Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science

This book examines longstanding debates in the anthropology of religion concerning the connections between ritual and meaning, belief, politics, emotion, development, and gender. But it examines these ‘old’ topics from a radically new perspective: that of the cognitive science of religion.

As such, the volume identifies potential solutions to established problems, but it also sets out a program for future research in the field. The volume includes a substantial introduction from Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw who highlight the connections between key issues in the history of religious anthropology and the latest findings of scientific psychology. This volume, they argue, presents us with potential solutions to old problems but also with a series of new and exciting challenges.

This book is part of the Ritual Studies Monograph Series, edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.


Mind and Religion: Psychological and Cognitive Foundations of Religiosity

Recent cognitive approaches to the study of religion have yielded much understanding by focusing on common psychological processes that all humans share. One leading theory, Harvey Whitehouse’s modes of religiosity theory, demonstrates how two distinct modes of organizing and transmitting religious traditions emerge from different ways of activating universal memory systems. In Mind and Religion, top scholars from biology to religious studies question, test, evaluate and challenge Harvey’s sweeping thesis. The result is an up-to-date snapshot of the cognitive science of religion field for classes in psychology, anthropology, or history of religion.





Theorizing Religions Past: Archaeology, History, and Cognition


Historians bound by their singular stories and archaeologists bound by their material evidence don’t typically seek out broad comparative theories of religion. But recently, Harvey Whitehouse’s “modes of religiosity” theory has been attracting many scholars of past religions. Based upon universal features of human cognition, Harvey’s theory can provide useful comparisons across cultures and historical periods even when limited cultural data is present. In this groundbreaking volume, scholars of cultures from prehistorical hunter-gatherers to 19th-century Scandinavian Lutherans evaluate Harvey’s hypothesis that all religions tend toward either an imagistic or a doctrinal mode depending on how they are remembered and transmitted. Theorizing Religions Past provides valuable insights for all historians of religion and especially for those interested in a new cognitive method for studying the past.

Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion

Ethnographers of religion have created a vast record of religious behavior from small-scale non-literate societies to globally distributed religions in urban settings. So a theory that claims to explain prominent features of ritual, myth, and belief in all contexts everywhere causes ethnographers a skeptical pause. In Ritual and Memory, however, a wide range of ethnographers grapple critically with Harvey Whitehouse's theory of two divergent modes of religiosity. Although these contributors differ in their methods, their areas of fieldwork, and their predisposition towards Harvey's cognitively-based approach, they all help evaluate and refine Harvey's theory and so contribute to a new comparative approach in the anthropology of religion.


Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission

Religions—whatever else they may be—are configurations of cultural information reproduced across space and time. Beginning with this seemingly obvious fact of religious transmission, Harvey Whitehouse goes on to construct a testable theory of how religions are created, passed on, and changed. At the center of his theory are two divergent 'modes of religiosity’: the imagistic and the doctrinal. Drawing from recent advances in cognitive science, Harvey's theory shows how religions tend to coalesce around one of these two poles depending on how religious behaviors are remembered. In the 'imagistic mode,' rituals have a lasting impact on people's minds, haunting not only our memories but influencing the way we ruminate on religious topics. These psychological features are linked to the scale and structure of religious communities, fostering small, exclusive, and ideologically heterogeneous ritual groupings or factions. In the 'doctrinal mode,' on the other hand, religious knowledge is primarily spread through intensive and repetitive teaching; religious communities are contrastingly large, inclusive, and centrally regulated. While these tendencies have long been recognized in the history of the study of religion, the modes of religiosity theory is unique in that it explains why these tendencies exist. More importantly, Harvey does not give the final word, but invites us to join a series of collaborative networks among anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, and psychologists, currently trying to falsify, confirm, or refine the theory. Are you tired of the flood of descriptions and interpretations of religions which offer no clear strategy for evaluation, comparison, and testing? Modes of Religiosity can provide you with a new way to think when you think about religion.


The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography

In a further development of the nature-nurture debate, this collection of articles questions how the human mind influences the content and organization of culture. In the study of mental activity, can the effects of evolution and history be teased apart? Evolutionary psychologists argue that cultural transmission is constrained by our genetic inheritance. Few social and cultural anthropologists have found this argument to be relevant to their work and many would doubt its validity. This book uniquely pitches the arguments for innatism against ethnographic perspectives that call into question the theoretical foundations of orthodox evolutionary biology and cognitive science. Ultimately, the aim of the debate is to create an original set of mutually compatible theories that will open up new areas for interdisciplinary research.


Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity

Through a close examination of four Melanesian religious traditions, Harvey Whitehouse identifies a set of recurrent interconnections between styles of religious transmission, systems of memory, and patterns of political association. He argues that these interconnections may shed light on a variety of general problems in history, archaeology, and social theory.



Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea

For the past 30 years, adherents of a millenarian cult in Papua New Guinea, known as the Pomio Kivung, have been awaiting the establishment of a period of supernatural bliss, heralded by the return of their ancestors bearing "cargo." The author of this book, Harvey Whitehouse, was taken for a reincarnated ancestor, and was able to observe the dynamics of the cult from within. From the stable mainstream of the cult, localized splinter groups periodically emerge, hoping to expedite the millennium; the core of this volume concerns the close study of one such group in two Baining villages.

The two aspects of the cult studied here—on the one hand a large, uniform, and stable mainstream organization with a well-defined hierarchy demanding orthodoxy of views, and on the other hand a small-scale and temporary movement, emotional and innovative in its views—stand in sharp contrast one to the other, but are here seen as divergent manifestations of the same religious ideology, implemented in differing ways. This original theory of "modes of religiosity" which Harvey develops draws on recent findings in cognitive psychology to link styles of codification and cultural transmission to the political scale, structure, and ethos of religious communities.