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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought [Paperback]

Pascal Boyer
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews Review

What's it all about? Though we might never answer the really big questions--with good reason--maybe we can understand why we ask them. Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer tackles this topic in the unapologetically titled Religion Explained, and it is sure to polarize his readers. Some will think it's an impermissible invasion of mental territory beyond the reach of reason; others will see it as the first step toward a more complete understanding of human nature--and Boyer is acutely aware of the emotionally charged nature of his work. This knowledge informs his decision to proceed without caution, as he warns readers early on that most will risk being offended by some of his considerations. Readers who can lay aside their biases will find great rewards here; Boyer's wide scholarship and knack for elegant writing are reasons enough for reading his book.

That gods and spirits are construed very much like persons is probably one of the best-known traits of religion. Indeed, the Greeks had already noticed that people create gods in their own image.... All this is familiar, indeed so familiar that for a long time anthropologists forgot that this propensity requires an explanation. Why then are gods and spirits so much like humans?

Peppering his study with examples from all over the world, particularly the Fang people of Africa, Boyer offers plenty of evidence for his theory that religious institutions exist to maintain particular threads of social integrity. Though he uses the tools of evolutionary psychology, he is more careful than most EP proponents to avoid ad hoc and circular arguments. Best of all, at least to those unmortified at the idea of examining religion critically, his theories are potentially testable. Even if he turns out to be dead wrong, at least Religion Explained offers a new and powerful framework for thinking about our spiritual lives. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Utilizing cross-cultural studies and a multidisciplinary approach, anthropologist Boyer (research fellow, Inst. of Cognitive Science, Lyon, France) 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 in order 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, but some readers may find his arguments difficult to follow and to accept. Nevertheless, this is a significant contribution to anthropology. Especially recommended for academic libraries. H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

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. How refreshing. Steven Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A penetrating scientific analysis of religion." -- Washington Post

"An excellent book in the spirit of the French Enlightenment, which I am eager to see revived." -- E. O. Wilson, author of Consilience

"The first classic of 21st-century anthropology." -- John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, University of California, Santa Barbara

"The most important treatment of the psychological bases of religious belief...since William James." -- Steven Pinker, author of Words and Rules and The Language Instinct

From the Inside Flap

A brilliant and provocative exploration of the nature of human religious belief and what it can tell us about human psychology and evolution, in the tradition of Steven Pinker?s The Language Instinct. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Pascal Boyer is Luce Professor of Collective and Individual Memory at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
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