In light of the framing of Asprem’s book in terms of Problemgeschichte, we can ask what is meant by a “problem.” Problems, as he uses it, are grounded in human experience, which means that for problems to be problems people have to perceive them as such. The problem of disenchantment thus entails both (1) the perception of the problem and (2) various responses to the problem. Asprem focuses primarily on the way people responded to the problem. But we can also ask how, when, and why people perceived the problem in the first place. If recognizing a problem can be construed in terms of “event perception” then we can view Problemgeschichte as involving the perception of problems at a whole range of levels from our perception of the historical past, our personal past, and what just happened, thus allowing for a fuller integration between sociology and psychology.
The Mormon claim that Joseph Smith discovered ancient golden plates buried in a hillside in upstate New York is too often viewed in simple either/or terms, such that the plates either existed, making Smith the prophet he claimed to be, or did not, making him deceptive or delusional. If we assume that there were no ancient golden plates and at the same that Smith was not a fraud, then the task of historical explanation is more complex. Building on a review of the evidence for the materiality of the plates, the paper uses a series of comparisons — between the golden plates and sacred objects in other religious traditions, between Smith’s claims and claims that psychiatrists define as delusional, and between Smith’s role as a seer and the role of the artist and the physician as skilled perceivers — to generate a greater range of explanatory options. In light of these comparisons, we can view the materialization of the golden plates in naturalistic terms as resulting from an interaction between an individual with unusual abilities, intimate others who recognized and called forth those abilities, and objects that facilitated the creation of both the revelator and the revelation.
Researchers have not yet done an adequate job of reverse engineering the complex cultural concepts of religion and spirituality in a way that allows scientists to operationalize component parts and historians of religion to consider how the component parts have been synthesized into larger socio-cultural wholes. Doing so involves two steps: (1) distinguishing between (a) the generic elements that structure definitions and (b) the specific features used to characterize the generic elements as “religious” or “sacred” and (2) disaggregating these specific features into more basic cognitive processes that scientists can operationalize and that historians can analyze in situ. Three more basic processes that interact on multiple levels are proposed: perceiving salience, assessing significance, and imagining hypothetical, counterfactual content.
We can foster collaboration between the academic study of religion and the sciences, particularly the biological and psychological sciences, if we (1) construct a common object of study that can be positioned within an evolutionary paradigm, (2) adopt a building block approach to the study of religion that distinguishes between religions and the more elementary phenomena that comprise them, and (3) operationalize abstract concepts as behavioral interactions in order to gain a better understanding of the process whereby people construct religions and other complex things out of more elementary phenomena that they view as special.<xref ref-type="fn" rid="FN1">1</xref>