The Spiritual Beings : A Darwinian Cognitive Account Essay

The Spiritual Beings : A Darwinian Cognitive Account Essay

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In this essay I will consider Stewart Guthrie 's paper Spiritual Beings: A Darwinian Cognitive Account. The purpose of this essay is to outline Guthrie 's argument about where animism comes from, and where it fits into religion. I will explain his argument as to why gods and spirits are often depicted as invisible and/or intangible, despite being anthropomorphisms. I will argue that although his argument is compelling it presents two weaknesses. Firstly, the resultant definition of religion seem restrictive. Secondly that his argument fails to take into account atheism.

In explaining where animism comes from and how it relates to religion, Guthrie begins by providing two definitions of animism. Firstly as the belief in spiritual beings, and secondly "the attribution of life to the biologically lifeless". In order to further these definitions, Guthrie presents "A Cognitive Theory", with the premise that religion is simply a system of anthropomorphism; which is defined as "the over-detection of human like qualities" in the world around us. This attribution of life to lifeless things is Guthrie 's concept of animism, he claims that animism is derived from our need to ascribe agents to the occurrences in the world around us. He further states that "animism is basic to religion, if not sufficient for it."

The evidence he gives is as follows. In order to make sense of the ambiguous and complicated world we live in we need a way in which to perceive phenomena. For any given event there could be numerous causes, and instinctively we choose the cause of most significance. These causes are generally ones that represents a humanlike agent. As these agents are not always easy to detect - we often assume there is a humanlike agent beh...

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...d no reason as to why people do not. Do atheists fail to anthropomorphize, despite the fact that it is referred to as a biological adaptation? Or does further education lead to a less ambiguous world, and therefore less necessity to discover agents in our environment?

In this essay I have evaluated Guthrie 's claim of where animism sits in relation to religion. I argued that his claim that animism is sufficient for religion results in an incomplete definition of religion, and that his argument doesn’t account for people without religious beliefs. Further studies might address research into whether anthropomorphism creates religious belief in some and not others, or other research into his theory 's stance on atheism.


Guthrie, Stewart. "Spiritual beings: a Darwinian, cognitive account." Bulbulia et al., eds., Evolution of Religion (2008): 239-245.

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