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Re-cognizing the Mind in the Anthropology of Religion

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Cognitive approaches to religion in religious studies and anthropology are proving increasingly fashionable of late. The focus of this essay is on “cognitivism” in the anthropology of religion, and in particular the writings of E. B. Tylor, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Harvey Whitehouse. I define cognitivism in the anthropology of religion as an approach to religion that appeals to the mind and to processes of cognition as universals from which theories of — and explanations for — religion, can be generated. The essay engages in a detailed analysis of three cognitive theories of religion. Each theory takes the mind to be an enduring and stable foundation upon which an explanation for religion can be erected. Yet the mind — the foundation — is disclosed through each theory as unstable; it actually changes under different kinds of enquiry into religion. I then sketch two possible alternative theories of the mind before concluding by arguing that the cognizing mind might productively be treated not as a given and natural fact but rather as the product of discourse.

Affiliations: 1: Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts, The Open University Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA UK, Email:


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