The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has chosen to honor UCSB religious studies professor Ann Taves as one of the 175 artists, musicians, scholars and scientists to receive the accolade this year.

The Guggenheim fellowship is awarded each year to scholars who have had significant past achievements and possess the potential to make significant future contributions to the fields of natural science, social science, humanities and creative art. Taves, who serves as the Virgil Cordano O.F.M. Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies, is an award-winning author who has published numerous articles and five books, including her 1999 book Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James, which explores the scientific phenomenon behind religious experiences.

Taves said her motivation for the book came from both the desire to provide an explanation for these unusual accounts and events surrounding her personal life.

“When I first started teaching in the 1980s, I came across descriptions of unusual experiences in accounts of 19th century Protestants that I found very hard to understand, such as accounts of people falling down under the weight of the Holy Spirit and going on visionary journeys to heaven,” Taves said. “When a friend of mine who had been diagnosed with what was then called ‘multiple personality disorder,’ told me about some of her experiences of ‘losing time’ and feeling as if ‘other selves’ took over her life, I realized that the human mind was capable of much more than I had imagined.”

According to Taves, her work stems from an interest in the interpretation of religious experiences.

“So Fits, Trances, and Visions grew out of my interest in the way people figured out how to interpret these unusual sorts of experiences, how they decided when they were pathological, and how they decided they were religious,” Taves said.

Growing up in a secular family contributed to her passion for the connection between cognitive science and religion, Taves said, and has fed her aspiration to bridge the gap between science and humanities.

“I want to see if we can understand these experiences in naturalistic terms, but in doing so my goal is not to debunk these experiences,” Taves said. “I think these experiences matter to people and oftentimes make a big difference in their lives.”

Michael Kinsella, a third-year Ph.D. student specializing in American Religion, said Taves has made great advances for the religious studies department.

“She is really making a lot of inroads regarding the cognitive science of religion. We’ve set in motion now a student organization and I’m just absolutely thrilled,” Kinsella said. “It’s the religion experience and mind lab group. A number of students have amassed towards her with various interests in cognitive science in religion.”

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Rudy Busto, a colleague who has worked with Taves in the past, said her work is exemplary of the innovation that draws so many applicants to UCSB’s American Religious Studies graduate program.

“Students coming out of here are free to really investigate American religiosity in a broad spectrum,” Busto said. “Religion is not just churches and important men; religion has to do with how people orient their lives over certain things they see that are sacred, special or holy. Professor Taves’ work is really challenging those definitions of what religion is.”

Kinsella has taken advantage of both the department’s unorthodox approach to education and Professor Taves’ work on combining science and religion in his own research on near-death and out-of-body experiences.

“She is absolutely amazing,” Kinsella said. “It is utterly incredible … how much time and energy she spends with her students. We’ve grown exponentially [in the number of] students interested in cognitive science and religion.”

Taves will continue her research on revelations in projects involving four different, yet related movements: Mormonism, Alcoholics Anonymous, a course in Miracles Study groups and New Age channeling.

Taking a holistic and all-encompassing approach to how religious revelations are explained allows researchers to comprehend how people understand life, according to Taves.

“In contrast to some who take either/or positions when it comes to scientific and religious explanations of experiences, I think there are a range of both/and possibilities open to people,” Taves said. “Studying how people and traditions make sense of unusual experiences is a great way to explore how we as humans make sense of our lives, which is something we all wind up trying to do one way or another.”




A version of this article appeared on page 4 of the April 25th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus