[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!“.]

In Charles Hirschkind’s clever and disarming piece, he gives most of the good lines to Mr. Cognitivist, who could well be one of my colleagues—or me. But oddly enough, I find myself siding with Ms. Social-Cultural.

Mr. C is right to insist on the reality of polio; my own favorite example in these sorts of realist vs. relativist debates (which often occur in my seminars, as they usually include several smart undergraduates from the humanities) is dinosaurs. Who would deny that dinosaurs once existed, and that their existence is a real discovery—not an invention!—by paleontologists? Of course, these paleontologists were influenced by cognitive and motivational biases—some innate, some cultural, some idiosyncratic. Of course, our understanding of the world is never direct; there are “normative interpretive grids,” paradigms, cognitive shortcuts, and so on. Maybe it’s even true that one’s science is affected by being a man or a woman (a popular view these days) or by being a Gentile or a Jew (less fashionable, for obvious reasons). But despite all of this, scientists do discover things; the methods of science can capture objective reality, and, outside the seminar room, every rational person accepts this. As Richard Dawkins famously put it, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.”

So I agree with Mr. C here. But it’s not clear who he is arguing against; it’s hardly obvious that Ms. S-C would deny this sort of common-sense realism. She never comes out and says that polio doesn’t exist, just that polio has been “constructed,” which can be charitably taken as a valid epistemological point, not a radical metaphysical one. Not all humanists are characters out of a David Lodge novel.

Furthermore, we’re not talking about polio here, or dinosaurs. We’re talking about prayer. And when it comes to prayer, Ms. S-C raises a perfectly reasonable point: There are serious risks in taking what American Protestants do as your paradigm case. Mr. C responds to this point by jumping into a lecture about how “well-designed experiments often produce startlingly unexpected results.” But this claim is (a) false—such cases are extremely rare; the stuff of legend, and (b) irrelevant. Even if chance discoveries were an everyday occurrence, still, If you start off with a lousy theory, it is magical thinking to expect experimental research to guide you to a better one. This isn’t how it works. Science is like diagnostic medicine and detective work in this regard: If you don’t ask the right questions, you aren’t going to get the interesting answers.

What Mr. C should have said instead is: You’re right. We can’t know a priori that the activities of American Protestants that we describe as “prayer” will have any interesting similarities with activities done at other times and in other places that we also describe as “prayer.” It’s entirely possible that the folk notion of “prayer” doesn’t correspond to a natural kind. It might not be like polio or dinosaurs at all.

It gets worse. Even if there is something interesting to be said about prayer in general, modern American practices are a dubious starting point. Over the last several years, psychologists have started to worry about the field’s obsessive focus on what Joseph Henrich and his colleagues call “WEIRD” cultures—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Henrich and his colleagues’ analysis of experiments published in top journals in psychology found that 96% of the subjects and 99% of the first authors were from WEIRD countries. Such countries represent only about 12% of the world’s population, but the more serious problem is the extreme difference between WEIRD cultures and the sorts of societies in which most of human evolution took place. 

The WEIRD are, in an important sense, unnatural, and Henrich and his colleagues present a sizable array of data that in domains ranging from mathematical reasoning to gender roles to altruistic behavior to religious belief, the WEIRD are, well, weird. Individuals raised in WEIRD cultures are like animals raised in zoos, exhibiting odd and unrepresentative patterns of thought and behavior. If you’re interested in psychological universals, then, the very worst starting point in the United States of the 21st century.

Now, I know that this isn’t the direction that Ms. S-C was going. She might well be horrified by the assumption here that some societies are more natural than others, where “natural” means: meshing better with cognitive adaptations. This isn’t what she meant when she complained about a too-narrow focus on American Protestantism!

I admit that cultural anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists make for strange bedfellows. But when you arrive at the same conclusion from two such different directions, it’s good reason to believe that the conclusion is true. Mr. C should listen up; he has a lot to learn about research from Ms. S-C.