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Religion Explained [Paperback]

Pascal Boyer
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 2 2002
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.

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Religion Explained + Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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First Sentence
A neighbor in the village tells me that I should protect myself against witches. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revelation! June 12 2004
Format:Hardcover
As a neurologist with an interest in cognitive neuroscience, I've always been interested in the origins of religion. Why DO people believe all these wacky things anyway? I had what I thought were some original ideas on the subject, but after reading Boyer's fascinating book, where I saw some of them openly discussed and shot down, I conclude that I am a rank amateur in this area! My ideas came from my exposure to the world's major religions, but Boyer's perspective as an anthropologist allows him to bring in examples of religious beliefs from a wide range of cultures, which is necessary to formulate a full theory of how and why religion evolved. He also brings in evidence from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to buttress his views. I found his writing style dryly humourous, and often his points are made with enough of a punchline that I laughed out loud. So to me, this book was, dare I say it, a revelation! Highly recommended to anybody with an interest in religion...which is to say, everybody!
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Groundbreaking Work in Behavioral Science. April 19 2004
Format:Paperback
In Religion Explained, Boyer attempts what no one else (to my knowledged) has: to present a comprehensive scientific explanation for religion. To undertake such a daunting task, Boyer employees numerous behavioral science disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, experimental social psychology, anthropology, sociology, and archeology just to mention a few. Early on, he debunks common and prevalent explanations for religion (many of which I subscribed to before reading this book) as facile and scientifically invalid.
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Persuasive and penetrating March 31 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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 all previous efforts. He shows how all peoples have some reverence for spiritual entities, but these aren't necessarily "gods". In most instances the veneration is more likely to be for departed ancestors as it is for some vague "divine" object. Ancestor worship is widespread in today's societies as it was in Neolithic times. Boyer accepts this universality as well as the intensity of feeling associated with the homage, whether for a vague spirit or identifiable individual. Such universality, he proposes, must have evolutionary roots. In his view those roots lie in our cognitive processes.
"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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Whether you agree with author's ideas or not, this is an excellent and perhaps even brilliant book. It very well developed and explained, thought-provoking, and remarkably persuasive, especially considering how counter-intuitive some of the concepts are. Boyer makes a clear presentation of the most common and intuitive explanations for religious concepts and practices, and then offers his alternative for each point, with empirical support where available.
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.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Religion Incompletely Explained
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 more
Published on March 3 2004 by Merwyn Markel
5.0 out of 5 stars an incredible piece of work
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 more
Published on Jan. 26 2004 by freethinker
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtfully Provocative
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 more
Published on Dec 2 2003 by JOHN J. MCGRAW
5.0 out of 5 stars Small praise for a great, great work
Pascal Boyer has done incredible work in this book.
Published on Oct. 26 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, Powerful Book
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 more
Published on July 10 2003 by Missing in Action
5.0 out of 5 stars Boyer - New Insight to the Ultimate Question
Boyer lays out a compelling description of the psychologial processes people use to create and build religious ideas. Read more
Published on July 9 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Persuasive and penetrating
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 more
Published on July 2 2003 by Stephen A. Haines
4.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional discussion of mind function and religion
Religion Explained is a wonderful discussion of mind and consciousness as well as of religion and its evolutionary origin. Read more
Published on June 7 2003 by Atheen M. Wilson
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Perspective
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 more
Published on April 11 2003 by M. Braithwaite
4.0 out of 5 stars pretty good
Although the book doesn't have any major problems, I was a little disappointed. I wanted something profound and challenging from a book with this title, but I only got a few new... Read more
Published on March 26 2003 by Wyote
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