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The Music of Africa

Although religion has been the subject of serious scientific study since at least the late nineteenth century, the study of religion as a cognitive phenomenon is relatively recent. While it often relies upon earlier research within anthropology of religion[1] and sociology of religion, cognitive science of religion considers the results of that work within the context of evolutionary and cognitive theories. As such, cognitive science of religion was only made possible by the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and the development, starting in the 1970s, of sociobiology and other approaches explaining human behaviour in evolutionary terms, especially evolutionary psychology.

While Dan Sperber foreshadowed cognitive science of religion in his 1975 book Rethinking Symbolism, the earliest research to fall within the scope of the discipline was published during the 1980s. Among this work, Stewart E. Guthrie‘s “A cognitive theory of religion”[2] was significant for examining the significance of anthropomorphism within religion, work that ultimately led to the development of the concept of the hyperactive agency detection device – a key concept within cognitive science of religion.

The real beginning of cognitive science of religion can be dated to the 1990s, however. During that decade a large number of highly influential books and articles were published which helped to lay the foundations of cognitive science of religion. These included Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture and Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauleyNaturalness of Religious Ideas by Pascal BoyerInside the Cult and Arguments and Icons by Harvey Whitehouse, and Guthrie’s book-length development of his earlier theories in Faces in the Clouds. In the 1990s, these and other researchers, who had been working independently in a variety of different disciplines, discovered each other’s work and found valuable parallels between their approaches, with the result that something of a self-aware research tradition began to coalesce. By 2000, the field was well-enough defined for Justin L. Barrett to coin the term ‘cognitive science of religion’ in his article “Exploring the natural foundations of religion”.[3]