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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought Paperback – May 2, 2002

3.8 out of 5 stars 103 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 the Kindle Edition edition.

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 the Kindle Edition edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (May 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465006965
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465006960
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #188,906 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Whether you agree with author's ideas or not, this is an excellent and perhaps even brilliant book. It very well developed and explained, thought-provoking, and remarkably persuasive, especially considering how counter-intuitive some of the concepts are. Boyer makes a clear presentation of the most common and intuitive explanations for religious concepts and practices, and then offers his alternative for each point, with empirical support where available.
Boyer's book is one of the best examples of making good use of evolutionary thinking from the young science of evolutionary psychology and the proto-science of memetics to bring new insights to anthropological data. His concepts become not just a way of explaining away "weird beliefs" but explanations for broad patterns in human belief in general. Boyer applies a coherent evolutionary epistemology to human belief and especially to the concepts and practices we consider religion.
The result is fascinating speculation with a new perspective and a good foundation. Since this is the kind of book that tries to explain why we believe what we believe, people starting with a different set of metaphysical assumptions will find it difficult to appreciate. Just as skeptics are fun to read until they attack our own beliefs, people of one religion will probably find Boyer's explanations fit well to other religions, but not their own. Such is life I suppose. To what extent can the same kind of explanations apply to scientific theories? Boyer addresses this by emphasizing that scientific ideas are very counter-intuitive and result from a lot of hard work to formulate and communicate them in specific ways, making them distinguishable from other kinds of concepts that arise more naturally.
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Format: Paperback
This is a great book that, if I summarized it, would probably either make little sense or strike you as preposterous. Read it! It's quite readable if you have a college-level education -- dry, but utterly logical. The key to understanding Boyer's analysis is that he uses evolutionary psychological theory, which maintains that the human mind evolved in modular fashion, with a collection of various inference systems. Boyer does not present any neat, memorable explanation for religious belief -- in fact he carefully dismantles all such theories as the introduction to his book.

What he shows is that these beliefs result from the operation of several different inference systems. Lost? You really have to follow his exposition to be convinced. (For background, and detail on inference systems, he refers the reader to Pinker's HOW THE MIND WORKS, and I think I'll take a look at that next.) If you're familiar with Shermer's HOW WE BELIEVE, which has a great section on the evolution of religion, Boyer argues that Shermer's approach is too simple, and he backs up his position with extensive research findings.

The absolute strength of Boyer's approach is his rigorous, logical application of the scientific method, based on two types of evidence -- 1) the anthropological data on the variety of religious beliefs, and 2) psychological experiments which indicate the mechanisms of belief. Since neither of these are commonly known, and since neither correspond to the common sense of a typical American (or substitute any other society/culture), the reader is taken around the bend by Boyer into a totally unfamiliar way of thinking.

Personally, though, my response, though not quite "Aha!" was a more drawn out "...yes, this makes a lot of sense.
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Format: Paperback
I would give this book 5 stars for its content, but only 3 for its style. The information contained here is enlightening, thought-provoking, and very rewarding, but it does take an effort to read.

It took me 2 hours to read the last 50 pages, and then I immediately started another book ("The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond) and I read 100 pages in 2 hours. This gives you an idea about Boyer's writing style which can be slow to read.

However, if you are interested in this topic, you will want to read this book. The basic thesis expounds how the social human mind is predisposed to believe in religious concepts despite their implausibility. Boyer explicates with precision these deep-seated psychological roots of religion.

If you find Boyer's style just too grating to read the entire book, but still want to get the meat of his argument, I would recommend chapters 1-3 and 9. Although if this subject is as fascinating to you as it is to me, you will want to eventually finish it in its entirety.
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Format: Paperback
Although the book doesn't have any major problems, I was a little disappointed. I wanted something profound and challenging from a book with this title, but I only got a few new ideas. The author deals with supernatural concepts rather than all the phenomena of "religion." I do not necessarily believe in god, but I think religion generally has depths (transcendent insights) that the author hasn't considered or attempted to explain.
Some of the most interesting parts of this book are when the author reviews traditional skeptical arguments skeptically. In other words, he challenges common explanations of belief and usually finds significant problems with them. But he attempts to replace dismissive accounts of religion with a genuinely scientific explanation. Although he doesn't present a religious vision, he certainly isn't passively supporting ordinary skepticism.
I can't imagine someone from any major religion losing their faith over this book, although it could challenge beliefs in ghosts, personal messages from god and so on. I think an educated, thoughtful religious person would find his theories less challenging than traditional skeptics.
The author is an anthropologist, but he is one of the first in that field to be strongly influenced by sociobiology and cognitive science. If you're familiar with Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, or especially Stephen Pinker, Boyer's theory will sound familiar. Boyer's writing isn't as exciting, and often not as well-organized as theirs, but he makes his case. The book's biggest weakness is that the author doesn't argue some points thoroughly enough. Someone unfamiliar with social psychology might not pick up on the strengths and weaknesses of his arguments. Someone with a good background in anthropology might find some of his perspectives shocking.
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