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Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors Hardcover – 15 Nov 2001

3.9 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd (15 Nov. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0434008435
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434008438
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.7 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 376,362 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon 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 --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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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Bringing together the words "religion" and "explained" is like dropping sodium into water for some timid souls. To those of us who'd like to see the supernatural disposed of and for whom reason rather than faith is a guiding principle, Pascal Boyer has written a powerful and exciting book. He barely disguises his distaste for the great "organized religions" and warns the reader that "people who think that we have religion because religion is true... will find little here to support their views." Instead, "to explain religion is to explain a particular kind of mental epidemic" and to see that it has little to do with the "sacred" or "divinity" or "ultimate reality". Time for the safety goggles.

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.
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Format: Paperback
Boyer's analysis of human spiritual beliefs is at once sweeping and precise. Using evolutionary concepts to demonstrate the foundation of "belief" is not new, but Boyer surpasses all previous efforts. He shows how all peoples have some reverence for spiritual entities, but these aren't necessarily "gods". In most instances the veneration is more likely to be for departed ancestors as it is for some vague "divine" object. Ancestor worship is widespread in today's societies as it was in Neolithic times. Boyer accepts this universality as well as the intensity of feeling associated with the homage, whether for a vague spirit or identifiable individual. Such universality, he proposes, must have evolutionary roots. In his view those roots lie in our cognitive processes.
"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.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a revealing book. I am very interested in the origin of religious beliefs but find most explanations partial and unsatisfactory. Pascal Boyer first shows the complexity of the phenomenon and therefore the futility of looking for a single cause explanation, and secondly provides the picture that is emerging from the advances in cognitive psychology and neurosciences. After reading this book I have the feeling that the mystery of religious belief (and, for that matter, similar non-rational behaviors) is being finally revealed. It is a must!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a truly excellent book, written by a professor of anthropology who also has a background in evolutionary psychology. He has worked in many countries, studying the religious beliefs and practices of primitive and not so primitive peoples. The proposition that I find most interesting is that religion is a 'bottom up' phenomenom, based on mankinds inate obsession with the counter-intuitive, which has been highjacked by the professional religion providers (i.e. priests). The greatest change occurred with the invention of writing which allowed the crystallisation of dogma and converted religion into a 'top down' phenomenon - religion revealed from'above'. Priests, being generally the only ones who could read and write, were able to take control of the sources of revelation, and of what were correct and incorrect beliefs, practices and rituals. That gave them great power which, they have not only been reluctant to relinquish, but have frequently provoked their follower into bloody warfare and mayhem to prevent encroachment from heretics and non-believers.

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..
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