TOWARD A COGNITIVE THEORY
OF THE SACRED: AN
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TOWARD A COGNITIVE THEORY OF
THE SACRED: AN ETHNOGRAPHIC
CHANGING PARADIGMS OF THE SACRED
The sacred as a religious concept is inseparably linked with the
linguistic conventions of Western societies, the roots of which go
far back into the history of both Indo-European and Semitic cul-
tures. Long before its conventionalised use and meanings within
the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious traditions, people have
participated in sacred-making activities and processes of significa-
tion according to paradigms of thought created by their ethnic sys-
tems of belief within specific geographical limits. The sacred is not
only a religious term, but also an anthropological constant, which
has been used in various cultural contexts within various arenas of
human discourse. Linguistically the sacred denotes that which has
been set apart, but in religious vocabulary there is usually an onto-
logical referent underlining its use and culture-specific semantics.
In my presentation I shall look at the notion of the sacred from a
cognitive point of view. It is my conviction that scholars engaged in
the scientific study of religion have blurred the boundaries of theo-
logical and scientific discourses in adopting the sacred as a
superordinate category for religious worlds. From a cognitive per-
spective, the scholarly approach to the idea of the sacred does not
entail metaphysical or religious questions about the nature of real-
ity. Rather, the focus is on the cross-cultural regularities that have
guided the perception of an object as sacred in a particular specific
linguistic community in a particular geographical context. In this
enterprise the student of religion has to become acquainted with
the history of religions and with the multiple discourses in which
terms denoting the “sacred” in various languages have been used.
Most religious scholars have relied on their knowledge of the his-
tory of the concept in Hebrew, Greek and Latin sources, but have
forgotten that the concept has a long history as a linguistic term in
the vernacular of ethnic cultures and their languages; its root uni-
versally denotes “to cut”, “to set apart”, “to mark off (see Paden
1991; 1999; Lutzky 1993; Anttonen 1996).
In postmodern Western societies, there are millions of people who
no longer accept the inherited religious traditions of their parents
and ancestors as a grand theory for their lives. In Europe, in both
Protestant and Catholic countries the number of people that are
not affiliated with any institutional form of religion has grown (see
Dobbelaere 1993). The old religious structures have become
desacralised and new or unconventionally defined forms of religious
sacralisation invented. People have greater intellectual and moral
freedom to create their own “sacred” moments within their secular
cosmology, by setting apart specific times, places, events and per-
sons and marking their significance by specific symbolic means.
Universally distributed forms of behaviour in which the idea of per-
sonal choice plays a crucial role, such as fasting, asceticism, celi-
bacy, and in various forms of performance in the worlds of sport or
art, can be comprehended in terms of the category of the sacred.
These forms of behaviour are culturally based on the idea of using
specific ritual strategies to mark one’s physical and mental self as
separate from the routines of everyday social life (Anttonen 1999a).
An analytical comprehension of their sacred-making quality, how-
ever, cannot be approached within the conceptual frames or para-
digms of thought offered by established religious institutions. The
present situation is comparable to prehistoric times before the rise
of organised religions. From the viewpoint of the archaeology of
the sacred, the earliest evidence of a human capacity to sacralise
and confer religious meaning on various objects and phenomena in
their natural and social environment can be read from the soil and
from the landscape. Both archaeological findings and toponyms show
that human beings have had cognitively fluid minds (see Mithen
1996) in setting apart marshes, springs, rapids, ponds, lakes, capes,
bays, territories such as forests, wilderness, larger hills and moun-
tains, or specific topographically anomalous sites, and have observed
their special quality by specific ritual strategies. As an adjective,
“sacred” has been used as an appellative designation for a place, for
a specific topos, or for a specific period in reckoning time in order to
mark a categorical boundary. The sacred has been used as an at-
tribute whereby distinctions have been expressed between those
things that possess a special cultural value and those that do not
demand particular attention or specific rule-governed behaviour. In
dealing with the theory of religion, the scholar with a social-scien-
tific orientation needs a special explanatory perspective in order to
display the logic governing cross-cultural regularities in setting
something apart as sacred. There are denumerable entities – vis-
ible and non-visible, physical and non-physical – that have been per-
ceived as sacred. Some of them refer explicitly to superhuman
agents, while some are less overtly religious, for instance the marks
such as the flag or soccer matches by which members of a nation-
state enhance or preserve its value (see Smart 1985: 21–28; Bell
AN ETHNOGRAPHER LOOKS AT THE SACRED
In ethnographic study of religion the sacred is not as much a meta-
physical enigma as an issue of epistemology. In an attempt to ana-
lyse various forms of manufacturing religious realities (cf.
McCutcheon 1997; Pyysiainen 1996), the ethnographer of religion
does not need to approach the discourses of religious persons from
the explicit theological content of their speech acts. Rather, the
ethnographer takes another route, starting from the actions, events
and intentions of cultural agents in specific contexts as they make
distinctions between spaces, mark them for specific uses, create
visible and invisible boundaries, and establish cultural conventions
of behaviour towards those boundaries (see e.g. Parkin 1991; Antto-
nen 1996: 39–43; 1999b).
The ethnographer occupies the driver’s seat in explaining why peo-
ple in all periods and places participate, in one form or another, in
the cultural practices that “reasonable observers would agree is
religion” (Rappaport 1999). In his posthumously published book
Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999), Rappaport
provides the broadest possible context for explaining why people
have spent so much time, energy, wealth and blood in building tem-
ples, supporting priests, sacrificing to gods and killing infidels (Ibid.:
1–2). His central question is the sacred, the numinous, the occult,
the divine and their fusion into the Holy in ritual. In Rappaport’s
approach the sacred is just one constituent of the “total religious
phenomenon” (1999: 24). The sacred signifies the discursive, logi-
cal, intelligible component of religion, which is implicated in the
liturgy of ritual specialists, but which also appears in command-
ments and in the oaths and pledges of non-specialist participants
(Ibid. 320; cf. Otto 1969: 143–145). In addition to the sacred, there is
the numinous component, which denotes religion’s non-discursive,
affective, ineffable, inconceivable, mysterious, awesome qualities
(Rappaport 1999: 23; see also Otto 1969: 36–37; Pyysiainen 1996:
Rappaports’ cybernetics of the holy owes to the scholars of religion
who have held the category of the numinous to be the core element
that characterises religious thought and behaviour. Rudolf Otto,
Nathan Soderblom and Mircea Eliade have utilised the sacred or
the holy as a category of feeling, and have conceptualised it as an
inward sensation of the supramundane (überweltlich) that “evades
precise formulation in words” (Otto 1969: 59).
Rappaport does not, however, appeal to sacrality to explain reli-
gion, or to religion to explain sacrality. For him sacrality is not the
starting point of religion, but its end product, “a difference which
makes difference” (1999: 402) as he quotes Gregory Bateson. Rappa-
port treats the sacred as a category the contents of which are ritu-
ally constituted as a response to maintain the adaptive flexibility of
human social systems. He places the issue of sacrality in an evolu-
tionary framework, but posits that “(n)either religion “as a whole”
nor its elements will be reduced to functional or adaptive terms”
(Ibid.: 2). He examines the effect of human language and increased
conceptual capacities on the nature of ritual acts and objects and on
adaptive flexibility. Towards the end of the book Rappaport’s conclu-
sion seems to be that the ultimate sacred postulates and their un-
questionable status are losing significance. Human social systems
are becoming less flexible, which mean an increasing unbalance in
adaptive processes. For instance, the authority of political and reli-
gious representatives does not rest on sanctity to the same extent
as it did in traditional societies; this means that regulatory struc-
tures in Western societies are no longer as flexible. Rappaport’s
ideas are worth keeping in mind in accounting for the emergence of
oppositional social movements, both secular and religious, a topic
currently in spotlight both in Europe and in the United States.
As a social-scientific category, the sacred has been semantically
recontextualised as a taxonomic indicator (see Paden 1999: 166–
167) for the analysis of both religious and secular systems of thought.
In addition to Rappaport, anthropologist Mary Douglas has done
remarkable work in developing Durkheimian notions of the sacred
into risk analyses. Modifying the notion of the sacred as a collective
representation whereby distinctions between notions of purity and
impurity, the licit and the forbidden, have been made morally bind-
ing (see Durkheim 1995), Douglas has moved towards explaining
the sacred on the basis of the cognitive mechanisms of the human
mind. She posits that the idea of the sacred is based on the precari-
ousness of the cultural categories guiding human thinking and be-
haviour. Douglas holds that the sacred is the universe in its dy-
namic aspect with inexplicable boundaries, because the reasons for
any particular way of defining the sacred are embedded in the so-
cial consensus which it protects (Douglas 1978). Even though she
has not aimed at creating an anthropological theory of the sacred,
her analysis combines the positive and negative aspects of sacred-
ness. She has treated the sacred as order, unity and integrity, and
has also pointed out the necessity of paying attention to the taboo
aspect of the sacred. Things that have been set apart as taboo, be-
cause of their impurity and contagiosity – the abject, as Julia
Kristeva calls it – form the flip side of the sacred. In maintaining
the socially legitimated order, individuals and social collectives cre-
ate symbolic-cultural systems, or even neuroses if you like, by set-
ting apart impure objects, substances, places or times, and empha-
sising their cognitive status by taboo norms and rules of avoidance
(see Douglas 1989; cf. also Paden 1996; Sperber 1996; Parkin 1996).
TOWARD A COGNITIVE THEORY OF THE SACRED
But whence the notion of the sacred? And moreover, how can the
notion of the sacred be viewed as an anthropological constant? In
his cognitive theorising Pascal Boyer has argued that since religion
is a cultural phenomenon, it is just as culture in general constrained
by the human cognitive capacities. Every domain of the repertoire
by which religion is characterised – ontology, morality, group or eth-
nic identity, religious action and private experience – includes the
same cognitive constraints, which also characterise non-religious
domains. Boyer’s cognitive theory of religion is based on counter-
intuitive assumptions in which expectations from one ontological
category are transferred to another. If solid objects such as stones
and artefacts have the psychological property of intention and free
will characteristic to living human beings they violate inferential
principles of intuitive ontology. As such they are more likely to be
dealt with as representations belonging to the domain of religion
(Boyer 1998; 1999; Pyysiainen 1999). Boyer posits that sufficiently
“counter-intuitive” beliefs are adopted more easily and transmitted
more effectively because they are more easily remembered and in-
tuitively plausible (Boyer 1994, 1999). The notion of counter-intui-
tiveness can, however, be viewed as one instance in the broader
discussion of anthropological theory-construction concerning human
perception and the nature of the categories whereby reality is
grasped. Violation of ontological expectations does not explain the
attribution of sacredness to various “attention-grabbing” phenom-
ena. Not all counter-intuitive representations of visible or non-vis-
ible entities whose biological or psychological properties become
twisted in our minds have religious potential.
How, then, religious categories become generated and how do we
develop the category of religion to fit with both the cognitive and
the social approach to cultural materials? As Pascal Boyer has ar-
gued, religion is acquired through social interaction and is based on
the cultural transmission of domain-specific principles. This takes
place in a neutral mode, which means that there are no genetic
constraints that limit or determine human capacity to learn those
principles on which the intuitive ontology is built. As Boyer posits,
religion is based on inferential capacities that evolve in human be-
ings as a normal outcome of cognitive development (see Boyer 1998:
879). Boyer’s argument is that for religious ideas to exist it only
takes the regular inferential capacity. But to explain how specific
religious traditions evolve from the basic cognitive properties of
human mind, scholars of religion need to put counter-intuitiveness
in objects and phenomena into wider theoretical frameworks in
which the cognitive is connected with the cultural. In reference to
my theory of the sacred, I am tempted to suggest that counter-
intuitiveness in objects and phenomena need to be viewed as inter-
faces whereby the boundaries separating visible and invisible, physi-
cal or non-physical categories become represented and how they
are ritually transcended. For being religious, counter-intuitive ob-
jects, persons and phenomena need to have a specific cognitive and
normative status and become ritually manipulated in the control-
led situation of ritual and in connection with culture- and context-
specific values that are individually, socially, economically or politi-
The paper was delivered at the Annual Meeting of SSSR in Boston,
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