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Towards a Cognitive Science of New Religious Movements

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Traditionally cognitive scientists have had little to say about religion (and even less to say about new religious movements (NRMs)) partly because religion is arguably a social phenomenon (Bainbridge et al. 1994) and partly because of the pervasive scientific bias of relegating religion to the heap of the irrational, the illogical, and 'a fading vestige of the prescientific times' (Lewis 2003). While sociologists of religion have been studying NRMs, their analysis has been limited to the macro-level. Recent trends in sociology and economics focused on the so called rational choice theories (Iannaccone 1998) and in cognitive sciences of religion (Barrett 2000; Boyer 2001) offer the hope of moving in the direction of a more complete explanation of emergence of new religious movements by providing both macro and micro level analyses. I believe that a closer interaction between these two developments is possible, indeed necessary, for the development of a scientific theory of NRMs that weds the macro and the micro levels. I illustrate the benefits of this approach by focusing on a hitherto ignored phenomenon, the emergence of charismatic leaders who inspire new religious movements. The primary aim of this paper is to identify the contextual factors (both social and cognitive) that cause self-interested utility maximizing agents to take actions that result in new religious movements (NRM). Our secondary aim is to identify factors that cause other self interested utility maximizing agents to align themselves with NRM founders and become the believers. I illustrate how various tools of cognitive science including computer modeling can help in this regard.


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