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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Is Religious Literacy social justice? In this week's podcast with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, she discusses the University of Vermont’s new “Religious Literacy for Professionals” certificate and why religious studies does vital work for the academy.
The use of new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, writes Robin Harragin Hussey, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.
"Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study... Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgement of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority..."
For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone's life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.
Naomi Goldenberg argues that 'religion', as a separate sphere from governance, has been projected onto the past for strategic purposes. How does viewing religions as "restive once-and-future governments" help us understand the functioning of this category in contemporary discourse?
In this podcast we have a group discussion about Russell McCutcheon's new book, Religion in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining us on the podcast is not only the author himself, but two young scholars who also contributed to the book, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Marone.
The Insider/Outsider problem, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. Does one have to be a member of a community for your testimony about that community to be valid? Or does your membership of the community invalidate your objectivity?
In this wide-ranging interview, Chris and Professor Fuentes discuss the themes of the lecture series, the intersections of research on human evolution, ethnoprimatology, and human nature, with the study of religion more generally, the Planet of the Apes films, and more. Along the way,...
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).