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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion/science

Religion Explained

Pascal Boyer

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To purchase Religion Explained

Title: Religion Explained
Author: Pascal Boyer
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 330 pages
Availability: Religion Explained - US
Religion Explained - UK
Religion Explained - Canada
Et l'homme créa les dieux - France
Und Mensch schuf Gott - Deutschland
  • US subtitle: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
  • UK subtitle: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting sketch of a very big picture, fairly well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 7/2/2002 W.G.Runciman
The LA Times C 16/6/2001 Zachary Karabell
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 5/10/2004 Friedrich Wilhelm Graf
The Times B 29/8/2001 Karen Armstrong
TLS . 29/3/2002 David Martin
The Washington Post B+ 10/6/2001 Michael Shermer

  From the Reviews:
  • "But his method, however compelling, does not save the book from its considerable flaws. To begin with, the writing is frequently impenetrable (.....) Boyer has written a book about religion that is occasionally illuminating and utterly unconvincing." - Zachary Karabell, The Los Angeles Times

  • "By far the most fascinating part of this highly accessible and informative book is Boyer’s description of the way our minds work. (...) When, however, Boyer abandons neurology and anthropology for theology and religious history, he is less convincing." - Karen Armstrong, The Times

  • "At best, Boyer's chancy speculations about operations sealed away in the "mental basement", and appealing to psychological experiments, often with children -- with all the chronic methodological problems they involve -- are just one possibility among many." - David Martin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) penetrating scientific analysis of religion. (...) Boyer is at his best in describing the countless peculiar religious rituals he and his anthropological brethren have recorded -- and especially in identifying the shortcomings of virtually every explanation for religion ever offered. As a consequence, however, Boyer himself fails to provide a satisfactory explanation because he knows that religion is not a single entity resulting from a single cause." - Michael Shermer, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Religion Explained !
       Sounds promising -- and ambitious !
       After all, few things are more mysterious than religion in all its manifold manifestations. Omnipresent, enormously influential, driving people to do strange things, often apparently irrational -- yes, religion is one of the great (and, for many, grand) mysteries of human civilization. And Pascal Boyer suggests that he can offer: Religion Explained.
       The subtitle -- The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought -- offers the first caveat. And ultimately it, like the title proper, is a bit misleading. Boyer does offer what amounts to a scientific explanation of many aspects of religion (and specifically why humans embrace it -- and what exactly they are embracing), as well as suggesting cultural, biological, and neurological reasons why and how man (and religion) have developed in this manner. His book offers more than just the "evolutionary origins of religious thought" -- and a bit less than "religion explained".
       Religion is a complicated thing. Indeed, merely defining what it is is one of the first problem one faces when considering it. We are used to what we know as "organized religion", but that is just one manifestation of religion and religious belief -- though organization and communality are among the features that, as Boyer shows, are commonly found in "religion".
       Boyer is careful not to focus merely on the religions his readers are likely to be familiar with. He did field work in Cameroon, among the Fang, and so he likes to use their belief-systems as examples, and he also draws on other anthropological and historical accounts to bring in the full, rich variety of religion. But his focus is on what is common to all forms of religion -- or, more accurately, what leads mankind to invent, adopt, and follow these belief-systems that, considered rationally, are generally simply bizarre (and often quite ridiculous).
       As he shows, there are some clear reasons why these odd belief-systems arise, and why people follow them. From the idea of "memes" (see also Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (see our review)) to why specific beliefs are adopted and others aren't, Boyer suggests how belief systems arise, adapt (and are adapted), and thrive. He offers many particularly interesting biologically- and neurologically-based reasons for specific beliefs and attitudes -- many of which, one finds, are common (in some form) to practically all religions. And he finds common templates behind supernatural concepts, for example.

       The book has nine sections, building up to the big question, Why Belief ? Boyer explains What Supernatural Concepts are Like, for example, before moving on to The Kind of Mind it Takes (focussing on the way the brain works). Then he gets more specific, wondering about gods and spirits, about the focus on death (and whatever it is that comes after death -- since almost all religions hold that there is some sort of after-life), about rituals and about doctrines.
       Each chapter is divided up into fairly short sections, presenting various aspects of the specific question(s) he is looking at. He also offers "Tool Kits" to facilitate understanding, and "Progress Boxes", to make sure the most important points have been grasped.
       Much of religion does get at least closely addressed (if not completely explained) in this book, and there are interesting scientific explanations behind many aspects of religious thought. Much of this is very interesting -- but his "religion explained" still seems very cobbled together, perhaps inevitably so, since religious thought is so complex and diverse (despite underlying similarities between most belief-systems). While it is understandable that there is no one, easy explanation for the existence of "religion", Boyer's far-reaching attempt at exegesis often feels like it is over-reaching. The sum of what he offers is not a bunch of pieces that are fit neatly together but rather a huge tangle of often mismatched odds and ends -- with some very gaping holes.
       Boyer takes a stab at pretty much everything one might say about religion, but that leaves much that is under-explained -- or not fully convincingly explained -- in the book. Issues such as why some religions do so much better than others (in terms of popularity) or the willingness of adherents to do pretty much anything in the name of their god(s) are tackled to a certain extent but there's fairly little hard science in the explanations he offers. And, while he does consider it fairly closely, the fundamental irrationality of believers remains stupefying.
       Boyer's focus is purely on (more or less) "scientific" explanations: he warns early on that he won't even bother to entertain purely faith-based explanations. This may seem unfair -- reviewer Zachary Karabell (in The Los Angeles Times) complains about the fact that Boyer "has no use for "religious" explanations of religion" -- but seems perfectly acceptable to us. And if you take religion on faith then there's really not to much to explain; it's sort of a given -- though of course it does leave open the always fun question of what is the true faith (an already more interesting question which Boyer unfortunately also avoids).

       There is a lot that is of interest in the book, especially as Boyer looks at individual aspects of religious belief -- attitudes towards death, the setting down of religious dogma in writing, religions as "guilds" (essentially a business like any other), etc. -- but as a whole it doesn't quite live up to its promise. It makes for an interesting read, but leaves the reader only somewhat the wiser. Most of the really big questions remain unanswered.

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Reviews: Pascal Boyer:
  • Home Page at Washington University
  • Abstract of Evolutionary Psychology and Proximate Cognitive Explanations of Religious Concepts
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pascal Boyer teaches at Washington University.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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