14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant ideas, poorly presented,
By A Customer
This review is from: Religion Explained (Hardcover)
There is no question that Pascal Boyer is a brilliant thinker. The main methodological device he employs involves presenting the reader with pairs of supernatural beliefs he invents that could in theory form part of a religious system (along the lines of "ancestors walk around who happen to know the exact amount of calories I consumed yesterday, but nothing else about me" versus "ancestors walk around who know how many times I have lied in my life,") and ask us the readers whether we could indeed imagine such beliefs forming part of a religious system. As Boyer predicts, I found the some of the statements (ones which sounded like the former one presented above) rather un-religious sounding, while others (such as ones that sounded like that latter one above) sounded religious-like to me, even though I knew beforehand Boyer invented them all.
This simple response on the part of reader disproves a large number of humanist explanations of religion, such as the idea that religion is a simply pathological failure to distinguish between fantasy and reality. If that were the case, then we would expect to find beliefs like the former one, about calorie-counting ancestors, just as common in religious systems as beliefs that sound like the latter one. Yet we do not. Boyer offers an explanation why, and I found it highly thought-provoking and definitely plausible--worthy of more research.
Thought-provoking, plausible, and worthy of more research, however, are a far cry from "conclusive." The title "Religion Explained"--note the past tense--is highly misleading--indeed, I dare say, false advertising. A more appropriate title would have been "First Steps Towards an Explanation of Religion" or something like that.
In addition my annoyance at the misleading PR for the book, I was also annoyed by Boyer's presentation of his material. He seems to have forgotten the elementary-school-English-class injunction to state the conclusion of your argument before AND after you present the argument itself. Amazingly, we don't really see Boyers full thesis presented as a unified whole--his "explanation"--until the last few pages. Once one has read his thesis, it turns out that almost all the material he presents is highly relevent to that thesis; nonetheless, without knowing the thesis from the beginning, one is likely to think that large chunks of the book are complete digressions, even though they really aren't. I advise readers to read the last chapter first, and I advise Boyer to state his conclusion clearly and concisely in his introduction.
Despite these major complaints, I award this book four stars, because it is a highly insightful and valuable first-step in an important direction. Anyone interested in guidance on how to think fruitfully about otherwise seems like an inexplicable phenomenon should read this book. Hurrah to Boyer.