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This blog explores the following questions: (1) is there something about the evolved brain-mind that inclines humans towards supernatural thinking or religious belief; (2) can individual or group level selection account for any such features of brain-mind; (3) can we discern supernatural-religious activities or beliefs from the archaeological record (and if so, what kinds); (4) how have supernatural-religious activities and beliefs changed over time; and (5) what might explain such changes?
When formal western philosophy was in its infancy, pre-Socratic Greek philosophers grappled with what they conceived to be a foundational issue: What is the nature of the world or base of reality? Is the world comprised of something fundamental?
There were various answers, some of which (such as the atomism) were remarkably prescient. Over time, western [...]... Read more »
Miller, Jay. (1983) Numic Religion: An Overview of Power in the Great Basin of Native North America. Anthropos, 78(3/4), 337-354. info:/
In the late 1990s I was introduced to Edward S. Curtis in what I suppose is the usual fashion: by collectors of his photogravures. Without knowing anything about Curtis or his project, it was easy to fall in love with the investment-grade images which look fantastic hanging on the wall. Over the years I became [...]... Read more »
Last night I was reading Wooden Leg (1931), a classic ethnohistory about the famous Cheyenne warrior who fought at the Little Bighorn, and came across this passage:
“Another thing the white people appear not to understand: The old Indian teaching was that it is wrong to tear loose from its place on the earth anything that [...]... Read more »
In keeping with my back to (foundational) basics reading programme, I have naturally been digging around Darwin’s writing on religion. While doing so I came across “David Hume and Charles Darwin” (1972), an article in which John Greene suggests that Hume had a significant influence on Darwin. Given Darwin’s impressive reading habits, it is not [...]... Read more »
Day, Matthew. (2008) Godless Savages and Superstitious Dogs: Charles Darwin, Imperial Ethnography, and the Problem of Human Uniqueness. Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(1), 49-70. DOI: 10.1353/jhi.2008.0006
Clint Eastwood’s rambling monologue with an empty chair has prompted Jesse Bering to think about imaginary friends — the kind who, if you believe they are real, watch you at all times. It’s a creepy sort of surveillance that has the salubrious effect of deterring those who are tempted to cheat.
For years, Bering has been [...]... Read more »
Piazza J, Bering JM, & Ingram G. (2011) "Princess Alice is watching you": children's belief in an invisible person inhibits cheating. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109(3), 311-20. PMID: 21377689
Sooner or later, anyone studying Cheyenne ethnohistory will get round to reading George Bird Grinnell’s two volume work on this famous Plains tribe. Grinnell, a fascinating character, graduated from Yale in 1880 with a PhD in zoology. He did his fieldwork in the west and his interest in the American bison enabled him to accompany [...]... Read more »
Over at Evo Anth, Adam Benton opines on How “god” Evolved. The first thing I have to do is congratulate Adam because his post was picked up by The Browser. This is an honor and will ensure he gets at least 1,000 hits for the post. The second thing I need to do is recommend [...]... Read more »
It is only fitting that Victor Turner, a cultural anthropologist, wrote one of the famous articles ever to have graced the august pages of one of my favorite journals, History of Religions. It is all the more remarkable that this article (“The Center Out There: Pilgrim’s Goal”) was published in 1973. In the past 3 [...]... Read more »
Ray, Benjamin. (1977) An Anthropologist's Pilgrimage. History of Religions, 16(3), 273-279. info:/
It’s the bane of manly existence everywhere: to be a cuckold. Or so the story goes. It seems to be taken for granted, in both evolutionary biology and post-Neolithic societies, that one of the worst possible things is for a man to be married to a woman who cheats. Why? Because the man might end [...]... Read more »
Beverly I. Strassmann, Nikhil T. Kurapati, Brendan F. Hug, Erin E. Burke, Brenda W. Gillespie, Tatiana M. Karafet, & Michael F. Hammer. (2012) Religion as a Means to Assure Paternity. PNAS, 109(25), 9781-9785. info:/10.1073/pnas.111044210
Now that we have some background on Melanesian ethnography and animism, let’s look at Theodore Schwartz’s “Cult and Context: The Paranoid Ethos in Melanesia” (1973). It begins with a statement so out of place, or out of date, that one wonders whether the article is even worth reading:
“The paranoid ethos may have been prevalent throughout [...]... Read more »
One of the fantastic and daunting things about a project which seeks to comprehend “religion” in its historical entirety and cultural variety is that it’s impossible to read everything. The field for this kind of project is enormous and is touched upon, in one way or another, by nearly every discipline in the academy. This [...]... Read more »
Albers, Patricia, & Parker, Seymour. (1971) The Plains Vision Experience: A Study of Power and Privilege. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 27(3), 203-233. info:/
Scholars have long been fascinated by the idea that something like the primordial or original religion existed until recently and may in fact be curated by a few people even today. If such “religions” could be identified, scholars hoped they could sketch the historical development or genealogy of religions. For old-time cultural evolutionists this amounted [...]... Read more »
Charlesworth, Max. (2009) Anthropological Approaches to "Primitive" Religions. Sophia, 48(2), 119-125. DOI: 10.1007/s11841-009-0096-5
Glossolalia or “speaking in tongues” is known primarily from charismatic Christian churches. In that setting it has been studied extensively with some remarkable findings. In Tower of Linguistic Babel, I examined one of those studies and noted some curious features of “tongues” or glossas:
They are always derivative of the speakers’ native language. In other words, [...]... Read more »
May, L. Carlyle. (1956) A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions. American Anthropologist, 58(1), 75-96. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1956.58.1.02a00060
Goodman, Felicitas. (1969) Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8(2), 227. DOI: 10.2307/1384336
Samarin, William. (1968) The Linguisticality of Glossolalia. Hartford Quarterly, 8(4), 49-75. info:/
I have a confession to make. I’ve long denigrated claims that what we today call “religion” originated during the Upper Paleolithic because early supernaturalism fostered altruism. When this argument makes an appearance, it’s often in the service of an evolutionary theism which assumes that because God is behind evolution, religion is the designed outcome of [...]... Read more »
Bird‐David, Nurit. (1999) “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Current Anthropology, 40(S1). DOI: 10.1086/200061
Bird-David, Nurit. (1992) Beyond "The Original Affluent Society": A Culturalist Reformulation. Current Anthropology, 33(1), 25-34. info:/
Hallucinations are a universal feature of human experience. This doesn’t mean that everyone has hallucinated, but everyone is capable of hallucinating. If hallucinations can be managed, the effects range from enlightening to fun. If hallucinations are uncontrolled, the effects range from psychosis to terror. In most cases, expectations are the key to management [...]... Read more »
Luhrmann, Tanya. (2011) Hallucinations and Sensory Overrides. Annual Review of Anthropology, 71-85. info:/10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145819
Thinking is a strange thing. So strange, in fact, that most people think that whatever is doing the thinking must have a life of its own. This idea, commonsense dualism, has been around a long time and is the default position for most people regardless of culture. It’s a hard habit or intuition to break, [...]... Read more »
McLaren Angus. (1981) A prehistory of the social sciences: phrenology in France. Comparative studies in society and history, 23(1), 3-22. PMID: 11614370
If we think deeply about evolution, we eventually will ask questions not about the origin of species but about the origin of life. For some theistic evolutionists, this is the point of Designer intervention. They find it hard to imagine that chemicals could combine in way that gives rise to life. For those less inclined [...]... Read more »
Urey, Harold. (1952) On the Early Chemical History of the Earth and the Origin of Life. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 38(4), 351-363. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.38.4.351
Orgel LE. (1998) The origin of life--a review of facts and speculations. Trends in biochemical sciences, 23(12), 491-5. PMID: 9868373
In 1976, the polymathic Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It is one of those rare books which is mostly wrong but is filled with so many penetrating and provocative insights that it still deserves to be read. It’s a fun and big idea book [...]... Read more »
When I teach my anthropology of religion course the first order of business is to define and disrupt “religion” as a category. I begin by having students identify everything they consider to be “religion.” Our list grows and all the usual suspects make their appearance. After the list has been compiled, we then ask what [...]... Read more »
Someone forgot to tell a group of 15-month-old infants they are flawed and that without proper (religious or moral) instruction, they will be unfair and selfish. Rather than being born this way, they appear to have been born another way: with built-in expectations of fairness and a willingness to share. These are the conclusions reached [...]... Read more »
Schmidt, Marco, & Sommerville, Jessica. (2011) Fairness Expectations and Altruistic Sharing in 15-Month-Old Human Infants. PLoS ONE, 6(10). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023223
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