Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors Hardcover – 15 Nov 2001
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
An excellent book in the spirit of the French Enlightenment, broadly learned and with modern behavioural science added. -- E. O. Wilson
This is a bold far-reaching book. His explanation of religion is lucid, entertaining, full of valuable insights. -- Lord Habgood, Time Higher
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Top Customer Reviews
When it comes to religion it can often seem that anything goes: weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, shamans burning tobacco leaves to effect a healing, the doctrine of transubstantiation, etc., etc. What could possibly even connect let alone explain these behaviours? Boyer, thank goodness, is no Casaubon seeking the "key to all mythologies". He does not inflict the reader with endless anthropological facts, however fascinating they might be. His purpose is to establish why it is profoundly ordinary for organisms having the kind of cognitive structure we have to posit counterfactual or supernatural explanations for many of life's mysteries and miseries. The "explanation for religious beliefs and behaviours is to be found in the way all human minds work." The emphasis here is on all, which is remarkable given the diversity of religions on offer: the beliefs may vary and may even be mutually incompatible and self-contradictory, but the way they are formed and held is universal.Read more ›
"Religion" is defined at the outset chiefly by casting away commonly-held definitions. While some aspects of "religion" may deal with natural forces, mostly they are related to daily human activities. In Boyer's view, these forces are "projections of the human mind". In nearly every instance, the "spirit" whether ancestor, deity or even a forest tree, exhibits human characteristics. These are not always predictable. In fact their very presence is predicated on spurious and unforeseen events. The very unreality of their behaviour commands respect. Our perception of their existence result from "inferences" stored in the mind from other experiences. Although he views Western institutionalised religions as outside the norm of human society, the same basic pattern holds even there. "Consolation", usually a form of release from death, for example, is almost absent from most religions. Western monotheism is an exception from the human norm.Read more ›
The only criticism I would have is on the lack of a glossary. The text contains many technical terms (jargon) and although they are usually explained the first time they appear, it is difficult having to refer back to that description every time they appear. I ended up making my own glossary..
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is not a book for the faint hearted but it does give a thourogh explanation of why religions exist. Read morePublished 21 months ago by WiganPaul
This book attempts to explain why humans believe in religion. This is here related to the tendency to over-detect agency in the natural world, such as thinking the sound of wind in... Read morePublished on 6 May 2012 by S. G. Raggett
In 1943, modern science took a huge step forward when Erwin Schrodinger, one of the pioneers of Quantum Physics, gave two lectures at Trinity College in Dublin on "What is Life? Read morePublished on 16 Aug. 2011 by Clifford J. Stevens
The basic idea of 'Religion Explained' is that there are mental systems inherent within us that lead us to assign emotions and motivations to inanimate objects - a bit like seeing... Read morePublished on 18 Feb. 2011 by Andrew Carruth
"Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer is a hard read, and probably off limits for the general reader. Read morePublished on 5 Dec. 2010 by Ashtar Command
Some of the reviewers seem to take issue with the book and question its arguments. It seems as if they are criticising Boyer for not writing the book they would have written had... Read morePublished on 10 Jun. 2010 by Ronald Arthur Dewhirst
Religion Explained: The human instincts that fashion gods, spirits and ancestors by Pascal Boyer, Heinemann, 2001; Vintage (Random House) 2002, 448 ff. Read morePublished on 15 Oct. 2009 by Dr. H. A. Jones
The blurb on the back of this book describes the title as "unpretentious". I laughed. Anyone who writes a book called "Religion Explained" is either going to be a genius or a... Read morePublished on 26 Feb. 2009 by Michael Bordin
If our problem is that people are resorting to inferred supernatural agents to explain things, how then are we helped if we resort to inferred mental agents? Read morePublished on 25 Oct. 2007 by calmly
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