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Religion explained : the evolutionary…
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Religion explained : the evolutionary origins of religious thought (2001)

by Pascal Boyer

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“Explaining” religion has been a cottage industry within the field of anthropology at least since its academic institutionalization in the United States about a century ago. Pascal Boyer, the Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, rejects almost all of these traditional explanations out of hand in the first chapter of his book, and not without reason. He says that all attempts to explain religious thought – the urge to explain the origin of the universe, the need to provide comfort or reassurance, a deliverance from mortality, the need to keep society together, or to provide an objective basis for morality – all fail in some important way. Unfortunately, what he offers in its place are convoluted, disorganized arguments, and the occasional ad hoc rationalization.

Boyer is an anthropologist himself, but is mostly dissatisfied with the reasons that classical anthropology has offered for the persistence of religious belief, as noted above. In “Beyond Belief,” he attempts to fuse the precepts of cognitive psychology with evolutionary theory, perhaps with a bit of sociobiology thrown in. His approach is one that is wholly rationalist and structuralist. In a sense these two terms are interrelated. “Rationalism” (and I use the word in the sense that philosophers word – that is, in opposition to empiricism) suggests that the human mind is built in such a way, of more elementary structures, which facilitate learning. This is not to say that we don’t learn from the world around us, as empiricists suggest; instead, it is an approach which assumes that the structure of the mind itself enables the acquisition of certain cognitive skills (language, belief, et cetera). Structuralism suggests that elements in a given domain – in this instance, religious belief – are impossible to understand without placing them in a larger, overarching system or structure (or “structuration,” as Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss were fond of saying.)

Boyer begins by discussing what supernatural concepts are like. He suggests that mental ideas are like templates. For example, we have the template of “animal” in our head, which might contain mini-ideas like “needs to eat,” “reproduces,” and “produces waste.” The thing about these templates is that they’re remarkably adaptable; we use these Big Idea templates to explain all living phenomena that we see. Boyer suggests that this template works because it’s structurally so close to the way religious (or supernatural) ideas, which change the template in one important way: they have one, and only one, idea in them that intuitively goes against everything else in the template. For example, the template “women” might include a lot of things, but “can have a child without having sex” isn’t one of them; similarly for the template of “man” and “rise from the dead” (both found in Christian theology). Psychological experiments have shown that stories with pedestrian details are difficult for people to retain, while the very rare fantastical element makes a story much more prominent in the memory, and this might have something to do with the persistence of certain supernatural beliefs. Or, as Boyer puts it, “the religious concept preserves all the relevant default inferences except the ones that are explicitly barred by the counterintuitive element,” and thus “a combination of one violation with preserved expectations is probably a cognitive optimum, a concept that is both attention-grabbing and that allows rich inferences” (p. 73 and p. 86, respectively).

Furthermore, the minds that create this series of rich inferences is the rule, not the exception. Boyer gives other kinds of intuitive understanding, like the physics of solid objects (which Boyer calls “intuitive physics”), physical causation, goal-directed motion, and an ability to link structure to function (p. 96-97). This takes us up through approximately the first third of the book.

Unfortunately much of the book is an utter mess as far as trying to present a cogent, coherent argument is concerned. From here on out, we get answers to chapter headings like “Why Ritual?”, “Why Gods and Spirits?”, and “Why is Religion About Death?” that do in fact provide answers, but seem to have no direct relevance to the questions raised in the first third of the book. Here and there, he will pick up the idea of the template, which he spent so long developing, but mostly ignores it in the formulation of arguments, if you can even grace the remainder of the book with so formal a name.

A saving grace of the book are what Boyer calls the progress boxes that are distributed throughout the book, which sum up the arguments in case you’ve lost the thread of his thought somewhere – a not unlikely prospect. The progress boxes are used liberally in the first part of the book, and appear nowhere in approximately the last two thirds except for pages 326-328, which constitute one big progress box that recapitulates the logic of Boyer’s entire approach. For someone interested in Boyer’s approach who doesn’t care to read the entire book, reading only the progress boxes probably isn’t a bad idea. They’ll leave you with the big ideas, and several of the more important details.

I appreciate this book for offering a fairly in vogue approach to a divisive, controversial topic. There are wonderful ideas here, like that of the template and how religious memes need to violate one intuitive idea on a template to be evolutionarily successful enough to be transmitted. I just wish Boyer would have been able to better follow the lines of his own logic, or tie the loose threads together into something more cohesive. He does provide a chapter-by-chapter section for further reading. Perhaps in one of these, a better exposition of these ideas can be found. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Jul 7, 2012 |
The intent of this book is to use anthropology and cognitive science to "explain" why religious beliefs developed (and are still common) in humans. I started reading this book with the expectation that it was intended as popular science; but it assumed that the reader already had a background in anthropology and cognitive science. Boyer made his explanations using terminology that was unnecessarily complex; and although the meaning could be discerned from the context, it made the narrative into very heavy reading. Furthermore, he made many bold statements without providing evidence, possibly because he figured his readers had a background in this area and knew where he was coming from. The examples he did provide often fell short for me as a scientist--I felt there were too many obvious loopholes to the experiments described, and it was unclear whether these loopholes were addressed. Overall, I think this book may be interesting to someone who has already read a lot of literature in this field, but I wouldn't recommend it to someone with a casual interest, nor as introductory material. ( )
  The_Hibernator | Jun 25, 2012 |
Does Boyer really explain religion? Not really but he does present some arguments for aspects of the human mind that mean that what we call religion (or the supernatural) are part and parcel of what makes us human. I did find the book interesting though it was repetitive in places. ( )
1 vote calm | Jun 7, 2012 |
I wanted to like this book. It deals with the human onological systems which result in religion, a subject I'm very interested in. However, the author's style was completely off-putting. In the opening chapters he's glib, and his footnotes range from sloppy to non-existent. Some of his arguments are aimed at straw men, ideas about religion that have long been acknowledged as insufficient. Meanwhile, his long lists of examples often leave huge gaps, particularly in the area where religion as he defines it (must have a super-natural element) overlaps with activity which he wouldn't consider religious.

After giving up on following his argument, I tried to skim the text and the footnotes, trying to figure out what else I might read that might answer some of the questions he clearly wasn't going to deal with. However, his style of extensive anecdotal cases with the points he's trying to make about the cases not always clearly deligneated (and certainly not adequately footnoted), made it too tedious to continue.

Tim was less reluctant to follow the argument as presented, but still found the book vaguely unsatisfying. ( )
2 vote aulsmith | May 25, 2012 |
I found this book a bit disappointing. Maybe as a scientist I like to get people to get to the point a bit quicker. For the insight it provided (not so much), it was a long slog to read. ( )
  yapete | May 31, 2008 |
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A neighbor in the village tells me that I should protect myself against witches.
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Some people say that the origin of religion is a long-forgotten visit from wise extraterrestrial aliens who were compassionate enough to leave us with fragments of their knowledge. These people will not be interested in the kind of discoveries I discuss here.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0465006965, Paperback)

What's it all about? Though we might never answer the really big questions--with good reason--maybe we can understand why we ask them. Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer tackles this topic in the unapologetically titled Religion Explained, and it is sure to polarize his readers. Some will think it's an impermissible invasion of mental territory beyond the reach of reason; others will see it as the first step toward a more complete understanding of human nature--and Boyer is acutely aware of the emotionally charged nature of his work. This knowledge informs his decision to proceed without caution, as he warns readers early on that most will risk being offended by some of his considerations. Readers who can lay aside their biases will find great rewards here; Boyer's wide scholarship and knack for elegant writing are reasons enough for reading his book.

That gods and spirits are construed very much like persons is probably one of the best-known traits of religion. Indeed, the Greeks had already noticed that people create gods in their own image.... All this is familiar, indeed so familiar that for a long time anthropologists forgot that this propensity requires an explanation. Why then are gods and spirits so much like humans?

Peppering his study with examples from all over the world, particularly the Fang people of Africa, Boyer offers plenty of evidence for his theory that religious institutions exist to maintain particular threads of social integrity. Though he uses the tools of evolutionary psychology, he is more careful than most EP proponents to avoid ad hoc and circular arguments. Best of all, at least to those unmortified at the idea of examining religion critically, his theories are potentially testable. Even if he turns out to be dead wrong, at least Religion Explained offers a new and powerful framework for thinking about our spiritual lives. --Rob Lightner

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:17 -0400)

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"This book is a milestone on the road to a new behavioral understanding of religion, basing itself on what has come to be known as cognitive anthropology, and pointedly ignoring much work done over the past one hundred years in the behavioral study of religion and in the psychological anthropology of religion... Despite its limitations, this book is a first-rate attempt to move the study of religion in the direction desperately needed now more than ever" -- www.human-nature.com.… (more)

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