Religion Explained, A Review
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/21/03
A few months
back my best pal, let’s call him Joe, excitedly told me, over dinner, that he
was ecstatic over a new book he’d read called Religion Explained, by
Pascal Boyer. Actually, the full vitae on the book is Religion Explained,
The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Copyright © 2001, Basic
Books). Joe, who has long been even more anti-religious than I am, is a devout
atheist- a point I’ve needled him over because of the stance’s illogic- 1
cannot disprove a negative, & all that. Nonetheless, Joe was rolling- this
was after seeing the latest Star Trek film (another pet love of his)-
& told me that the basic premise of the book is that this seeming societal
need for religion is something pre-programmed in to the human brain. Since Joe
is also a computer programmer he has long been insistent that the human brain
is like a computer. That this view has been passé since the 1980s has not
deterred Joe’s dogmatic belief in this fallacy. Most neural scientists claim a
brain operates holistically- if not holographically. Joe enumerated some of the
book's claims- that there were reasons to fear a dead body, that people are
turned off to things like cow piss in milk even though urine is sterile, &-
most of all- that most religious iconography is mnemonic because it is not based
on far out things, but on things that are just prosaic things- slightly extended
beyond the norm. As a writer, I asked a simple question- 1 that Joe had no
answer for then, nor 1 which- after reading the book- I could find within. That
is, if this mnemonic approach has import, then how does 1 explain the
persistence of clichés in most writing? As I pursue this point you will see its
This book also continues the dubious tradition of ripping off compelling titles from more successful works & trying to bask in the reflected glory- i.e.- this book’s title, & obsession with the brain- are direct descendents of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 magnum opus Consciousness Explained. The difference is that that book’s argument, & writing style, were far more successful than PB’s. In fact, in this review I am not only going to dissect some of PB’s arguments, but also his prose stylings. Aren’t you tired of reading book reviews of non-fiction that NEVER address the writing? I mean, historicity is important in a history book, & a valid theory is needed for a science book to work, but how the author conveys that message is just as crucial to the book’s success or failure. I will contend that PB’s dull & overwrought prose, its excessive length, & the muddle of his ideas, lead to his book’s- & argument’s- failure on all counts.
The book runs to 330 pages, but should (& could easily) be under 100. I will go chronologically through the book & address failures in style & substance as we go. The book is divided in to 9 chapters. The 1st is called What Is The Origin? Here PB lays out some of the (what he believes) fallacious arguments for why religion is at all. Several graphs accompany these arguments. 4 of his larger Original views (with lesser subviews) are that Religion provides 1) explanations, 2) comfort, 3) social order, & 4) cognitive illusion. Later, he gives the subviews. For the Intellectual Explanations he details that religion explains odd natural phenomena (disasters, the motion of the heavens), odd mental phenomena (dreams & intuition), the origins of things (the 1st Cause conundrum), & evil & suffering. PB’s alternative is a 4 bullet box called Progress Box 1: Religion As Explanation. Here is his rebuttal: The urge to explain the universe is not the origin of religion. OK, so far, this is the set up. The need to explain particular occurrences seems to lead to strangely baroque constructions. Hmmm….well, let’s see where this posit leads. You cannot explain religious concepts if you do not describe how they are used by individual minds. Why? Religion seems to be the granddaddy of all weird thought, or mass delusion. We know that rational explanations fail to explain the ‘mob mindset’, so why is religion exempt from this? See, how in just 2 steps PB has veered from the 1st posit’s point. Whether this is purposeful rhetoric or unintended sloppiness of thought is beside the point. The point is that before #4 we’ve already gone awry- indeed, almost unconsciously evoking his own 2nd point. Let’s look at point 4: A different angle: Religious concepts are probably influenced by the way the brain’s inference systems produce explanations without our being aware of it. Now he’s done it! PB has both recapitulated point 1 & denied it in point 4! Inference is a form of explaining, therefore point 4 is telling you that religion is a product of the human need to explain, even if unconscious. Point 1 is then false, by his own reasoning. Yet, point 4 also eradicates point 3! In 3 he states you need to know how individual minds work, yet point 4 is all about collectivizing ideas on the minds of many. In just 1 little ‘dialogue box’ PB has laid a muddled template that haunts him throughout the whole book. In fact, PB offers no alternative explanation- just a muddled restatement that contradicts his own initial statement. No alternative view is truly offered, & this pattern ossifies the whole book in to silly reductivisms like ‘religion is complex’, etc.
PB then tackles 2 emotive scenarios for Religion’s origin- that as bringer of comfort, making mortality less unbearable, & life more comfortable. A few pages on we get Progress Box 2: Emotion In Religion. Its 4 points are Religious concepts do not always provide reassurance or comfort. Fair enough. Deliverance from mortality is not quite the universal longing we often assume. OK, but this is merely a narrowing of point 1. Religious concepts are indeed connected to human emotional systems, which are connected to life-threatening circumstances. Now, is he not strengthening the claim to fear of death being at the heart of religion? #4 states A different angle: Our emotional programs are an aspect of our evolutionary heritage, which may explain how they affect religious concepts. Yet, if we go back to point 3 we must- by PB’s own logic, deduce that death is behind it all. If death (life-threatening circumstances) is connected to emotion, which is connected to evolution, & death is also connected to religion, then death affects religion, even if it’s evolutionarily bound. So, PB does indeed posit, & show, that religion has an evolutionary basis, but- more importantly- that its basis is indeed a fear of death- which obviates points 1 & 2- avoiding death may not be universal to all folk, but it has no need to be to get instituted as a dominant theme or progenitor of a particular thought process. 2 at bats & 2 strikeouts by his own reasoning. An added demerit is that PB never quite explains what he means by the ‘comfort’ people expect from religion- a not too small glossing over, in my view.
PB goes on in a similar vein on the social & illusory aspects of religion’s origins. He fails at both of those attempts, as well. He then makes a fatal misstep- he invokes the already shaky idea of the meme- biologist Richard Dawkins’ coinage for ideative systems that are the equivalent of genes. You know a theorist is in trouble when they need to borrow another person’s idea- & an illusory 1 at that.
For a meme to be anything else but a metaphor 1 would need to establish certain ‘firing patterns’ in brains & isolate the moment someone stated, as example, ‘pink elephant’ & the brain formed that image. Ask someone not to think of that pink elephant & they are forced to think of it before banishing it. Or are they? Many folk do not cognitively associate the way normal, or average, folk do. This does not imply that those people are nuts- just different. For all the hype that memes have gotten over the last 2 decades, the idea has, of late, slidden into the outré recesses. Why? Because, flat out, there is absolutely nothing to support it.
Also, memes have too much of an ad hoc quality to them. When there seems to be a good example, supporters pounce on it. When it fails, well- they just don’t speak of such things. 2 examples of memes, in the pro & con (& these are not related in PB’s book), are alien abduction scenarios (pro) & the game of ‘telephone’ (con). In the former it does not take a genius to deduce that this cultural template is an internally driven phenomenon. Reports of the last few decades have seen abduction scenarios by ‘aliens’ mutate from an all over the charts type description of the aliens, craft, equipment, & their motives, to the nearly uniform ‘Communion’-like scenario of little Gray rapists. Why? Because, in archetypally case studied ways, the sci fi fiction of the 40s & the classic 1950s schlock films codified many of the ‘scenarios’ down in to the dominant 1- which received incredible exposure in the mid-1960s with the mother of all ‘abduction’ tales- Betty & Barney Hill’s. That gullible ‘experts’ like a David Jacobs, John Mack, Budd Hopkins, etc. have been sucked in to this morass (which is so equivalent to ancient fairy & incubi tales) is the most amazing part of this memetic phenomenon- itself bordering on becoming a new religion. Yet, even this classic meme case study is flawed, because the Gray rapist scenario is dominant only in American UFOlogy- go to South America, Asia, or Europe & the scenarios diverge greatly- with no real rhyme nor reason. But, why should it, since the classic university test study of a ‘staged crime’ has proven so utterly that human witnesses are unreliable? You know what I mean. A class is set up for a ‘crime’ that will occur, & then asked to relate details. The professor is speaking, & someone dashes in & steals his briefcase. Then the curtain is lifted & all the students separated before they can gibe their stories. Inevitably, they give widely varying accounts of what was stolen, the description of the thief, & even if it really occurred. BUT, if the curtain is not lifted until a few minutes after the ‘incident’, & the students can build up a consensus account- they will, & do.
Now for the con side- ever played ‘telephone’? Sit in circle with a group of people & whisper a sentence (or paragraph) into someone’s ear: say- Johnny went to the store with his pet dachshund & came home with a pound of wieners & a DVD of The Wizard Of Oz to watch. By the time that tale makes it back to its originator it might be something like Jenny drove her Volkswagen to the mall, met Vincent, & went out for dinner & a movie. & the greater the # of participants in the game the greater the divergence from the original tale. This argues powerfully against memes, since a meme is not only something with a mnemonic device, but something that is a mnemonic device- like a whispered secret. A counter-argument would be that ‘mutation’ is a natural part of the meme, just as in genes. But, mutations occur randomly & go through many, many successful generations of copies- & are also not ‘consciously’ directed. The ‘telephone’ game dashes both of those arguments. Yet, PB relies on this occasionally handy, yet functionally limited device to rest most of his thesis upon.
Here’s a slice of PB’s rationale from page 39:
Cultural memes undergo mutation, recombination and selection inside the individual mind every bit as much and as often as (in fact probably more so and more often than) during transmission between minds. We do not just transmit the information we received. We process it and use it to create new information, some of which we do communicate to other people. To some anthropologists this seemed to spell the doom of meme-explanations of culture. What we call culture is the similarity between some peoples’ mental representations in some domains. But how come there is similarity at all, if representations come from so many sources and undergo so many changes?
obviously has never even looked at the 2 examples I mentioned above- lest he
would not appear so foolish. In the 1st part of this paragraph he
spells out ‘telephone’ but by its end he has not heard the ringing. Culture
is not similar mental representations, but similar real world actions. PB
obviously never spoke to 2, say, Moslems or hockey fans- both would have
convergent similarities in their areas of commonality, but widely differing
views on, say, the comparitive qualities of Monet’s & Renoir’s oeuvres.
As for why there is similarity at all? Well, because of the genetic similarities
of humans- not the memetic.
But, put aside the dialectic qualities of PB’s rationale, & look at that paragraph as a piece of writing. The faux naïf stance is 1 that echoes throughout the book, is puerile, & just lends a whole air of condescension that is doubly galling since PB never really lives up to his title.
A little later, PB takes up this argument:
get their religion from other members of their social group. But how does that
occur? Our spontaneous explanation of transmission is quite simple. People
behave in certain ways around a child and the child assimilates what is around
it until it becomes second nature. In this picture acquiring culture is a
passive process. The developing mind is gradually filled with information
provided by cultural elders and peers. This is why Hindus have many gods and
Jews only one; this is why Japanese like raw fish and Americans toast
marshmallows. Now this picture of transmission has a great advantage- it is
simple- and a major flaw- it is clearly false. It is mistaken on two counts.
First, children do not assimilate the information around them; they actively
filter it and use it to go well beyond what is provided. Second, they do not
acquire all information in the same way. (pages 40-41)
It’s stolid passages like this that make the book so interminable. 1st-
PB takes another 2½ pages to dully rehash what he so dimly says here, & 2ndly-
he’s flat out wrong on several scores. 1st he mistakenly posits
assimilation & filtering as oppositional when they are clearly symbiotic
in the learning process. Then, he misses a fabulous opportunity to expound on
what could be a major cause in his argument FOR religion- that of déjà vu.
Think about this- what is déjà vu BUT the filtered mishmash of assimilated
information that life’s sensory bombardment forces the brain to sublimate? You
do something, or see something or someone who ‘rings a bell’ in you. Why?
Because they remind you of a similar thing that you cannot consciously recall.
So, the conscious interprets this subconscious ‘memory’ as ‘proof’ of a
‘past life’ (religiously- as in reincarnation), or ‘missing time’ (as in
UFOlogy), or an ‘omen’ of something. Yet, PB NEVER picks up on this angle in
the entire book- even though it should scream out at even a casual reader. In
short, memes are a bad idea- the very act of ideation cannot be quantified like
an idea itself. Memes are a good metaphor but bad science because they cannot be
disproven- we can measure neuronal impulses, but never the idea- nor that
ineffable thing that synthesizes or is the synthesis of impulse & idea. To
be fair, however, this lack of depth may simply be evidence that PB has a very
Functionary intellect- 1 averse to theorizing. What may be needed to connect the
dots, so to speak, is a Creationary, or Visionary intellect’s approach.
PB then veers off wildly from the simple to a very convoluted approach to religion- using templates of ontological reality admixed with newer ‘attachments’ such as a god being something from the ontological template of PERSON with the attachment of special powers. He then proceeds to state that religious concepts that stick- or are good memes- are those that are not too outlandish- like a god being a PERSON with special powers. But if we try to add a 2nd attachment to the god as PERSON template- say, that gods are PERSONS with special powers, but only between noon & sundown on the 1st Monday of the month, well, that won’t stick because PERSONS are persons always- not just at specific times or places, therefore gods, as special persons, must obey the same ontological dicta as persons. Not a bad syllogism, but- let’s face it- a stretch, since most gods are by definition (in all cultures) transhuman- a fundamental violation of the whole template notion. Nor does it explain the whole plenum of bizarre human belief systems- religious or not (since, presumably, PB’s template system should be applicable in philosophy, political, & mythic fields too).
As proof of his template notion PB posits that worldwide people believe in ghosts & we assume they are dead folk, yet with minds & cogitative abilities. Ghosts are inferred to be cognitive, even if they are mnemonic for appearing from nothingness. PB sees this as the template’s ‘default mode’, & it’s not a bad inference. The rejoinder would be- so what? Ghosts are not mnemonic for knowing that oil & water don’t mix, but FOR appearing from nothingness! Yet again, PB waxes dryly- & far too long- over something that he presumes insightful but, upon evaluation, is as banal as a ghost knowing oil & water don’t mix! This is akin to trying to explain why a home run is more awe-inducing than a bunt single by stating the average wholesale cost of making a wooden bat. This little escapade uses the example of a primitive African tribe called the Fang (1 of many appearances in the book). On another occasion PB uses this tribe in a similarly yawn-inducing fashion- to argue that a belief in religion is not based on fear of death since the Fang believe in dead spirits, do not fear them (or death, presumably), yet run when they see a spirit, nonetheless. Why? Sounds like fear, looks like fear, smells like fear, to me. If not a fear of death- again, so what? But their religious motivation is FEAR- who cares if it is of the odor exuded by the spirits or their penchant for telling ancient bad knock-knock jokes? Still, PB never even takes up the question of their fear.
Another 80 or so pages drone on in this fashion, making startlingly banal observations about things that simply have nothing to do with the book’s premise. On page 143, PB takes up the argument that humans anthropomorphize their deities because we are ‘complex’- this being why we see faces on Mars, in the clouds, profiled on mountaintops, etc. This is another example of PB’s penchant for copping out, & relying on the word complex. Here is that section’s last paragraph, from page 144:
The anthropomorphic tendency described by [anthropologist Stewart]
Guthrie is certainly there. However, before we understand how it contributes to
people’s notions of supernatural agents, we must make this psychological
description a bit more specific. First, note that gods and spirits are not
represented as having human features in general but as having minds,
which is more specific. People represent supernatural agents who perceive
events, have thoughts and memories and intentions. But they do not always
project onto these agents other human characteristics, such as having a body,
eating food, living with a family or gradually getting older. Indeed,
anthropologists know that the only feature of humans that is always
projected onto supernatural beings is the mind. Second, the concept of a mind is
not exclusively human. As I said in the last two chapters, it is part of out
intuitive expectations that animals as well as humans perceive what is going on
around them, react to those events, have goals and form plans. Intuitive
psychological inferences are applied to intentional agents in general, not just
persons. So it is quite likely that concepts of gods and spirits are mostly
organized by our intuitive notions of agency in general (the abstract
quality that is present in animals, persons, and anything that appears to move
of its own accord, in pursuance of its own goals) rather than just human agency.
has never really delved in to the many sundry forms of religion- especially
those more animistic forms- because his whole summation is as wrong as can be:
1) often a peoples’ god will have distinctly inhuman qualities, & be
worshipped for that VERY lack! Be it an animal, the sun, moon, or ocean. The
very sine qua non of the deity is their utter inhumanity (in the scientific, not
nihilistic, sense). 2) the mind is as subject to my 1st point as any
other human feature- this includes the utter abeyance, if not absence of agency.
But, putting aside the utterly muddled reasoning PB employs, let us look at his writing & rewrite the paragraph so his OWN point is more clearly stated:
The anthropomorphic tendency described by Guthrie is certainly there. However, we must make this psychological description a bit more specific. First, note that gods and spirits are not represented as having human features in general but as having minds. Indeed, anthropologists know that the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind. Second, the concept of a mind is not exclusively human. Intuitive psychological inferences are applied to intentional agents in general, not just persons: gods and spirits are mostly organized by our intuitive notions of agency in general rather than just human agency.
Perhaps I am being picayune, but the excision of the self-congratulatory pats, & the condescending need to detail the manifest, help with a bit of PB’s clarity- or rather his lack. But, it must be stated that PB’s own smugness, admixed with his startling lack of insight & inability to deduce or induce, makes his dull writing style all the more grating. Pages 196-197 contain an even more poorly written paragraph that could be summed up in less sentences. This kicks off a section on the CAUSES AND REASONS OF MISFORTUNE:
This leads us to a second explanation for the fact that people explain so many events in terms of supernatural causes. The idea is this: some events are such that they naturally suggest questions (Why me? Why now?) that are simply not answered in terms of ordinary causal processes. That is, people who do all this know perfectly well that disease strikes most people at some point or that mud huts will eventually collapse in a termite-infested village. No one could be unaware of these general principles. But general principles are just that- general. That is their weakness. They have nothing to say about particular cases. People are understandably concerned with the particulars of each case, not its general aspects. Hence the value of supernatural explanations, which are relevant to the particulars of the situation.
that a bit more clearly, then strike at its logic
leads us to a second explanation: some events are such that they naturally
suggest questions not answered by ordinary causal processes. That is, people who
do all this know perfectly well that disease strikes most people at some point
or that mud huts will eventually collapse in a termite-infested village. No one
could be unaware of these general principles. But general principles are just
that- general. They have nothing to say about particular cases. Hence the value
of supernatural explanations, which are particular.
As for the posit? To this point PB has championed the idea that templates & religion are the basis & result of generalizations that go unnoticed- except, now (when it suits him – in true ad hocracy!) when he states that an ignorance of the general principles of diurnal do is unthinkable in the face of the specific causes for belief in religious principles (anything supernatural). Go ahead, scream along with me. By page 226 PB has now turned to religion’s provenance as an aversion to corpses- not a fear of abstract death- basically due to corpses often leading to more corpses via the transmission of unseen things like germs, viruses, etc., but by page 228 PB ends the chapter with yet another cop out:
The properties of corpses provide material that makes some supernatural concepts relevant for reasons that are quite different from our need for comfort. So religion may well be much less about death than dead bodies. The dead are by no means the only available source of intuitions about powerful agents with strategic information and counterintuitive physical presence. But they are a rich source of such intuitions, given the organization of our minds and the tragically lavish supply of these real and counterintuitive objects.
Okay, 4 sentences which contain at least 5 qualifiers designed to provide backpedaling space should 1 need it. Don’t you just love someone devoid of ego? Here’s how page 296 ends a section on fundamentalism & religious community:
To sum up, then, fundamentalism is neither religion in excess nor politics in disguise. It is an attempt to preserve a particular kind of hierarchy based on coalition, when this is threatened by the perception of cheap and therefore likely defection. If courts-martial became more lenient toward deserters and if this became known to soldiers in action, I predict that the spontaneous and illicit search for and punishment of potential deserters would become much more vicious and demonstrative. The same psychology may explain why some people are led to extreme violence in the service of their religious coalition. The mental systems engaged are present in all normal minds, but the historical conditions are special, which is why there is nothing inevitable in this process. Not all religious concepts are used to create ethnic markers, not all ethnic markers are used as coalitional signals, not all coalitions are faced with cheap defection and not all members of such a threatened coalition react by hiking the price of defection. Indeed, the fact that the price is pushed so high clearly shows that these groups are well aware that popular sentiment does not lean in their direction. Which, unfortunately, is no obstacle to political domination if the coalitions are cohesive enough.
I swear, he
actually wrote this précis of contradiction. The whole premise of the 1st
sentence is totally voided by the rest of the paragraph- excess religion &
politics, themselves, are nailed- even as he disavows them! Incredible. Yet, PB
never tackles these, & the other, exceptions he constantly gives to himself
as outs for, even though this could have filled this bloated book far better
than the self-serving pats on the back & the thinly veiled condescension to
we less studied on things religious. More ad hoc table-making ensues & PB
then takes up the science vs. religion tack. He correctly states that in every
debate between religion & science science has trounced religion
convincingly- causing the religious ad hoc need for an escape clause- that
religion is a domain outside of science- i.e.- that all other senses & sense
are meaningless in talking about it. But this- the very nub of religion’s
failure, & possibly THE place to look in to its nature, comes on page 320-
10 pages shy of the book’s end, where PB ends by stating we really need to
look in to these things more. Yet, the book is called Religion Explained,
not Religion Grazed. In short, after all the graphs & charts, &
pedantry we are left with this gem: Religion is complex.
Complexity being the putative ‘explanation’ of the title. Sorry, but that
does not cut it with me.
The book is often a good anthropological list of weird beliefs & cultural wackiness- but a coherent theory it is not, much less a definitive EXPLANATION. This breadth of background cannot make up for the pellicle-thin depths the author plumbs. Factoids do not yield reasons. Religion Explained is a classic case of overanalysis, which- typically- explains nothing. Too often ideas on religion are conflated with ideas of ritual- which can be subset into religion, but do not NEED to be.
& still my initial query to Joe is unanswered- how does 1 explain clichés- utter banalities that petrify in to the human psyche, if- as the book claims- religious ideas are based on- & survive (& propound) on their very mnemonic associative structures? Do people operate their brains in 2 very differing modes when contemplating religion & everything else? Or is there some juncture? I make no claims to know, but this- like déjà vu- is a point whose exploration that could have made the book far more compelling ideationally- if not improving PB’s penchant for poor, generic, & muddled wordsmithing. Another point worth considering- 1 I’ve not addressed until now- is the highly Eurocentric bias immanent throughout the book. PB may be irreligious, but his approach is not detached from his own culture. The best example of this in the book is PB’s multiple assertions that religion’s purpose is NOT as comfort provider, yet he never defines exactly what sort of comfort he means- save for that of his own WASPy origins. Cannot comfort mean, to the Fang- as example, the knowledge that fear-inducing spirits are always there? That their presence is comforting enough to negate any other quality? But PB sticks to his own shibboleths- his diverse knowledge helps him show how Christian beliefs are as silly as tribal BS, yet fails to recognize the very cultural context that should allow him to probe these points more deeply & to their logical ends. But these sorts of approaches & questions are never addressed. PB must have figured that the very pseudoscientific approach of his anti-religionism would hook enough Functionaries like Joe to moot the necessity for such queries. But, not all of us are so limited. It reminds me of Kevin Smith’s film Dogma of a few years ago. His worst film, it was merely a 2 hour anti-Catholic joke. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as anti-Catholic Church as the next pedophilia-loathing straight thinker- but that’s no basis for a whole film. Yet, my pal Joe loved the film- just as he loved this 1-dimensional & bloated tome.
Instead of pounding the same few nails over & over, & trying to convince us they are different PB should have taken some of the tacks I suggested, & applied Occam’s Razor. Instead he adds bloat such as: we’re intrigued & comforted not by religion but by these askew ideas he propounds, which cannot explain clichés- which voids them since clichés are at least as powerful & comforting as religion, & far more present in life since they are availed at almost every opportunity in every cogitative endeavor. Clichés also stick BECAUSE they are so apt, not because they are slightly askew- which contradicts PB’s thesis. Either mnemonics are the result of aptness or askewness. There might be a middle ground but this is not mentioned since PB never recognizes the aptness model of mnemonics. Another point- clichés also undergird religion in the form of archetypes- yet no other review even mentioned this connection between PB’s ideas & the idea of clichés & archetypes.
PB’s arguments against common beliefs & for his alternative are not as powerful, nor fully-realized, as Daniel C. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, nor Eric J. Lerner’s The Big Bang Never Happened- 2 far more revolutionary, engaging, & clarified books that were also much better written. PB insistently over-examines as if to convince himself, yet his arguments against current models devolve into a simple I DON’T BELIEVE THAT rejoinder lacking any objective proofs- or even attempts at such.
Surprisingly, most of the book’s reviews, while ignorant of my salient points, have similarly picked at the book’s poor writing style. The Los Angeles Times chimed: ‘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.’ Another review, by a Karen Armstrong, was more specific: ‘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.’ I would state the reverse- his religious history is far more convincing than his science, but accessible is not a word this mess brings to mind. Renowned skeptic Michael Shermer, in the Washington Post, said: ‘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.’ Which is dead on, since PB’s copout is the very truism- religion is complex. Yet, complexity should not be conflated with depth. The website The Complete Review offers a few gems: ‘The subtitle -- The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought -- offers the first caveat....His book offers more than just the "evolutionary origins of religious thought" -- and a bit less than "religion explained".’ Another: ‘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).’ Here is another point which irked me in the book- despite his Eurocentric approach, PB utterly sidesteps the religions most known to his audience- fear of a backlash, banning, etc.? While it’s nice to know about the Fang it does little to let a Catholic or a Baptist know why their belief systems are silly- it merely allows them to chuckle- ‘Oh, those silly Fang!’ Another gem: ‘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.’
Unfortunately, the book is a mess- PB lacks a central idea, & the conviction to prove it. At least he’s not dogmatic, unlike my pal Joe- who was so disappointed that I saw through the book’s flaws that he left unreturned a phone message of mine due to his disappointment in my open-mindedness. Yet, at the bottom of it all, there are probably 2 major reasons why the book fails dialectically (there’s nothing I can do about the poor literary stylings): 1) the book claims a scientific basis for its approach, yet falls so predictably back upon the subjective- even as it unconsciously abjures it. No matter how tempting it is to conflate science with religion, in order for an explanation of something as mondo bizarro as religion to succeed it MUST be free of any hints of subjectivity- in content, approach, & style. 2) The book assumes all religion is about beliefs & rituals- yet many animistic cults & even a known quantity like Zen Buddhism- specifically reject this definition of religion. That I, as an outsider, seem to know far more about these- & other points- than an ‘expert’ is disconcerting. Then again, a little Vision can outweigh a whole career full of Function. God wot!
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