- Paperback: 430 pages
- Publisher: Vintage/Ebury (a Division of Random (November 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780099282761
- ISBN-13: 978-0099282761
- ASIN: 0099282763
- Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13 x 3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 240 g
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #159,277 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors Paperback – Nov 2002
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"A deep, ingenious, and insightful analysis of one of the deepest mysteries of the human species" -- Steven Pinker "An excellent book in the spirit of the French Enlightenment, broadly learned and with modern behavioural science added. It deserves to be widely read" * E.O. Wilson * "This is a bold far-reaching book. His explanation of religion is lucid, entertaining, full of valuable insight" -- Lord Habgood * Time Higher * "The wisdom in its pages will be a revelation to any seeker after truth. While it lets daylight in upon magic, this book is never scornful and never dismissive, and Pascal Boyer's voice is as unpretentious as its title. If faith is the last refuge of the would-be believer, Religion Explained takes it away but puts something better in its place, enlightenment and understanding." * Ruth Rendell * "A fascinating analysis of urge to believe" * Scotland on Sunday *
About the Author
Formerly at Princeton, King's College, Cambridge and the University of Lyon, Pascal Boyer is Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, USA and a Guggenheim Fellow.
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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. He compares rituals to similar non-religious activity, such as the compulsions associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but this is only a plausible partial explanation because religious rituals exhibit distinct differences. OCD compulsions are undesired and cause psychological distress in the participant, while participation in rituals is usually voluntary and isn't inherently distressing to the participants (though sometimes it can be). Also, rituals normally occur in a culturally-related social context while compulsions are a repetitive form of individual behavior.
The only element of Religion Explained that was a little disappointing to me was the cursory discussion of secularism. Boyer explains that religion (in one form or another) is conducive to normal human brain functions. This of course evokes discussion of why some people are completely irreligious. Boyer only touches on this issue briefly and in a manner which seems a little obtuse to me (he states the issue isn't completely explanable in the context of his argument).
Religion Explained is a fascinating scientific treatise on a unique and undeniably significant form of human behavior. This is a fairly complex work (a behavioral science background is certainly helpful), but only to the extent necessary to form a coherent, comprehensive argument. Boyer has shown undeniably that the etiology of religion is far more multi-faceted than most people infer (both scientists and non-scientists). While his argument will certainly be refined as the various conceptual elements evolve and more research emerges, this new, scientifically vital approach ro religion will likely prove to be a monumental achievement.
"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.
Boyer argues that the human mind has evolved in communities which have reinforced acceptance of supernatural entities. He incorporates Richard Dawkins' "meme" concept to demonstrate how this process works. Ideas about the supernatural are communicated to others as experiences, warnings or even behaviour norms. Since so many facets of this acceptance relate to behaviour of individuals within the community, the feedback loop reinforces his view of the evolutionary context. It isn't the community itself which fosters the evolutionary persistence of belief, but individuals whose genetic tendency for belief were those who mated and bred, passing and strengthening that tendency. The memes aren't absolutes, but like genes, may be modified over time and place. Again, like genes, accepted changes become adaptations, varying what the observer infers from the supernatural.
Boyer's analysis will remain a seminal work for some time. Provocative and challenging, it raises as many questions as it provides answers. His use of cognitive science as an analytical tool is novel and there are many areas requiring further research. Boyer concedes religion is a "complex" issue, but urges shedding preconceived ideas. More behavioural studies are needed, collecting and analysing evidence. This book introduces new concepts requiring further explaination. It is to be hoped that younger students will further the work outlined in this excellent book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa]