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The Sacred Engagement: Outline of a hypothesis about the origin of human ‘religious intelligence’.

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Document pages: 12 pages

Abstract: The question that motivates the central hypothesis advanced in this paper regarding the emergence of early religious thinking is the following: ‘why does religion need materialculture?’ What basic functional or symbolic need renders material culture an indispensable and universal component of religion and ritual activity? A common temptation, obvious in a number of recent archaeological and anthropological studies, is to seek an answer in the field of memory (Boyer 1993; 1996; 1998; 2001; McCauley andLawson 2002; Whitehouse 2000; 2004; Mithen 1998a). This paper argues that material culture does much more than simply offer a symbolic channel for the externalization,communication, and thus successful cultural transmission, of religious ideas. Although the mnemonic significance of the ritual object is not denied, it is proposed that theargument from memory, as traditionally premised, fails to provide a cognitively adequate account of the complex affective ties and multimodal interactions that characterise the distinctive phenomenology of religious experience. Moreover, and from a long-termevolutionary perspective, it is argued that the commonly implied ontological priority of the religious idea, over its material expression, leaves us with no explanation about why,and how, religious concepts emerge in the context of human cognitive evolution. Drawing on the theoretical lines of the Material Engagement approach (Malafouris 2004;Renfrew 2004) I want to advance a different hypothesis that places material culture at the heart of the human capacity for religious thinking (cf. Day 2004).

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