Cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald discusses the role of ritual in human evolution, and its continued importance in all forms of society and culture. In this interview, Professor Donald outlines his perspective on the evolution of human cognition, and the importance of both embodied communication and mind-sharing networks.
Although it is more than 150 years since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), it is only in recent decades that the evolutionary paradigm has become properly elaborated. But despite the wide range of developments across archaeology and the physical sciences, evolutionary treatments of religion have remained few and far between, with most prominent ones coming from the hyper-partisan scholars of the New Atheist movement. But that situation has begun to change. Although works such as Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) began to lay the ground for a more nuanced treatment, the publication of Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking new work, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), signals a new era in the study of long-term religious and cultural history in which scientific, social-scientific and historical approaches can be properly brought into conversation.
One of the key figures behind Bellah’s work is evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, who spoke with Jack Tsonis at the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore about his paper “Ritual, Religion, and the Drama of Daily Life: The continued dominance of mimetic representation”. In addition to an overview of Donald’s work and a discussion about ritual in the basic sense of “culturally patterned sequences of expression”, Jack also asks Professor Donald about the way that Bellah has used his ideas, which reveals a subtle but important difference in emphasis. This interview will fascinate anybody interested in the evolution of human culture, and helps to scramble the common notion that there is a clear distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” behaviour.
You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.
This episode has not been transcribed yet.
Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?
In this interview, Timothy Fitzgerald presents his critical deconstruction of religion as a powerful discourse and its parasitic relation to ‘secular’ categories such as politics and economics. Religion is not a stand-alone category, he argues; ‘religions’ are modern inventions which are made to appear ubiquitous and, by being removed to a marginal, ...
A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland on the “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference, which had an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.
In this podcast, taking place on the last day of the Annual EASR Conference in Bern, Dr Philipp Hetmanczyk and Martin Bürgin of Zurich University talk to Thomas White about the Therwil Affair, a controversy that emerged in 2016 after two Swiss Muslim schoolboys declined to shake hands with their female teacher.
What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?
Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011).
Alison Robertson gives an insight to her doctoral research on BDSM as religious practice.
In this interview Alison Robertson gives an insight to her doctoral research on BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, and Submission) as religious practice. Throughout her research, Robertson has examined the relationship between BDSM and religiosity,
There can’t be many listeners who haven’t come into contact with the “World Religions” paradigm, either through the podcast or in their own undergraduate studies. Although, C. P. Tiele defined “World Religions” as those which had spread outside of their original cultural context, today the term is taken to mean the “Big Five”.
It is unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, ...
In the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between New Religious Movements and the wider culture and state, why is it that children are so often a focus? Children are seen as needing special protection and therefore legitimising dramatic state intervention, but are also seen as of particular importance to the future of these movements, and in some more millennial groups, of the world itself.
Vernacular religion is a subject which fascinates us here at the RSP, because in keeping with our critical perspective, it challenges that idea that neat categorical boundaries may be drawn, and reminds us that when attempts are made to draw them, particular interests are being served.
Is religion good for your health and wellbeing? Does religion promote prosociality? While positive stereotypes prevail in these domains, studies also typically answer these questions in the affirmative and as such, it is easy to think that there must be something special, sui generis, ...
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).