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Can the Modes Theory of Religiosity Account for Mystical Traditions? An Empirical Study of Practitioners of Yoga and Meditation

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One of the enduring problems in theories of religion is to explain why it often entails such a heavy investment of time and other resources without apparent prospects of immediate pay-off. This "costliness" of religion is especially salient in forms of religiosity known as mysticism and/or asceticism, both of which can be found in many religious traditions. The anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse's theory of the two modes of religiosity (or modes theory) attempts to explain costly and routinised religious practices by assuming that the frequent repetition of rituals serves the purpose of memorising religious teachings through activating the semantic memory. The present study tests the modes theory against an alternative hypothesis presented by Richard Payne that the repetition can be more fruitfully explained as an employment of effects produced by procedural memory involved in learning skills. The data examined here were obtained through questionnaire and interviews from contemporary Finnish practitioners of Hindu-based yoga and meditation. The results suggest that rather than activating semantic memory, the extremely high frequency practices found in Indian yoga can be more fruitfully explained as applications of procedures employing the effects of procedural memory. Mysticism may, thus, be regarded as cross-culturally recurrent pattern of religiosity precipitated by a number of mutually strengthening features.

Affiliations: 1: The Church Research Institute, P.O. Box 239, FI 33101 Tampere, Finland


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