[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!“.]
Charles Hirschkind has given us an insightful and entertaining take on the anthropologist/cognitivist polemics we have experienced in some of our discussions, while asking the serious question of whether the study of prayer allows us “to say anything interesting about universal human attributes or faculties.” Contributors to the conversation have pointed to the ways this question begs at least a couple of others: what counts as interesting? And what do we mean by “universal human attributes or faculties?” On the latter point, respondents have drawn attention to the ways the argument reveals new features of the universalism/particularism dilemma. The former pertains, among other things, to the role of disciplinary divisions in the dispute, a discussion taken up in different ways by various contributors: clearly, what counts as “interesting” depends on what your discipline is interested in. Charles’ tone is playful and provocative, and the fictional Mr. Cognitivist and Ms. Socio-Cultural seem less intended to reflect the variety of possible positions than to draw attention, in a tactful way, to what is a profound dispute between natural scientists and humanists. However important they are, invoking our disciplinary differences as an explanation of disagreement begs Charles’ question; or at least could be seen as a sort of relativist avoidance of the very serious challenge the question poses to everybody—cognitivists, anthropologists, historians, critical theorists, sociologists, journalists and even poets alike.