Monday, 5 May 2014

Visiting speaker: Stewart Guthrie, Fordham University, USA

Date and time: Tuesday 13th May, 4:00pm, room C219 (Corporate boardroom).

Title: “A cognitive theory of religion: biology, anthropomorphism and evolutionary epistemology"

A classic theory of religion dating to the 1600s is consistent with current knowledge. The theory is that religion is an aspect of anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things and events) and that anthropomorphism is built into human cognition. Scholars including Spinoza, Hume, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud and Tylor have proposed forms of this theory, which now is widely deployed in the cognitive science of religion. Yet its proponents disagree on a central question: how can we explain anthropomorphism itself? Present writers answer with such diverse notions as “projection,” “wishful thinking” and “counter-intuitivity.” These notions, however, not only differ but also are inconsistent with an evolutionary view of cognition. My answer, in contrast, joins Pascal with Darwin and with disciplines from anthropology and ethology to neurobiology, to hold that anthropomorphism is a byproduct of an evolved perceptual and cognitive strategy. The strategy in question employs the principle of Pascal’s Wager: bet first on the possibility that matters most.

Stewart E. Guthrie (Ph.D. Yale 1976) is Prof. Emeritus of Anthropology at Fordham University and a founding member of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. His fieldwork has been mostly in Japan (e.g., A Japanese New Religion). The central propositions of his 1980 “A cognitive theory of religion” have been widely adopted in cognitive studies of religion:  that religion is anthropomorphism; that the latter stems from an evolved perceptual strategy, producing hair-trigger judgments that persons (or their traces) are present; and that viewing things and events as personal provides the most significant and powerful interpretation possible. Guthrie elaborates these ideas in Faces in the Clouds and elsewhere.


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