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Title: Religion as a "Pseudospecies": The Benefits and Implications of a Cultural Organism Ecological Approach to the Study of Religion
Authors: Miller, Charles
Advisors: Perry, Seth
Department: Religion
Class Year: 2018
Abstract: Religions grow from seeds of faith, later to work and cultivate the minds that earth them. Through generations they move locally and migrate globally—exploring, adapting, and adapting with the environments they traverse. Religions live and die, heal and bleed, interact and isolate, diversify and maintain homogeneity; and yet, despite their vivacity, perceptions of religions often extinguish their spirits. Discussions on religious cultural diversity bear semblance to discussions on the diversity of rocks—this one rugged, this one found only in the Pacific Ocean, and this one ancient beyond belief. While some approaches do this more than others, both sociocultural and evolutionary cognitive science conversations unconsciously and consciously de-animate religion— even when recognizing its “behavior” or its “evolution.” One can hardly blame researchers for doing this; religions can be as incorporeal as the deities they so often delineate. Existing ultimately as ideas, they take up no space besides head space, and while they may migrate and self-isolate, grow and disappear, inspire and quell, they do so without physical limbs or bodies. Undeniably, the works of scholars who study religion through a de-animated perspective have been immensely impactful. Nonetheless, explorations of an “organismal” nature of religion may provide grounds to shift our perceptions of it. Anthropologists, ethnographers, and cognitive scientists shuffle between notebooks, magnifying glasses, maps, microscopes, history books, telescopes, and a broad assortment of lenses they use with each tool in their attempts to describe religion. The variation in instruments used often implies different goals across their research. Because they start from these differing intentions, they often find themselves talking over, through, and around one another. The theories and insights they construct using their methods provide important understandings of religion ultimately across cultures and proximately within them, but conversation is often made difficult—especially across the sociocultural and cognitive border. We should note that while the goals of each researcher determine their methods, the tools they use are still only secondary to their study. Ultimately, their divergent approaches, along with their immiscible conclusions, rely heavily upon their different understandings of the very nature of religion. This thesis argues that by recognizing religion in general as a categorical “pseudospecies” and individual religions as “cultural organisms” with observable behaviors, life histories, and even genetic codes of sorts, conversations across genres of religious study can become more miscible. The “Cultural Organism Ecological Approach” models religion after a “gut-microbe,” arguing that religion can be examined through an ecological lens that mirrors ecological studies of the human microbiome. This approach allows for greater conversation between debating theories within evolutionary cognitive science studies of religion; provides a framework in which a variety of sociocultural, cognitive, and theological approaches to religious studies can better exchange ideas; and provides insights that are akin to those valued by ecologists and other biologists in their own behavioral studies of organisms. By emphasizing religion’s organismal nature through this definition, we provide ourselves with a greater opportunity to study religious diversity and behavior while also building a framework within which others can converse.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Religion, 1946-2020

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