Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought Paperback – 2001
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What's it all about? Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer tackles this question in the unapologetically titled Religion Explained, and is sure to polarise 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. Laying aside one's biases as best as one can will bring great rewards; Boyer's wide scholarship and knack for elegant writing are reasons enough for reading.
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 critically examining religion, 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Cognitive anthropologist Boyer does not shrink from the task of explaining "the full history of all religion (ever)" in this engaging but somewhat oversold synopsis of anthropological findings, purporting to show how "the intractable mystery that was religion is now just another set of difficult but manageable problems." Boyer eloquently critiques mainstream academic treatments of religion that, in his view, distort the facts by imposing a single explanatory theory on a complex assortment of religious phenomena. At the same time, he argues that the variety of human religious concepts is not infinite, suggesting an underlying pattern in the way certain kinds of religious concepts engage the mind by "successful activation of a whole variety of mental systems." These patterns increase the probability that such concepts will be remembered and transmitted. Besides the religious concepts' appeal in stimulating individual minds, Boyer's account sees no deeper function or significance in them, a stance he realizes will leave most religious believers nonplussed. "People who think that we have religion because religion is true... will find little here to support their views and in fact no discussion of these views," he cautions. Boyer's strategy of explaining religion in terms of mundane, everyday thought processes puts him at odds with recent neuropsychological studies that identify "special" cognitive structures or events associated with religious experience. Ultimately, it may be Boyer's criticism of the mere concept of "religious experience" that makes this book such a fascinating exercise in devil's advocacy.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition. See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Using Evolutionary Psychology as a foundation, Boyer describes how specific brain structures evolved to perform specific inferences related to basic survival (especially relevant are predatory and contagion inference) and the numerous inter-related systems used for conspecific interaction and cooperation. [It is especially important to understand that most inferences operate apart from conscious perception.] After comprehensive discussion of the multitudinous, interactive inference systems, Boyer describes how they collectively work to form religion. He explains that most varieties religious concepts (gods, spirits and other supernatural agents and their abilities; morality; death issues, etc.) and public behavior (rituals and prayer, religious-associated violence) can be explained in terms of these inference systems.
While he presents an effective argument for most aspects of religion, Boyer admits that a convincing scientific explanation for some forms of ritualistic behavior is elusive. He offers detailed speculation regarding the etiology of rituals, but admits the research at this time is inconclusive and mostly speculative.Read more ›
"Religion" is defined at the outset chiefly by casting away commonly-held definitions. While some aspects of "religion" may deal with natural forces, mostly they are related to daily human activities. In Boyer's view, these forces are "projections of the human mind". In nearly every instance, the "spirit" whether ancestor, deity or even a forest tree, exhibits human characteristics. These are not always predictable. In fact their very presence is predicated on spurious and unforeseen events. The very unreality of their behaviour commands respect. Our perception of their existence result from "inferences" stored in the mind from other experiences. Although he views Western institutionalised religions as outside the norm of human society, the same basic pattern holds even there. "Consolation", usually a form of release from death, for example, is almost absent from most religions. Western monotheism is an exception from the human norm.Read more ›
Boyer's book is one of the best examples of making good use of evolutionary thinking from the young science of evolutionary psychology and the proto-science of memetics to bring new insights to anthropological data. His concepts become not just a way of explaining away "weird beliefs" but explanations for broad patterns in human belief in general. Boyer applies a coherent evolutionary epistemology to human belief and especially to the concepts and practices we consider religion.
The result is fascinating speculation with a new perspective and a good foundation. Since this is the kind of book that tries to explain why we believe what we believe, people starting with a different set of metaphysical assumptions will find it difficult to appreciate. Just as skeptics are fun to read until they attack our own beliefs, people of one religion will probably find Boyer's explanations fit well to other religions, but not their own. Such is life I suppose. To what extent can the same kind of explanations apply to scientific theories? Boyer addresses this by emphasizing that scientific ideas are very counter-intuitive and result from a lot of hard work to formulate and communicate them in specific ways, making them distinguishable from other kinds of concepts that arise more naturally.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
While the title of this work promises (or at least did to me) an exploration of various religious dogma or comparative religion, the author gives us instead a general critique of... Read morePublished on March 3 2004 by Merwyn Markel
Of the thousands of books I've read in my lifetime, I put this one in the top three. This book further confirms my belief that if you really want to understand humanity, evolution... Read morePublished on Jan. 26 2004 by freethinker
I've heard most psychological theories about religion at least once-until I read this book! I found this book very challenging and will need to read it over a few times to make... Read morePublished on Dec 2 2003 by JOHN J. MCGRAW
I'm no anthropologist, and subsequently I would have to re-read this book more than once to fully appreciate everything that Boyer is saying, but let me just say that this is a... Read morePublished on July 10 2003 by Missing in Action
Boyer lays out a compelling description of the psychologial processes people use to create and build religious ideas. Read morePublished on July 9 2003
Boyer's analysis of human spiritual beliefs is at once sweeping and precise. Using evolutionary concepts to demonstrate the foundation of "belief" is not new, but Boyer surpasses... Read morePublished on July 2 2003 by Stephen A. Haines
Religion Explained is a wonderful discussion of mind and consciousness as well as of religion and its evolutionary origin. Read morePublished on June 7 2003 by Atheen
The thesis of the book is well captured by the cover art. There are evolutionary explanations for why human cognition is vulnerable to believing ideas such as agents with... Read morePublished on April 11 2003 by M. Braithwaite
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