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Methodological pluralism in the study of religion

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How the Study of Consciousness and Mapping Spiritual Experiences Can Reshape Religious Methodology

This special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies throws down a methodological challenge to the field of Religious Studies. Over the last half century, the academic study of religion has developed a variety of angles and approaches: structuralist, Eliadian, Marxist, feminist, and so on. Recently, approaches popular in many institutions and departments have centred on linguistic and cultural analysis, notably the postmodern and deconstructivist approaches championed by Derrida and others. With the dawn of the interdisciplinary field of the study of human consciousness, and with this issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, we challenge this prevailing approach by presenting readers with articles analysing religion, spirituality, and spiritual experience, not solely as cultural phenomena, but as phenomena that can be related to human physiology, and a kind of pan-human technology of human spiritual development.

This issue offers new and exciting approaches whereby our understanding of religion and religious experiences may be enhanced by reference to methods stemming from cognitive science, neuropsychology, developmental psychology, philosophy of mind, anthropology, and the myriad other fields that have joined together to investigate the phenomenon of consciousness. Because consciousness plays such a central role in the creation of human experience, and because the field of consciousness studies is growing more mature by the year, it only makes sense that we should learn what we can about the functioning of consciousness from the myriad disciplines that have deigned to place it under their scopes. It is time for religious studies to draw upon neuropsychology, cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, artificial life, psychology, and other disciplines. It is time for religious studies to explore how consciousness functions and how it may play a role in the constitution of reality, in spiritual experience, in the generation of doctrine, and in ritual and meditative life.

Also constructively, this volume attempts to forge a truce in the twenty-year methodological war that has been waging between constructivists and perennialists in the study of religion. To summarize each side's historical position briefly, constructivists (i.e., Katz, Proudfoot) presented religious experience as wholly constructed from the fabric of pre-existing materials. Perennial psychologists (i.e., Forman, Barnard, Rothberg, etc.) claimed that mystical experiences, regardless of the tradition involved, share certain common underlying experiential cores, notably the so-called Pure Consciousness Event and several more advanced mystical states.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Boston University STH, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215, USA. Email:[email protected]

Publication date: November 1, 2000

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