Friday, January 29, 2010

Pascal Boyer’s Explanation of Religion

1/29/2010—I am working my way through Boyer’s 2001 book, Religion Explained. I cannot figure out, however, whether his evolutionary brain approach can explain anything. For example, Boyer shows that we can only have certain kinds of religious concepts because of the way our brains work. Undoubtedly this is true. If we were lizards, our God would have the qualities of a lizard. It must be true, but so what?

I have heard from others that Boyer makes a different claim. The claim is that because our brains work a certain way, we are fooled, so to speak into having religious concepts. (By religious, Boyer means supernatural). This seems similar to the statement, “you feel love for your daughter for evolutionary reasons”. Certainly that is true. Human beings would not have survived without such feelings. But what effect is this supposed to have on me? People who make such statements seem to think that they should change the way we feel about our children. But, of course, if the statement were altogether true, then nothing said to me could change anything about the way I feel, anymore than knowing about digestion keeps me from getting hungry. If knowing natural history could alter love, then love would by definition not be just a matter of biology.

Boyer is very good at debunking the usual accounts of religion. He says in answer to the claim that we invent religion to avoid thinking about death, he writes, “The common…explanation—people fear death, and religion makes them believe that it is not the end—is certainly insufficient [to explain religion] because the human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear. Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not long survive.” 21.

I have left out the basic question about equating religion with the supernatural. It would presumably come as a surprise to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Yet, there is something to what Boyer says. How many religions lack the supernatural altogether?


  1. Very few religions are non-supernatural. A majority of Unitarian-Universalists are, but supernaturalists from Christians to Wiccans are welcomed, too. Some Chinese traditional religion (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism variants) is non-supernatural, but it is so syncretistic that it is hard to separate out from things like ancestor worship.

    Probably over 99.9% of self-described religious people believe in the supernatural, so I think it is a fine assumption to equate religious with supernatural.

  2. This is one time I think you may be wrong empirically. Granted, there are supernatural elements in most religions (I don't know how you distinguish religion from ancestor worship) but that does not mean that members of these religions share those particular beliefs. I know Jews who do not believe in anything supernatural, for example, which is why I referred to Mordecai Kaplan. It may well be the same in other traditions.

  3. Okay 99.9% is too high, I tend to exaggerate, but it is surely in the high 90's, and therefore non-supernatural (materialist sounds better, huh?) religious people are the exception that proves the rule.

    BTW, ancestor worship is supernatural to me. Humanistic Jews are a small minority of a very small minority religion, so that's not a big chunk of materialist religious people. UUs aren't big either, under 1 million total, and they all aren't materialists. The "unaffiliated" US category that is growing has probably very few people that are materialists. I think we've covered all the traditions that are on the global map.