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CSR Session 1: Religious practice

Panel Chair: Dimitris Xygalatas | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Ronald Fischer, Joseph Bulbulia, John Shaver & Anna Lee

Affiliation in collective ritual

Collective rituals have been shown to increase social bonding and may have some positive effect on well-being and mood. An increasing number of experimental and field studies have demonstrated that both behavioural synchrony and pain experienced during the ritual increase both affiliation with other group members and affiliation with larger collectives, irrespective of the participation in the activity. What is less clear at this stage is how these changes may come about. In this presentation, we explore the role that physiological changes in the body of participants that may bring about these effects. We review and discuss previous research on the potential role that hormonal changes in stress and affiliation hormones may play in regulating affiliation responses in ritual. We then present pilot data that tests these mechanisms in the context of two different naturally occurring rituals. In study 1, participants in one high ordeal Buddhist ritual were sampled. In study 2, participants in a low ordeal Hindu ritual, but with a high social evaluation component were sampled. Hormonal changes as captured in saliva were measured before and after each ritual. We also asked participants to report on their mood and affiliation motives before and after. We place our preliminary findings in the larger context of the cognitive science of religion and discuss how scholars may move forward in studying social effects of religious ritual in natural settings.

John McGraw

Divination and Decision-Making

Wherever people have lived—and seemingly whenever people have lived—divination has been celebrated as an important means of diagnosing illnesses, communicating with gods or ancestors, and making decisions. Our study aims to investigate this last role: how and why divination is used for decision-making purposes. A central theory in the literature suggests that divination authorizes the decision being made. Accordingly, this ritual authorization endows the decision with normative authority and exculpates the people involved in making the decision. In order to verify this theory, we conducted a field experiment with participants from the K’iche’ Maya community of Momostenango, Guatemala, where a large percentage of the population continues to engage in divinatory practices for decision-making purposes. We randomly assigned community members to one of three conditions for a decision-making task: a) participants were paired with a diviner who used the tz’ite’ seed divination technique typical of the area, b) participants were paired with a secular authority figure who served as a consultant for the subject, or c) participants had to make the decision themselves without recourse to divination or consultation. We present preliminary findings regarding the hypothesis that divination alters one’s assessment of the quality of the decision made. Our study is a first step in helping to explain why this ritual practice has enjoyed such popularity across time and space.

Olympia Panagiotidou

History meets cognition: The Asclepius cult as pattern of practice

Cultural diversity and religious change are not only the products of different contexts, historical periods, political dynamics, and social interactions during which various religious and cultural forms arise, develop, and decline. Specific patterns of practice mediate between the external cultural settings and innate human capacities, and extend from the individual brains to the social and material discursive environments, enabling cultural learning, communication, and change. This paper suggests that a bio-cultural approach to the Asclepius cult might throw light in the underlying processes which enabled the development of its main features through an incessant process of reflective interaction between individuals’ neural networks and bodies, and their material, discursive surroundings. The Asclepius cult is presented as a set of patterns of practice developed and shared by people of the Greco-Roman era. These patterns of practice are not conceived as abstract models, somehow imprinted in the person’s mind, but as multiple dynamic processes through which individual brains are coordinated generating particular representations and beliefs, sharing practices and constructing common worlds. The Asclepius cult is used as a paradigm in order to demonstrate how historical dynamics are interweaved with the biological, cognitive and psychological processes that take place in the human body, brain and mind, and generate various historical patterns and behaviours. In this light, modern bio-cultural and cognitive theories can be valuable for historical research in order to understand the individual and collective mechanisms of cultural and religious change and diversity.

Tamas Biro

(Not) only the circumcised may circumcise. Theological correctness and intuitive religiosity in Judaism

A system of religious rituals that lacks special-agent rituals is predicted by McCauley and Lawson 2002 to exhibit the tedium effect. It will be characterized by Whitehouse’s doctrinal mode, unless some splinter group reintroduces imagistic mode elements. Judaism has been argued to lack special-agent rituals, and hence we ask how it copes with the tedium effect. Using circumcision as an example, we shall explore various ways. In the theologically correct (or “halakhically correct”) realm, circumcision is shown not to be a special-agent ritual: a special-patient ritual at best, if one generalizes the framework of Lawson and McCauley 1990. Then, mainstream rabbinic texts will be contrasted to three alternative sources. These tend to introduce ideas that jointly facilitate mentally to conceive circumcision as a typical special-agent ritual. Later midrashim are aggadic (non-halakhic) collections, which will be argued to display a stronger influence of intuitive religiosity within rabbinic literature. Secondly, popular understanding of circumcision, unsurprisingly, also displays the same influence. Third, non-rabbanite “splinter groups” seem to experiment with alternative approaches to circumcision, as will be demonstrated in Anan ben David’s Book of Precepts. While this experimentation is consistent with the proposal of Whitehouse, McCauley and Lawson, neither Anan’s halakhic codex, nor the later Karaite movement can be viewed as a typical “imagistic splinter group”. In sum, Judaism challenges cognitive theories of religion. Not fully corroborating them, a detailed analysis of Jewish rituals enables us to reconsider CSR’s concepts.


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