A Jamesian Response to Reductionism in the Neuropsychology of Religious Experience

In: Archive for the Psychology of Religion
Katie Givens KimePostdoctoral Researcher & Lecturer, Institut für Praktische Theologie, Abt. Seelsorge, Religionspsychologie und Religionspädagogik, Universität Bern, Switzerland

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John R. SnareyFranklin Parker Professor of Human Development and Ethics, Department of Psychology, Candler School of Theology, and Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA

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The neuroscience revolution has revived interpretations of religious experiences as wholly dependent on biological conditions. William James cautioned against allowing such neurological reductionism to overwhelm other useful perspectives. Contemporary psychologists of religion have raised similar cautions, but have failed to engage James as a full conversation partner. In this article, we present a contemporary, applied version of James’s perspective. We clarify the problem by reviewing specific James-like contemporary concerns about reductionism in the neuropsychological study of religion. Then, most centrally, we employ three of James’s conceptual tools—pragmatism, pluralism, and radical empiricism—to moderate contemporary reductionism. Finally, we point to a constructive approach through which neuroscientists might collaborate with scholars in the humanities and psychosocial sciences, which is consistent with our conclusion that it is often no longer fruitful to separate neurobiological studies from studies that are psychosocial or sociocultural.

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