New religious movements and quasi-religion: Cognitive science of religion at the margins

Archive for the Psychology of Religion 42 (1):101-122 (2020)
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Abstract

The article offers a critical analysis of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) as applied to new and quasi-religious movements, and uncovers implicit conceptual and theoretical commitments of the approach. A discussion of CSR’s application to new religious movement (NRM) case studies (charismatic leadership, paradise representations, Aḥmadiyya, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) identifies concerns about the theorized relationship between CSR and wider socio-cultural factors, and proposals for CSR’s implication in wider processes are discussed. The main discussion analyses three themes in recent work relating CSR to religious and religion-like activities that extend and reframe the model. These include (1) identification of distinctive and accessible cognitive pathways associated with new forms of religious belief and practice (in particular in ‘New Age’ movements), (2) application of CSR to movements and practices outside traditional definitions of religion (near death experiences, conspiracy theories, virtual reality), and (3) engaging CSR in wider cultural processes and negotiations (religion in healthcare settings, and the definition of the study of esoteric religious traditions within academic domains). The conclusion identifies two particular findings: (1) that application of CSR in these areas renders underlying cognitive processes more available to scrutiny and (2) that CSR is employed to identify and enlarge the category of religion. The conclusion suggests that the study of CSR in its application to NRMs and quasi-religion identifies a wide field of common and overlapping themes and interests in which CSR is a more active operand than is commonly assumed.

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