Explaining Religion

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, is one of those books that I wish had been written earlier and I had read earlier. Like several of my recent reading projects, this book was suggested to me by my cyber-friend Sabio Lantz’s blog. In the course of a very busy semester, it took several months to read, but Religion Explained is an astounding book that raises the ultimate issue: whence religion? Among the many revelations in this monograph – based on solid anthropological and sociological data, as well as neuroscience – is that religion has multiple origins. As Boyer demonstrates repeatedly throughout his book, religion arises from several mental processes symbiotically supporting assumptions that, taken alone, would often fail to survive in the meme pool.

Summarizing Boyer’s work would require a book in itself, but a few of his points struck me as particularly apt to today’s struggle between religion and society. At one point (140) Boyer demonstrates that doctrine is not nearly as important to religions as most specialists assert. In fact, most regular adherents to a religion misunderstand the doctrine to which they give lip service. After having spent too many years in a doctrinally ossified seminary, reading Boyer’s analysis was like liberation at this juncture. As Boyer points out later (282) Christian doctrine emerged in the conflicted environment of revolutionary movements with differing ideas as to what a messiah was. Only after the situation became too complex did one group decide that councils were necessary to decide what they in fact believed. Not really an inspiring story for those who wish to claim absolute certitude about their belief structure! Boyer also draws from other religions around the world to support his case.

Having stated that, Boyer does not attempt to destroy religion, but to explain it. The very premise itself will obviously strike many as blasphemous, but religion, like all human practices, can be studied with a scientific outlook. Accessing anthropological studies and neurological analyses, and the battery of tools provided by decades of psychological and sociological research, Boyer’s portrait is lifelike and believable. Religion developed as an amalgamation of human survival strategies that synchronized into a relatively consistent system that helped to explain a confusing world. If I had read Religion Explained when I was in college, my lifelong religionist enterprise might have turned out rather differently.

4 thoughts on “Explaining Religion

  1. Pingback: Biblioblog Top 50 – December 2010 « The Biblioblog Top 50

  2. Glad you enjoyed his work!
    It is ironic that “explaining religion” while not set on destroying it, does take away its power — as you tell us. But, on the other hand, as we understand the deep workings of the mind and why it forms religion we can perhaps use this information to better understand our worlds and our happiness.


  3. Pingback: Fruits of the Dearth | Sects and Violence in the Ancient World

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