Saturday, February 21, 2004

Review of Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained

Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained is a book worthy of its title. That is not to say I think that it makes a perfect case, but it certainly does attempt one. The book is essentially a long argument in favor of an evolutionary psychology account of why there is religion. Religion of course is not confined to our major religions, but rather religion in the anthropological sense, where there are beliefs, and practices, and the like.

The main argument in the book goes, if I may try to paraphrase, that we have various cognitive systems in our brain. These systems were "designed" to fulfill certain very useful and obvious functions, like separate prey from predator, and interact socially with others. Moreover, we are used to looking in the world in a very specific way where we assign certain kinds of roles to certain kinds of agents whenever possible. Explanations of events that fit in to the style of the accounts that we are predisposed to take seriously anyway are more likely to stick in our memories, and become believed.

So religion is a byproduct of all these little systems. We have psychological mechanisms that are conducive to forming religious beliefs, not because that is what the mechanism is for, but rather as a kind of epiphenomena of all of the other necessary and useful systems.

The book is long and tedious. That is not to say it was boring, but I think that next time he writes a book, I will look around for the executive summary. The book is a very carefully constructed argument, which each section adding another piece to a complicated puzzle. At times, especially at the end, the author speculates a bit, but does not go on to anything too implausible.

I liked the book. It did offer a plausible account of why people have certain beliefs. I suspect that there is or will be more neuropsychological evidence for more of this in the future, and I will read that when it comes out.

I did start to worry at some point. It is not clear to me what this book might mean for reasoned discussion about religion. There is a tiny bit of discussion on why there are some non-believers. But is philosophy of religion, as an endeavor to convince people to change their minds either way, an available option? What I mean is, if people believe things because that is how their minds work, it is possible to convince them that they might be wrong, or is the endeavor as muddle headed as trying to convince them that they kid brother is a screwdriver? Is is futile? I wonder.

Again, if you can spare the time, read the book. There is a lot in there for a lot of different people.

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