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Dreaming in religion and pilgrimage: cognitive, evolutionary and cultural perspectives

Journal article
Authors Andreas Nordin
Published in Religion
Volume 41
Issue 2
Pages 225-249
ISSN 0048-721X
Publication year 2011
Published at School of Global Studies, Social Anthropology
Pages 225-249
Language en
Keywords dreaming; cognition; evolution; pilgrimage; religion; supernatural agents; threat simulation
Subject categories Philosophy, Ethics and Religion, Psychology, Other Humanities not elsewhere specified, Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified


Dreams are a universal human experience and they form cultural themes in folk traditions and religious rituals, such as pilgrimages and dream incubation. Dreams and dream beliefs are important since they contain representations of interacting supernatural agents that have full access to information of strategic importance to humans. The relevance of dreams often relates to the dreamers’ concerns about the future and about health, and in this sense they show similarity with divination and oracles. This article suggests that religious dreaming is underpinned by an evolved system of threat simulation that is activated in dreaming processes; this is associated with a proclivity to evoke agent concepts and to use counterintuitive representations in cultural communication. It is argued that the use of a ‘hypersensitive agency detection device’ draws upon emotionally laden threat simulation in dreaming that makes reference to counterintuitive supernatural agents that are particularly relevant. This suggests that recalling religious dreams and the cultural transmission of dream reports, narratives and interpretations rely on representations of agents in general and the salience of counterintuitive agents in particular. Furthermore, the explanatory adequacy of ‘threat simulation theory’ is related to non-apprehensive religious dreams and ‘social simulation theory’. These discussions lead on to ethnographic descriptions of the connections between ‘supernaturalism’, pilgrimage, dream beliefs and dream incubation rituals in Nepalese Himalaya and Indian Bengal.

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