REVIEW: What's it all about? Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer tackles this question in the unapologetically titled Religion Explained
, and is sure to polarise his readers. Some will think it's an impermissible invasion of mental territory beyond the reach of reason, others will see it as the first step toward a more complete understanding of human nature--and Boyer is acutely aware of the emotionally-charged nature of his work. This knowledge informs his decision to proceed without caution, as he warns readers early on that most will risk being offended by some of his considerations. Laying aside one's biases as best as one can will bring great rewards; Boyer's wide scholarship and knack for elegant writing are reasons enough for reading.
That gods and spirits are construed very much like persons is probably one of the best known traits of religion. Indeed, the Greeks had already noticed that people create gods in their own image ... All this is familiar, indeed so familiar that for a long time anthropologists forgot that this propensity requires an explanation. Why then are gods and spirits so much like humans?
Peppering his study with examples from all over the world, particularly the Fang people of Africa, Boyer offers plenty of evidence for his theory that religious institutions exist to maintain particular threads of social integrity. Though he uses the tools of evolutionary psychology, he is more careful than most EP proponents to avoid ad hoc and circular arguments. Best of all, at least to those unmortified at the idea of critically examining religion, his theories are potentially testable. Even if he turns out to be dead wrong, at least Religion Explained
offers a new and powerful framework for thinking about our spiritual lives. --Rob Lightner
"A deep, ingenious, and insightful analysis of one of the deepest mysteries of the human species" (Steven Pinker)
"An excellent book in the spirit of the French Enlightenment, broadly learned and with modern behavioural science added. It deserves to be widely read" (E.O. Wilson
"This is a bold far-reaching book. His explanation of religion is lucid, entertaining, full of valuable insight" (Lord Habgood Time Higher
"The wisdom in its pages will be a revelation to any seeker after truth. While it lets daylight in upon magic, this book is never scornful and never dismissive, and Pascal Boyer's voice is as unpretentious as its title. If faith is the last refuge of the would-be believer, Religion Explained
takes it away but puts something better in its place, enlightenment and understanding." (Ruth Rendell
"A fascinating analysis of urge to believe" (Scotland on Sunday