WMU News

Scholars worldwide pen tributes to Tom Lawson

Feb. 11, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Some of the world's leading authorities on comparative religion contributed essays to a new book published in January to honor a Western Michigan University scholar who helped establish their field of study.

"Religion as a Human Capacity: A Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson" was published by Brill of the Netherlands as part of the Numen Book Series on the History of Religions. The essays were written and compiled as a gift to honor WMU's Lawson, professor of comparative religion, who will close his 42-year teaching career at the University late this spring. The work was edited by Dr. Timothy Light, WMU professor of comparative religion, and Dr. Brian Wilson, chairperson of WMU's Department of Comparative Religion.

A festschrift is a rare academic honor in which professional colleagues collect and publish one or more volumes of essays or articles to celebrate the lifetime achievement of a distinguished academic colleague. The volumes are usually published on the occasion of a retirement or important anniversary. The Lawson festschrift was introduced and presented to the honoree during a special reception held in Atlanta in November as part of the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the North American Association for the Study of Religion, which Lawson helped establish.

Lawson will retire from WMU at the end of the current academic year, and next fall will begin his new role in Ireland as Distinguished Visiting Fellow and co-director of the Institute for Cognition and Culture at Queen's University of Belfast.

He first came to WMU as a faculty member in 1961 and served as chairperson of the religion department for more than 37 years, while he helped develop a cognitive approach to the study of religion. The curriculum he developed for WMU has served as a model for religion departments at other universities around the nation, and Lawson was among the first scholars to use psychology, sociology and linguistics to examine the role of religion and ritual in society.

According to Wilson, Lawson's dissatisfaction with existing research traditions in the academic study of religion led him to being "in the forefront of the creation of a new one." Wilson notes that the 1990 book, "Rethinking Religion: Cognition and Culture" by Lawson and Robert McCauley, one of his former students, "has come to be cited as one of the three defining works in the emerging cognitive study of religion." That new research tradition has grown tremendously in the past decade and many of its proponents are represented in the pages of the festschrift.

"The work is both a public tribute that notes Dr. Lawson's reputation in the field and a great value to the profession as a whole," says Wilson's co-editor Light. "The essays that are included address specific issues in the field and move those issues forward."

As an example, Light notes that Washington University's Pascal Boyer, the most prominent scholar in the field at this point, contributed to the book. He says Boyer's essay is perhaps "the best summary of the cognitive viewpoint that's ever been written."

A total of 18 international scholars contributed to the work with essay topics that range from "Exploring Theories of Religious Violence" to "Comparative Religion in the State of Nature." Among those who contributed are five members of the WMU faculty.

Lawson is the author of five books, the most recent being "Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms," again co-written with McCauley and published in 2002. In addition, he is the author of a dozen book chapters, and as the editor of the Numen Book Series on the History of Religions, he has edited nearly 20 books. He has lectured internationally at conferences and universities from Copenhagen to Rome, and he has been active in the leadership of professional associations. At WMU, he as earned the University's highest honors, winning both the Distinguished Faculty Scholar designation and an Alumni Teaching Excellence Award.

He earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago in 1958, 1961 and 1963, respectively.

"Religion as a Human Capacity: A Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson" is available from the publisher, and can be ordered online at <www.brill.nl/m_catalogue_sub6_id11109.htm>.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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