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Meditation 609
Religion Explained: A review

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
by Pascal Boyer Basic Books, 2001

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I found Boyer's Religion Explained to be a far better book than those by Dennett and Dawkins reviewed earlier. In part, this is because Boyer is not trying to sell an idea, rather he is explaining the results of his investigations. He's not overtly trying to turn people against religion, he's trying to explain why we have it in all its forms.

Contrary to the title, Boyer does not truly explain religion; the book is best described by the subtitle. It's an examination of the various elements that our evolution provided us with that have led mankind to be susceptible to various elements that make up religion.

This is a heavy book. It's written at the first year university level, and to a degree written as a text book. Fortunately, the lengthy chapters are broken up into small digestible sections and summaries. Understanding requires taking your time and if you borrow it from the library, be prepared to extend your loan at least once.

This book made me think. It challenged many of my preconceptions about why people believe. Basically he suggests that much our argument is backwards. We have argued that religion was developed to provide an explanation for things such as morality, the origin of life, the origin of everything. Boyer's view is that religious ideas arose independently of these issues, and only later became linked. And the supernatural was not invented, it is a consequence of the way our brains have developed. As Boyer writes in Chapter Four, "Why Gods and Spirits?":

What is the motivation for having concepts of gods and spirits? It is always tempting to assume there is some special reason why people conceive of agents with counterintuitive properties. In general this temptation leads to purely imaginary solutions. There must be a desire to include the whole cosmos in some explanation to make life more meaningful, etc....

People do not invent gods and spirits; they receive information that leads them to build such concepts. Particular systems in the brain specialize in particular aspects of objects around us and produce specific kinds of inferences about them.

And earlier in the book (Chapter One - "What is the Origin") where he is establishing the aim, he writes

... we cannot hope to explain religion if we just fantasize about the way human minds work. We cannot decide that religion fulfils some particular intellectual or emotional needs, when there is no real evidence for these needs. We cannot just decide that religion is around because it promises this or that, when there are many human groups where religion makes no such promise. We cannot just ignore the anthropological evidence about different religions and the psychological evidence about mental processes.

I don't know that he is completely convincing or completely successful; that may take a second or third reading. But overall, he makes a good case, and even if I don't accept his ideas 100%, I certainly have to reject some of my own.

Personally, I really liked the second chapter of this book "What Supernatural Concepts Are Like," which happens to support one of my ideas. As anyone who has fully read this site knows, I have a strong aversion to the "Invisible Pink Unicorn" argument (along with all its variations.) While Boyer never mentions IPUs, he uses this chapter to identify the various characteristics that make up a supernatural belief, and the IPU just does not cut it. Claiming belief in an IPU is not analogous to believing in a god or a spirit.

In other chapters, Boyer examines the relationship between religion and our feelings about death, the meaning of (or lack of meaning of) religious rituals, and whether or not gods and spirits really matter.

The final chapter "Why Belief" also raises the question of why some people do not believe. Its a question he does not manage to answer successfully.

I think one of the elements that leads to disbelief is the body of knowledge in books just like this. Over fifty years ago, an obliging librarian let me take borrow Frazer's Golden Bough even though it was not in the children's section. This classic text (though obsolete for a number of reasons) introduced me to a variety of religious beliefs which eventually contributed to the process where I could come to question all beliefs. Boyer's book also exposes us to the wide range of supernatural beliefs; we know they can't all be right, but they could all be wrong.

I highly recommend this book. Just be prepared to work in reading it.