An Ethology of Religion and Art- Belief as Behavior (Routledge Studies in Religion)
An Ethology of Religion and Art: Belief as Behavior (Routledge Studies in Religion)

I have recently worked in a number of related areas in the study of religion, completing several articles and a book focusing on a reconsideration of the philosophy of religion, especially through a reconsideration of the relationship of religion and art. These articles concern a very broad reappraisal of the academic study of religion. However, growing from this is a more specific and focused topic of study concerning religion and the arts. Although a great deal has been written on the history of Christian art, and to a lesser extent on Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, or Confucian art, very little has been written on the theoretical relationship of religion in general—as a global human phenomenon involving the wide range of religious traditions and cultures—and the arts, involving all expressions of human creativity and skill definable as “art.” The twin trajectories of the study of religion—on the one hand the theological stance that expounds upon a pre-existing religious tradition, which, in the case of the Western Academy means primarily Protestant Christianity; and on the other hand the secular academic initiative towards a scientific study of religions—appear to have actively created a vacuum concerning the role of artistic creativity in the history of religions.

In fact, my experience teaching the course in “Religion and the Arts” clearly demonstrated that there is an enormous gap in our understanding of this relation reflected in a paucity of publications on the subject. The edited volume that I currently use for this course (Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ed. Art, Creativity, and the Sacred) is the best one that I can find in the area. First published in 1984 and has gone through multiple editions, but it contains little about religions of the non-Western world and no clear theory of the relations of art, creativity, or religion.

The recent volume considers such areas as Skill and the Sacred and The Common Ancestor of Art and Religion that propose a scholarly theory relating the arts of all human cultures to religion in a way that explains their close relation. Support for the proposed theoretical relation of religion and the arts comes mainly, but not exclusively, from recent cognitive studies in religion, art, and attention. The specific intersection of these areas has yet to be explored. This project grows directly out of my research into the history and philosophy of religions, especially concerning the Romanian/American historian of Religions, Mircea Eliade, whose arch but imprecise writings on art and religion were anthologized in a single volume by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts.

Here is a table of Eliade’s fiction and its translation from Romanian into other languages. This is an ongoing project and so does not claim to be complete.

You may get your copy of the 1st Edition of An Ethology of Religion and Art: Belief as Behavior (Routledge Studies in Religion) from Amazon.

Drawing from sources including the ethology of art and the cognitive science of religion “An Ethology of Religion and Art: Belief as Behavior” proposes an improved understanding of both art and religion as behaviors developed in the process of human evolution. Looking at both art and religion as closely related, but not identical, behaviors a more coherent definition of religion can be formed that avoids pitfalls such as the Eurocentric characterization of religion as belief or the dismissal of the category as nothing more than false belief or the product of scholarly invention.

The book integrates highly relevant insights from the ethology and anthropology of art, particularly the identification of “the special” by Ellen Dissanayake and art as agency by Alfred Gell, with insights from, among others, Ann Taves, who similarly identified “specialness” as characteristic of religion. It integrates these insights into a useful and accurate understanding and explanation of the relationship of art and religion and of religion as a human behavior. This in turn is used to suggest how art can contribute to the development and maintenance of religions.

The innovative combination of art, science, and religion in this book makes it a vital resource for scholars of Religion and the Arts, Aesthetics, Religious Studies, Religion and Science and Religious Anthropology.

Partial Bibliography: (this is very partial as my bibliography has now grown too extensive to reproduce here).

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ed. (1984). Art, Creativity, and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art. New York: Continuum.

Aruz, Joan (2003). The Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

Barkow, Jerome H., Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (eds.) 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Boyd, Brian (2005). “Evolutionary Theories of Art.” In Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson (eds.). The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Rethinking Theory). Chicago: Northwestern University Press: 147-176.
——— (2008a). “Art and Evolution: The Avant Garde as test case: Spiegelman in The Narrative Corpse.” Philosophy and Literature 32: 31-57.
——— (2008b). “Art as Adaptation: A Challenge.” Style 42:138-143.
——— (2009). On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pacal (1994). The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkley: University of California Press.
——— (1998). “Cognitive Tracks of Cultural Inheritance: How Evolved Intuitive Ontology Governs Cultural Transmission.” American Anthropologist 100: 876-889.
——— (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Brennan, Marcia (2010). Curating Consciousness: Mysticism and the Modern Museum. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Brumfield William C. (2008) Christianity and the Arts in Russia. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bruya, Brian, ed. (2010). Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bulbulia, Joseph, Richard Sosis, Erica Harris, Russell Grenet, Cheryl Grenet and Karen Wyman, eds. (2008). The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.

Dissanayake, Ellen (1988). What is Art for? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
——— (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
——— (2000). Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dutton, Denis (2009). The Art Instinct. New York, MY: Bloomsbury Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1986). Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts. (ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona.) New York: Crossroad.

Gell, Alfred (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hogan, Patrick Colm (2003). Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts. New York: Routledge.

Jaeger, C. Stephen (2012). Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Khan, Hazrat Inayat (1996). The Mysticism of Sound and Music. Shambhala; Revised edition.

Lehrich, Christopher (2011). “Overture and Finale: Lévi-Strauss, Music, and Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 305-325.

Luhmann, Niklas (1984). Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies, translated with an introduction by Peter Beyer, New York and Toronto: the Edwin Mellen Press.
——— (2000). Art as a Social System. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Mithen, Steven (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Pyysiäinen, Ilkkya and Veikko Anttonen, eds. (2002). Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion. London and New York: Continuum.

Reid, Jennifer I. M. (2004). Religion and Global Culture: New Terrain in the Study of Religion and the Work of Charles H. Long. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Rennie, Bryan (2017) “The Ethology of Art and Religion,” Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 83 no. 1: 243-269.
——— (2016) “Caveat Lector: On Reading Eliade’s Fiction as Corroborating an Understanding of Religion.” Storia, antropologia e scienze del linguaggio XXXI nos. 2-3: forthcoming.
——— (2016) “Beauty and Religion,” in Religion: Material Religion edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA: 21-43. Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
——— (2016) “The Historical Method and the Study of Religion,” in Religion: Social Religion edited by William B. Parsons. Part of the Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Religion series. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA: 293-313.
——— (2016) “Can Philosophy Save the Study of Religion? A Review Essay of Kevin SchilbrackÕs Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28 no. 1: 68-83.
——— (2015) “Sui Generis” in Vocabulary for the Study of Religion edited by Robert A. Segal and Kocku von Stuckrad. Brill: Leiden and Boston. Volume 3: 431- 436.
——— (2015) “Guest EditorÕs Introduction: Religion, Art, and Cognition.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 9 no. 3: 251-258.
——— (2015) “Religion and Art BehaviorÑA Theory and an Example: The Biblical Prophets as Postcolonial Street Theater.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 9 no. 3: 312-334.
——— (2014) “The Religio non est sui generis Confession: Once more unto the Religious Studies/Theology Divide,” The Toronto Journal of Theology 30/1: 101-110.
——— (2013) “Religion and the Secular: Two Very Different Perspectives that Find them Difficult to Distinguish (Review Article of The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric by Russell T. McCutcheon. Routledge, 2003,” Implicit Religion 16/3: 337-350.
——— (2012). “The History (and Philosophy) of Religions.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, 24-32.
——— (2011). “Fact and Interpretation: Sui Generis Religion, Experience, Ascription, and Art.” Archaeus: Studies in the History of Religions 51-74.
——— (2010) “After this Strange Starting: Method and Theory and the Philosophy of Religion(s)” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22/2-3 (2010): 116-135.
——— (2009). “Myths, Models, and Metaphors: Religion as Model and the Philosophy of Science.” Religion 39/4: 340-347.
——— (2007). “Mircea Eliade: The Perception of the Sacred in the Profane, Intention, Reduction, and Cognitive Theory.” Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 43/1: 73-98.
——— (2002). “Il n’y a pas un Solution de la Continuité: Eliade, Historiography, and Pragmatic Narratology in the Study of Religion.” ARC: The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 30: 115-137.

Root-Bernstein, Robert (1996). “The Sciences and Arts Share a Common Creative Aesthetic.” In The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science, ed. A. I. Tauber. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 49-82.
——— (2000). “Art Advances Science.” Nature 407: 134.

Scharfstein Ben-Ami (2009). Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Sperber, Dan (1975). Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tooby, John and Lisa Cosmides (1995). “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In The Adapted mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Barkow, J. H., L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby (eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press: 19-136.
——— (2001). “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Towards an evolutionary theory of aesthetics, fiction and the arts.” Substance 30 (2001): 6-27.

Weisbuch, M., & Ambady, N. (2008). “Non-conscious Routes to Building Culture: Nonverbal Components of Socialization.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 15, 159-183. Reprinted in C. Whitehead (Eds.), The Origins of Consciousness in the Social World. Exeter, UK: Imprint: 159-183.

Wiseman, Boris (2007). Lévi-Strauss, Anthropology and Aesthetics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard (2010). Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Vásquez, Manuel (2010). More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press.

Zunshine, Lisa, ed. (2010). Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Please see my publications and presentations for previous research

Dr. Bryan Rennie was first employed at Westminster College in 1992 as a part-time instructor and hired into a tenure-track position in philosophy and religion in 1994 and held the Vira I. Heinz Chair as Professor of Religion from 2002 until 2017. Dr. Rennie served as Chair of the Department of Religion, History, Philosphy and Classics from 2007 until 2014. Bryan’s current interest is in the relationship of religion and the creative arts and he is researching the ethology (the study of behavior as an evolved trait) of art and religion. Connect with Bryan via email at, Phone: (724) 946-7151, or website at



    We are a congregation of Christian people seeking to spread the news of Jesus Christ through bible and prayers. We welcome people from all walks of life, no matter what their origin, race, color or nationality. Our faith community is a diverse and inclusive community that emphasizes the display of God’s glory in all races and cultures.

Comments are closed.