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Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion & Other Special Things

Author: Ann Taves
Published By: Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey)
Price: £18.95
ISBN: 978 0 691 14087 2

Reviewed by Luke Penkett.

This is a fascinating book by the president elect of the American Academy of Religion. For too long, religious experience has been regarded as a unique and somewhat isolated phenomenon, one that could not be explained in neurological, psychological, or sociological terms. And an experience that was reserved for the privileged few. The whole concept of religious experience here comes under much-needed, close, scientific scrutiny.

Three significant questions are asked. What is the relationship between experience and what we call religion? When we’re defining religion, is it a unique, or sui generic, thing apart from other things? How disabling is the threat of reductionism?

The lack of satisfactory answers to these pertinent questions has, over the past couple of decades, inhibited our ability to bring scientific approaches to bear on the study of religion. In her latest work, Ann opens up ways that she has described elsewhere as “pathways that make it easier to engage the scientific literature on the study of the mind without simplifying the conceptual framework in ways that would frustrate scholars of religion”. It is a superb achievement that connects the study of religion to other disciplines - an outstanding accomplishment.

To move forward into an understanding of experience that may be deemed as religious, it is essential to take our biological and cultural selves into account and be aware of their interface. Taves does this brilliantly. In this coherent and lucid study that connects religious studies and the sciences, she shows herself to be fully abreast of recent theories of mind and culture. The book will be intellectually stimulating to anthropologists, historians, neuro-scientists, psychologists and sociologists and will serve as a benchmark in the field of religious studies for many years to come.

Luke Penkett

Monk and Priest working with L'Arche Community

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You are reading Issue 50 of Ministry Today, published in November 2010.

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