting visions meet