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This is an
altogether remarkable book.
as I was to the older literature on religion such as Freuds Future of an Illusion I expected to find
some variant on the story that religious feeling, thought and behavior is specifically motivated or on the other
commonplace theory that religions are pre-scientific theories that provide believers with explanations for the many
puzzling features of the world around them.
Pascal Boyer, a cognitive anthropologist, carefully argues that neither
of these approaches are tenable. Instead, he draws on the work of Scott Atran
and others to argue, to my mind very plausibly, that religion is a spin-off
from the hard-wired, modular cognitive inference systems characteristic of our
species. In other words, religious
tendencies are more a by-product than a product of our cognitive
evolution. To inquire into the evolved
function of religion is therefore Quixotic: what we need to be looking at are
the deep cognitive processes that have, accidentally, given rise to religion.
that those forms that many people call the great religions are not typical of
To base a general
theory of religion on one or another of these is therefore to make use of an
unrepresentative example. Religion,
most broadly defined, is the belief in supernatural agents. Boyer shows that these supernatural agents
inevitably possess counterintuitive properties, i.e. characteristics that do
violence to their ontological kind (e.g. a tree that can understand human
language, a person who is dead yet still alive, a being who is simultaneously
one entity and three entities, a woman who can become pregnant whilst remaining
a virgin). Irrespective of their other
qualities, all supernatural agents are said to possess minds. This tells us, that religious ideas rooted
in our innate social inference systems.
Our incredible talent for discerning the moods, motives and
psychological states of others our mindreading ability is the output of a
hair-trigger cognitive module that tends to see minds when none are actually
there. The disposition towards religion is the price that we pay for our
specific mental architecture.
Of course, the
broad class of supernatural agents includes all manner of entities.
What differentiate the supernatural agents
relevant to religion from the others is their special powers. They are fullaccess strategic agents who
are believed to possess a great deal of knowledge relevant to human affairs and
the power to intervene in these affairs.
This kind of entity is well worth interacting with and, as the author
emphasizes, religion is typically more a matter of interaction with
supernatural agents than it is a matter of theology. Religion Explained goes
on to tackle many perplexing aspects of religious phenomena. There are particularly interesting
discussions of the nature of ritual and the treatment of the dead.
strength of this book is its provision of a purely naturalistic account of
religious cognition, whereas its major weakness is, in my opinion, the neglect
of the role of religious affect.
that, as Dawkins notes, that religion so often involves feelings resembling
sexual love? Perhaps there is something
to be gained from reconsidering analyses like Freuds that address this aspect
of religious phenomena. What Freud,
following Romaine Rolland, called the oceanic feeling has been addressed by
recent neuroscientific research, and it would be most valuable for Boyers
cognitive psychology of religion to be brought into relation with this body of
research. He does discuss the aspects of the affective dimension of fundamentalist
zeal. This is interpreted as preemptive
righteous anger directed at potential defectors from the group, which is a
novel application of Trivers hypothesis of the regulatory role of affect in
I think that
this is a brilliant contribution to cognitive-evolutionary psychology generally
and to the scientific understanding of religion in particular.
It opened my mind both to a novel and
powerful understanding of religion and to a wider literature. This book is likely to become a classic: the
writing style is lucid, the thinking is both disciplined and creative, and the
research is first rate. Definitely a
© 2002 David Livingstone
Livingstone Smith, University of New England.
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