Cognitivism in the anthropology of religion and religious studies is an approach to religion that appeals to evolved or selected architectures of cognition from which theories of—and explanations for—religion, can be generated. Cognitive approaches to religion are hardly new, though today, cognitive theory draws upon an evidence base heavily influenced by the insights of evolutionary psychology. The writings of scholars such as Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer and Ilkka Pyysiäinen are defining this new field of research into religion. In this essay I want to consider the place of Claude Lévi-Strauss in relation to this “cognitive turn” in the study of religion (Jensen 2009: 145). Lévi-Strauss’ work has been described as an approach that “we could call cognitivist today” (Hénaff 1998: 119) but I will argue that his cognitively oriented writings on religion lead—though not unequivocally—to an alternative theory of the mind to that posed by evolutionary psychology.
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