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A Theory of Religious Modulation: Reconciling Religious Modes and Ritual Arrangements

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The modal theory of Harvey Whitehouse provides not only a provocative explanatory grid for the concatenation of variables that comprise religious behavior but also a fruitful theoretical framework for organizing a range of studies by scholars approaching religion via the cognitive sciences. One example is work on the cognitive underpinnings of ritual arrangements that marks the careers of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley. Despite offering mutually exclusive hypotheses concerning the relation of ritual action to memory, Lawson and McCauley's work fits within Whitehouse's overarching modal approach. Other research, too, can be drawn into this framework. One variable not yet addressed by the modal theory is the role of conceptual schemes in shaping religious systems. Within the operational dynamics of religion, conceptual schemes matter, particularly as their contents include superhuman agent concepts — the central feature of religious representations and the object of religious response. This article argues for serious investigation of superhuman agent concepts within the framework of Whitehouse's modal theory, and it hypothesizes that psychological responses to contrasting conceptualizations of superhuman agents is one of the more important cognitive variables driving shifts, or "modulations" from doctrinal to more imagistic forms of religiosity.


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