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In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Evolution and Cognition) Paperback – November 12, 2002

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Editorial Reviews


"So how, [Atran] asks, is it that religious beliefs and practices are manifest, anywhere there are people, past or present? How could evolution have favoured wasteful investment in preposterous beliefs? ... Quite a project. He relies on a combination of the most recent human sciences. ... One of his exceptional talents is in weaving together a vast number of strands that most of us keep asunder."--Ian Hacking, London Review of Books

"Atran's work is a brilliant exposition of the evolutionary by-product interpretation [of religion] as well as a mine of references for empirical research into the psychology of religion."--Pascal Boyer, Current Anthropology

"Scott Atran fell in love with anthropology in 1970 when he went to work with Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and found himself surrounded by a collection of thousands of skulls. He has spent the intervening years studying human cultures all over the world, dwelling among the secretive Druze sect in Israel, documenting conservation customs among the Maya of Guatemala, and analyzing the evolution of religion everywhere, a topic he explores in his book In Gods We Trust."--Discover Magazine

"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 marshaled 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 of religion in all disciplines."--Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Human Nature Review

About the Author

Scott Atran is a Director of Research at the Institut Jean Nicod at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.) in Paris. He is also Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, Psychology, and Natural Resources and the Environment at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A respected cognitive anthropologist and psychologist, his publications include Fondement de l'histoire naturelle, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, and Folk Biology. He has done long-term fieldwork in the Middle East and has also written and experimented extensively on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature. He currently directs an international, multidisciplinary project on the natural history of the Lowland Maya.
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Product Details

  • Series: Evolution and Cognition
  • Paperback: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 12, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195178033
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195178036
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 0.9 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #343,499 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

151 of 156 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 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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77 of 82 people found the following review helpful By DR P. Dash on March 7, 2007
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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64 of 69 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on February 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover

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.


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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