I’m freshly back from Denver, where the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) took place this year. The AAR is the world’s largest academic body focused on the study of religion. It includes everything under its big tent—experts in ancient Daoist texts, Biblical historians, Sanskrit scholars, sociologists of religion, transhumanists, and even—yes—cognitive scientists of religion. Attending the AAR is a little bit like finding yourself in one of those edge-of-the-galaxy bazaars Star Wars characters are always getting lost in: it’s massively diverse, baffling, crowded, and filled with incompatible languages. Of course, one of the biggest language barriers in academia is between the humanities and the sciences—and the AAR is no exception.
As I’ve recently written here, the secular, academic study of religion is mostly dominated by humanities scholars—that is, experts in texts, foreign and classical languages, areas studies, and social theory. Only a small minority of religious studies scholars use scientific or quantitative methods, and their choice to do so is often controversial. Generally, religious studies sees itself as a discipline whose objective to skillfully and sensitively interpret religious phenomena.