Research case study: Modes of Religiosity (MOR) theory of religious transmission

Social anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse formalized his theory of “modes of religiosity” based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s.53 Whitehouse noticed that there were two different types of religious activity and transmission in the Pomio Kivung, a religious movement in East New Britain Province, encompassing thousands of people in many villages. Pomio Kivung followers would frequently gather to perform rituals and listen to preachers reiterate laws. Yet there were also smaller splinter groups that periodically emerged every five years or so in particular villages and then dissolved. The rituals of these splinter groups were much more emotionally intense and quite often unpleasant.

When he returned to the libraries of Cambridge, Whitehouse discovered that the patterns he had observed in Papua New Guinea were not unique. It seemed that rituals in other parts of the world also tended to conform to two characteristic patterns. These ritual patterns were also related to the transmission of religion and even socio-political organization.54 As we discussed earlier in the chapter, Whitehouse dubbed one package of ritual elements as “imagistic” and the other “doctrinal,” and these two packages of rituals and associated socio-political features Modes of Religiosity (MOR).55

Like other generalizing theories about religion and socio-political organization in the social sciences, MOR is ambitious. MOR theory is, however, distinctive compared to other theories about religious dynamics that are broad in scope for at least seven reasons:

1 MOR fractionates the category of ritual into distinct, empirically tractable components

Like other CSR approaches, MOR theory fractionates the category of ritual into distinct cognitive and behavioral patterns that appear cross-culturally, such as causally opaque action, and euphoric and dysphoric arousal. These components can be investigated independently and empirically as having particular psycho-social effects, such as on cohesion and cooperation.

2 MOR attributes a central role to human cognition in the formation of religious practices

Like other theories in the cognitive science of religion, MOR attributes human psychology with a critical role in underpinning religious forms. For instance, at the heart of MOR is the theory that the differences in two characteristic packages of rituals and socio-political features of communities are guided in part by the way crucial aspects of the religion are recalled and transmitted. Memory systems constrain the types of rituals we see throughout religious communities. In the doctrinal mode, frequent repetition of doctrinal information activates semantic memory for religious teaching and implicit memory for rou- tinized ritual procedures. In the imagistic mode, infrequent repetition with high sensory pageantry rituals creates episodic memories for events.

3 MOR specifies the mechanisms connecting ritual participation with identity fusion in the imagistic mode and identification in the doctrinal mode

Most social scientists endorse some version of the claim that participating in collective rituals promotes social cohesion, yet lack an explanation of how, precisely, participation gives rise to social solidarity. Later formulations of MOR theory also emphasized the effect of rituals on measurable forms of group alignment. For example, Whitehouse and colleagues have shown how those with shared collective identity who undergo emotionally intense (e.g. painful rituals) may experience the fusion of personal and group identities, resulting in a visceral sense of oneness with the group. Identity fusion results from specific kinds of rituals typically found in kin-like groups around the world, from tribes in Papua New Guinea to Libyan insurgents and Muslim fundamentalists in Indonesia.56

By contrast, doctrinal modes of ritual practice promote shared social norms through instruction, are stored in semantic memory, and result in intuitions of shared group membership and trustworthiness based on identification, a depersonalizing form of group alignment. These later formulations are where current research inspired by MOR has focused, and we will turn to this in more detail when we consider the group-level effects of ritual participation in the next chapter.

4 MOR generates testable hypotheses concerning the relationships between psychological and social-level variables

Like many anthropological theories, MOR was inspired by ethnographic insights based upon Whitehouse’s first-hand experience of participant observation in Papua New Guinea. However, unlike most social anthropologists, Whitehouse used his ethnographic observations to generate a set of testable hypotheses. He attempted to explain the underlying patterns in divergent modes of religiosity in Papua New Guinea and other places around the world by partnering with psychologists and other scientists to develop and test these hypotheses experimentally, comparatively, and longitudinally.

5 Marty aspects of MOR have received empirical support from a variety of methodologies

Whitehouse and other researchers have tested the purported relationships in MOR theory, and many aspects of the theory have received support. Support includes data derived from neurophysiological studies57,58 and psychological experiments with children59,60,61 and adults 62 For example, concerning the connection between sensory pageantry, emotional arousal, memory, and perceived ritual efficacy. For instance, experiments with adults have demonstrated that high arousal rituals do tend to generate spontaneous exegetical reflection (SER) about the meaning of the rituals.63

Broader claims about the association between socio-political conditions that facilitate different forms of religion are understandably more difficult to test. Whitehouse invited archaeologists and historians to consider how detailed case studies might support or refute his theories. These attempts at goodness-of-fit between MOR and real-world data have been met with mainly positive reviews64,65 ethnographic66 archaeological and historical records 67,68,69,70 and data from computer simulation modeling has provided some support.71 Building on these quantitative methods, further evidence for core predictions of the theory continues to appear.72,73

6 MOR is adaptable in response to data

MOR qualifies as a scientific theory because it is responsive to change based upon empirical findings. For example, due to scholarly feedback, MOR has undergone many clarifications and modifications. For instance, based on historical data, the modes are presented as less discrete and more continuum-like than was initially proposed.74

7 MOR is grounded in an evolutionary account

MOR draws upon individual and group-level evolutionary processes to explain the recurrent features of religion. For instance, based upon a selectionist model, the theory assumes that memorable rituals are more likely to survive than those that are not. Evolutionary theory also underpins other aspects of MOR. For instance, one explanation for identity fusion in imagis- tic ritual experiences focuses on evolved coalitionary psychology and tribal instincts. Namely, groupmates with whom we share important life events are perceived as “psychological kin” because the human brain is predisposed for sacrificial behavior towards close kin. This strategy is genetically adaptive, yet in specific contexts, such as shared ritual experiences, we unconsciously misattribute the strategy to non-kin, where it facilitates pro-group behavior irrespective of genetic relatedness.


  • 1 In your own words, summarize the claims of Modes of Religiosity theory (MOR).
  • 2 Compare and contrast the Modes of Religiosity theory (MOR) to Ritual Form Hypothesis (RFH) in the previous section. Note similarities and differences between them. You can use bullet points, diagrams, sentences, or anything else that helps you answer the question.
  • 3 What do you think demarks this research on rituals as typical of the CSR approach to ritual?
  • 4 What are the implications of MOR on the religion-as-irrational thesis proposed by new atheists (covered earlier in the chapter)?
  • 5 What do you think are the real-world implications of MOR theory on explaining rituals around the world?

Further reading

  • 1 Whitehouse, Harvey. Modes of religiosity: A cognitive theory of religious transmission. Rowman Altamira, 2004.
  • 2 Whitehouse, Harvey, Jonathan A. Lanman “The ties that bind us: Ritual, fusion, and identification.” Current Anthropology 55, no. 6 (2014): 1-22.
  • 3 Atkinson, Quentin D., and Harvey Whitehouse. “The cultural morpho- space of ritual form: Examining modes of religiosity cross-culturally.” Evolution and Human Behavior 32, no. 1 (2011): 50-62.
  • 4 Whitehouse, Harvey, and James Laidlaw, eds. Ritual and memory: Toward a comparative anthropology of religion. Vol. 6. Rowman Altamira, 2004.

Discussion questions

  • 1 Go through this chapter again and note down all of the contributions of CSR to the study of ritual.
  • 2 Read the section in this chapter again, “What are rituals?” and compare it to the section in “What is religion?” in Chapter 2: Core Assumptions. How are they similar or different? Write down your answer in a few sentences.
  • 3 Imagine that you entered a competition to teach kids a new ritual. The winner is judged by the number of children who successfully perform the behavior. Based on what you have learned in this chapter, describe the features of the action, and describe what you would tell the children about the behavior.
  • 4 Do you think that all CSR theories on rituals (e.g. RFH, MOR) have implications on whether or not they work? Write down your answer in a few sentences.
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