In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for The Religious Studies Project, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview.

About this episode

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.
This piece of drift wood is looking at you!
This piece of drift wood is looking at you!
It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion. In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.
See the face on Mars?
See the face on Mars?
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.

References

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?

Related Resources

Academic Positions: The Application and Interview

Response

"My intentions rather are to assist applicants to understand a little better what all is involved in evaluating applicants for a position, and perhaps to help applicants prepare themselves better to participate in the application and interview processes." In what follows I have attempted to give some basic information and advice intended for the person who has recently finished graduate work and is seeking...
Sufism

Podcast

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.
Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Podcast

Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for a purposes that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another ‘religious’ community, another Christian community, or put to some other use. Chris is joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at (former) church buildings in the Dutch context.

Responses to this episode

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions or UFO cults without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project. Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors...

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Podcast

Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for a purposes that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another ‘religious’ community, another Christian community, or put to some other use. Chris is joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at (former) church buildings in the Dutch context.
Special 2019: Only Sixty Seconds!

Podcast

For our eighth(!) annual special, Only Sixty Seconds returns! This time, Chris Cotter is your host, as David G. Robertson returns to defend his 2018 crown against Bettina Schmidt, Douglas Davies and Theo Wildcroft. We may not have avoided repetition, but I do not hesitate in promising you no deviation from hilarity!
Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism

Podcast

Usually one of the first associations upon hearing ‘Sri Lankan Buddhism’ is either the religious violence that swept across the island in the recent decades, or the Pali canon and Theravada Buddhism. In this interview with Anja Pogacnik, Dr. Stephen Berkwitz doesn’t really speak of either.
Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Podcast

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, ...
Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

Podcast

Habermas mostly ignored religion, contending that it was not rational enough to be included in public debate. But over the past decade, he has begun to reexamine religion in light of its persistence in the modern world, calling this a turn toward post-secular society. He argues that religion deserves a place in public debate, ...
Peter Collins on Religion and the Built Environment

Podcast

Buildings dominate our skylines, they shape the nature, size, sound and smell of events within their walls, they provide a connection to the recent and distant past, and they serve as a physical, material instantiation of any number of contextual discourses. But what about the relationship between 'religion' and these (generally) human-made structures?

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).