Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion (Cognitive Science of Religion)

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Ritual and Deference. Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion. About the Contributors. A specialist in Melanesian religion, he carried out two years of field research on a 'cargo cult' in New Britain, Papua New Guinea in the late eighties. In recent years, he has focused his energies on the development of collaborative programmes of research on cognition and culture. He is currently the principal grant holder of a British Academy Networks Project on 'modes of religiosity' and in was appointed to a British Academy Research Readership.

For example, Sloane, Baillargeon, and Premack found that month-old children expected an experimenter to reward each of two individuals when both had worked at an assigned task, but not when one of the individuals had done all the work. Baumard, Mascaro, and Chevallier found that 3- and 4-year-old children were able to take merit into account by distributing tokens according to individual contributions.


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Finally, an evolutionary model should clearly specify the adaptive advantage conferred by the candidate foundation upon individuals who bore it in the ancestral past as Graham et al. Fairness meets this criterion nicely. Although Saroglou provides a valuable synthesis of previous taxonomies of core religious dimensions, in our view, the dimensions he settles on Believing, Bonding, Behaving, Belonging do not correspond well to evolved cognitive systems, so are not good candidates for religious foundations.

There are at least two important and potentially dissociable supernatural concepts here: the notion of supernatural agency , on the one hand e.

Religion, Rituals, and Belief Systems Introduction

These consequences may be mediated by supernatural agents, as when gods bestow rewards or dispense punishments in this life or the next; but they may also reflect the impersonal unfolding of a cosmic principle e. Moreover, supernatural agents are not necessarily in the business of attending to our behaviors and implementing relevant consequences—as we shall review, gods vary in their concerns with human affairs in general and with moral issues more specifically.

In view of these various considerations, one could posit not one but two distinct dimensions of supernatural belief here: a supernatural agency, and b supernatural justice. Rather than take this route, our preference is to specify a small subset of evolved cognitive systems that, jointly or in isolation, would account for why these dimensions are cross-culturally and historically recurrent.

Here we discuss five strong candidates for religious foundationhood: a a system specialized for the detection of agents ; b a system devoted to representing, inferring, and predicting the mental states of intentional agents; c a system geared toward producing teleofunctional explanations of objects and events; d a system specialized for affiliating with groups through the imitation of causally opaque action sequences; and e a system specialized for the detection of genetic kinship.

Like proponents of MFT, we do not claim that this list is exhaustive, and future research may suggest alternative, or additional, candidates when relevant, we discuss current alternate views. Nevertheless, based on an extensive review of the cognitive science of religion literature, the following represent the most plausible candidates for universal religious foundations, on current evidence. This logic has been used to undergird an influential claim in the cognitive science of religion. Guthrie has argued that for humans in the ancestral past, mistaking an agent e.

Humans should therefore be equipped by natural selection with biased agency-detection mechanisms—what J. HADDs are often described as perceptual mechanisms, devices biased toward the perception of agents in ambiguous stimulus configurations. A by-product of their functioning would be a tendency toward false positives e. A broader conception of HADDs includes attributions of nonrandom structure Bloom, —such as naturally occurring patterns and events with no clear physical cause—to the activity of agents.

In other words, HADDs are a suite of hypothetical devices specialized for perceiving either agents or their effects. Such notions, once posited, would be attention grabbing, memorable, and thus highly transmissible because of their resonance with intuitive cognitive structures such as HADDs J. Barrett, ; J. Indeed, just as the cultural success of high-heeled shoes may owe to the fact that they function as supernormal stimuli insofar as they exaggerate sex specific aspects of female gait; Morris et al. At present, the evidence for a connection between supernatural concepts and beliefs and agency cognition is mixed.

Meanwhile Riekki, Lindeman, Aleneff, Halme, and Nuortimo found that religious believers showed more of a bias than nonbelievers to indicate that photographs of inanimate scenes e. In all of these studies, agency detection was a measured variable. As far as we are aware, to date, no published study has investigated whether manipulating cues of agency e. Given the hypothesized causal route whereby agency detection biases predispose humans to acquire beliefs in religious concepts , this may be a fruitful avenue for future research. For example, functional MRI experiments with religious participants have shown that religious belief Kapogiannis et al.

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Finally, Norenzayan, Gervais, and Trzesniewski found that autistic participants expressed less belief in God than did matched neurotypical controls. In follow-up studies using nonclinical samples, these authors found that higher autism scores predicted lower belief in God, a relationship mediated by mentalizing abilities. ToM is also thought to play an important role in afterlife beliefs.

It has been suggested, for example, that people spontaneously infer that dead relatives and friends are still present, even in the absence of cultural inputs to support such ideas. The idea is that although we can simulate the loss of perceptual capacities like sight and hearing simply by covering the relevant organs the eyes and the ears , we cannot simulate the absence of thoughts, desires, memories, and so on.

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Even people who hold explicitly extinctivist beliefs e. The root of this, Bering argues, is that humans have dedicated cognitive machinery for reasoning about mental states, which, unlike our capacities for reasoning about the mechanical and biological properties of bodies, cannot conceptualize total system failure.

For example, participants should be unable to fully appreciate that people lack conscious experiences when under general anesthesia, or that inanimate objects such as carpets and kitchen utensils lack such experiences. Although we think this is implausible, it is an empirical question whether continuity judgments can be elicited in such scenarios.

We note in this connection that recent research on pre life beliefs in Ecuadorian children indicates that, until about 9 to 10 years of age, they ascribe several biological and psychological capacities to their prelife selves; moreover, older children, who ascribe fewer capacities to themselves overall, are still more likely to ascribe certain mental states—in particular, emotional and desire states—to their prelife selves than other mental states e.

Another foundational cognitive predisposition where religion is concerned may be a tendency to favor teleofunctional reasoning. Research by Kelemen and colleagues e. Although it may be tempting to think that this teleological bias is attributable simply to acquisition of a creationist worldview e. If so, this tendency may render notions of intelligent supernatural designers, who have created the world and everything in it for a purpose, especially compelling Kelemen, To the extent that this relational-deictic stance represents a cognitive default, however, it may still serve as a strong foundation for religious cultural notions.

In particular, although we agree with Ojalehto et al. Humans often imitate each other without knowing why—that is, with little or no understanding of how the actions contribute to goals. Causal opacity of this kind is a hallmark feature of ritualized behavior.

In rituals, the relationship between actions and stated goals if indeed they are stated at all cannot, even in principle , be specified in physical—causal terms P. Social anthropologists have often observed that ritual participants are powerless to explain why they carry out their distinctive procedures and ceremonies, appealing only to tradition or the ancestors. Imitation of causally opaque behavior is a distinctively human trait. None of the other great apes shows a marked interest in devising highly stylized procedures and bodily adornments and using these to demarcate and affiliate with cultural groups.

Because rituals lack overt usefulness, most animals would not see any value in copying them. Yet by meticulously conforming to arbitrary social conventions, human groups bind themselves together into cooperative units facilitating cooperation on a scale that is very rare in nature. From an evolutionary perspective, deriving the benefits of group living requires a means of identifying ingroup members the ones you should cooperate with and out-groups people you should avoid or compete with.

One solution is to have a distinctive set of group conventions or rituals of course, there are other means too, e. Indeed, the willingness to copy arbitrary conventions is essential for acquiring language requiring us to accept that arbitrary utterances refer to stable features of the world around us, not because there is a causal relationship between the sound and the thing it refers to, but simply because that is the accepted convention. Herrmann et al. Inclusive fitness theory predicts that organisms will behave in ways that preferentially benefit kin, with more benefits conferred as the degree of genetic relatedness between the actor and the recipient increases Hamilton, Mechanisms for recognizing and calibrating kinship are critical for such behaviors to evolve and can be classified as one of two broad types: those that exploit direct, phenotypic cues e.

According to Lieberman, Tooby, and Cosmides , cues indicative of kinship are taken as input by two separate motivational systems. As Pinker points out, kin recognition in humans depends on cues in particular, linguistic cues that others can manipulate:. Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries.

These faux families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. Cultural manipulations of kinship detection machinery may be rife in ritualistic behavior. As Saroglou notes, religious rituals serve to bond ritual participants together.

Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, Vol 4, No 2 (2016)

Such rituals may accomplish this, in part, by incorporating a range of kinship cues. First, many religious rituals involve artificial phenotypic cues of kinship—similar costumes, headdress, face paint, and so forth. Second, social synchrony is a key feature of many religious rituals, and has long been hypothesized to promote group cohesion e.

Recent experimental studies confirm that synchronic movement increases cooperation among participants. For example, Wiltermuth and Heath found that participants who engaged in synchronic behaviors e. Third, the arousal that many rituals generate may function as a contextual cue to kinship. Xygalatas et al. High-ordeal participants donated significantly more than low-ordeal participants, and higher levels of self-reported pain were associated with greater donations.

Ritual and Memory Toward a Comparative Anthropology of Religion

A key feature of our approach is to consider whether the fractionated components of morality and religion have overlapping evolutionary histories. As noted earlier, just as there are genetically endowed physical structures e. Our fractionating strategy produces a preliminary matrix of at least 25 basic questions at the level of biological evolution e. In our view, the most plausible cases of biologically evolved connections between the religious and moral foundations involve agency-detection mechanisms and ToM.

In This Article

Likewise, if the limitations of our evolved capacities to simulate mental states, or the absence of such states , triggered intuitions about the continued invisible presence of dead individuals, this would have been incidental. However, D. Johnson, Bering, and colleagues e. Johnson, ; D. The supposition of moral-foundations theorists is that the various foundations evolved to solve a range of adaptive problems e. The evolution of these various mechanisms would have occasioned a novel set of selection pressures—in particular, the costs associated with being caught violating foundational moral principles.

According to D. Johnson, Bering, and colleagues, the evolution of linguistic and mentalizing capacities would have ramped up these costs, as moral transgressions could be reported to absent third parties, exacerbating reputational damage for the transgressor. The conjunction of these various mechanisms, therefore, may have increased the premium on mechanisms that inhibit moral transgressions.