The Henry Myers Lecturship on the Role of Religion in Society was founded by Henry Myers, a Fellow of the Institute, in 1945 "to further the study of man's mental and spiritual development". The Henry Myers Lecturer is elected every two years by the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In making the election, the terms of the original foundation are interpreted in an inclusive and contemporary manner.

Prior Recipients

The following RAI lectures have been recorded and are available online to listen to or download. Videos of other RAI events are available on our YouTube channel here.

2022 Henry Myers Lecture by Harvey Whitehouse

Rethinking Ritual: How rituals made our world… and how they could save it

Rituals provide a way of defining the boundaries of social groups and binding their members together. This Myers Lecture attempts to unravel the psychology behind these processes, to explain how ritual behaviour evolved and how different modes of ritual performance have shaped global history over many millennia. Efforts to test the ‘ritual modes’ theory have used a wide variety of methods ranging from field research, large scale multi-country surveys, and controlled experiments through to mathematical modelling and quantitative analysis of archaeological, ethnographic, and historical datasets. The results of this research point to new ways of addressing cooperation problems in the twenty-first century: from preventing violent extremism and tackling crime to managing global pandemics and motivating action on the climate crisis.

The lecture is available here.

2020 Henry Myers Lecture by David Gellner

The Spaces of Religion: A View from South Asia

Do assaults on distinctions and deconstructions of concepts inherited from the Enlightenment make any difference? Religion, possibly the most misleading such concept, has proved highly resistant to the acid of cross-cultural comparison. Debates about the nature of religion go back to sociocultural anthropology’s beginnings as a discipline and beyond. Proposed definitions have been numerous, but none has come close to universal acceptance, mainly because of the secularized essentialism and intellectualism of Abrahamic and especially Protestant ways of thinking that underlie conventional definitions. I argue that by looking closely at the way religious phenomena are conceptualized in South Asia, and especially at how distinct types of religion are practised in characteristically different spaces, a fresh take on the subject is possible. Religion as practised is not one thing but (at least) three distinct activities and should be conceptualized as such. But, if that is so, how and why has the totalizing conventional view been so pervasive and so powerful? Seeking the answer to that question takes us back to the constitution of modernity and the relationship of religion to the nation-state. The way forward is to contest the way in which religion has become the last bastion of pure essences.

This lecture is available here.

2012 Henry Myers Lecture by Ian Hacking

The Anthropology (and Archaeology) of numbers

We are, among many other things, the mathematical animal. That is a fact about human nature, a fitting subject for anthropology to address. How did mathematics become possible for a species like ours, in a world like this one? That is a question in ecological history, and prehistory, to which many disciplines are now offering fragmentary answers—cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, neurology, and developmental psychology, for example, but also the history of science. I shall discuss how ethnography and ‘the archaeology of mind’ can contribute to understanding this aspect of being human.

The lecture is available here.

2010 Henry Myers Lecture by Sir Geoffrey Lloyd

Humanity between gods and beasts? Ontologies in question

Wherein lies the humanity of human beings? Many conflicting answers have been attempted in ancient and in modern times, with many focussing on the triadic relationship between humans, gods and beasts. This lecture will review a wide range of suggestions, from those of ancient Greeks and Chinese, to recent anthropological proposals (by Viveiros de Castro and Descola in particular) of alternative ontologies. We have every reason to take rival human understandings seriously, but that should not be thought to lead to radical relativism, let alone to a breakdown of mutual intelligibility. Rather, they offer resources for exploring the substantive questions and for reflecting on the propensity of human beings to entertain or presuppose strong views on, precisely, what makes humans human. While evolutionary biology, ethology, cognitive science and anthropology itself have all contributed to an increased recognition of the complexities of the question, we need the input not just of those disciplines, but also of philosophy and of history, to evaluate potential answers. In that spirit the lecture offers an interdisciplinary commentary on the problems.

The lecture is available here.