Competition: US & Canada
University of California, Santa Barbara
Ann Taves is a scholar of religion whose research has focused for some time on how people, both historical and contemporary, interpret unusual, seemingly involuntary experiences in which people’s usual sense of self is disrupted by anomalous perceptions or sensations. She is best known for two award winning books: Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton 1999) and Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton, 2009). The former, which traced competing religious and scientific explanations of unusual experiences over time, led to three key insights. (1) Seemingly involuntary experiences are unstable and can morph experientially and hermeneutically through suggestion and encounters with others who variously explain, condemn, or encourage the experience in question. (2) The categories used to characterize these experiences, e.g. hysteria, mysticism, spiritual, religious, occult, are ideologically laden, theoretically unstable, and difficult to study apart from a history of discourse. (3) It is important to figure out how to constitute historical or ethnographic objects of study in such a way that our academic categories don’t interfere with tracing this morphing of experience at the level of discourse (categories and theories) and practice. In Religious Experience Reconsidered, she demonstrated how scholars could disaggregate the concept of “religious experience” and draw on research from psychology and sociology to study the wide range of experiences to which people have – under some conditions — attached religious significance. Building on her previous work, as well as more recent scholarly efforts to integrate cognition and culture, her current project, titled Revelatory Events, integrates the close reading of historical sources with research on mental and social processes to better understand how unusual experiences give rise under some conditions to new visionary movements.
Taves received her Ph.D. in the History of Christianity and American Religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School and taught at the Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University for many years. She is currently Professor of Religious Studies and holder of the Cordano Chair in Catholic Studies at UC Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses that explore the role of experience in the context of emergent movements and established religious traditions. She is a past-president of the American Academy of Religion and has served on the steering committee of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion and the Council of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Profile photograph courtesy of Ron Searcey.