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Considering the Rationality of Ritual Behavior

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Engagement in religious ritual acts is, from a scientific point of view, a surprising feature of human behavior given the inherent commitment to counterintuitive worlds, including, generally invisible entities such as superhuman agents. Why people engage in such behaviors has preoccupied many scholars in the history of the study of religion (including scholars from within anthropology, psychology, sociology, and numerous other disciplines). These scholars have engaged in the Rationality Debate; the goal of which is to determine standards that could be used to make judgments about the rationality of human behavior. While ritual behavior might be ineffective for the achievement of purported goals and fail to conform to principles of reasoning based on rules of logic, the simple fact that this behavior is widespread, transmitted in a stable fashion, and the result (at least indirectly) of evolutionary processes suggest that considering its rationality or lack thereof is largely irrelevant. The question should not be “if” ritual behavior is rational but rather “why” this behavior is consistently exhibited. We argue that in order to answer this question anthropologists ultimately depend on heuristics recast as postulated entities. These are conceived as causal variable(s) governing patterned human behavior and consequently circle back and affirm a fallacious Durkheimian description of ritual behavior. This is a major and fundamental flaw in the current anthropological research tradition; the correction of which requires fundamental shifts in the philosophical commitments held—knowingly or unknowingly—by anthropologists.


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