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Explaining Religious Ideas: Elements of a Cognitive Approach

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This paper outlines an anthropological approach to religious representations that is grounded in recent findings and hypotheses in cognitive psychology. The argument proceeds in four points. First, the main goal of this framework is to account for the recurrence of certain types of mental representations in religious systems. Recurrent features are not necessarily universal. They are the outcome of cognitive systems that make certain representations easier to acquire than others. Second, a cognitive approach must take into account the diversity of religious representations. It is argued here that religious systems bring together ontological assumptions, causal claims, episode types and social categories. These four "repertoires" may have different functional properties, and may therefore be acquired and represented in different ways. Third, universal features of tacit, intuitive systems may impose strong constraints on the variability of religious ideas. This is illustrated on the basis of ethnographic data. Finally, the type of representations one finds in religious belief-systems consists in conjectures, the cognitive salience of which is variable and should be evaluated in precise terms.

Affiliations: 1: King's College University of Cambridge GB - Cambridge CB2 1ST


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