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Harvey Whitehouse

School of Anthropology
University of Oxford

Explaining Religion

Friday, April 3, 2009
Lecture Hall 8, 4:00 PM

Abstract

Much research in the cognitive science of religion emphasizes that some features of religious thinking and behaviour are universal, arising from our species’ evolutionary history. Examples include certain qualities attributed to supernatural agents (e.g. gods and ghosts), which humans everywhere appear to recognize with minimal need for instruction. There is also growing evidence that many religious concepts require considerable cognitive, social, and technological resources to create, remember, and pass on. Cross-culturally variable aspects of religion arise in part from the operation of cognitive systems that connect concepts (e.g. through the formation of novel analogies) and storing them (e.g. in semantic memory) and in part from the historically changing sociopolitical conditions in which such systems can be exploited. Understanding how intuitive, recurrent features of religion are continually recombined in the evolution of religion, producing the kinds of religious diversity documented around the world today, requires a new integration of ‘bottom-up’ approaches focused on the proximate mechanisms that shape and constrain religious innovation and transmission and ‘top-down’ approaches that consider the adaptiveness of variable traits and systems under varied ecological and historical conditions.

Biography

After carrying out two years of field research on a ‘cargo cult’ in New Britain, Papua New Guinea in the late eighties, Harvey Whitehouse developed a theory of ‘modes of religiosity’ that has been the subject of extensive critical evaluation and testing by anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, and cognitive scientists. In recent years, he has focused his energies on the development of collaborative programmes of research, having set up the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast and the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is currently Head of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at Oxford, Director of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, and a Fellow of Magdalen College.

Readings

  1. Towards an Integration of Ethnography, History and the Cognitive Science of Religion
  2. The Theory of Modes of Religiosity

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Seminar Audio

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Poster

WhitehousePoster