Religious Ideas and Practices

Religious ideas and the practices they inform show considerable variation across cultures. However, they do contain certain recurrent themes: gods that have minds and are alive but have no bodies; ancestors that, though dead, can still influence the living; and artifacts capable of revealing information about peoples' thoughts and actions. Accompanying such themes are ritual practices intended to get the gods to act, ancestors to bestow their blessings or curses, and carved blocks of wood to divine the future.

Anthropologists have typically attempted to account for the prevalence of such notions by postulating that they fill psychological and social needs, for example, social cohesion and personal integration. Symbolic anthropologists have emphasized the expressive role of religious ideas and practices in symbolizing social structure and have employed semiotic strategies in the explication of their meaning. Semiotics treats cultural symbols as surface phenomena that conceal hidden meanings requiring decoding in order to be understood. Only a few anthropologists have attempted to employ the resources of the cognitive sciences to explain the recurrence of religious ideas and practices.

Psychologists of religion have been less interested in religious ideas and practices and more interested in religious experience. Working primarily in the tradition of William JAMES (1902) they analyze extraordinary aspects of religious experience such as ecstatic states and altered states of consciousness and note, for example, that patients who have epileptic seizures in the left temporal lobe report extremely intense experiences of God's gaze.

Until recently neither anthropologists nor psychologists have explained how religious ideas and practices are related to garden variety cognition. The picture has now changed. Some anthropologists and psychologists have begun to employ the resources of the cognitive sciences to explain the prevalence of religious ideas and practices. The first anthropologist to approach religious ideas cognitively was Dan Sperber. In his ground-breaking work Sperber (1975) argued against the semiotic approach to religious ideas then fashionable in anthropology (cf. SEMIOTICS AND COGNITION). Whereas semioticians had searched for the hidden code, which, when specified, would, they thought, provide the interpretive key to symbolic discourse, Sperber demonstrated that symbolism in general and religious symbolism particularly could not be explained by appealing to a hidden code because the "meanings" of the symbols could not be mapped onto the putative underlying code. Symbolic "meanings" were too variable. In fact, symbolic anthropologists had long conceded the multivalence of symbolism. Turner (1969) had shown that the same religious symbol could be employed to represent many different sociocultural features. Sperber's critique of attributing meaning to symbolism in terms of an underlying code represented a major challenge to symbolists' arguments about the nature of religious ideas and practices. The symbolists' interpretations of symbolism were as symbolic as the symbols; symbolic interpretation extended symbolism rather than explicating it. Instead, Sperber argued that students of religion would do better by examining the inferential processes that religious people tacitly employ when they make their judgments about the world. Sperber further argued (1997) that, unlike coevolutionary theories, which overemphasize the supposed replication of religious ideas, an epidemiological theory of beliefs accounts for their cultural transmission by contagion. Sperber's goal was to develop a theory that showed how religious ideas spread and what selection forces were involved in their retention or elimination.

Pascal Boyer (1994) has furthered Sperber's claims by arguing that religious ideas can only spread if they attain a cognitive equilibrium. Religious ontological assumptions consist of a set of nonschematic or culturally transmitted assumptions and a set of schematic or standard commonsense assumptions. People make their inferences about the world in terms of an intuitive ontology in which categories such as person, animal, plant, and artificial object play a fundamental role. Such an intuitive ontology is common to all people (including religious ones) in all cultures. Religious ontologies differ from intuitive ontologies in very minor but significant ways by either violating one of the default assumptions of the intuitive ontology or by transferring one of these assumptions to another category. For example, if the default assumptions for "person" are intentional, biological, and physical, then the notion of a spirit violates only the ontology's physical properties. The other assumptions about persons remain in place. Or, if the default assumption for an artifact is physical, then religious ideas involve the transfer of the property of intentionality to the category of artifact. For example, in some religions people transfer intentionality to artifacts and then regard them as knowing and thus revealing the future trajectory of the religious participant's life.

Lawson and McCauley (1990) focus more narrowly on the kinds of ideas presupposed in the practices that religious people perform. Specifically they have attempted to show that ordinary cognitive resources available for the representation of action are sufficient for the representation of religious ritual action by providing the framework for the representation of agency. For example a "transitive" action such as "Tom washes car" consists of an agent (with specific qualities) acting on a patient (with specific qualities). The representation of agents that populate religious systems (gods, ancestors, spirits, and their earthly stand-ins such as priests) differ from the representation of ordinary agents only in the special qualities they possess and in the inferences religious people make about their causal role in bringing about changes in states of affairs. Unlike ordinary causal sequences that can be driven back as far as one cares to go (back to the big bang if necessary), religious ritual actions presuppose that the causal sequence stops with the (cultural) postulation of superhuman agents (Spiro 1966). The buck stops with the gods. Lawson and McCauley also argue that where the agents are represented in the structural descriptions of religious ritual actions determines the types of rituals possible. Their theory enables them to predict the judgments that religious participants will make about matters such as their well-formedness, relative centrality, effectiveness, repeatability, substitutability, and reversibility, and a host of features about rituals concerning associated sensory stimulation, emotive responses, and mnemonic dynamics.

Very recently cognitive psychologists of religion have begun to work outside of the Jamesian tradition by focusing not on religious experience but on religious representations and have devised experiments to test the processing of religious ideas. Barrett and Keil (1996) have tested how people conceptualize nonnatural entities such as a god at various stages of cognitive development. Their results show that theological ideas such as God's omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, which religious people themselves regard as essential truths, are not what are accessed when people are required to make on-line judgments about God's action in the world. Instead religious peoples' judgments are thoroughly anthropomorphic in nature.

See also

Additional links

-- E. Thomas Lawson


Barrett, J. L., and F. C. Keil. (1996). Conceptualizing a non-natural entity: Anthropomorphism in god concepts. Cognitive Psychology 31:219-247.

Boyer, P. (1994). The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Random House.

Lawson, E. T., and R. N. McCauley. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sperber, D. (1997). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Spiro, M. (1966). Religion: Problems of definition and explanation. In M. Banton, Ed., Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock, pp. 85-126.

Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti- Structure. Chicago: Aldine .