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In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Evolution and Cognition Series) [Kindle Edition]

Scott Atran
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

This ambitious, interdisciplinary book seeks to explain the origins of religion using our knowledge of the evolution of cognition. A cognitive anthropologist and psychologist, Scott Atran argues that religion is a by-product of human evolution just as the cognitive intervention, cultural selection, and historical survival of religion is an accommodation of certain existential and moral elements that have evolved in the human condition.


Editorial Reviews

Review


"In Gods We Trust is by far the best exploration so far of the evolutionary basis of religious behavior."--James Fox, Prof of Anthropology, Stanford University


"With almost 1000 references and discussions of most of human history and culture, from Neanderthal burials to suicide-bombers in the Palestinian anti-colonialist struggle, this book is consciously and truly encyclopedic in scope, and shows both breadth and depth of scholarship...the reader finds himself constantly challenged and provoked into an intellectual ping-pong game as he follows the arguments and the huge body of findings marshalled to buttress them...Atran managed to combine the old and the new by relating the automatic cognitive operations to existential anxieties. This combination will be a benchmark and a challenge to students od religion in all disciplines."--Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Human Nature Review


Review


"In Gods We Trust is by far the best exploration so far of the evolutionary basis of religious behavior."--James Fox, Prof of Anthropology, Stanford University


"With almost 1000 references and discussions of most of human history and culture, from Neanderthal burials to suicide-bombers in the Palestinian anti-colonialist struggle, this book is consciously and truly encyclopedic in scope, and shows both breadth and depth of scholarship...the reader finds himself constantly challenged and provoked into an intellectual ping-pong game as he follows the arguments and the huge body of findings marshalled to buttress them...Atran managed to combine the old and the new by relating the automatic cognitive operations to existential anxieties. This combination will be a benchmark and a challenge to students od religion in all disciplines."--Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Human Nature Review



Product Details

  • File Size: 2441 KB
  • Print Length: 408 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0195149300
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (November 14, 2002)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0058RTMXG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #357,782 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
143 of 148 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's all in the mind! June 16, 2005
Format:Paperback
A surge of interest in the evolutionary basis for religion has resulted in some fine works. Few, however, approach the careful analysis and depth of insight offered by Atran's excellent book. Asking the question, "Why do humans put so many resources into a counterintuitive supernatural world?", he responds that the answers fall easily into an evolutionary framework. He goes on to explain, in ten easy steps[!] how this circumstance has come about. The core of the presentation is what practices we follow are derived from normal, everyday behaviour traits. These traits are human cognitive ones, which makes their biological roots distant but traceable. The human mind, derived from the sudden expansion of cognitive abilities about fifty thousand years ago, put us in a unique position in the animal kingdom. Religion is the price we pay for being "special".

The "ten easy steps" are not. The astute reader may jump to the Conclusion for an outline of Atran's thesis. There he explains that religion is not an "entity", even though we publicly commit resources to it. Since it's not an entity, religion itself cannot be an evolutionary adaptation. However, it does fit into an "evolutionary landscape". That landscape he describes in a metaphor of hills and valleys, with certain behaviours following the path of least resistance. The supernatural, Atran contends, arises from a "cultural manipulation" of habits derived from the Pleistocene - fear of predators, death and the quest for nourishment. Since humans live in groups, the interactions of individuals within the group reinforces these habits. When natural phenomena are transformed into the supernatural conformity results.
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69 of 72 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There have been a slew of recent books by scientists on religion which fall basically into two camps. The first, exemplified by Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," are essentially attacks on the logical plausibility of the major religious belief systems. For those who have already realized that these sorts of beliefs are absurd, such works are entertaining but are a bit like preaching to the choir, if you'll excuse the metaphor. The second camp, exemplified by Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained," are attempts at explaining WHY people believe in such absurdities, from the perspectives of cognitive neuropsychology and anthropology. Atran's book is in the latter camp, and in fact overlaps to some extent with Boyer's book, published at about the same time, although each author has unique insights. I especially liked Atran's analysis of the origin of beliefs in the supernatural as stemming from a cognitive module predisposed to interpret environmental stimuli as coming from a potential predator, and I also found his analysis of "meme theory" to be enlightening (he strongly discounts it). Atran's book is the harder to read of the two and is largely missing the dry sense of humor in Boyer's book, which is why I docked it one star. I also disagree with the pessimism in Atran's last chapter about why religions are likely to endure indefinitely; I believe the secular trends present especially since Darwin must ultimately prevail. But his book is certainly a valuable contribution to the discussion of the origins of religious thought and behavior, which is of paramount importance in understanding today's world of religious fanaticism.
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63 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Mickey Mouse Problem February 24, 2005
Format:Hardcover
NOT FOR THE THEOLOGICALLY SENSITIVE!

Atran describes religion as

(1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people's existential anxieties, such as death and deception.

Later in the book he adds that 1, 2, & 3: (4) demand ritualistic & rhythmic co-ordination of 1, 2, & 3 such as "communion."

He later describes religion (paraphrased by me) as a thought process which involves exaggerated use of everyday cognitive processes to produce unreal worlds that easily attract attention, are readily memorable, and are subject to cultural transmission, selection and survival.

THEN, HE ASKS, "HOW IN PRINCIPLE, DOES THIS VIEW DISTINGUISH
MICKEY MOUSE OR FANTASY FROM BELIEFS ONE IS WILLING TO DIE FOR?"

While sprinkled with interesting and provocative comments, Atran tries to show that cognitive modules exist, thanks to natural selection. The tendency to invent supernatural agency is an evolutionary by-product, trip-wired by predator-detection schema...people interactively manipulate the universal cognitive susceptibility. Add a few hopeful solutions to the problems involving the tragedies of life and death, and you get religion.

Alternate theories of religion's ability to sprout and fluorish wherever humans have lived for any length of time are discussed and rejected. These include "memes" for religion, "group selection" for religion, cultural entrees, and others.

While myriad types of gods have been invented, Atran maintains they all end up as described in the 1st few lines of this review. He offers an analogy of mountain ridges and their many precipitation routes, ending in always the same few major waterways.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Super
Very interesting topic. Only a mild interest here got me to try it but I was sucked into wanting to know so much more, I read this years ago and only now got around to reviewing it... Read more
Published 3 months ago by rob0bOy
5.0 out of 5 stars A very complicated study, but I found it very revealing.
This was a very complicated study, but I found it very revealing. In my opinion his review of the history of religion and religious impulses are more objective than trying to... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Charles Sutherland
3.0 out of 5 stars Compellingly argued but unfocussed
All societies at all times have exhibited religions but it is hard to really understand why. Scott Atran characterises a religion as `a community's costly and hard-to-fake... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Nigel Seel
3.0 out of 5 stars Really for a narrow audience
Why do people worship gods they can't see and believe the absurd (or counterintuitive as the author puts it)? Read more
Published on September 29, 2010 by J. Davis
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book - Great conclusion
I am a reasonably intelligent person who, for the first time in his life, has been reading about religion. I started with Karen Armstrong's In the Beginning. Read more
Published on March 19, 2010 by Alan Baily
4.0 out of 5 stars The Finnegan's Wake of Anthropology
This is a quite extraordinary book, full of rich insights, interesting theorizing, and the product of a life time of study of world religions. I learned a lot. Read more
Published on March 8, 2010 by Historied
5.0 out of 5 stars A difficult read, but insightful
After reading In Gods We Trust, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained (in that order), I have to recommend my favorite on this topic, Religion... Read more
Published on April 28, 2008 by Adam D. Shomsky
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent first step
This book is no beach read. It is dense, technical, and written in a rather stiff prose style. It is, however, absolutely the best book available on the evolutionary origin of... Read more
Published on July 26, 2007 by Ambulocetus
1.0 out of 5 stars Defectors and norms?
Negative reviews are not popular in this venue, so I'll keep this short and sour.

I refer you to ch. 8, "Culture without mind. Read more
Published on April 11, 2007 by Bookie
5.0 out of 5 stars Very sad
It is sad that so many in the world are saddled with the consequences of belief in gods; one hopes that this book will enlighten! It is fairly hard work but worth it.
Published on March 8, 2007 by Mr. M. Jefferies
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More About the Author

Scott Atran is a director of research in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also a research associate and visiting professor in psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, a Presidential Scholar in Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling. His books include In God We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

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