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Review: Religion Explained

Religion_ExplainedAccording to Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained (Basic Books, 2001), religion is no longer a mystery.  Recent work in biology, anthropology, and cognitive psychology has uncovered the evolutionary basis of human cognitive systems and transformed the unknowable terrain of religion into a landscape of tractable problems (48-9). Amongst the vast diversity of religious phenomena a set of nearly universal patterns is discernible: religions almost always involve supernatural entities, moral norms, concern about death, formulaic rituals, and exclusive group identities. To explain the recurrence of these themes, one must look beneath culture and conscious minds to the evolved cognitive architecture which produces both. According to Boyer, themes that stretch across religions are easy to understand, remember, and incorporate into human life because they activate specialized cognitive systems that evolved for other purposes.

For Boyer supernatural agents are the essential ingredient that distinguishes something as religious: “Religious concepts are those supernatural concepts that matter” (137). To grasp why supernatural concepts spontaneously arise in human cultures, one must first understand how our brains process natural phenomena. Human brains automatically organize all experienced objects into a few evolutionarily stabilized ontological templates: animal, person, tool, natural object, and plant (78). These intuitive ontologies allow humans to infer a wealth of relevant information about new objects. If something is an animal, we automatically assume that it moves with intentionality, requires food, and reproduces within its species. If something is a tool, we presuppose it is a nonliving object shaped by human beings to fulfill a particular function (58-59). Thus, children who know nothing about animal anatomy assume that all members of a species share the same internal parts — an inference they do not make about tools (108). Supernatural concepts are interesting and memorable (80-6) because they violate one or two ontological expectations, while fulfilling the rest. For instance, ghosts are persons who lack physical bodies. Such counterintuitive concepts intrigue human minds, but they also contain a wealth of information: because ghosts are persons, we take for granted that they perceive, remember events, make plans, and understand language (75). Thus, supernatural entities are remembered for their counterintuitive ontologies and are useful because of the rich inferences they allow. When these cognitive structures are combined with an evolved habit of over-detecting agency in our environment (145) and a brain keenly adapted to discerning “strategic information” in other people’s minds (152-60), it is no surprise that gods, ancestors, and other supernatural agents pervade human cultures.

When explaining the role of morality, death, rituals, and exclusive groups in religion, Boyer discusses the cognitive subsystems that lead to these religious phenomena and also how each connects to belief in supernatural agents. Morality does not rest upon a religious foundation or even upon a structure of conscious moral reasoning. Rather, it is driven by powerful emotions which evolved to increase human cooperation (174-5). Anger, guilt, gratitude, and pride are internal motivators that shape all human behavior. These poorly understood features of human life are mistakenly believed to result from the will or watchfulness of supernatural agents, which increases the plausibility of these agents (170, 191). Death is central in religion because corpses trigger multiple conflicting cognitive systems: a contagion avoidance system, a person template minus mind and agency, and a particular person file with rich memories (227). The cognitive dissonance produced by recognizing a well-known person without their mind present is probably why ancestor spirits are the most common form of supernatural agent (Ibid.). Rituals co-opt the contagion avoidance system to infuse inherently meaningless behavior with strong emotion and a sense that unseen danger awaits anyone who does not follow procedure exactly (232-40). Because rituals seem inexplicably to produce profound social transformation, they are easily linked to unseen agents, increasing the credibility of supernatural beings (258). The roots of religious exclusivity and violence lie in cognitive systems that encourage the formation of coalitions (287-8), the perception of people in terms of unseen essences (288), and a strong desire to punish anyone who defects from a coalition (294-5). In this context, supernatural agents become a locus for costly sacrifices that signal coalitional commitment (293). The threat of violence increases with the cost of belonging.

Religion Explained is essential reading for anyone thinking seriously about religion. Boyer seamlessly weaves insights from developmental psychology, anthropology, and cognitive psychology into a lucid and entertaining account. He has not explained all of religion, but he certainly clarified a large and previously neglected section of it. His accomplishment is well summarized in a three-page concluding section entitled “The Full History of All Religion (Ever)” (326-8). If reading this flamboyant synopsis produces skepticism about whether one book can elucidate so much, one should read the whole text and be convinced.

Though Religion Explained will remain a standard reference for years to come, it oversimplifies religious phenomena in three ways. First and most glaringly, Boyer restricts his definition of religion to matters concerning supernatural agents without recognizing a corresponding need to restrict the scope of his conclusions (7; 10-29; 90; 138). Identifying the role of counter-intuitive ontological violations, a fondness for imagining socially embedded human minds, and agency over-detection explains much about why people believe in supernatural agents. However, I am less convinced that recognizing a few cognitive systems associated with morality, ritual, death, and exclusive religious groups exhaustively explains these complex religious phenomena. I am even less confident that isolating one or two cognitive subsystems can explain other essential religious behaviors such as habitual self-evaluation in light of religious ideals, developing counseling skills to aid grieving members, or employing hermeneutic expertise to apply the wisdom of ancient texts in contemporary situations. Presumably, these integrative tasks involve complex networks of neurological substructures which only a more mature neuroscience can begin to “explain.” Second, by reductively emphasizing explanations drawn from cognitive science, Boyer comes dangerously close to eliminating any causal role for culture. For example, he suggests that racism is merely an expression of “efficient economic strategies” which are rooted in intuitive coalitional thinking and have little to do with cultural concepts (290). A more balanced view ought to recognize a feedback loop between cognitive propensities for racism and the ability of institutions and languages to absorb and reinforce unchecked bigotry over long periods of time. Third, Boyer stresses the unseen power of subconscious cognitive processes so strongly that he appears to deny the ability of deliberate, conscious thought to shape intuitive perception (304-7). The latter capacity is manifested by art curators who sense a fraudulent work before they can justify their judgment or philosophers who feel an invalid argument before they uncover an error through logical dissection. More to the point of the present topic are those individuals who disbelieve in supernatural agents — a topic Boyer mentions, but fails to illuminate (318-9).

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