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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought Paperback – May 2, 2002
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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.
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What it does not cover, or account for, are those native peoples, who have an ethnobotanical and shamanistic tradition, such as the huichol, the Bwiti spiritual practice in West-Central Africa, the Native American Church, etc.
The most peculiar case are the ancient Maya who both used ethnobotanicals and had a very sadistic culture (with constant warfare, torture & human sacrifice), language, art, and a very elaborate religion and mythology.
So even Boyer's model of religion, (which he wisely defers from defining) which emphasizes superstition, does not account for some of the more interesting aspects of the subject.
As others have said the writing is very dense. Marvin Harris on the other hand is an anthropologist who is a delight to read.
Where do they come from? How does our brain process the idea of an invisible agent who controls and influences our lives? In "Religion Explained" French Anthropologist Pascal Boyer tackles this elusive subject in a interesting, well written way. Using new findings and research from Evolutionary Biology and the Cognitive Science's like; philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and, of course, anthropology, Boyer takes you on a unique tour of the human mind. Starting out with a brief look at world religions we see that many of them share common themes like; ancestor worship; spirits or Gods that know all about us and can hear our prayers; artifacts that act as intermediaries between us and our ancestor/spirt. When we first hear about a religious concept how does our mind interpret this new information and mold it to fit our own personality? Religion is kinda like a "meme" that can spread from person to person and from one generation to the next with some modifications to suit various cultures. Over time all religions evolve and become individualized to whatever part of the world it occurs in. To learn why we even have religious thoughts we first need to understand how our brain works, how it processes and stores new information and how we deal with living in social groups. In reading this book I was introduced to several unfamiliar concepts like Mental Templates: a process where we catalog and categorize new information. For example when we learn of a new animal our mind stores this information under a kind of "template" labeled "animal" and as we learn more about this animal we add these new facts to our template till we have a complete picture of, say, a giraffe. As we meet new people or learn of different social structures like religion our mind keeps this information in a kind of filing cabinet filled with these templates of information. Some other concepts used are; cognitive niche, decoupled thoughts and precautionary rules. Using these concepts, and others, with real life situations the author paints a picture of how our mind works and how we process thoughts about our social system and religion in particular. Utilizing, not only his own work but the research and findings of clinical psychologist, philosophers and biologist Boyer shines a light into our innermost mind to expose the roots of religion. His writing is clear, informative and well organized and I was left with a new viewpoint on our society and its most treasured component. The segment on childhood development was specially enlightening as were his thoughts on human evolution and why we have an innate ability to live in groups and process new ideas. This is by no means an easy read but I found it well worth my time and effort. I also found it to be a good follow up to my reading of Daniel Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" with some of the same concepts. No matter where you stand on the religion issue this is an important read and one that may stick with you for some time to come. So if you're up to the challenge you may want to give "Religion Explained" a try. I highly recommend it. As always, keep an open but skeptical mind. I had no technical or formatting problems with this Kindle edition.