[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Thanks, Charles Hirschkind, for your clever approach to the complicated conversational thread running through the New Directions in the Study of Prayer group meetings. As a developmental psychologist who takes a socio-cultural approach to studying cognitive development, I’m not sure whether I should take the position of Ms. Socio-Cultural or Ms. Cognitive in your hypothetical conversation. But from my perspective there is common ground to be found if we start from the perspective of building and creating knowledge together from the strengths of different disciplinary methods. How boring if we all took the same approach. So I’ve added an additional scholar to your conversation:

Ms. Socio-Cultural-Cognitive (S-C-C): Now hold on the both of you. I think we can find some common ground here. The hypothesis that humans have universal processes at our disposal for engaging in and with the vast and complex social and cultural systems in which we grow up and exist can be either confirmed or disconfirmed through careful experimental research. Researchers are conducting these studies around the world as we speak. Mr. C’s research is a very fine example of this kind of experimental research.

Mr. C: Thank you. And I agree that my research is very interesting and important.

Ms. S-C: Yes, your research is interesting and important.

Ms. S-C-C: However, a confirmation of the hypothesis about universal aspects of cognition does not necessitate the conclusion either that cultural processes have no influence on human cognition (even basic cognitive processes) or that an understanding of human cognition encompasses all of the necessary and sufficient information for understanding a religious activity like prayer. Thus, the conditional reasoning structure by which your argument is proceeding (If p, then q; p = cognitive universals, q = culture is not important) is fundamentally flawed because the premise is faulty. Of course social and cultural systems shape cognitive processes (what reasonable person could argue that they don’t?); but recurrent patterns of cognitive processing that have evolved in the context of cultural environments contribute to some systematic ways in which humans process information. And here is where a point of clarification is warranted: saying that cognitive processing is systematic does not imply that the processing magically leads everyone to understand everything in the same way. Every data set that psychologists gather involves variation in responding, and our statistical methods involve explaining that variation. Additionally, evidence from all of the fascinating research being conducted by Ms. S-C would certainly serve as evidence that people engage in complex and diverse patterns of thinking and behavior.

Ms. S-C: Thank you. And I agree that my research is very interesting and important.

Mr. C: Yes, your research is interesting and important.

Ms. S-C-C: Perhaps it would help to move from discussing basic-level cognitive processes to another psychological process: the development of attachment bonds. All infants across cultures and in many species develop a strong emotional bond with their primary caregiver (usually their mother). Thoughtful and clever experimental research has taught us that this attachment bond is based on the sense of emotional security a mother provides and not by the fact that mothers provide their infants with nourishment. Additional careful research across cultures and species has continuously documented the formation of this strong social bond, and many psychologists consider this bond to be universal and to have evolutionary/survival roots. One would not from this series of findings jump to the conclusion that all mother-infant relationships are the same, that all cultures structure mother-infant relationships in the same way, or that the impact of this bond on later development and social relationships is equally important or at all consistent across cultures. 

Ms. S-C: This example is interesting. But if the fact that the attachment bond is universal doesn’t explain universality in the formation of social relationships, then what is the explanatory value of knowing some aspect of human behavior or cognition is universal?

Ms. S-C-C: You raise a very important point, and to answer it I will draw from Jerome Bruner’s Acts of Meaning.  Bruner describes universal aspects of cognition as being a condition for and a constraint on, but not a proximal cause of, human action. Thus, in the context of prayer, the hypothesis that when humans engage in prayer their brains process social interactions according to universal patterns does not necessitate the conclusion that those universal patterns are causing a person to pray, or that prayer should be considered as just another mundane human activity that is experienced in exactly the same way by all people.

So if you, Ms. S-C, are interested in studying the diversity of human behavior and cultural practices, then you may not be all that interested in universals and I promise I won’t make you study them. On the other hand, as a psychologist, I am interested in the ways in which the universal processes provide conditions and constraints on human experience, not because I am trying to document that all people are fundamentally the same but because in order for me to understand how humans experience prayer I must understand both universal aspects of how we as humans process information and diversity in religious experience. So I thank you very much for no longer calling me a reductionist.

Mr. C: Well, here is where you’ve lost me because I’m interested in studying universal cognitive processes as they exist purely and freed from the constraints of the context in which they are being used. I actually do believe that in understanding these universal processes we can explain most of human experience and behavior, and I don’t really want to study the cultural context in which the cognitive processes are put to work.

Ms. S-C-C: I understand that that is your research interest and your theoretical approach, but I have to disagree with you on one fundamental point. Cognitive processes, even in an experimental laboratory setting, are never being used freed from context. Thus, I appreciate your research documenting through careful experimental methodologies the basic structure of these universal processes. And I appreciate your continued support of my attempts to examine these processes as they develop and are used by people in the context of prayer, which require methods with slightly less experimental control and precision.

Ms. S-C: Well, now that I understand what we all bring to the table, I am very excited for our next meeting.

Mr. C: Me too.

Ms. S-C-C: Me three.