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Rappaport, Revisited

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

In Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Roy Rappaport misses an opportunity to more tightly theorize the synergistic relationship between concepts of the divine, the psyches of ritual participants, and the adaptive dynamics of religious sociality. This paper proposes such a theory by drawing on implicit features of Rappaport’s account, fulfilling his goal of a “cybernetics of the holy.” I argue that concepts of the divine, when made authoritative for participants through ritual, have three important effects: they invite intense and meaningful reconstructions of personal identity according to paradigmatic examples; they act as a form of encoded social memory by organizing human relationship according to a “spiritual map”; and they provide the cognitive framework that make religious community organization robust, adaptive, and reproductive. We can characterize divine concepts as “specified absences” that ground each of these effects and link them together in a mutually-reinforcing set.

Affiliations: 1: Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State UniversityP.O. Box 874602, Tempe, AZ


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