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
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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.
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