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Religious Symbolism and the Human Mind

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Rethinking Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life

image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

The purpose of this paper is to assess Durkheim’s approach to religion and the validity of the time-honoured principle of the social determination of mental representations. The thesis to be defended is that Durkheim was essentially right in understanding religious ritual as a symbolic language. But he was wrong both in his social deterministic theory of mental representations and in his definition of religion as an exclusively social phenomenon. As current evolutionary sciences have amply demonstrated, human mental architecture has been shaped by a long evolutionary process and cannot be easily reconfigured through cultural indoctrination. Two consequences can be derived from this. First, religious ideas can successfully colonise human minds thanks to their ability to parasitize on biologically evolved human cognitive structures. Second, due to their counterintuitive properties, this colonisation can only succeed if those ideas are culturally transmitted through a special language.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Art and Social History (Anthropology Program), University of Lleida Plaça de Víctor Siurana1, 25003 Lleida,


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