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date: 17 August 2017

Religion and the Body

Summary and Keywords

The relationship between religion and the body can be viewed from two very different perspectives. The first perspective emphasizes culture’s role in constructing human thought and behavior. This approach illuminates the diverse ways that religious traditions shape human attitudes toward the nature and meaning of their physical bodies. Scholars guided by this perspective have helped us better understand religion’s complicity in such otherwise mysterious phenomena as mandated celibacy, restrictive diets, circumcision, genital mutilation, self-flagellation, or the specification of particular forms of clothing.

Newly emerging information about the biological body has given rise to a second approach to the body’s relationship to religion. Rather than exploring how religion influences attitudes toward our bodies, these new studies investigate how our biological bodies exert identifiable influences on our religious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Neural chemistry, emotions, sensory modalities, pain responses, mating strategies, sexual arousal systems, and genetic personality predispositions all influence the personal salience of religious beliefs or behavior. Attention to the biological body unravels many of the enigmas that formerly accompanied the study of such things as the appeal of apocalyptic beliefs, the frequent connection between religion and systems of healing, devotional piety aiming toward union with a beloved deity, the specific practices entailed in ascetic spirituality, or the mechanisms triggering ecstatic emotional states.

Keywords: biological systems, bodily dimensions of ritual, body, cognitive science, emotions, evolutionary-adaptive functions, genetic influences, pain, postmodernism, religious construction of the body, sexuality

Basic Approaches

Scholars are especially curious about religion’s historical preoccupation with the human body. Religions, after all, quite literally map themselves onto our bodies. They invoke cosmic authority for highly specific commandments regarding our diets, clothing, sexual behavior, healing practices, and funeral customs. Ritual behavior enacts these worldviews by requiring us to adopt bodily postures (e.g., prostration, kneeling, sitting in yogic positions) deemed appropriate to our ontological status. Scholars have consequently devoted a great deal of attention to such body-focused topics as tattooing, clothing restrictions, castration, clitoridectomy, mortuary practices, marriage and kinship beliefs, healing practices, sexual morality, fasting, dietary customs, fertility rituals, ritually induced pain, esoteric or nonphysical bodies, tears, bones, and blood rituals.

Scholars vary in how they view these connections between religion and the body. Most are guided by theories assuming that human thought and behavior are constructed by their social environments.1 They consequently view the body as a blank canvas that religion readily decorates, redesigns, or even forcefully harms for its own normative purposes. For the past few decades scholars have been wary of efforts to discern cultural universals and have instead focused attention on subtle cultural differences. Most studies of the relationship between religion and the body in the early 21st century thus draw attention to the uniqueness of religiously formulated attitudes toward the body. Of particular interest is how existing power struggles in a society are reflected in the way that religions regulate the body. Race, gender, and class all influence the way that authorities both label and restrict the bodies of those they hope to subordinate. In sum, most scholarship on the relationship between religion and the body excels at explaining variation between different religious groups and alerting us to the subtleties of cultural coercion underlying their prescriptions concerning the body. They have, however, been less successful at identifying features found in nearly all religious groups (or at least features that characterize certain specific types of religious groups) or explaining individual variation within religious groups.

More recently, a number of studies have appeared that forefront the biological body’s causal influence on religious thought and behavior. These studies assume that humans do not come into the world as blank slates awaiting the input of cultural conditioning. Rather, they utilize newly emerging information about the biological body, revealing that humans consist of numerous genetically evolved mechanisms regulating cognition, affect, and behavior. To be sure, the biological sciences suggest that such innate, genetically structured mechanisms typically account for only 15 to 50 percent of the variance in the kinds of thinking, feeling, or behavior associated with religion. Put differently, this new information about the genetic and physiological components of human experience acutely reflects awareness that culture is responsible for roughly 50 to 85 percent of the variance in human religiosity. Yet recent advances in the biological sciences alert us to causal influences on human thought and behavior that were unknown just two or three decades ago. Because humanity’s genetic code has been fairly constant across cultures and over recorded history, these investigations offer new ways of looking at universal features of religion. They also alert us to the causal sources of individual variance and thus make possible more sophisticated explanations of why the personal salience of religion often differs so greatly between two individuals in the same village or even the same family. To be sure, these new biologically grounded approaches to human thought and behavior are based on empirical research programs that are still incomplete and in the early stages of formulation. They would, however, appear to complement previous studies of religion and to represent the foundations of truly multidisciplinary investigations of religion.

Religious Constructions of the Body

Most modern scholarship on the relationship between religion and the body privileges cultural sources of human thought and behavior. A prominent example of such scholarship is anthropologist Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. Douglas approached the topic of bodily impurity by analyzing the etymological history and significance of different cultures’ use of the word dirt. By carefully relating conceptions of dirt or impurity to the wider social order, Douglas discovered that what is considered dirty or impure invariably refers to things that are considered out of place and that these conceptions of impurity vary greatly depending on specific social or cultural context. Douglas thus helped us see how the body frequently serves as a metaphor or specialized instance of the wider social order. That is, concerns over bodily purity (e.g., dietary or sexual taboos) invariably reflect concerns over social or cultural boundary maintenance. Vigilance about what is threatening to invade or penetrate the sociocultural order is expressed through heightened attention to acts that penetrate the body of individuals or to substances that ooze in or out of the body Douglas’s approach to such topics as bodily purity or bodily taboos demonstrated the explanatory power of theories emphasizing the culture’s causal power over how people understand their bodies (and the accompanying assumption that human constructions of the body are specific to a particular cultural and historical-cultural context).

Douglas’s insightful analyses neatly illustrate scholarly interest in the relationship between religion and the body over the last fifty years. We have learned how the body awaits cultural representation and for this reason religiously phrased attitudes or opinions about the body offer unique windows into the deeper social order structuring human cognition in a given cultural setting. This interpretive approach received its boldest expression in the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s study of Western medical practices.2 Foucault’s study of discourse about the body was part and parcel of his wider critique of modernity and its faith in the progressive character of rationality. Foucault redirected scholarly attention away from simply viewing medical practices as “modern” or “enlightened.” He alerted us to the subtle ways that seemingly humane discourse often justifies coercive power. Those with power have labeled, restrained, marginalized, and even assaulted the bodies of the powerless all under the cloak of scientific rationality. This critique of Western culture inspired by Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others soon alerted religious studies scholars to how the body becomes a site of political contestation. Postmodern scholarship not only sensitized scholars to the ways that religions inscribe themselves onto our bodily lives, but it also alerted us to the vicious ways that the socially privileged exert manipulative and even sadistic power over others (e.g., restrictions on female sexuality or sexual abuse of children).

Of course not all studies of the body emphasizing the causal role of culture focus specifically on the exercise of coercive power. Yet most emphasize the diversity and cultural specificity of religiously constructed representations of the human body. They reveal the body to be a kind of Rorschach ink blot onto which particular cultures project preoccupations that are social and local. Peter Brown, for example, showed that many early Christians sought to remake the given, biological body by renouncing its sexual nature and remolding it in idealized, spiritual ways.3 Martha Finch has similarly demonstrated how the bodies of colonists in 17th-century New England are themselves a kind of text that helps us understand the ideals and realities of early American religious life.4 Even as their bodies endured brutal physical experiences ranging from starvation to corporeal punishment, those residing in the Plymouth Colony nonetheless came together to sing, pray, preach, and be baptized. The body, both as material agent and as metaphorical symbol, was the focus of Puritan efforts to subjugate individuality for the purpose of erecting a godly society. Because the body was the external measure of inner virtue, it required specific kinds of discipline. A person’s dress, manners, diet, sexuality, and outward piety were all regarded as indicating the degree of commitment to a hierarchically stratified society and were therefore principal arenas for the contestation of cultural power.

Yet even though the body—and particularly its sexuality—is viewed in some cultural settings as antithetical to spiritual aspirations, in other cultural settings the body is thought to contain esoteric energies capable of transporting properly initiated disciplines to states of enlightened ecstasy. Hugh Urban, Jeffrey Kripal, and Leigh Eric Schmidt are among the historians of religion who have drawn attention to the ways that the Tantric traditions in both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as the sexual undercurrents of Western Gnosticism have celebrated the body’s own erotic energies as an avenue to enlightenment.5 It is important to note, too, that religion’s historic interest in controlling human sexuality (especially female sexuality) simultaneously implicates sexuality in dramatic attempts to question or even overturn cultural order. Sexuality, because of its ecstatic elements and its potential for violating social norms, is frequently entangled with the biographical and cultural histories of efforts to create new utopian societies. Such 19th-century American sectarian religious movements as the Shakers, the Latter-day Saints, and the Oneida Community exist alongside Indian Tantric rites as historical instances where transgressive sexual practices have provided experiential templates for utopian sociocultural programs.6

Perhaps the most religiously salient features of bodily experience entail physical pain, illness, and the need for healing. As both Ariel Glucklich and Elaine Scarry explain, bodily pain constitutes a “framing event” that, in turn, structures all of our other perceptual, somatic, and emotional processes. Pain weakens the individual’s sense of agency, creating feelings of dependency and vulnerability. By diminishing feelings of personal adequacy, pain initiates something along the lines of a death-rebirth experience in which she or he surrenders and makes possible recognition of a new and greater “presence.” It is thus not surprising that bodily healing is a central element of virtually all religious traditions and is particularly prominent in the early stages of their formation.7 Belief in the power of spiritual agencies to heal physical bodies is particularly prevalent in Protestant Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Renewal movement8 It is also the case that physical stresses and strains often mirror disjunctions between a culture’s dominant religious outlook and the realities of everyday life. Periods of cultural restlessness are thus ripe for the emergence of new religious groups that hold out new conceptions of the spiritual resources available for those seeking renewed health and vitality.9

Religions mold, discipline, and even remake human bodies in innumerable other ways. Religions in almost every period of human history have, for example, tried to regulate the way that humans express or publicly display their emotions.10 Religions similarly place lesser or greater emphasis on the attainment of ecstatic states and thus systematically cultivate or suppress the kinds of fits, visions, or trances though which human bodies might make contact with supernatural realities.11 It is also increasingly the case that religions must confront the fact that the body is no longer a fixed biological entity. Modern surgical procedures and the increasing sophistication of genetic engineering techniques mean that the body is very much a malleable entity. Humans now find themselves in the position of “playing God” as they try to articulate normative understandings of the body in an era shaped by organ transplants, the mapping of the human genome, and genetic engineering.12

The body is also one of the principal sources of religious metaphor. When people feel low (their body’s orientation to habitable space), they pray to a God on high or yearn to be lifted up by the strong hands of their Savior. They despair of having fallen from grace and hope to rise from the dead. In traditions that emphasize a powerful god, supplicants must divert their eyes and render their body smaller and more vulnerable through prostration or kneeling. Yet, in traditions that emphasize the accessibility of god, supplicants can gaze directly into the eyes of their gods, such as in the Hindu practice of darshan. The body also provides metaphors that fund religious conceptions of ideal social relationships. Hinduism’s Vedic literature, for example, explains that the four successively “higher” social castes derived from a cosmic sacrifice separating a primordial being’s mouth, arms, thighs, and feet. Religious ritual, too, funds experiential piety by co-opting the body’s olfactory and gustatory systems differentiating between what is pure (sweet, beautiful, pleasant tasting) and what is impure (sour, ugly, foul tasting). Ritual uses of incense, camphor, flowers, foods, and drink fund our religious imaginations with basic inferential patterns that guide humans toward what is wholesome and life-sustaining.

The Body’s Construction of Religion

Recent efforts to map the human genome have profound implications for the study of religion. This newly emerging body of information signifies the great strides we have made in identifying genetic and biological influences on human thought and behavior. We now know that humans aren’t born into the world as blank slates. Our bodies are teeming with genetically evolved mechanisms that automatically perform any number of cognitive, affective, and behavioral functions. It is true that culture provides the content of human thought. But we can think or feel only what our biological bodies allow us to think or feel. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s groundbreaking work, Philosophy in the Flesh, reminds humanities scholars that human thought is “shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning the world.”13 Empirical research in such fields as cognitive science, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology now makes it possible for us to move past scholarship that focuses exclusively on how cultures construct discourse about the body and instead take cognizance of how our bodies construct religion. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world can provide important insights into the origins and historical varieties of human religiosity.

Biologists distinguish between genotypes and phenotypes. Genotypes are the actual inherited instructions carried within an organism’s genetic code. Phenotypes, on the other hand, are the observed characteristics or traits that express not only the organism’s genes, but also the influence of environmental factors. Biologists sometimes also refer to extended phenotypes such as birds’ nests or beaver dams whereby an organism’s genetic code interacts with the environment to produce observable artifacts that enable the organism to survive, reproduce, and enhance its well-being. There are no genes that code for religion per se.14 It is, however, very helpful to view religion as one of humanity’s most ubiquitous extended phenotypes. Religions build on a variety of genetically evolved mechanisms to create observable cultural structures that render the world more habitable. Each of these bodily mechanisms therefore tells us something about just how and why humans can be observed acting religiously as they do. And although no exhaustive inventory of the bodily mechanisms influencing religion yet exists, it is clear that among them are our prosocial tendencies, inclinations toward tribalism, neurochemistry, immune system, emotions, cognitive structures for agency detection, sensory modalities, mate-selection programs, sexual arousal programs, pain responses, and attachment system.15 Each of these bodily systems influences the instigation, patterning, and personal salience of religion in human life. They are consequently among the most promising critical terms at the disposal of 21st-century scholars of religion.

Highlighting the biological body’s role in human religiosity directs continued attention to the natural context in which all human thought and feelings arise. Human brains emerged over the long course of natural selection as finely tuned mechanisms for solving the adaptive problems faced by our evolutionary ancestors. Three of the most urgent of these adaptive problems were the persisting needs (1) to forge tightly knit social units, (2) to identify causal agents in our immediate surroundings, and (3) to attach ourselves to protective figures. These recurring adaptive problems created selective pressure on the human brain such that humans today come into the world with cognitive systems that spontaneously, automatically, and without conscious effort (1) bond us together in social units, (2) form beliefs in nonvisible beings who seemingly influence events all around us, and (3) motivate us to become emotionally attached to “superior” beings who might bring us comfort and protection. All three of these basic ways that biological bodies adapt to their surroundings provide new insights into just how and why humans think and behave religiously.

The ability to forge cooperative groups has been critical to human survival. Humans were not large enough to threaten many ancient predators. Nor were they fast enough to avoid or small enough to escape notice. We therefore needed to form cooperative groups in order to survive. It was in this context that the preeminent biologist E. O. Wilson remarked that the origins and function of religion can be understood in broadly biological terms. Wilson observed that some form of religion has been present in virtually every society throughout our evolutionary history. Although the specific content of their myths, doctrines, and rituals vary widely, all historical expressions of religion have performed the same biological function: religions form a “process by which individuals are persuaded to subordinate their immediate self-interests to the interests of the group.”16 Put differently, Wilson pointed out that religion can be understood as an extended phenotype of the genetic mechanisms that promote prosociality. It solves the kinds of adaptive problems faced by our ancient ancestors and arises from those genetically evolved mechanisms that have enabled humanity to survive, reproduce, and enhance our personal and collective well-being.

Most scholars of religion try to describe and explain religion in terms of its “vertical” dimensions. That is, scholars typically assume that religion is distinguished by such things as its faith in supernatural revelation, the need to worship heavenly gods, or doctrines about a nonphysical afterlife. Yet viewing religion from the perspective of the biological body allows us to see how such “vertical” beliefs and rituals actually function to help humans adapt to “horizontal” realities. The sociologist Émile Durkheim recognized this almost a century ago when he explained that religion “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”17 Durkheim thus anticipated Wilson’s identification of the main biological function of religion by suggesting that such things as belief in gods or holy books are all proximate—but not the ultimate—cause of religious behavior. From the standpoint of the biological body, the “vertical” elements of religion are culturally elaborated incentives for the biologically imperative task of binding people into cohesive tribal units.18

The Body and Religious Belief

Forging social coalitions was only one of the recurring challenges in humanity’s early evolutionary history. A second was detecting causal agents in our surroundings. Survival requires the ability to identify the existence of other beings who potentially pose danger or provide opportunity. Natural selection therefore favored brains containing intricate mechanisms for detecting causal forces or agents in the environment. It also favored brains that are wired to imbue suspected causal agents with sentience and intentionality. We evolved to assume that agents are alive, alert to our presence, and operate according to conscious motives. From the standpoint of biological fitness it is far better for organisms to identify intentional agents operating in their environment even when in fact there are none than to risk ignoring potential danger or opportunity.

This insight into the selective pressure that evolution brought to bear on our brain’s tendency to detect agency goes a long way toward explaining why humans in almost every historical era and every cultural system—including those living in the otherwise scientifically inclined 21st century—believe in some kind of supernatural beings. The human brain is hardwired to anticipate intention in the unseen causes of events happening all around us. In ambiguous situations that lack obvious physical agents, our brains spontaneously construct hypothetical, imaginative candidates (particularly those candidates already believed in by others).19 Once such beliefs have been formed, they are highly likely to be retained and communicated. Religious beliefs alleviate anxiety by making us believe we now understand and can to some extent even control our surroundings. They are also almost impossible to disconfirm in the light of ongoing experience and are thus held regardless of the absence of sensory-based evidence. They are, furthermore, sufficiently novel to capture the imagination in ways that facilitate communication and retention. Of all types of ideas created by the brain, religious ideas are uniquely prone to endure, to be remembered, and to be transmitted. The secret to why humanity is so prone to believing in gods and other spirit beings is thus at least partially rooted in our biological bodies.

A third adaptive problem that humans have faced throughout history is that of attaching ourselves to protective figures. Ethological research indicates that natural selection favored emotional systems that keep young organisms in close proximity to at least one protective parent. Humans are among the many species that have an innate “attachment system” ensuring proximity to a source of comfort and security. Although most children feel increasingly comfortable leaving the protective parent as they grow older, variables such as fatigue, illness, or stress typically strengthen these innate attachment needs. These attachment needs remain with us throughout life, especially in times of duress. Recent research suggests that one of the principal reasons why humans seek out personal relationships with a god is that gods can so readily serve as substitute attachment figures and thereby meet these innate attachment needs throughout the course of life.20 Bonding with God accomplishes the two important attachment functions of (1) providing a safe haven in times of threat or stress and (2) serving as a secure base from which to explore the environment and develop new mental and physical skills. People seek proximity to God through a wide variety of religious practices. Prayer, reading scripture, and worship all elicit experiences of drawing closer to our heavenly source of security. Because God is an attachment figure shared by the whole believing community, religious rituals are able to co-opt the body’s attachment systems in ways that ensure the formation of cohesive social coalitions. Not only does the body’s attachment system motivate religious belief, but it may also provide an additional explanation why humans throughout world history have conceptualized gods in personal, parent-like, theistic imagery.

The basic implication of modern disciplines such as cognitive science, developmental psychology, and ethology is thus that belief in supernatural beings is “natural” to the human brain. Such beliefs are not formed on the basis of sensory evidence. Instead, they arise intuitively and spontaneously from brains shaped by natural selection to detect causal agents at work in their environment, to imbue these causal agents with human-like intentionality, and to procure comfort and security through attachment to these nonvisible agents.

Bodily Emotions and Theological Constructions

Religion traffics in human emotions. Fear, guilt, disgust, joy, and wonder all play prominent roles in shaping the varieties of religious experience. Explaining the causal relationships between religion and emotional states is, however, a difficult task. Emotions are among the most slippery and variable human attributes. Culture surely has a formative role in eliciting and shaping the expression of emotional states. Yet beginning with Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking studies, the academic world has become increasingly aware that emotions are essential parts of our genetically evolved bodies.21 Such fields as evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science thus come together to help us see how the body’s emotional states constitute the cognitive and affective substrates of human religiosity.

Emotions are humanity’s most powerful adaptive mechanisms. Our neural systems are programmed to scan our environments (through sensory and tactile processes of which the organism is largely unaware) for sensory cues that trigger emotional programs whose purpose is to ensure an appropriate response. Emotions ensure bodily well-being by mobilizing such biologically important activities as goal setting, information gathering, selective attention, retrieving goal-specific memories, regulating physiological processes, communicating intent, and shifting energy levels.

It is important for studies of religion to move beyond thinking of emotion as a general category and instead to identify the distinct or discrete emotions exerting causal influence on religious thought or emotion. Fear, for example, exerts causal effects on religious thought or feeling that are quite distinguishable from those associated with emotional states such as wonder or joy. Sigmund Freud alerted us to the role that fear plays in motivating religious stances toward life when he observed that when faced with the terrifying realities (e.g., natural disasters, disease, and death) of everyday life, humans understandably yearn for a protective parent.22 We have, of course, far more information about the cognitive and behavioral components of discrete emotional states such as fear that allows us to be far more precise than was available to Freud. Agreement is widespread that fear is a genetically encoded, universal characteristic of the human body and is thus governed by neural activities that are at least somewhat independent of cultural influence, learning, or volitional control. Its main adaptive function is that of mobilizing perception, cognition, and behavior in ways that respond to immediate threat. Among fear’s specific motivational effects are producing “tunnel vision” to accentuate the looming presence of danger, alerting others to impending danger, strengthening communal bonds through heightened solidarity, and activating memories of similar threats and previous escape strategies.

Apocalyptic religion is a prime example of a form of religiosity that arises in—and in turn seeks to evoke—the emotion of fear.23 Classic apocalyptic texts such as the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation were written in historical settings fraught with persecution and fear. The cultural function of apocalyptic religion from biblical times to today has been that of eliciting fear and thereby awakening a distinctive mode of religiosity shaped by the cognitive attributes that distinguish this discrete emotion. Apocalyptic religiosity acquires its sense of urgency from the visceral sensations associated with the perception of impending threat. Apocalyptic religiosity deliberately encourages “tunnel vision,” interpreting every event in the world as in some way caught up in a sinister plot whereby otherwise unseen evil forces are conspiring to destroy the righteous few. Classic apocalyptic texts and “end times” preaching invoke memories of past threats to the believing community and warn against any temptations to doubt or stray from the one true community destined to prevail no matter how dire present conditions might appear. Apocalyptic religion, in short, is a cultural elaboration of the very cognitive features distinctive to the discrete emotion of fear.

Fear is one of several emotions shaped by natural selection to ensure the organism’s personal short-term survival (e.g., anger, surprise, disgust). Yet evolution also favored emotional programs designed to solve recurrent problems such as creating and maintaining social coalitions. Guilt and shame are prime examples of emotional programs that emerged through natural selection to adjust human cognition and behavior in ways that serve the interests of the social group to which an individual belongs. Shame and guilt motivate conformity to the social group. These rich feeling states make us uncomfortable until we recalibrate our motivations to those of our tribal unit.

Even such simple insight into the brain’s innate, biologically grounded emotional systems enriches our understanding of religious behavior. We can readily see, for example, how impassioned revivalist preachers arouse an audience’s emotional programs and thereby induce them to seek relief through conformity to group norms. Thus even though many evangelical religious services focus on procuring individual conversion experiences, they do so by arousing emotions such as fear, shame, and guilt that predictably motivate tribal solidarity. It is also important to note that almost all religious rituals involve bodily movement facilitated through songs, dances, and synchronized moment such as kneeling or raising arms. Experimental studies corroborate the common-sense deduction that shared bodily movement automatically lays down the neurophysiological pathways underlying active concern, sympathy for others, and commitment to communal solidarity. It even appears that primate brains have neurons that mirror the actions of others in the same part of the brain that people would use to do these actions themselves. In other words, even watching someone perform an action utilizes a number of the same brain regions that would be utilized if we were performing the actions ourselves and, for this reason, elicits the sensation of shared bodily experience.24 Because these “mirror neurons” have a strong connection to emotion-related areas of the brain, they also help create empathic bonds whereby we feel each other’s pains and joys. Bodily sensation, then, is at the very heart of religious rituals whether we are directly participating or merely observing.

Religion doesn’t only traffic in “negative emotions” such as fear, guilt, and disgust. It also elaborates the “positive emotions” of joy and wonder. Whereas negative emotions typically arise when new experience falls short of desires or expectations, positive emotions are associated with experiences that exceed desires and expectations. Wonder serves as a prime example of a positive emotion since it is elicited by novel or unexpected stimuli that defy assimilation to preexisting conceptual categories. Wonder begins as a response to something that strikes us as so alive, so beautiful, or so true as to confound our customary concepts of causal agency. Yet, unlike negative emotions, wonder is linked with approach and affiliation rather than avoidance. Wonder motivates a quest for increased connection with the putative source of unexpected displays of life, beauty, or truth. Wonder also awakens our mental capacity for abstract, higher-order thought. It prompts us to think in terms of the possible, to contemplate what might be somehow behind, above, or beyond observed phenomena. And, finally, wonder renders us relatively passive and receptive, frequently giving rise to the sensation that we participate in a more general order of life. This final characteristic helps to explain why wonder elicits greater empathy and allows us to appreciate and respond to others in their own right.

It is important to realize that reason and emotion intertwine in the biological body. There is thus no such thing as emotion-free cognition. Nor is there such a thing as emotion-free religion. It is not a question of whether emotions influence our religious thought and actions, but a matter of which emotions most strongly affect them. Just as the prototypical characteristics of fear provide the experiential template from which apocalyptic religions have been elaborated, the perceptual and cognitive changes triggered by episodes of wonder exert tremendous influence on the kinds of religiosity variously referred to as esthetic spirituality, nature religion, or the quest orientation.25 Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, conservationist John Muir, and 1960s counterculture guru Alan Watts all adopted a spiritual orientation emphasizing openness to mystery rather than doctrines. Repeated episodes of wonder in their personal lives translated into a spiritual stance toward life characterized by a disregard for rigid theological boundaries, playful construction of metaphysical hypotheses, openness to the new, nontheistic conceptions of divinity, and a gentle benevolence toward forms of life usually ignored by more utilitarian worldviews.

Neurochemistry and Religious Experience

Contemporary neuroscience offers new ways of thinking about individual differences in personal religiosity. Dean Hamer, for example, has shown that differing propensities to religion can be traced to genetic differences in our neurochemistry. Hamer argues that spirituality is rooted in our sense of self and our sense of relationship to the wider universe. He then points out that our sense of self arises from very particular brain mechanisms that are regulated by a complex neurochemistry. He finally explains that genetic differences cause individual variation in the flow of particular kinds of monoamines (i.e., serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline) throughout the brain and this alone can account for individual variation in reporting spiritual experiences.26 Hamer’s research furnishes yet additional evidence suggesting that even though it is culture that tells us what to believe, it is our biological body that determines the degree of personal salience that religion will have for us individually.

New knowledge about the chemical components of human thought and personality make it virtually impossible to ignore the body’s role in constructing specifically religious sates of consciousness. Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili were among the first to bring attention to the light that brain-imaging technology sheds on our understanding of mystical states of awareness.27 Using a sophisticated brain-imaging device known as a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera, Newberg and d’Aquili discovered that spiritual exercises such as meditation increase the flow of blood to what they call the “attention association area” even as they decrease brain activity in the “orientation association area” of the posterior superior parietal lobe. When a person’s attention association processes are aroused while she or he is simultaneously deprived of information normally used to define the boundaries of the self, the brain necessarily perceives the self as endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything. In other words, the verbal descriptions that mystics throughout the world offer concerning their peak spiritual moments can be traced back to identifiable alterations in the functioning of their physical brains. The use of brain-imaging technology to study personal spirituality has become both increasingly popular and increasingly sophisticated. Although such studies tell us nothing about the truth status of religious beliefs, they surely tell us a great deal about the specific alterations in brain functioning that make such beliefs possible. Some researchers argue that we are possibly on the verge of mapping the correlation between specific neurological states and specific kinds of religious belief. This bold research agenda, sometimes referred to as neurotheology, argues that there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for all recurring forms of human experience and thus it is theoretically possible to trace all subjective spiritual experiences to very specific kinds of neural functioning.28

Continued research into the neurochemical components of psychological health opens up any number of possible new areas of inquiry. Researchers now explore the role of religious ritual in facilitating the flow of such neurochemicals as oxytocin and dopamine.29 These new findings supplement what we already knew about the body’s capacity for altering consciousness in ways that occasion experiences deemed religious. Ascetic practices such as fasting, sleep deprivation, sensory overload, dance, rhythmic movement, and ingesting entheogens (i.e., intoxicating substances that often trigger religious insight) are all methods for stimulating the body’s innate capacity for religious experience. The last of these, the ingestion of consciousness-altering substances, has factored into humanity’s religious life on every inhabited continent over the entire span of human history.30 Bodily ecstasy, it seems, provides the biological substrate for spiritual ecstasy.

Religion, we know, is most prevalent in times of personal and cultural stress. The most salient characteristic of religion might, in fact, be that its various beliefs and rituals all function as brain soothers. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger and psychiatrist Michael McGuire note that what is special about religion is its predictable soothing influence on brain chemistry. Religious beliefs, and especially religious rituals, release soothing brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine as well as increasing cerebral blood flow to the amygdale. It is at least possible that religion represents the body’s quest for subjective well-being in a world fraught with physical pain and environmental stress.31

Sexuality and Religious Passion

The drive to continue life is our body’s grand biological imperative. Sexuality infuses personal life with passion and vitality. This powerful drive propels us toward “alluring others” at the elusive juncture where physiological excitation meets the social construction of desire. It therefore comes as no surprise that religious creativity flows naturally from our erotic energies. Our religious conceptions invariably express and celebrate the life force flowing within us. Erotic desire expresses itself in our quest for self-abandonment. It guides our religious quest for passionate connection with an ideally romanticized “other” conceptualized theistically as a god, goddess, or savior. The somatics of human sexuality are thus fully implicated in the most creative expressions of religious thought and feeling.32

In traditions as culturally diverse as evangelical Protestantism in the United States or bhakti in India, the faithful enter into rapturous loving relationships with their savior. Such love is felt deeply. The joy that comes from loving god is proclaimed to be more intense than that inspired by any purely human relationship. It is only now, however, that we can explain the body’s role in generating devotional religion with any specificity. Approaching theistic and devotional religion from the standpoint of the biological body begins by reminding ourselves that evolution operates according to a very simple formula. It favors those organisms that are most reproductively fit. Evolution is single-minded in this regard. All it really cares about is whether organisms can reproduce and raise their offspring to the point of biological viability. Evolution thus favors attributes that enhance the efficient transmission of gene pools and eliminates those that impede this process. From the biological standpoint, individuals are simply DNA’s way of making new DNA. It follows that almost every trait that distinguishes a given species (e.g., its digestive systems, immune systems, ability to communicate, etc.) exists by virtue of the fact that it contributes to the overall task of transmitting the genetic codes of life.

Considered as an extended phenotype, religion arises part and parcel with the rest of humanity’s genetically evolved mechanisms for transmitting life. This observation turns our accustomed ways of viewing the relationship between religion and sexuality upside down. Most of us presume that religiosity has an influence on mating behavior (e.g., groups such as Roman Catholics or Southern Baptists instruct members about morally acceptable sexual behavior). It is just as important, however, that we realize how mating behavior influences religiosity. Studies have shown, for example, that men and women become more religious when competing for access to potential romantic partners. Studies also show that—on the whole—religious membership in the contemporary United States serves the goal of supporting low promiscuity, marriage-centered, heterosexual, high fertility sexual and reproductive strategies. Humans make (or remake) their worlds in religious ways to ensure reproductive success. Indeed, experimental studies suggest that it may be less accurate to think of religion as a cultural institution regulating our biological passions than to think of how our biological passions give rise to our cultural institutions. Thus whereas it is traditionally presumed that religiosity influences mating behavior, research now suggests the possibility that mating behavior might also influence religiosity. Empirical evidence indicates, for example, that religion in modern Western nations functions to promote low promiscuity, marriage-centered, and high fertility mating strategies. Evidence also suggests that males are more likely to affiliate with a religious congregation when confronted with greater competition for desired partners. It is therefore important to view religious behavior not only in social, economic, and political contexts—but as part of our species’ phenotypical mating strategies as well.33

In recent years we have also begun to know a lot more about the biology of sexual and romantic passion. We know, for example, that the core feelings of love are associated with discrete biological systems within human physiology and neuroanatomy. These biological substrates of human beings are, moreover, associated with specific parts of our neuroanatomy and are aroused by specific bodily hormones. We know, for example, that increased levels of testosterone and dopamine fuel the fires of romantic passion.34 The fact that throughout history many religious rituals have included practices that elevate testosterone and dopamine levels suggests that they have also succeeded in elevating the body’s motivation to connect or unite with an idealized “other.”

Religion, like sexuality, is often rooted in individuals’ desire to move beyond their individuality toward union with something more than themselves, a divine “other.” It seems likely that cultures, in their efforts to induce us to sacrifice our individuality to the larger social good, have learned to make efficient use of our biological programs. Theistic religion frequently emphasizes the loving nature of our gods and goddesses. They attract us, arouse our interest, and elicit our desire for connection. They also evoke romantic attachment to a particular god, goddess, or spiritual being who becomes the central focus of our devotion. Indeed, devotees of such diverse theological systems as devotional Hinduism or evangelical Protestantism report nearly every change in perception, attention, and cognition occasioned by the neurological programs of romantic love: a shift in the configuration of experience, giving “special meaning” to the surrounding world wherein the object of love becomes seen as novel, unique, important; aggrandizing the beloved; intrusive thinking whereby the beloved object continues to return to awareness and dominate waking thought; intense energy and emotional fire; weakening of boundaries between ego and object; a yearning for emotional union; jealousy and concern for an exclusive relationship; sense of being governed by external forces; thoughts and actions appear involuntary, beyond one’s personal control; and intense feelings of elation, well-being, and euphoria. And, finally, theistic religion channels romantic desires in ways that form longer-lasting attachment to a chosen deity (and the cultural values associated with that deity).

The Body and the Study of Religion

The body is at once biological and cultural. This is precisely why the body has so much promise as a critical term for both describing and explaining religion. Yet, up until now, scholars of religion have relied on theoretical approaches that have emphasized the cultural components of human religiosity to the point of insufficiently considering the role of the biological body. As Ariel Glucklich put it in his study of the relationship between religion and bodily pain, the relationship between bodily experience and religious belief takes us to a “fuzzy area where culture meets biology . . . (embodied experience) is a mix of biological facts and cultural consciousness.”35 Getting this mix right—or at least nearly right—is an exciting challenge for religious studies scholars in the 21st century.

Attention to the body can illuminate many overlooked reasons why humans live as they do. Its explanatory role, however, is limited to enriching and complicating existing social and cultural perspectives—not replacing them. Human experience is always a mix of biological facts and cultural consciousness. Getting this mix right requires careful judgments. Humans live across time and through community. Understanding how and why humans elaborate the cultural systems they do therefore requires sensitivity to a myriad of temporal and communal factors that can’t be meaningfully understood in biological terms. This is why the humanities (e.g., semiotics, linguistics, philosophical ethics, cultural anthropology, comparative cultural studies, etc.) will always be of utmost relevance to the study of human experience. Scholars of religion have the opportunity to be at the critical intersection of all these disciplinary ways of illuminating why and how humans live as they do.

Some scholars of religion have already demonstrated how the humanities can come close to getting this mix of biological facts and cultural consciousness nearly right and, in so doing, have made valuable contributions to understanding even the most perplexing aspects of human existence. Glucklich’s study of religious pain is one such example. So, too, are both Ronald Grimes’s and Catherine Bell’s studies of the centrality of the body in the ritual process. All of these studies move us past the sharp differentiation between “religion shapes the body” and “the body shapes religion” approaches described at the outset of this article. For example, both Grimes and Bell focus on the role of “performance” in ritual and draw attention to the fact that “ritual action does what it does by virtue of it dynamic, diachronic, physical, and sensual characteristics.”36 Attention to the bodily dimensions of ritual performance thus moves us past any hard and fast dichotomy between body and culture. Ritual activities simultaneously evoke physical activity and cognitive dispositions. By appreciating the interplay between cultural meanings and bodily systems (e.g., emotion systems, pain systems, or sexual systems) scholars put themselves in a better position to understand why ritual performance elicits profound experiences of beauty, duty, balance, obedience, pride, or devotion. This emerging framework for connecting religious meaning and bodily movement will undoubtedly continue to shed light on the relationships between humanity’s religious life and humanity’s genetically evolved biological systems.

The final test of any theory—including the critical terms that inform it—is its ability to enrich our understanding of life. Theories about religion can therefore be evaluated by how well they guide us toward a threefold understanding of this complex human phenomenon. They should be able to help us account for features found in nearly all religious groups (or features that characterize certain types of religious groups), account for variation between different religious groups, and account for individual variation within religious groups. Theories that focus exclusively on the causal role of culture excel at accounting for variation between different religious groups. They draw attention to the uniqueness of every cultural expression. They celebrate religious diversity and make us much more aware of the plurality of voices that were never heard in previous historical paradigms. Yet exclusive focus on the cultural and historical factors influencing religion accentuates “difference” to the point where it discredits efforts to discern “sameness” or make meaningful comparisons. It similarly hinders scholars’ ability to account for individual variation within a particular religious group.

The biological body generates interpretive categories that promise to move us past the shortcomings of theoretical orientations that focus too narrowly on the social and cultural sources of human behavior. The body’s genetic code is virtually consistent through history and across geographical terrain. To this extent the body is capable of generating critical categories that make the identification of “sameness” possible in ways that can supplement the insights of other theoretical orientations. Strides are already being taken in this direction. Consider, for example, how the modern study of emotions provides categories for the comparative study of religion. Every discrete emotion has prototypical characteristics (e.g., perceptual style, cognitive structures, behavioral readiness, communication of intent, etc.). These characteristics enable us to identify and compare the role of specific emotions in different religious groups and in different cultural settings. Mating strategies, genetically grounded personality tendencies, pain responses, sexual arousal mechanisms, olfactory responses, and neural functioning are other critical terms connected to the biological body that could enrich efforts to find shared, universal patterns in human religiosity. The body can thus supplement existing theoretical models by identifying features found in nearly every religious group. And because of the variability in our genotypes (and in the environmental conditions eliciting our behavioral phenotypes), categories associated with the body can also help us explain individual variation within a given population in a way that exclusive attention to shared social and cultural conditions cannot.

Bringing a biological perspective to the scholarly study of religion doesn’t have the radical consequences it might at first imply. Biological programs evolved to guide human behavior in specific kinds of situations. Even subtle differences in the environment elicit (or suppress) very different kinds of bodily response. For this reason our cultural meanings and valuations construct rich contexts that affect the body’s adaptive sensibilities and thereby determine the specific forms of human thought and behavior. Social and cultural environments are the principal causes of the kinds of thought and behavior we observe over the course of human history. Historical approaches to religion—especially those that hope to include reference to biological factors—can never be more perspicacious than their reconstruction of social and cultural contexts. This is true first and foremost because in humans genes have given away their sovereignty to nonbiological sources of information. Unlike our biological history, which is shaped by genetic variation and natural selection, our cultural history operates by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, accumulated knowledge, and learned activities. Historical writing must consequently feature these nonbiological influences on human behavior. It is also worth noting that humanity’s large cerebral cortex renders human thought and feeling especially malleable. Among other things, this implies that biological survival is not humanity’s only need or interest. Survival may be the most important of our needs, but it exists alongside others such as enjoying social affection, play, aesthetic pleasure, wit, and philosophical contemplation. Our brains not only process the objective characteristics of experience, but they also bring any number of these nonbiological needs and interests to the task of ascribing meaning or significance to such experience. This is why scholars need to develop building-block approaches to the study of religion. While information from the biological and cognitive sciences can illuminate a great deal about some features of religious experience, this information cannot by itself illuminate the whole process whereby humans come to invest certain experiences with a religious meaning.37

There are, however, three ways that a biological perspective forever changes the way we view religious history. The first is that we no longer view the environment as the sole source of human religiosity. Many current historians were educated in an era during which it was assumed that we are born a tabula rasa awaiting environmental conditioning. We now know this isn’t true. Human beings come into the world with any number of genetically evolved systems that exert causal influence on humanity’s religious imagination. Truly interdisciplinary theories of religion must avail themselves of these insights into the causal sources of human thought, feeling, and behavior.

A second feature of theories that pay attention to the biological body is that they recognize motivational forces of which the human actors themselves are rarely conscious. The most important contribution of such fields as cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology is that most human “thinking” happens without conscious awareness. We breathe, digest food, fight off infections, and execute habitual behaviors with no conscious thought. The same is true of the suites of cognitive modules that mobilize emotions, awaken tribalistic tendencies, induce submission to authority, form beliefs about the causal presence of nonvisible entities, or create feelings of relationship to parent-like beings. Only a small percentage of religious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors originate in deliberate or conscious thought. Most stem from our bodies’ innate adaptive mechanisms. We now know, for example, that the religious evocation of guilt in and of itself brings individual behavior back into alignment with group expectations while the evocation of fear mobilizes submission to group authority and increased motivation to forge tribal solidarity. We also know that specific kinds of body postures (e.g., kneeling, prostration, or even shared body movement) exert predictable influences on human behavior that make religious conformity more likely. And, too, new information about such bodily mechanisms as our immune systems, mate-selection strategies, and sensory responses all shed light on both how and why humans adopt religious attitudes.38 What increased attention to the body changes in understanding religion, then, is greater recognition of the formative role played by the body’s genetically evolved systems for guiding adaptive behavior.

A third way that attention to the biological body enriches scholarship on religion is the greater emphasis it places on the “horizontal” functions of religion. True, a good many theories based in the humanities (e.g., feminist theory or postmodern concern with contests of cultural power) and the social sciences (e.g., Marxist theory or consumer-choice theory) also emphasize the “horizontal” elements of religious belief and practice. It is true, however, that critical terms drawn from the natural sciences are more systematic about setting religion in the natural context of those genetically evolved systems that make religious thoughts and feelings possible at all. Humans evolved to assess their environments and make adaptive choices. The cognitive mechanisms that guide these assessments operate automatically and unconsciously. We subjectively experience these assessments as feelings of attraction toward features of the environment that enhance fitness (experienced as sweetness, beauty, cleanliness—and religiously elaborated as heavenly beauty or sacred) and feelings of repulsion from features that reduce fitness (experienced as foul-tasting, ugliness, contaminated—and religiously elaborated as morally disgusting, impure, or hellish). The “vertical” parts of religion such as procuring salvation or connecting with higher dimensions might therefore be considered the proximate causes of human behavior. They provide incentives that induce us to act in accordance with group norms. Yet the ultimate reason for religious constructions of the world arise from the body’s creative, yet imperfect, efforts to render the world habitable. As psychologist James Leuba put it a century ago (and deftly cited by William James in the conclusion of The Varieties of Religious Experience), “Not God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is in the last analysis the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.”39 Greater attention to the body helps illuminate religiosity’s role in the human species’ quest for a richer, more satisfying life.


Studies of the relationship between religion and the body have typically focused on bodily asceticism (i.e., systematic efforts to discipline the body’s appetites to achieve obedience and submission to authority). Foundational studies in this field include Peter Brown’s The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation; Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion; Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective; and Caroline T. Schroeder, Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe.40

Anthropologist Mary Douglas opened additional lines of inquiry when she discerned relationships between theological concerns with bodily purity and social concerns with boundary maintenance in her seminal work, Purity and Danger.41 Postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault initiated new kinds of inquiry about religious understandings of the body when his The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception demonstrated how the body often becomes a site where the socially privileged exert power over others.42

The first important study of religion to foreground the genetically evolved mechanisms of the biological body was the final chapter of E. O. Wilson’s influential Sociobiology.43 Several other insightful works have similarly explained various features of religion in terms of the body’s evolutionary-adaptive heritage, including David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society and Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.44 The field of cognitive science has expanded these evolutionary-adaptive perspectives to examine why the physiological brain so readily believes in invisible spiritual entities. Among the most influential works in the cognitive science of religion are Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought and Justin Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God?45

Primary Sources

An excellent look at how religions map themselves onto human bodies is Martha Finch’s study of Puritan New England, Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England.46 Lawrence Foster has studied this topic with a specific focus on sexuality in his Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community.47 Perhaps the best overall look at the complex interplay between cultural and bodily sources of human experience is Ariel Glucklich’s examination of religious functions of pain.48 Readers interested in the debate about the extent to which religious teachings about the body represent thinly veiled efforts to subordinate women might consult R. Marie Griffith’s Gods Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission.49

It is important to note that many religious traditions have believed that the body contains energies and powers that can be harnessed for spiritual attainment. This is the case, for example, in the many manifestations of tantric belief and practice as has been examined in insightful studies by Mircea Eliade and Hugh Urban.50 Other fascinating studies of the body’s role in human quests for transcendent experience are Felicitas Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality, Peter Furst, ed., The Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens, and Jeffrey Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism.51

A helpful introduction to an evolutionary-based understanding of the body’s role in religiosity is Lee Kirkpatrick’s Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion.52 Todd Tremlin and Jesse Bering have authored two works providing overviews of the cognitive psychology of religion.53 The most important analysis of the implications of newly emerging information about the biological brain for understanding philosophy is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.54 This same line of thought is used to reexamine a variety of aspects of religion in Robert C. Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience, and it is used to examine theology in both Andrew Newberg’s The Principles of Neurotheology and Michael Hopkins’s The Soul in the Brain.55

Further Reading

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991.Find this resource:

Coakley, Sarah, ed. Religion and the Body. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Cooey, Paula. Religious Imagination and the Body: A Feminist Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Corrigan, John. Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Fuller, Robert C.The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Griffith, R. Marie. Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.Find this resource:

Haidt, Jonathan, and Jesse Graham. “Beyond Beliefs: Religions Bind Individuals into Moral Communities.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14 (2010): 140–150.Find this resource:

Hamer, Dean. The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. New York: Doubleday, 2004.Find this resource:

Kripal, Jeffrey. “Sexuality.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 12. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 8241–8247. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987.Find this resource:

Slingerland, Edward. What Science Offers the Humanities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Wiltermuth, Scott, and Chip Heath. “Synchrony and Cooperation.” Psychological Science 20 (2009): 1–5.Find this resource:


(1.) See William R. LaFleur’s “The Body,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(2.) Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).

(3.) Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

(4.) Martha Finch, Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

(5.) Hugh Urban, Magica Sexualis: Secrecy, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Jeffrey Kripal, “Sexuality,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 12 edited by Mircea Eliade, 8241–8247 (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987); Jeffrey Kripal, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teaching of Ramakrishna (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); and Leigh Eric Schmidt, Heaven’s Bride (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

(6.) Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

(7.) See Ronald Numbers and Darrel Amundsen, eds., Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions (New York: Macmillan, 1986); Prakah Desai, Health and Medicine in the Hindu Tradition (New York: Crossroad, 1989); Fazlur Rahman, Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition (Chicago: ABC, 1998); and Linda Barnes and Susan Sered, eds., Religion and Healing in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(8.) Thomas Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), and Meredith McGuire, Ritual Healing in Suburban America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

(9.) Robert C. Fuller, Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), and Candy Gunther Brown, The Healing Gods: Contemporary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(10.) John Corrigan, Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); John Corrigan, ed., Religion and Emotion: Approaches and Interpretations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Peter Stearns and Carol Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” American Historical Review 90 (October 1985): 813–836.

(11.) Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Felicitas Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); and Robert C. Fuller, Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000).

(12.) Edmund D. Pellegrino and Alan I. Faden, Jewish and Catholic Bioethics (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999); Ted Peters, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom, 2d ed. (New York: Routledge, 2003); Lisa Sowle Cahill, Theological Bioethics: Participation, Justice (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005); and Refoel Guggenheim, Leonardo Leupin, Yves Nordmann, and Raphael Patcas, The Value of Human Life: Contemporary Perspectives in Jewish Medical Ethics (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2010).

(13.) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 4.

(14.) Debate is ongoing as to whether religion itself can be considered an adaptation or whether religion is an unintended by-product of mechanisms that emerged through natural selection to “solve” other adaptive tasks. Among the best known arguments for the minority position asserting that religion is an adaptation that emerged as part of the somewhat controversial evolutionary mechanism known as group selection are David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) and E. O. Wilson’sThe Social Conquest of Earth (New York: Liveright, 2012). Good examples of the consensus position that religion is a by-product of biological systems shaped by natural selection to solve different problems are Lee Kirkpatrick, Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (New York: Guilford, 2005); Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(15.) See Robert C. Fuller, The Body of Faith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) and Spirituality in the Flesh (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(16.) Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1975), p. 176.

(17.) Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1915/1965), 92. Emphasis added.

(18.) See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), and Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, “Beyond Beliefs: Religions Bind Individuals into Moral Communities,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14 (2010): 140–150.

(19.) See Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001); Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust; and Justin Barrett, Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2011).

(20.) Lee Kirkpatrick, Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion.

(21.) See Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: HarperCollins, 1998); Robert Plutchik, Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003); and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions,” in Handbook of Emotions, 3d ed., edited by Michael Lewis, Jeannete M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett (New York: Guilford, 2008).

(22.) Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

(23.) See Robert C. Fuller, The Body of Faith, 76–93.

(24.) See Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath, “Synchrony and Cooperation,” Psychological Science 20 (2009): 1–5; Marco Iacobonie, Matthew D. Lieberman, Barbara J. Knowlton, et al., “Watching Social Interactions Produces Dorsomedial Prefrontal and Medial Parietal Bold fMRI Signal Increases Compared to Resting Baseline,” Neuroimage 21 (2004): 1167–1173; and Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 235–236.

(25.) See Robert C. Fuller, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Discussions of esthetic spirituality, nature religion, and the quest orientation can be found in William Clebsch, American Religious Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972); Catherine Albanese, Nature Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and Daniel C. Batson and W. Larry Ventis, The Religious Experience: A Social-Psychological Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

(26.) Dean Hamer, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes (New York: Doubleday, 2004).

(27.) Andrew Newberg, Eugene d’Aquili, and Vince Rouse, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001).

(28.) Andrew Newberg, The Principles of Neurotheology (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010) and Michael Hopkins, The Soul in the Brain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

(29.) See, for example, Joni Sasaki, Heejun Kim, and Jun Xu, “Religion and Well-Being: The Moderating Role of Culture and the Oxytocin Receptor (OXTR) Gene,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 42 (October 2011): 1375–1393, and Patricia Churchland, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 48–62.

(30.) See Robert C. Fuller, Stairways to Heaven: Drugs and American Religious History (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000); Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984); Peter Furst, ed., The Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens (New York: Praeger, 1972); Richard Schultes and Albert Hofmann, Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979); and Charles Tar, ed., Altered States of Consciousness (New York: John Wiley, 1969).

(31.) See Michael McGuire and Lionel Tiger, “The Brain and Religious Adaptations,” in The Biology of Religious Behavior, edited by Jay Feierman, xxx–yyy (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009), and Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosocial Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology 7.3 (2009): 398–411.

(32.) See Jeffrey Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Robert C. Fuller, The Body of Faith, 123–142.

(33.) Jason Weeden, Adam Cohen, and Douglas Kenrick, “Religious Attendance as Reproductive Support,” Evolution and Human Behavior 29 (2008): 327–334, and Yexin Jessica Li, Adam B. Cohen, Jason Weeden, and Douglas T. Kenrick, “Mating Competitors Increase Religious Beliefs,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010): 428–431.

(34.) See Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).

(35.) Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 15.

(36.) Catherine Bell, “Performance,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor, 209 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). See also Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), and Ronald Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995).

(37.) See Ann Taves, Religious Experiences Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), and Edward Slingerland, What Science Offers the Humanities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(38.) Examples of studies that examine the role of sensory reactions and the immune system in human religiosity are Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill, “Associative Sociality, Limited Dispersal, Infectious Disease and the Genesis of the Global Pattern of Religion Diversity,” Proceedings of the Royal Society (2008): 2587–2594; Thomas Ellis, “Disgusting Bodies, Disgusting Religion: The Biology Tantra,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79 (December 2011): 879–927; Ryan Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston, “Gross Gods and Icky Atheism,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011): 1225–1230; and Erik Helzer and David Pizatro, “Dirty Liberals! Reminders of Physical Cleanliness Influence Moral and Political Attitudes,” Psychological Science 22 (April 2011): 517–522.

(39.) James Leuba, cited in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 399.

(40.) Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991); Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972); Caroline T. Schroeder, Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

(41.) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966).

(42.) Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Random House, 1973).

(43.) E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1975).

(44.) David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), and Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(45.) Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001), and Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).

(46.) Martha Finch, Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

(47.) Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

(48.) Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(49.) R. Marie Griffith, Gods Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

(50.) Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (New York: Pantheon, 1958), and Hugh Urban, Magica Sexuali: Sex, Secrecy and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

(51.) Felicitas Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Peter Furst, ed., The Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens (New York: Preager, 1972); Jeffrey Kripal, Roads of Excess: Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

(52.) Lee Kirkpatrick, Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(53.) Todd Tremlin, Minds and Gods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), and Jesse Bering, “The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural,” American Scientist 94 (2006): 142–149.

(54.) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenges to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

(55.) Robert C. Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Andrew Newberg, The Principles of Nuerotheology (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010); Michael Hopkins, The Soul in the Brain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).