Pascal Boyer, Washington University in St. Louis

Religions Can't Be Tamed

What if we understood more about spiritual practices that exist outside the sanctions of organized religions? What if there are important and intuitive spiritual needs that aren’t being satisfied within organized world religions? What if we could gain important insights from these “wild religions?” What if the ways in which religions address misfortune turn out to be a key to their success?

Grant Title
Wild Religions: A Planning Grant
Legal Organization
Washington University in St. Louis
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 February 2020
End Date: 30 June 2021
Grant Amount

Wild Religions are Persistent

In Morocco, if a family member falls ill, a devout Muslim may well bypass the confines of his religion and instead visit a marabou, a mystic healer who operates more or less underground. The marabou may take a piece of paper with a verse of the Quran written on it, dip the paper into a glass a water, then offer the glass to his visitor to be sipped as a supplication for healing. This ritual is nowhere to be found in the canon of Islam. But it has nonetheless persisted and is still being practiced today. 

Mystic healing, shamanism, ancestor worship, voodoo, warding off spirits, even tarot cards and other means of divination – these are practices found in the world’s many “wild religions.” And these are the practices that fascinate Professor Pascal Boyer, an evolutionary anthropologist and psychologist on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who is widely considered one of the most influential founders of the cognitive science of religion.

“Wild religions existed before the emergence of organized religions in most prehistoric societies. They’re also found today in small-scale, so-called ‘tribal’ or ‘traditional’ societies. And they still persist alongside organized religions in most large-scale societies,” Boyer explains.

With the support of a grant from the Templeton Religion Fund, he’s now established a cohort of a dozen scholars from history, anthropology, psychology and religious studies. Together, they intend to mingle their expertise and accumulated evidence in a detailed, collaborative research project aimed at examining wild religions.

Wild religions existed before the emergence of organized religions in most prehistoric societies. They’re also found today in small-scale, so-called ‘tribal’ or ‘traditional’ societies. And they still persist alongside organized religions in most large-scale societies.
– Pascal Boyer, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

Looking Beyond Doctrines, Leaders and Rituals

Despite past and continuing prevalence, wild religions have been largely ignored or treated superficially by researchers, Boyer says. As a result, society’s prevailing attitudes about religion have been distorted by the ones we’re most familiar with –  those with well-cultivated doctrines such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. According to Boyer, “We’ve forgotten that a great deal of religious activity was happening before those doctrines and is still being practiced at their margins.”

That oversight, he’s certain, is an unfortunate one. Existing outside, and within, organized and “tamed” religions, the practices of wild religion are authentic expressions of spontaneous spirituality and, as such, he maintains, they may hold secrets that can contribute to a much richer understanding of the psychology of religion as a whole: why, what and how people believe.

Harvey Whitehouse, Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion at the University of Oxford, who is among the collaborators helping to establish the foundation for Boyer’s empirical research, concurs. “Different scholars have different ways of trying to boil religion down to a single thing,” he says. “But I think one of the hallmarks of this project is that it doesn’t look for that kind of magic bullet. Instead, it fractionates religions into its myriad component features and tries to explain how they are grounded in different aspects of our cognitive apparatus.”

The Persistence of “Why me?”

Initially focused on creating a database to map the beliefs and practices among the diversity of wild religions, past and present, the project will look for similarities and patterns and then analyze why these commonalities exist. In particular, the research intends to look closely at how various wild religions address misfortune.

According to Boyer, unlike doctrinal religions, wild religions don’t often focus on heady matters such as the origin of the world, the root of evil or the salvation of the soul. Instead, they’re concerned with immediate, pragmatic goals – curing someone of disease, ensuring crops succeed, finding out why some people suffer a calamity while others don’t. They’re a way of dealing with witches, ancestors, ghosts, spirits, and so on.

Boyer believes this difference is crucial and can lead to a broader understanding of the psychology of religion. “Wild religions activate universal cognitive systems concerned with threat detection and precaution,” he explains. With that in mind, the research he’s leading intends to investigate how this deep-seated cognitive response to risk – in essence, proactively “fighting” for safety and a solution, as opposed to “fleeing” or “freezing” – helps explain both the emergence and survival of wild religions across cultures. “When misfortune happens, a very common human question is, ‘Why me?’ So maybe,” he speculates, “the way religious traditions address misfortune is crucial to their success.”

With that in mind, later stages of the research will examine the dynamic of religious change, testing the hypothesis that wild traditions tend to enjoy a “sticky” advantage within cultures while doctrinal organizations exert greater political influence in the here and now.

To truly understand human religious capacities and dispositions, Boyer says, we shouldn’t focus only on “tame” traditions, but also expand our frame of reference by looking at the more ancient, ubiquitous and spontaneous forms of religious thought and activity. The research he’s now leading is an important step toward making that happen.

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