John Modern ’93 on the religious tradition of cognitive science

The book: Mankind’s focused exploration of the human mind has led us through the Cognitive Revolution, a shift from the spiritual to the secular that has changed the future of psychological science. But in Neuromatic; Or, A Special History of Religion and the Brain (University of Chicago Press), John Lardas Modern ’93 argues that the world of religion is inextricably linked with our study of the mind. Science and religion have interwoven stories, he says, from the origins of nervous system research to contemporary efforts to map religion into our neural circuits. Take a tour of the myths and spiritualities that have guided our exploration of the spirit, Neuromatic aims to unravel and recognize these connections, and to help us better understand this apparent submission to our own brain.

The author: A self-proclaimed “historian, curator and vinyl collector,” John Lardas Modern ’93 has spent his career studying religion, technology and literature. He is currently Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College and previously was a Visiting Professor at Haverford College. Moderne is the author of The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs and Secularism in pre-war America. He graduated in religion from Princeton, University of Miami, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Over the past few years, I have drawn a lot of critical inspiration from my time spent at MindLab at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. MindLab (2009-14) was a “cross-cutting neuroscience and cognition research framework” funded by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. At MindLab, researchers studied the links between human interaction and brain function and examined “how religion and cognition intersect to constrain and motivate agency, interaction, identity, moral values and symbolic meanings ”.

During my visits to MindLab, I took notes and photos. I befriended scientists and post-docs and gained their trust. I have heard of their experimental program. I interviewed them and retired with them to the Sandbjerg mansion in South Jutland. In the space where Prussian military leaders strategized during the Second Schleswig War of 1864, I listened to leading figures discuss big pictures and future trends in the cognitive study of religion and I tried to see the world from their point of view. MindLab members, like members of all tribes, are motivated by conceptions of who they are not, anxious fears of those who might threaten their peaceful, well-funded way of life. I learned this lesson on my first night at MindLab as I stood with people after dinner, drink in hand, wet plumes of hash fluttering in the wind. While we were chatting in a circle, I casually mentioned Walter Benjamin’s name. Immediately the group burst out laughing. I had struck a chord. I smile uncomfortably, as if I too know the truth. I didn’t bring up Benjamin again in the conversation because I quickly learned that people like Walter Benjamin don’t make sense and that sort of thing is fine if you’re a trust fund poet or hipster or something like that, but if you are going to say anything meaningful about the world, then you have to say it clearly and concisely. For the folks at MindLab, Benjamin was a symbol, a taboo figure who reactively generated many boundaries and bonds of solidarity. At MindLab, I heard a lot about the dangers of relativists, postmodernists, feminists, cultural anthropologists and critical historians like me who were guilty and weak, too scared to believe the truth, or traumatized by the trust of the strong. scientific pose. These barbarians at the gates, I was told, were misguided in how they viewed science as one of many possible rationalities. These weak-willed academics did not follow standard epistemic protocols of objectivity, hypothesis, and experimentation in order to produce real, tangible, and useful results over reality.

Deficiencies in the cogs of reason. Made sentimental without sufficient proof.

Rather than directly contesting these claims or even bringing up what I felt to be the strong categorical presence of secular modernity, I offered my interlocutors rocky riffs about why they interested me in the first place. Religion, I said, has long been a site of fascination and an object of relentless measurement and theorizing – from early modern research on the brain as a “chapel of divinity” giving way to phrenological theories of religion. localization and diagnoses of religious madness giving way to the discovery of the motor cortex and its relation to hypnosis and telepathy giving way to ruminations on the electrical emanations of neuronal activity with the emphasis on hallucinations, l epilepsy and other extreme conditions among mid-century neurophysiologists giving way to the isolation of religion as a neural phenomenon giving way to more recent invocations of neuroscience as fodder for theological revival and so-called news atheist claims.

Without naming Benjamin again or mentioning the Enlightenment dialectic, I argued that MindLab was the culmination of a much longer trajectory. For in this story there is a good religion and there is a bad religion, the former reflecting more and more the values ​​of the present secular order. What was happening at MindLab, I suggested, was religion. Here, in ecstatic acts of attention, was the reification of the secular category, par excellence — religion, defined principally as a cognitive processing mode and specified neuronal activity. Cognitive studies of religion at MindLab and elsewhere serve to articulate a boundary between religious and secular that can be either fairly sharp or rather fluid. To analyze individual cognitive studies of religion on the basis of the extent to which they regard religion as exceptional or their alleged sympathy (or lack of sympathy) with religion would be to miss their compatibility under the sign of secularism. For the importance of these scientific studies lies in how they fabricate religion and its natural distinction, study after study, regardless of the outcome, transforming religion into a measurable difference: the brain and the brain images and images. brain images. generate the criteria of what constitutes religion as Natural difference. Religion here becomes a feature of the world, so to speak integrated, which persists beyond the vicissitudes of time and culture. Regardless of particular findings on, for example, the effectiveness of prayer or the function of fire walking rituals or the practice of spirituality or the emergence of new social movements or large complex societies, cognitive studies evoke the difference. between the religious and the secular as natural. , that is, as something that can be verified by the scientific method. Cognitive studies of religion are the religion considered regardless of its history, the religion considered instrumentally, in terms of what is precious, therapeutic or pathological in its presence.

In the vast majority of cognitive studies of religion, the analytical difference between the religious and the secular is based on their continuum. There is a foundational and necessary assumption, namely that “the very existence of religion requires such cognitive mechanisms which also function outside of religion”. These shared mechanisms include “engagement gadgets”, “coalition psychology” and “building databases on the reputational effects of own and others’ behavior and inferred dispositions”. Religion, as a natural human activity whose sources and consequences are socially linked, may or may not be beneficial, depending on the scene or evolving circumstances. But what about historical, cultural or otherwise contingent circumstances? For in addition to the information passing through the anterior parietal lobe, could there also be discursive forces circulating in the cognitive and neuroscientific fields that are integral to the making of a human subject who is truly, naturally, and ordinarily religious?

Within the neuro and cognitive sciences, so proudly complicit in this secular era where the natural difference between the religious and the profane is not called into question precisely because it has become incontestable, there is neither place nor need to question the conditions which made the measurement of religion possible, not to mention such an attractive proposition.

Reprinted with permission from Neuromatic; Or, A Special History of Religion and the Brain by John Lardas Modern, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.


“This book is masterful in scope, masterfully documented, carefully studied, subtly theorized and energetically executed. Bring together published, archival and media sources in a deliberately non-linear genealogy, Neuromatic will be essential for specialists in religion, history, philosophy and scientific studies. Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Wesleyan University