Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

A Commentary on "Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought"

Jen's picture

Where do we get our religious concepts from? Why do some concepts, such as the existence of one God who knows all, the existence of souls, of an afterlife, of karma, and so forth pervade throughout the spiritual lives of very different people? Why do these concepts persist for thousands of years? How do these concepts gain a following? In Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought anthropologist Pascal Boyer attempts to answer these questions in terms of what we know about cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology (1). Where once it was believed that these were silly questions to ask, Boyer believes that we now have the tools to treat them as a series of problems rather than complete mysteries (1). Boyer does not make an attempt to take an atheist stance and explain away God as a figment of our imaginations, but rather to explain why we believe what we believe and why some beliefs are so persistent.

            Boyer begins the book by dismissing previous explanations for the origins of religion. For example, one of the most appealing accounts of the origin of religion is that people need explanations for everything in their lives, therefore they invent supernatural forces to account for the things they experience. However, there is a problem with this view in that many people are unconcerned with the workings of things unless they have been trained to appreciate that. In order to illustrate this concept, Boyer points to a tribe which believes that witches are at work just below this surface. One day, a man’s house falls on his head, and the villagers are convinced it is the work of witches. Even after it has been pointed out to the villagers that termites were the root of the problem, this still does not dissuade them from their belief in the witch. They are not so much as concerned with how the collapse of the house came about as they are with why the house decided to collapse at the moment, what the witch could have possibly had against the man, what could that man have done in his lifetime to make him a target for the witches, and so forth. The mechanical whys of this event are unimportant and do not reflect on the supernatural whys at all.

            The other problem with this account of the origin of religion—where religion is used as an explanation for natural events—is that religious concepts tend to make things more mysterious and complicated than other types of explanations. For example, if we go back to the man and his house, explaining away this occurrence by termites is a much more simple solution than explaining it in terms of witches. If we explain it in terms of witches, we now have to invent a whole personality for the witches, and we have to describe their powers, and their domain, and so on. It is far easier and more logical for the human brain to give a secular explanation than a religious one.

            Continuing on, Boyer next makes some additional observations about how people choose their religious concepts, beginning with a discussion of Richard Dawkin’s meme concept. Memes are programs (or in this case, cultural concepts) which implant certain behaviors in people, much like genes. When people express these behaviors or ideas, the meme is transmitted, perhaps even copied. At this point it is easy to say that those concepts which get passed on are the ones that are somehow most appealing; and those that are not appealing are reworked. It is an easy assumption to make that those concepts which are not appealing are the ones that are worked on. However, it takes just as much brain power to maintain the same concept in one’s mind, as, unlike genes or computers, we do not merely copy programs and store them in our memory. We must first process them and see if they fit in with us. The question is, why are people so selective about the concepts they will believe in? Boyer says that he will help explain this question by “show[ing] how religion emerges (has its origins, if you want) in the selection of concepts and the selection of memories” (1). The question is, what is our selection process? How does religion emerge?

            Boyer says that we as humans gain most of our knowledge about the world through inference systems. As an example of an inference system in action: when we see an exotic variety of a small, fuzzy rodent from another continent, we assume that it must sleep sometime during the 24 hour day, that it consumes some kind of food in order to generate energy for itself, and it somehow replicates itself, most likely through sexual reproduction. Yet how do we know all this information about the rodent before we have actually studied it? The answer is that we have seen similar creatures before in our backyard: squirrels, mice, rats, chipmunks, and so on. These animals are all organized on a template, one that is titled “Small fuzzy rodents” and has some basic properties which outline the template. Using this template, we can infer information about new small fuzzy things we meet.

We have been using this template method from the day we began to experience new things, we began taking those things and separating them into categories and making new entries in the encyclopedia of our mind. A concept, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a specific animal, that is, a subcategory of information that fits into our “small fuzzy rodent” template. For example, in North America we have a conception of white-tailed deer, since we see them in our backyard all the time, but we do not really have as much of a hands-conception of a platypus as say a resident of Australia might have. However, we do have a template of what an animal is (“moves, eats, reproduces”; this is separate from our fuzzy animal template) and therefore we can make inferences about what the platypus does without actually having studied it.

            When we apply this concept specifically to religion, we find that people have similar religious templates about what supernatural forces should be like, but the concepts vary significantly across regions. So we may all agree that supernatural forces are unseen (the template); but we disagree about what they actually do in our lives (concept). From this point forward in the book, Boyer discusses specific properties of the human mind, for example, how we produce our inferences, and how they affect our inference systems and our templates to generate different kinds of information about religion. He also discusses which concepts are most likely to be adapted and which ones are not. For example, those religious concepts that are most likely to be adapted most easily are those which do not violate the template of a concept. For example, let us make up the religious belief that this statue in front of us is special because not only do you see it here, but you see it the world over. Now most of us would not find this a very logical belief because in our minds, we have a template for statues and one of the things in this template is that we expect it to have a specific defined location in space. However, if the belief were “this statue has magical healing properties”, it would be more likely that someone would believe this as this information can easily be added as a concept into an information box inside the template. This is a statue, but it is a different variety of statue. It has all the properties of normal statues except for this small detail.

            This idea can also happen with the conception of God; for example, we may believe that he is a special type of person. But if we say he only exists on Wednesdays, we will get really confused because this doesn’t fit our template for person; persons do not exist some days and then exist others (1). They are extant or they aren’t. However, if we say God is omnipotent, this fits in with our template, as we are adding an additional concept about this person to their template.

            Even though this book was more about the transmission and development of ideas than solid biology, there was still a lot to be gained in context of our biology class. I think one of the most important concepts that Boyer covered was that diversity can rise out of simplicity. Here we have very simple templates about the way the world works, and we have inference systems that help us piece together new bits of information and create new information. Using these inference systems, we are able to build up a more complex body of knowledge about the supernatural, thus creating very complicated religious concepts from very simple beginnings. Just as different varieties of atoms can arise from a few changes in electrons and just  as complex macromolecules and organisms can be built from different arrangements, so too can complex ideas and supernatural agents be built from humble templates.

            I also found Boyers’ explanations of the way the human brain works very revealing. In this book, I found a satisfactory answer (though a theoretical one) for how knowledge is developed and how ideas are transmitted. On a personal level, I found that Boyer’s theories helped explain why I sometimes do not communicate well with others when I am giving or receiving directions. For instance, if I have stronger powers of inference than someone else (or at least, more predisposed to inferring about my world instead of relying on hands-on observations), in speaking with them I may give them less information, and so they may misconstrue my meaning. Oftentimes when I am speaking with my mother, she knows exactly what I am saying because we both make the same exact inferences about certain ideas. On the other hand, I have to give my father more and different information when giving directions because he assumes a lot less about what we are doing at that particular moment.

            All in all, I highly recommend Boyer’s book for those who are interested in topics concerning cultural transmission, the transmission of ideas, story telling, the development of religious ideas and their origins,  the reasons certain ideas manifest themselves in the human psyche over other ones, and why certain people believe and why others do not. Compared to William James lecture of 1897, "The Will To Believe", it is a light read with a lot of depth based on relevant, contemporary findings.



(1) Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.




Clifford Stevens's picture

"The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

In 1943, modern science took a huge stip forward when Erwin Schrodinger, one of the pioneers of Quantum Physics, gave two lectures at Trinity College in Dublin on "What is Life?" and "MInd and Matter". He recognilzed with surprise and regret that the principles of Physics could not explain the new science of Molecular Biology and that his science had found a border that it could not cross and a natural barrier to applying the principles and conclusions of Quantum Physics to life forms.

What he recognized was that Quantum Physics was not a universal science, but a study of but one aspect of reality and that its principles and laws could not explain the phenomena revealed by the life sciences, in particular, molecular biology, which at that time was in its infancy and had to waait the discovery of DNA a decade later to reveal the inner workings of life forms.

This was true, even though atoms, protons, electrons and photons and other micromatter particles were part of the composition of living cells, but the cells themselves did not follow the laws of Physics. Here were two physical realities, joined together in a unity, each following its own laws, one the material substratum of the other, and neither interfering with each other's activities or composition. What was revealed to Schrodinger was a new world of physical reality that in some respects contradicted the composition of matter as he knew it, giving new forms to matter that he found strange and wonderfulo, for which, in his own science, there was no explanation. Nature itself had placed a barrier beyond which the laws of Physics did not apply, even though the subatomic particles that were part of the composition of life forms still followed their own laws without interference.l

Pascal Boyer has written books on evolutionary biology, one of the latest "Religion Explained: "The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought", and with his literary output he has become the high priest of evolutionary biology. But there is a streak of exaggeration in the text of his books and he uses mathemtical and sociological terminology in abundanced, as if the solution to religion were a mathematical or sociological question.

The fact is that there is no hard scientific, clearly demonstrable evidence that biology, evolutionary or otherwise, is the etiology of religion, or anything else specifically human. In his summary of biologic factors to support his views, he overlooks the fact that DNA reveals data in two directions: lines of inheritance going backward to ancestors, and lines of inheritance that immediately affect the human organism itself. The first does not extend beyond the immediate bearers of the lines of inheritance, the parents, and the second does not go beyond the somatic and psychosomatic structure of the human embryo. This is a fact that has puzzled molecular biiologists for a long time, with a hint that Erwin Schrodinger was right in recognizing that there are borders and barriers within nature itself that cannot be crossed by trying to apply the principles of one science to the principles of another. In this case, Dr. Boyer tries to apply principles that apply to the evolutionary biology of non-human mammalian species to the somatic and psychomatic structure of Homo Sapiens. It simply does not work, and the dirty little secret in evolutionary studies today is that evolutionary science cannot determine that Darwin's evolutionary principles: Natural Selection, Behavior Modification and Survival of the Fittest, have any bearing on human beings at all, and any attempt to demonstrate the opposite has;proven fruitless. (Martin Nowak has demonstrated that Suvival of the Fittest does not apply to human beings, and it is possible, that with further reseath the other two principles will be discared, insofar as they pertain to Homo Sapiens)P.

Suppposition and presumption have replaced scientific investigation and the interpretations that have been given to the DNA sequences of human beings are all based on the presump;tion that the DNA of Homo Sapiens are identical in their function as the DNA sequences of non-human mammalian species.

The first hurdle in evolutionary science that could not be explained was that the biology of the human species had no discernible effect upon human thought, human behavior, human reason, or religion. There is a barrier there that biology cannot cross, and this confirms the experience of Erwin Schrodinger in regard to Physics and Molelcular Biology. Molecular Biology in human beings has purely somatic and psychosomatic effects: the build-up of cells, the DNA structure and the organs of sense and feeling.

The parallel with the relationship of Quantum Physics to Microbiology is the same as the parallel of Microbiology to human behavior and religion. There is a barrier in Molelcular Biology that Microbiology cannot cross, and that is because the biological working and structure of the HUMAN organism serves the purposes of a HUMAN life, leaving what is uniquely human unaffected by purely biological phenomena.

This is not the first time that such a mistake has been made in evolutionary science. Generalilzations do not work in the empirical sciences and without a knowledge of the specifics of human embryonic life, it is not true science that we are talking about. Religion Explained: The Evolultionary Origins of Religious Thought" in particular is loaded with biological and evolutionary data that is true of non-human mammalian species, but his attempt to demonstrate that human reason, human behavior and religion are products of evolution is nowhere demonstrated with scientific accuracy.

Religioin is a cosmological question and is the result of human reason contemplating the Cosmos. It is not an "emergence" from the senses, from DNA or an invasion of evolutionary powers on the human psyche. It is an act of reason that looks to causes, and it is the recognition of a Primary Cause behind the multitude of Secondary Causes that make up the Cosmos. That Primary Cause cannot be reached by empirical science: evolutionary, biological, geological or astronomical. It is reached by Demonstrative Science which is as old as Aristotle and is the one science that is the rule and foundation of all other sciences.

Father Clifford Stevens
Boys Town, Nebraska