Gordon Burghardt
University of Tennessee

Ritual, Play, and Animals as Formative Factors in Religious Experience and Moral Action

Project description:

Social rituals are at the core of all religions. Many scholars have derived such rituals from play, but such views have not been systematically tested. I will apply new insights and tools to the problem of ritual and play in religious experiences and the development of moral behavior. Animals play two major roles in the proposed work. First, nonhuman animals are evolutionary sources for our own play, ritual, and related behaviors. Second, animals serve as primary triggering stimuli in religious experiences and practices, grounding many of the earliest religious practices in a close relationship with nature. Through interactions with other scholars, utilizing library resources, and empirical data, I plan to work on both scholarly critical integrative analyses of play, experience, and ritual in animals and humans and tests of hypotheses using extensive video libraries, including one on a thriving Christian religious ritual only 100 years old.

Gordon M. Burghardt is Alumni Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of Psychology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee.  Dr. Burghardt received his Ph.D. in Biopsychology from the University of Chicago.  His research focus has been on comparative studies of behavioral development in diverse species, especially snakes, and has been particularly interested in bringing an ethological and evolutionary attitude to our understanding of human behavior, including religion. His current interests include the study of play, ethical, moral, and evolutionary aspects in human responses to nonhuman animals, and the origins and functions of human rituals. He has served as president of the Animal Behavior Society and of Division 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology) of the American Psychological Association.  He has edited or co-edited 5 books, including The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition (MIT Press, 2002) and authored The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits (MIT Press, 2005).