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Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
A Cognitive Theory of Religion [and Comments and Reply]
Author(s): Stewart Guthrie, Joseph Agassi, Karin R. Andriolo, David Buchdahl, H. Byron
Earhart, Moshe Greenberg, Ian Jarvie, Benson Saler, John Saliba, Kevin J. Sharpe, Georges
Current Anthropology,
Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), pp. 181-203
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research
Stable URL:
Accessed: 09/10/2008 13:14
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... Our ability to "detect" the mental states of unseen agents may be deeply ancestral. From Darwin's dog (Darwin, 1871) to Guthrie's (1980;1995) theory of religion as anthropomorphism, scholars and scientists alike have recognized that one of religion's core elements is the representation of spiritual agency, made possible in part by our unprecedented mentalizing abilities and our ability to socially transmit notions of perceived agency. Contemporary research suggests that various forms of mentalizing-including anthropomorphism-predict religiosity. ...
... Randomness cannot. In line with that, like long postulated for religion (Barrett, 2000;Guthrie et al., 1980) conspiracy beliefs have been shown to strongly correlate with the tendency to perceive agency and intention where there is none (Douglas et al. 2016, Imhoff & Bruder, 2014. ...
... Various approaches address why humans are the only species on the planet that entertains beliefs about gods, ghosts, and other spiritual beings (Geertz, 2020;Jensen, 2019). Some emphasize evolved cognitive faculties such as agency detection, anthropomorphism, and other mentalizing systems to account for beliefs in gods (e.g., Andersen, 2019;Bird-David, 1999;Barrett, 2000;Guthrie, 1980Guthrie, , 1995. Others argue that gods are attention-grabbing and more memorable by virtue of their social relevance inferred by our evolved moral cognition (Boyer, 2000(Boyer, , 2001 or suggest that aspects of gods' temperaments are projections of individuals' personal attitudes and characteristics (Johnson et al., 2015;Spiro and D'Andrade, 1958). ...
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How do beliefs about gods vary across populations, and what accounts for this variation? We argue that appeals to gods generally reflect prominent features of local social ecologies. We first draw from a synthesis of theoretical, experimental, and ethnographic evidence to delineate a set of predictive criteria for the kinds of contexts with which religious beliefs and behaviors will be associated. To evaluate these criteria, we examine the content of freely-listed data about gods’ concerns collected from individuals across eight diverse field sites and contextualize these beliefs in their respective cultural milieus. In our analysis, we find that local deities’ concerns point to costly threats to local coordination and cooperation. We conclude with a discussion of how alternative approaches to religious beliefs and appeals fare in light of our results and close by considering some key implications for the cognitive and evolutionary sciences of religion.
... Going WILD Clearly, the WEIRD problem runs deep in the psychological sciences, and technological solutions such as online participant platforms have had little impact on the problem. In contrast, CSR seems to have fared better, likely due to its interdisciplinary nature with access to diverse populations and the pivotal role of anthropologists in shaping the discipline (Atran 2002;Boyer 1992;Geertz 2004;Guthrie et al. 1980;Sperber 1996;Whitehouse 1992;Whitehouse 2004). Currently, anthropologists working in CSR are often at the forefront of non-WEIRD research not only in CSR itself but in the psychology of religion more broadly. ...
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Reliance on convenience samples for psychological experiments has led to the oversampling of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) populations (Henrich et al. 2010a). Our analysis of academic articles from six leading psychology journals revealed a significantly lower but still very high percentage of studies from Euro-pean and English-speaking nations (92%), compared to a decade ago (95%), largely due to more studies from Asia (6%). Further analysis of four cognitive science of religion (CSR) journals showed how a more representative field is possible (67% from the Western and Other region), with proportionately more studies in Latin America (4%) and Africa (7%) than psychology (<1% each). Thanks to its interdiscipli-nary nature, CSR is in a good position to address "WEIRD" problems and may be able to offer psychology methodological and epistemolog-ical tools that involve diversifying sample populations, increasing ecological validity, capturing the causes and consequences of cultural variation , and developing novel methodologies. Despite the challenges, we encourage more researchers to embrace the lessons offered by CSR's history of global and interdisciplinary research. Where WEIRD identifies the populations we need to stop privileging, conducting work that is not just Worldwide, but also In Situ, Local, and Diverse (WILD) is what researchers themselves can aspire to. Just as nineteenth century "armchair anthropologists" were replaced by generations of ethnogra-phers who went out into the real world to study human variation, so modern day psychologists need to conduct experiments outside the lab with suitably heterogeneous populations.
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This dissertation examines the implications of cognitive science of religion (CSR) from philosophical and theological perspectives. CSR is a multidisciplinary field that studies the recurrent aspects of religious belief and behavior and seeks to explain them with reference to pan-human cognitive dispositions and their evolutionary roots. This new science of religion has been widely seen as presenting both challenges and opportunities for a theistic worldview and for Christian theology. The study consists of an introduction and four journal articles. Article I “The naturalness of religion: What it means and why it matters” analyzes one of the core claims in CSR, namely that religion is natural. After differentiating cognitive naturalness from other kinds of naturalness and considering the evidence on which the claim is based, I argue that naturalness is a comparative concept. That is, folk religious concepts are more natural than, for instance, certain scientific theories (such as quantum mechanics) or theological concepts (such as the Trinity). The article also discusses the four marks of naturalness offered by philosopher Robert McCauley. Despite criticism that the naturalness thesis runs into similar conceptual problems as the concept of innateness, it can nevertheless serve as a popular shorthand for some of the basic assumptions of the byproduct model in CSR. A few theological and philosophical implications of the naturalness of religion are also mentioned. Article II “Debunking arguments gain little from cognitive science of religion” discusses four debunking arguments by philosophers Robert Nola, Matthew Braddock, John Wilkins and Paul Griffiths, and Taylor Davis. These arguments claim that CSR shows god belief to be epistemically unjustified, at least when the believer has no independent evidence for god(s). The paper begins by clarifying the nature of debunking arguments as undercutting defeaters. Such arguments typically aim to show that the belief-forming process underpinning god beliefs is unreliable. The paper makes two main observations. First, debunking arguments in which the unreliability claim hangs on a specific CSR theory (such as the HADD theory) are usually weak. Second, strong debunking arguments are often largely independent of CSR theories. Any viable naturalistic explanation of religion would seem to serve the arguments almost as well. Therefore, I conclude that CSR may not present such a novel threat to the rationality of religious belief as is often suggested. Article III “Cognitive regeneration and the noetic effects of sin: Why theology and cognitive science may not be compatible” considers the compatibility of CSR with the theological idea of God as the ultimate cause of theistic belief. Psychologist Justin Barrett and philosopher Kelly James Clark have suggested that God may have guided human cognitive evolution in order to give rise to minds prone to believe in supernatural agency. It has been previously argued that this suggestion faces two theological problems. First, false and idolatrous god beliefs seem more natural than theistic belief. Second, humans have a tribalism bias that seems to be a root cause of much moral evil but is also cognitively natural. The idea that God would guide the evolution of natural cognition is thus theologically problematic: why would a good God who wants people to know him personally give rise to the idolatry bias and the tribalism bias? A natural theological response to these worries would refer to the noetic effects of sin – a theological notion that philosopher Alvin Plantinga invokes in his religious epistemology. This article focuses on problems with this response. A theologically consistent application of the notion, it is argued, would also indicate the existence of a process that Plantinga calls cognitive regeneration. All true believers are said to undergo this process. While we should also expect to find empirical evidence of it, evidence against cognitive regeneration seems easier to find than evidence for it. The fact that even Christian believers entertain anthropomorphic intuitions of God might suggest that their minds do not undergo a cognitive regeneration. More importantly, sociological data on religious prejudice serves as evidence against the affective aspect of cognitive regeneration. Because of these problems, invoking the noetic effects of sin may not be a viable response to the problems of the naturalness of idolatry and tribalism. Article IV “Hell and the cultural evolution of Christianity” considers how the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion can further the theological debate on the doctrine of hell. The traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment has been increasingly challenged by the proponents of universalism (according to which everyone will eventually be saved) and conditional immortality (according to which the unsaved will be annihilated). This article draws from the cultural evolutionary account of prosocial religions (the Big Gods account), the mind-body dualism theory, the emotional selection theory, as well as from sociology and biblical studies in offering an “error theory” regarding the success of the traditional view. This error theory can help explain why the view of hell as eternal conscious torment became the dominant paradigm in Western Christianity even if, as conditionalists and universalists argue, it was not the only view of the final fate of the unsaved among early Christian theologians nor necessarily the one best supported by scripture and reason. The traditional view, it is argued, could have enjoyed a cultural and cognitive advantage over the “softer” views of afterlife punishment.
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The social sciences have long recognized a relationship between religion and social ecology. Upon closer inspection, religious systems not only correspond to important features of a society's social ecology, but also appear to directly address these features. In this article, we examine the prospect that these salient features may be framed as game theoretical dilemmas and argue that contemporary approaches that emphasize cognition and/or social learning at the expense of social ecology are inadequate in accounting for cross-cultural variation in religious expression. Using ethnographic examples, we show that religions alleviate the costs of such dilemmas in a variety of ways by: 1) fostering beliefs that motivate and sustain beneficial practices; 2) incentivizing cooperative ventures; 3) encouraging ritual performances that minimize costly conflicts and bolster territorial conventions; 4) providing institutional forums to coordinate resource distributions; and 5) maintaining important resource and species diversity.
Where does religion ultimately come from? How did this complex, universal feature of human societies come about and why does it persist? Moreover, how did religion make the transition to the large-scale, institutionalized systems of the late Holocene? There are today lively debates about these issues. This chapter introduces some central views on the origins of religion in CSR, focusing on early contributions and some recent criticisms of these. The chapter explores the views that religion is a biological adaptation, a cultural adaptation, or a by-product. It then looks in detail at some central theories related to the by-product view, such as anthropomorphism, the HADD-theory, and the minimal counterintuitiveness (MCI) theory. The chapter finally touches on the development of the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Článek se kritickým a provokativním způsobem zamýšlí nad neuspokojivou situací v oblasti akademického studia náboženství, jejíž příčiny spatřuje především v izolovanosti a roztříštěnosti dosavadních badatelských snah. Kritickému pohledu je vystavena rovněž kognitivní věda o náboženství, která se od doby svého vzniku profiluje jako interdisciplinární projekt usilující o propojení tradičních metod studia náboženství s metodami přírodních věd. Autor článku kritizuje jednostrannou zaostřenost kognitivní vědy o náboženství na laboratorní experimenty a předkládá argumenty k jejich propojení s terénními experimenty, které umožňují získávání dat s vysokou externí validitou.
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Opening Paragraph The first part of this paper seeks to develop an approach to traditional African thought already sketched in several previous contributions to this journal. My approach to this topic is strongly influenced by the feeling that social anthropologists have often failed to understand traditional religious thought for two main reasons. First, many of them have been unfamiliar with the theoretical thinking of their own culture. This has deprived them of a vital key to understanding. For certain aspects of such thinking are the counterparts of those very features of traditional thought which they have tended to find most puzzling. Secondly, even those familiar with theoretical thinking in their own culture have failed to recognise its African equivalents, simply because they have been bunded by a difference of idiom. Like Consul Hutchinson wandering among the Bubis of Fernando Po, they have taken a language very remote from their own to be no language at all.
This paper offers some sceptical arguments against “symbolic” interpretations of human action. The general doctrine criticised is nowhere very clearly or explicitly stated; still less is it argued for. Before attempting to formulate it, I give an illustration (Leach 1974:1074): An ethnographer observes a man killing a sheep by cutting its throat. A bystander, when asked what is going on, replies: “He is making an offering to the ancestors”. What is the logical status of such a statement? What does it “mean” apart from its standing as a description of the sacrificer’s actions? How does it come to mean what it means? Does it always mean the same thing? These are issues of great complexity and, for anthropologists anyway, of great importance. Does it always mean the same thing? These are issues of great complexity and, for anthropologists anyway, of great importance.
Freud's explanations of cultural origins waver between being historic and being psychological in character. As history they remain wholly unfounded, but they may prove to contain elements contributing to understanding of the generic human psychology underlying the history of human culture, especially its recurrent or repetitive feature. Psychoanalytic intransigeance as to historic interpretation is due partly to an "overdetermination" in Freud's own thinking and partly to rigidity in his followers, as exemplified by Jones and Roheim. Psychoanalysis has maintained an all-or-none attitude toward general science. Science has profited by definite absorptions from psychoanalysis.
Opening Paragraph In Part I of this paper, I pushed as far as it would go the thesis that important continuities link the religious thinking of traditional Africa and the theoretical thinking of the modern West. I showed how this view helps us to make sense of many otherwise puzzling features of traditional religious thinking. I also showed how it helps us to avoid certain rather troublesome red herrings which lie across the path towards understanding the crucial differences between the traditional and the scientific outlook.
Religion answers the basic question: What are the realities of the environment in which human existence is to be maintained? "Mythic" or "religious" thinking is a mode of understanding, a clarification of the environment. It is an explanatory apparatus which has evolved as a consequence of the evolution of the associational areas and their interconnections in the cortex of the human brain. Religious experience leads to a picture of the environment which is felt to be true. Objectively, this is "adaptive truth" (in Washburn's terms)-a set of cognitive statements that leads to meaningful action within and manipulation of the environment. A religious system is a "cognitive system" (as defined by Geertz and Jensen). Seen from this point of view, a religious (mythic) system is a stage in the evolution of the biologically necessary adaptation of man to his environment-a primordially instinctive biological activity, inherited from the animal kingdom and directed towards survival, that stands halfway between genetically determined automatism and conscious insight. This new behavioral trait took the place of automatic reaction circuits at the moment of the emergence of consciousness in the development of the central nervous system. It is the earliest biologically evolved form of that awareness which at once permits and demands decision-making and choice. "Mythic thinking" was in the past the dominant behavioral reaction of the human nervous system to the biological requirement for orientation. According to Jung, the unconscious mind contains inherited patterns which have formed automatically as a response to regularities (archetypes) within the wealth of discrete sense impressions registered by the nervous system. In this form they are nearest to automatic behavioral patterns of all living beings. These patterns reach consciousness in the form of images ("symbols"). Under the impact of conscious confrontation with the environment, man (the "mythosteller") orders these images into a meaningful whole (a narrative, a "mythologem" in Kerenyi's terms) and experiences it as reality. Mythologems, then, represent archetypic symbols in consciously ordered form. (It is suggested that archetypes might be regarded as the smallest units of mythic narratives and might thus be studied cross-culturally.) When these ordered symbols (god-characters and god-actions) are projected onto reality and correlated with current characteristic phenomena of the environment, an understanding and clarification of the environment (i.e., "meaning") emerges. The projection is automatic (instinctive). It is through this "structural congruence" (in Geertz's terms) with phenomena of the environment that the biological (adaptive) value of the symbols emerges.