Religion & Ritual
The cognitive science of religion (CSR) is one area in which a wide range of theoretical ideas from cognitive and evolutionary psychology have been applied to diverse human societies and behaviours, and it is an important focus of study here at Oxford. As such, it makes a good case study for this course. But religion is of course a very controversial topic: there is a lot of debate over what (if anything) religions have in common, and whether we can find a general evolutionary explanation for some or all aspects of religion. We will try to disentangle some of these issues this week. Our two guest speakers will also tell us how the EXREL project is working to build a comprehensive cognitive and evolutionary account of religion.
A. How does ordinary human cognition inform and constrain—and hence, help to explain—the recurrence of certain phenomena that might be called ‘religion’ such as afterlife ideas, conceptions of superhuman agents, ritualized behaviours, and so forth. Presenters need not address all of religion but may focus on a small number of developed areas in the cognitive science of religion.
B. Introduction to the EXREL (“Explaining Religion”) project [staff-led]. Two members of staff will outline the project goals and its current status.
Suggested readings for all
Barrett, J. L. (2007). Cognitive science of religion: What is it and why is it? Religion Compass, 1, 1–19. http://users.ox.ac.uk/~theo0038/pdf%20files/Religion%20Compass_Barrett%202007.pdf
Boyer, P. (2003). Religious thought and behavior as by-products of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 119–124.
Sosis, R. (2004). The adaptive value of religious ritual. American Scientist, 92, 166–172.
Suggested readings for Presenter A
Whitehouse, H., & Laidlaw, J. (Eds.). (2007) Religion, anthropology, and cognitive science. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. Especially Chapters 4–7, 9.
Bering, J. M. (2006). The folk psychology of souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 453–498.
The EXREL project
Funded by a research grant from the European Commission, the 'Explaining Religion' (EXREL) project is a three-year interdisciplinary research initiative that seeks to understand both what is universal and cross-culturally variant in religious traditions as well as the cognitive mechanisms that undergird religious thinking and behaviour. EXREL is large-scale and ambitious in scope, integrating the world’s leading centres for psychological, biological, anthropological, and historical research on religion. The project has four principal scientific objectives:
- To characterize precisely the main elements of the universal religious repertoire and the extent of its variation
- To establish the principal causes of the universal religious repertoire
- To account for variations in the degree of elaboration (and emphasis) of each element of the repertoire in different religious traditions, contemporaneously and historically
- To develop models for simulating future courses of transformation in specified religious systems
These objectives involve ethnographic, historical and psychological research carried out by selected fellows, postgraduate students, and European project partners. Publication of major findings can be found on this website:
Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Bering, J. M. (2005). The evolutionary history of an illusion: Religious causal beliefs in children and adults. In B. J. Ellis & D. F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development (pp. 411–437). New York: Guilford Press.
Bloom, P. (2005). Is God an accident? The Atlantic Monthly, December 2005, 105–112.
Bloom, P. (2007). Religion is natural. Developmental Science, 10, 147–151.
Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained: The human instincts that fashion gods, spirits and ancestors. New York: Basic.
Cohen, E. (2007). The mind possessed: The cognition of spirit possession in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (2007). The God delusion. London: Black Swan.
Guthrie, S. E. (1993). Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30, 244-260.
Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking religion: Connecting cognition and culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
McCauley, R. N., & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind: Psychological foundations of cultural forms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Tremlin, T. (2005). Minds and gods: The cognitive foundations of religion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of religiosity: A cognitive theory of religious transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.