E. Thomas Lawson

E. Thomas Lawson is well known for his work on ritual, religion, and cognition, as well as for his collaborations with Robert N. McCauley. He is considered a founder of the cognitive science of religion, spurring on the work of such scholars as Harvey Whitehouse. Lawson outlines a social and scientific theory of religion that takes into account the evolutionary foundations and development of the human brain. He is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University, the executive editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture, as well as the founder of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. Additionally, in the 1960s, E. Thomas Lawson played a leading role in the establishment of departments of religion at public universities in the United States. Lawson also serves as Distinguished International Fellow at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. He received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion from the University of Chicago.

Major Works

Measuring Religion: Empirical and Experimental Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion (forthcoming)

Bringing Ritual to mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms (2002; with Robert N. McCauley)

Rethinking Religion: Connecting Religion and Culture (1993; with Robert N. McCauley)

Religions of Africa: Traditions in Transformations (1984)


"[A] cognitive science of religion is necessary (in the sense that it is worthy of being done) because it will help lead us into deeper insights about symbolic-cultural systems such as religion. A cognitive science of religion certainly shows every promise of deepening our understanding of the cognitive constraits on cultural form. Those who are dedicated to cultural relativism and its cousin cultural determinism often give the impression that there are no limits either on the contents of our minds or the cultural products that issue forth from them. We have come to see through the insights of cognitive science that this is not the case. There are limits to cultural (and, a fortiori, religious) variability."

"Towards a Cognitive Science of Religion," in Numen vol. 47 (2000)


Select Web Resources on Lawson

Emeritus Faculty at Western Michigan University

E. Thomas Lawson at the Evolution of Religion Conference 2007

Staff of the Institute of Cognition and Culture


Secondary Literature on Lawson and Religion

Lawson, Thomas E. & Brian C. Wilson (eds.), Religion as a Human Capacity: A Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson. Brill, 2004

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