Ancestors_Metropolitan Museum_New York_Risto Uro

Cognitive approaches in history and ethnography

TUM-3312 Cognitive approaches in the history and ethnography of religion

This lecture course introduces students to the theory and methods of the Cognitive Science of Religion, with particular emphasis on its application in the history of ancient religions and the ethnography of contemporary religious movements.

The interdisciplinary research field known as the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) started at the beginning of the 1990s and studies cross-culturally recurrent patterns of religious thought and behaviour. In this course, we will make acquaintance with different schools and research traditions of CSR, including the latest developments in the field. We will discuss the new insights that CSR yields about questions such as why we find religion in every culture, what explains similarities and differences across religious traditions, how new religious movements emerge and succeed, and how models and theories from CSR can be used in religious history and ethnography.

The course falls into two parts. The teacher of the first part is professor Istvan Czachesz (University of Tromsö). It deals with the larger framework and background of CSR (e.g., cognitive revolution, evolutionary theory, evolutionary psychology) and some of the key issues and theories of the field, such as the theory of minimal counterintuitiveness (MCI), cognitive theories of ritual and magic, as well as cognitive research on cooperation and religious experience. Examples taken in the first part are mainly from religious history, especially from ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

The second part is taught in Finnish by Outi Pohjanheimo. It discusses cognitive theories of religion in the context of ethnography. What is ethnography? What are differences between text-data and data collected in the field, “classical” ethnography and CSR-based ethnography? The teaching is based on the latest research. Pohjanheimo has elaborated theoretically informed ethnography based on theories of intuitive thinking and emotions. This method answers the question: how to study expressions of subconcious in the field. Besides this methodological approach she will also present her model of enrichment of magical thinking, which she will defend publically in her doctoral thesis (18.1.2019). The latter part of course will answer the questions like: How can students of contemporary religions benefit from theories and findings in CSR, for example, recent advances in emotion studies or research on magical and intuitive thinking. In the second part of the course students will also practice fieldwork.

The first part of the course will be organized as intensive teaching and the language is English. The second part will be taught in Finnish; an alternative track for the latter part will be offered for non-Finnish speaking participants. Also an alternative track will be offered for those students who want participate in the ethnographic part of the course, but have previously taken an introductory course on CSR with Czachesz.

Kurssin toisen osan kuvaus suomeksi:
Etnografiaosuudessa tutustumme sekä teoriaan että harjoitamme tutkivaa oppimista. Puhumme etnografiasta; mitä se on, minkälaista aineistoa etnografia tuottaa, ja miten intuitiivista ajattelua voidaan havainnoida etnografisessa tutkimuksessa. Teoreettisesti ohjautuva (intuitiivisen ajattelun havainnointiin erikoistunut) etnografia perustuu kognitiivisen uskontotieteen väitöskirjaan, joka tarkastetaan julkisesti opettajan väitöstilaisuudessa (18.1.2019), joka osuu kurssimme ensimmäisen tapaamisen jälkeen. Kurssilaiset ovat tervetulleita tilaisuuteen (ei pakollinen). Kurssin teoriaosuudessa käymme läpi samaa tutkimustietoa intuitiivisesta ajattelusta kaksoisprosessointiteorian näkökulmasta, emootioista, affektiivisista säätelyjärjestelmistä, virtauskokemuksista, hierarkioista, olemusajattelusta, intuitiivisista taipumuksista olettaa ”korkeammalla olevia” ja väitöskirjassa esitetty malli maagisen ajattleun rikastumisesta. Harjoittelemme intuitiivisen ja maagis-uskonnollisen ajattelun tunnistamista sekä luennolla audiovisuaalista materiaalia analysoimalla että ihmisten parissa.

12.12.2018 at 12:00 - 3.1.2019 at 23:59


Here is the course’s teaching schedule. Check the description for possible other schedules.

Tue 8.1.2019
12:15 - 15:45
Wed 9.1.2019
12:15 - 15:45
Thu 10.1.2019
12:15 - 15:45
Wed 16.1.2019
09:15 - 11:45
Wed 23.1.2019
09:15 - 11:45
Wed 30.1.2019
09:15 - 11:45
Wed 6.2.2019
09:15 - 11:45


Reading assigments (First part)

I) Two chapters from M. H. Luther & D, Wiebe (eds), Religion Explained? The Cognitive Science of Religion After Twenty-five Years (Routledge 2017): 1) Chapter 7 (“The Long Way from the Cognitive Science to History: To Shorten the Distance and Fill in the Blanks,” by P. Pachis and O. Panagiotidou); 2) Select the second chapter from the volume according to your interest. You can read the chapters online at Helsinki University Library (HELKA)
II) I. Czachesz, “Evolutionary theory on the move: New perspectives on evolution in the cognitive science of religion.” Filosofia Unisinos: Unisinos Journal of Philosophy 19 (3): 63–71. (Pdf attached)
III) E. Kundtová & A. Geertz, “Ritual and Embodied Cognition”. R. Uro et al. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual (OUP 2018), 74–94. Online version at Helsinki University Library (HELKA)


  • to recognize the key issues, topics and approaches in the field of the Cognitive Science of Religion and their relevance for the historical and ethnographic study of religion
  • to analyze how empirical and scientific methods are complementing more traditional humanities approaches and how methodological pluralism sheds light on religion in contemporary society
  • to describe and compare the nature of the theories and approaches discussed in the course
  • to develop observations abilities and to apply and test theoretical knowledge in the field
  • to apply methods discussed in the course to analyze historical or ethnographic materials, depending on students’ respective study interests

The course work consists of reading assignments, fieldwork practices, and a final paper assignment.

Reading assignments: Students will read a selection of assigned articles and book chapters. A short reading diary entry has to be submitted on each assignment before the respective meeting. Detailed instructions on writing a reading diary will be provided. One page on each assignment is sufficient. Familiarity with the assignments and their main points will be expected in the lectures and discussions. The course meetings will be interactive, including both introductory presentations on the key subjects of the day and ample room for discussing questions, critical points, and ideas.

Fieldwork practices: Students will develop observation skills, first with using examples in the classroom, and then in the field through participatory observation in some religious community. Detailed instructions will be given during the course.

Final essay/reflection paper: A short final paper (5–7 pages) in which a selected cognitive theory or perspective is applied to historical or ethnographic materials. Help with choosing a topic and theory/perspective for the paper will be provided during the course meetings. The essay can be written in English or Finnish.

A list of articles and book chapters for reading assignments will be made available on the course website.