Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
Many of our questions about religion, says renowned anthropologist Pascal Boyer, are no longer mysteries. We are beginning to know how to answer questions such as "Why do people have religion?" Using findings from anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Religion Explained shows how this aspect of human consciousness is increasingly admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation. This brilliant and controversial book gives readers the first scientific explanation for what religious feeling is really about, what it consists of, and where it comes from.
A neighbor in the village tells me that I should protect myself against witches. Otherwise they could hit me with invisible darts that will get inside my veins and poison my blood.
A shaman burns tobacco leaves in front of a row of statuettes and starts talking to them. He says he must send them on a journey to distant villages in the sky. The point of all this is to cure someone whose mind is held hostage by invisible spirits.
A group of believers goes around, warning everyone that the end is nigh. Judgement Day is scheduled for October 2. This day passes and nothing happens. The group carries on, telling everyone the end is nigh (the date has been changed).
Villagers organize a ceremony to tell a goddess she is not wanted in their village anymore. She failed to protect them from epidemics, so they decided to "drop" her and find a more efficient replacement.
An assembly of priests finds offensive what some people say about what happened several centuries ago in a distant place, where a virgin is said to have given birth to a child. So these people must be massacred.
Members of a cult on an island decide to slaughter all their livestock and burn their crops. All these will be useless now, they say, because a ship full of goods and money will reach their shores very shortly in recognition of their good deeds.
My friends are toldto go to church or some other quiet place and talk to an invisible person who is everywhere in the world. That invisible listener already knows what they will say, because He knows everything.
I am told that if I want to please powerful dead peoplewho could help me in times of needI should pour the blood of a live white goat on the right hand side of a particular rock. But if I use a goat of a different color or another rock, it will not work at all.
You may be tempted to dismiss these vignettes as just so many examples of the rich tapestry of human folly. Or perhaps you think that these illustrations, however succinct (one could fill volumes with such accounts), bear witness to an admirable human capacity to comprehend life and the universe. Both reactions leave questions unanswered. Why do people have such thoughts? What prompts them to do such things? Why do they have such different beliefs? Why are they so strongly committed to them? These questions used to be mysteries (we did not even know how to proceed) and are now becoming problems (we have some idea of a possible solution), to use Noam Chomsky's distinction. Indeed, we actually have the first elements of that solution. In case this sounds hubristic or self-aggrandizing, let me add immediately that this "we" really refers to a community of people. It is not an insidious way of suggesting that I have a new theory and find it of universal significance. In the rest of this book I mention a number of findings and models in cognitive psychology, anthropology, linguistics and evolutionary biology. All of these were discovered by other people, most of whom did not work on religion and had no idea that their findings could help explain religion. This is why, although bookshelves may be overflowing with treatises on religion, histories of religion, religious people's accounts of their ideas, and so on, it makes sense to add to this and show how the intractable mystery that was religion is now just another set of difficult but manageable problems.
Giving airy nothing a local habitation
* * *
The explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work. I really mean all human minds, not just the minds of religious people or of some of them. I am talking about human minds, because what matters here are properties of minds that are found in all members of our species with normal brains. The discoveries I will mention here are about the ways minds in general (men's or women's, British or Brazilian, young or old) function.
This may seem a rather strange point of departure if we want to explain something as diverse as religion. Beliefs are different in different people; some are religious and some are not. Also, obviously, beliefs are different in different places. Japanese Buddhists do not seem to share much, in terms of religious notions, with Amazonian shamans or American Southern Baptists. How could we explain a phenomenon (religion) that is so variable in terms of something (the brain) that is the same everywhere? This is what I describe in this book. The diversity of religion, far from being an obstacle to general explanations, in fact gives us some keys. But to understand why this is so, we need a precise description of how brains receive and organize information.
For a long time, people used to think that the brain was a rather simple organ. Apart from the bits that control the body machinery, there seemed to be a vast empty space in the young child's mind destined to be filled with whatever education, culture and personal experience provided. This view of the mind was never too plausible, since after all the liver and the gut are much more complex than that. But we did not know much about the way minds develop, so there were no facts to get in the way of this fantasy of a "blank slate" where experience could leave its imprint. The mind was like those vast expanses of unexplored Africa that old maps used to fill with palm trees and crocodiles. Now we know more about minds. We do not know everything, but one fact is clear: the more we discover about how minds work, the less we believe in this notion of a blank slate. Every further discovery in cognitive science makes it less plausible as an explanation.
In particular, it is clear that our minds are not really prepared to acquire just about any kind of notion that is "in the culture." We do not just "learn what is in the environment," as people sometimes say. That is not the case, because no mind in the worldthis is true all the way from the cockroach to the giraffe to you or mecould ever learn anything without having very sophisticated mental equipment that is prepared to identify relevant information in the environment and to treat that information in a special way. Our minds are prepared because natural selection gave us particular mental predispositions. Being prepared for some concepts, human minds are also prepared for certain variations of these concepts. As I will show, this means, among other things, that all human beings can easily acquire a certain range of religious notions and communicate them to others.
Does this mean religion is "innate" and "in the genes"? Iand most people interested in the evolution of the human mindthink that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why. Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.
Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of "airy nothing" will find a local habitation in the minds of people.
* * *
What is the origin of religious ideas? Why is it that we can find them wherever we go and, it would seem, as far back in the past as we can see? The best place to start is with our spontaneous, commonsense answers to the question of origins. Everybody seems to have some intuition about the origins of religion. Indeed, psychologists and anthropologists who like me study how mental processes create religion face the minor occupational hazard of constantly running into people who think that they already have a perfectly adequate solution to the problem. They are often quite willing to impart their wisdom and sometimes imply that further work on this question is, if not altogether futile, at least certainly undemanding. If you say "I use genetic algorithms to produce computationally efficient cellular automata," people see quite clearly that doing that kind of thing probably requires some effort. But if you tell them that you are in the business of "explaining religion," they often do not see what is so complicated or difficult about it. Most people have some idea of why there is religion, what religion gives people, why they are sometimes so strongly attached to their religious beliefs, and so on. These common intuitions offer a real challenge. Obviously, if they are sufficient, there is no point in having a complex theory of religion. If, as I am afraid is more likely, they are less than perfect, then our new account should be at least as good as the intuitions it is supposed to replace.
Most accounts of the origins of religion emphasize one of the following suggestions: human minds demand explanations, human hearts seek comfort, human society requires order, human intellect is illusion-prone. To express this in more detail, here are some possible scenarios:
Religion provides explanations:
People created religion to explain puzzling natural phenomena.
Religion explains puzzling experiences: dreams, prescience, etc.
Religion explains the origins of things.
Religion explains why there is evil and suffering.
Religion provides comfort:
Religious explanations make mortality less unbearable.
Religion allays anxiety and makes for a comfortable world.
Religion provides social order:
Religion holds society together.
Religion perpetuates a particular social order.
Religion supports morality.
Religion is a cognitive illusion:
People are superstitious; they will believe anything.
Religious concepts are irrefutable.
Refutation is more difficult than belief.
Though this list probably is not exhaustive, it is fairly representative. Discussing each of these common intuitions in more detail, we will see that they all fail to tell us why we have religion and why it is the way it is. So why bother with them? It is not my intent here to ridicule other people's ideas or show that anthropologists and cognitive scientists are more clever than common folk. I discuss these spontaneous explanations because they are widespread, because they are often rediscovered by people when they reflect on religion, and more importantly because they are not that bad. Each of these "scenarios" for the origin of religion points to a real and important phenomenon that any theory worth its salt should explain. Also, taking these scenarios seriously opens up new perspectives on how religious notions and beliefs appear in human minds.
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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought 4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Not an introductory book
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.
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