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Social Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Anthropology of Religion

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer (Basic Books) Utilizing cross-cultural studies and a multidisciplinary approach, cognitive anthropologist Boyer argues that the origin, development, and diversity of religion are scientifically explainable within the naturalistic frameworks of evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology. His point of departure is the complex human brain and its mental activity, both being a result of natural selection enhancing the adaptation, survival, and reproductive success of our social ancestors through over four million years of hominid evolution. Boyer focuses on the inference systems and intuitive expectations of evolved human brain capacities to account for the biocultural origin of religious concepts and supernatural agents (e.g., gods, ghosts, demons, spirits, and witches). He is to be commended for his scholarly and critical examination of religion. Some readers may find his arguments difficult to follow and to accept, but this is nevertheless a significant contribution to anthropology.

Why do we have religion? Drawing on physical anthropology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Religion Explained shows how this--one of the most fascinating aspects of human consciousness-- can be understood by coherent, naturalistic explanation. As a scientific explanation for religious feeling, Pascal Boyer's new book is sure to arouse both fascination and controversy.

Living up to the audacity of its title, Religion Explained shows how we can answer questions such as:

  • How and why do religions deal with death?
  • How do infants have precise intuitions and how do we know this?
  • Why is fundamentalism a biological process?
  • Why is religion here to stay?

Religion Explained, from the world's leading expert on religion and cognition, provides strikingly original answers to these questions, and many more, which are some of the most fundamental queries for all of humankind. It is said that God is in the details, and it is through such particulars that Religion Explained becomes an endlessly intriguing, thought provoking book

Boyer's argument that "religious concepts are parasitic upon other mental capacities" may offend some, but it is critical to this fascinating book, and it doesn't in any way demean religion. Boyer draws deeply on cognitive science and evolutionary biology to assume that religion is a natural outcome of the kinds of beings we are and especially of the kinds of brains we have. In his subsequent explorations, science and religion are mutually illuminating rather than antagonistic, and this amounts to a breath of fresh air in a context that often depicts them as mortal enemies. Boyer also implicitly links religion and poetry, both of which "give airy nothing a local habitation and a name." Many mystics and poets would smile at this anthropologist's assertion that investigating that capability will teach us about the "complex biological machines" we call human beings. "Nothing," Emily Dickinson wrote, "is the force that renovates the world." Here a scientist advocates preparing a local habitation for nothing as a making of common ground.

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.

For eons, people naturally have talked about millions of exceedingly parochial and contextual matters but also about some objects and things that are not directly observable. It is after all a hallmark of the "modern mind"-the mind that we have had for mil­lennia-that we entertain plans, conjectures; specu­late on the possible as well as the actual. Among the millions of messages exchanged, some are attention ­grabbing because they violate intuitions about objects and beings in our environment. These coun­terintuitive descriptions have a certain staying power, as memory experiments suggest. They certainly pro­vide the stuff that good stories are made of. They may mention islands that float adrift or mountains that digest food or animals that talk. These are gen­erally taken as fiction though the boundary between a fictional story and an account of personal experi­ence is often difficult to trace. Some of these themes are particularly salient because they are about agents. This opens up a rich domain of possible inferences. When you talk about agents, you wonder to what extent they are similar to unseen and dangerous predators. You can also try to imagine what they per­ceive, what they know, what they plan and so on, because there are inference systems in your mind that constantly produce such speculations about other people. Among these accounts, some suggest that counterintuitive agents have information about relevant aspects of interaction between the people exchanging these messages. This gives speakers and listeners a strong motivation to hear, tell or perhaps challenge such stories. This also allows a further development, whereby people can combine their moral intuitions with the notion that such agents are indeed informed of the morally relevant aspects of what they do and what others do to them.

When counterintuitive agents are construed in this way, it becomes easy to connect them to salient cases of misfortune, because we are predisposed to see mis­fortune as a social event, as someone's responsibility rather than the outcome of mechanical processes. So the agents are now described as having powers such that they can visit disasters upon people, which adds to the list of their counterintuitive properties and probably to their salience. People who have such concepts will probably end up connecting them with the strange representations and emotions caused by the presence of dead people, because this presence creates a strange cognitive state in which various mental systems-those geared to predation and to the identification of persons-produce incompatible intuitions. We sense both that the dead are around and that they cannot be around. If you have concepts like that, at some point it will make sense to connect them with the various repeated and largely meaning­less actions that you often perform with some fear that nonperformance will result in grave danger. So there are now rituals directed at these agents. Since many rituals are performed in contexts where social interaction has non-obvious properties, it will become easy to conceive of these agents as the very life of the group you are in, as the bedrock of social interaction. If you live in a large enough group, there will prob­ably be some people who seem better skilled at producing convincing messages from the counterintu­itive agents. These people will probably be consid­ered as having some special internal quality that makes them different from the rest of the group. They will also end up taking on a special role in rit­ual performances. If you live in a large group with literate specialists, these will probably at some point start changing all these concepts to provide a slightly different, more abstract, less contextual, less local version. It is also very likely that they will form a manner of corporation or guild with atten­dant political goals. But their version of concepts is not really optimal, so that it will always be com­bined in most people's minds with spontaneous inferences that are not compatible with the literate doctrine.

When the story of religion is told this way, it seems to amount to an extraordinary conspiracy. Religious concepts and norms and the emo­tions attached to them seem designed to excite the human mind, linger in memory, trigger multiple inferences in the precise way that will get people to hold them true and communicate them. Whoever designed religion, or designs each religion, seems to have uncanny prescience of what will be successful with human minds.

But there is of course no designer, and no conspiracy either. Reli­gious concepts work that way, they realize the miracle of being exactly what people will transmit, simply because other variants were created and forgotten or abandoned all along. The magic that seems to pro­duce such perfect concepts for human minds is merely the effect of repeated selective events. A complex organ, the human mind produces a multitude of mini-scenarios, evanescent links between thoughts and new concepts that quickly degrade. This maelstrom of elusive thought is certainly not what we are aware of, because in a sense the only thoughts that we entertain consciously have already passed a number of cognitive hurdles. But even explicit thoughts that we entertain are not all equally likely to produce similar thoughts in other people; far from it. You must remember that in the domain of inference-produc­tion many will be called and few will be chosen. One of my Fang friends thought that spirits were two-dimensional and always stood sideways when facing human beings lest they be detected. But this ingenious notion was perhaps too complex. Most people quickly forgot it or dis­torted it. Other inferences have more staying power.

I have explained religion in terms of systems that are in all human minds and that do all sorts of precious and interesting work but that were not really designed to produce religious concepts of behaviors. There is no religious instinct, no specific inclination in the mind, no particular disposition for these concepts, no special religion center in the brain, and religious persons are not different from nonreligious ones in essential cognitive functions. Even faith and belief seem to be simple by-products of the way concepts and inferences are doing their work for religion in much the same way as for other domains.

Instead of a religious mind, what we have found is a whole frustra­tion of invisible hands. One of these guides human attention toward some possible conceptual combinations; another enhances recall of some of these; yet another process makes concepts of agents far easier to acquire if they imply strategic agency, connections to morality, etc. The invisible hand of multiple inferential systems in the mind pro­duces all sorts of connections between these concepts and salient occurrences in people's lives. The invisible hand of cultural selection makes it the case that the religious concepts people acquire and trans­mit are in general the ones most likely to seem convincing to them, given their circumstances.

I call this a frustration because religion is portrayed here as a mere consequence or side effect of having the brains we have, which does not strike one as particularly dramatic. But religion is dramatic, it is central to many people's existence, it is involved in highly emotional experience, it may lead people to murder or self-sacrifice. We would like the explanation of dramatic things to be equally dramatic. For similar reasons, people who are shocked or repulsed by religion would like to find the single source of what is for them such egregious error, the crossroads at which so many human minds take the wrong turn, as it were. But the truth is that there is no such single point, because many different cognitive processes conspire to make religious con­cepts convincing.

I am of course slightly disingenuous in describing this as a frustra­tion, when I think it is such a Good Thing. That we fail to identify hidden hands and simple designs and instead discover a variety of underlying processes that we know how to study sometimes happens in scientific endeavors and is always for the better. The progress is not just that we understand religion better because we have better knowl­edge of cognitive processes. It is also, conversely, that we can highlight and better understand many fascinating features of our mental archi­tecture by studying the human propensity toward religious thoughts. One does learn a lot about these complex biological machines by fig­uring out how they manage to give airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

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