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Reverse Engineering Complex Cultural Concepts: Identifying Building Blocks of "Religion"

Abstract

Researchers have not yet done an adequate job of reverse engineering the complex cultural concepts of religion and spirituality in a way that allows scientists to operationalize component parts and historians of religion to consider how the component parts have been synthesized into larger socio-cultural wholes. Doing so involves two steps: (1) distinguishing between (a) the generic elements that structure definitions and (b) the specific features used to characterize the generic elements as “religious” or “sacred” and (2) disaggregating these specific features into more basic cognitive processes that scientists can operationalize and that historians can analyze in situ. Three more basic processes that interact on multiple levels are proposed: perceiving salience, assessing significance, and imagining hypothetical, counterfactual content.

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