A Review of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

by Pascal Boyer Basic Books, May 2001

Reviewed by Robin Hanson 7/16/01

Pascal Boyer's book Religion Explained comes tantalizingly close to explaining an impressive range of religious phenomena. While in the end I did not fully buy Boyer's explanation, I heartily recommend his book to anyone interested in thinking about this problem.

First, Boyer does a good job of reviewing what he find lacking in previous explanations, such as that religion is a cognitive illusion, or that it provides explanations, comfort, or social order. Boyer then does a great job of identifying and explaining various "stylized facts" which theories of religion should account for. Boyer's intimate familiarity with religious practices around the world helps enormously here. Finally, Boyer does a reasonable job, given the difficulty of the problem, of offering a plausible theory to account for a wide range of these phenomena. (Even if I don't think he quite succeeds.)

The first empirical regularity that Boyer describes is that each supernatural concept tends to violate a single ontological assumption. That is, human minds are endowed with many default assumptions about a few basic categories, including person, animal, plant, tool, and natural object. For example, an animal is assumed to have the same basic body plan throughout its life, and so a butterfly seems supernatural because it violates this assumption. By violating just one ontological assumption, supernatural concepts maximize the relevance of our other non-violated assumptions, and so make stories about these concepts easy and interesting to tell.

A second empirical regularity is that religious thinking tends to focus on people-like supernatural entities with great access to socially-relevant information. When a person assumes that these entities share her moral intuitions, and that they know about all the bad things she does, that person expects these entities to get mad and punish her for behaving badly. This makes these entities highly relevant subjects of thought and discussion.

A third empirical regularity is that religious rituals have a lot in common with cleansing rituals. Our mental systems for dealing with disease via disgust have had to accept the validity of specific procedures to protect us against unseen enemies, even when we had no direct evidence of those unseen enemies, nor any understanding of why each procedure protects us. Our mental systems for dealing with social rituals similarly required us to accept them without understanding their social function. Given these, it seems a small step to accept specific odd social procedures that protect us against supernatural entities.

Finally, human corpses are highly relevant entities that violate our ontological assumptions (being both person and natural object) and trigger our disease/disgust mental systems. They are thus prototypical religious objects, and are considered so the world over.

So far, so good. These are all important clues. But then we get to Boyer's explanations of religious behavior. Boyer claims that modern religions deviate from ancient local religious practice mainly due to religious guilds trying to monopolize access to the supernatural. Which seems reasonable. But more centrally, Boyer claims that the mere fact that religious concepts are relatively easy to create, tell, and remember is a sufficient explanation for most religious behavior. That is, people believe in the supernatural simply because such concepts seem interesting and relevant.

This claim is much harder to accept. By saying that people will believe and act on the most memorable stories they hear, Boyer seems to say that people are incapable of distinguishing fiction from reality. Yet people surely do distinguish things that would be interesting if they existed from things they believe exist. Wishes are not horses, we know.

Boyer acknowledges that skepticism about specific religious claims is common the world over. And while Boyer seems to claim that there is nothing special about religious beliefs other than their being especially memorable, he also acknowledges that people seem especially gullible regarding the supernatural. That is, people seem less interested in clarifying ambiguities (e.g., where do ancestors go when they aren't bothering us, and how is killing a pig a sacrifice to them if we then eat it). And people seem to less often follow "the ordinary `getting most of the relevant facts under a simpler heading' strategy."

Boyer does defend religious belief against scientific skepticism by arguing that science addresses unnaturally abstract questions within unnatural institutions. But I suspect that such abstraction is more natural than Boyer admits, and in any case the usual non-abstract human skepticism seems sufficient to induce great doubt about most religious claims. Consider, for example, the skepticism humans are typically capable of showing about the religious beliefs of foreigners.

So where does this leave us? Boyer does seems to have a good handle on explaining what sorts of religious stories humans like to tell, and hence a rough handle on what sorts of stories people would believe if they were so inclined. This is admittedly quite an accomplishment. I do not think, however, that Boyer really explains why people are so willing to believe supernatural stories. Had it been in our genetic interest to be less gullible about the supernatural, there are probably many ways our brains could have been modified to tip the balance more toward skepticism about such things.

Now of course one straight-forward explanation of our willingness to believe would be the hypothesis that we really do interact with well-informed people-like entities out there that violate our ontological assumptions. But if we, with Boyer, set this hypothesis aside, there is one other explanation that deserves mention, an explanation Boyer should like, since he seems to accept all its premises.

You see, (as documented by the quotes below) Boyer is sympathetic to functionalist explanations that account for individual incentives, he acknowledges the centrality of coalitional thinking for humans, he notes the implications for moral behavior of well-informed supernatural powers, and he accepts Robert Frank's hypothesis that emotional expressions are a way to signal our commitment to cooperation and retribution, even when such actions are irrational. Well then, why not just postulate that humans evolved a tendency to gullibility about the supernatural, in order to signal our cooperativeness?

That is, it may be hard to fake a tendency toward supernatural belief, and such beliefs may tend to make you more cooperative, for fear of punishment by moralistic supernatural observers. If so, it can be in your gene's interest for you to tend to hold such beliefs, even if that sometimes induces wasteful actions. (Your genes might, for example, tip the balance a bit more toward believing in entities that violate ontological assumptions.) Supernatural beliefs would then be a credible signal of cooperativeness. Irrationality would again be useful signal, just as it is with emotional expressions that signal commitment, or with people tending to overestimate their abilities, in order to impress potential allies.

Perhaps Boyer will think my proposed modification to be of little consequence relative to his main purpose of explaining the sorts of religious beliefs that people have. And as I said, Boyer deserves credit for substantial progress on this question. But I think religion will not really be explained until we know why people seem so much more willing to mistake fiction for fact in this area.

Thanks to Pascal Boyer and Mark Walker for comments.

Supporting Quotes

These extended quotes are offered in support of the interpretations offered above.

"This leads to a paradox familiar to all anthropologists. If we say that people use religious notions to explain the world, this seems to suggest that they do not know what a proper explanation is. But that is absurd. We have ample evidence that they do know. People use the ordinary "getting most of the relevant facts under a simpler heading" strategy all the time. So what people do with their religious concepts is not so much explain the universe as ... well this is where we need to step back and consider in more general terms what makes mysteries relevant. [p.14]

The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general "urge to move around." ... Rather, minds consist of many different specialized explanatory engines. ... The mind does not go around trying to explain everything and it does not use just any information available to explain something. We don't try to decipher emotional states on the tennis ball's surface... [p.16]

Functionalism of this kind fell out of favor with anthropoligists sometime in the 1960s. ... accused of pedaling various ad hoc stories. [p.25] ... I found these criticisms less that perfectly convincing ... Functionalism is a tried and tested method method of explanation in evolutionary biology. ... the real reason it did not survive in anthropology. It assumed that institutions were around so society could function but it did not explain how or why individuals would participate in making society function. [p.26]

The idea that we are gullible or superstitious is certainly true ... but we are not gullible in every possible way. People do not generally manage to believe six impossible things before breakfast. ... So the problem, surely, is not to explain how people can accept supernatural claims for which there is no strong evidence but also why they tend to represent and accept these supernatural claims rather than other possible ones. [p.29]

I do not think that people have religion because they relax their usually strict criteria for evidence and accept extraordinary claims; I think they are led to relax these criteria because some extraordinary claims have become quite plausible to them. [p.31]

A Fang friend of mind once insisted that he had seen a gifted shaman perform an extraordinary feat. The old man had stuck his finger in the ground in his village and had mad it reemerge in another village several miles away, just by telling his finger to go there! When challenged by derisive skeptics in the village ("How can you claim you saw it all, if it happened in two different places?"), the narrators conceded that he had witnessed only the first part of this dramatic event; but the reemergence of the finger had been reported by very reliable sources. As this last comment only added fuel to the skeptics scorn, my friend walked off in a sulk. Such notions crop up in conversations the world over. So does, to some extent, the skeptical reaction. Only in the west have such beliefs become a kind of institution, ... [p.76]

If people around us were all rational calculators they would sometimes behave and sometimes cheat. So it would be dangerous to trust them. But what if some people are ... driven to honesty by emotional urges that override their best calculations? ... one should choose to cooperate with such individuals. ... disposition must be difficult to fake ... a lot of experimental evidence to suggest that ... emotional cues such as facial expressions and gestures often give people an intuitive feeling that some deception is going on ... we should be outraged when cheating is not punished even if we did not incur any cost [p.186]

The extreme enthusiasm with which members of some religious groups offer selfless cooperation to other affiliates and seem members of other faiths as dangerous, disgusting or distinctly subhuman. The solution lies in human capacities for coalition building and in the flexibility of the capacities. ... religious concepts. ... can in some circumstances become fairly good indicators of where coalitional solidarity is to be expected. [p.291]

Since people's thoughts about ancestors are focused on a variety of different situations, it is not surprising that many different systems are involved. ... This means that quite a lot of mental work is going on, producing specific inferences about the ancestors, without ever requiring explicit general statements to the effect that, for example, "there really are invisible ancestors around," ... Indeed none of these systems is designed to handle such abstract questions. [p.314]

A concept of gods or spirits is all the more likely to do inferential work in the mind if it is not entertained as a unified concept ... This seems surprising because we are used to a special kind of cultural environment in which religious beliefs are objects of debate, that is, are considered explicitly, defended in terms of evidence, plausibility, desirability, beneficial effects, or conversely debunked in terms of their lack of evidence or their intrinsic absurdity. But this is a very special kind of culture, ... [p.316]

What makes scientific knowledge-gathering special is not just its departure from our spontaneous intuitions but also the special kind of communication it requires, [p.321] ... scientific activity is both cognitively and socially very unlikely, which is why it has only been developed by a very small number of people, in a small number of places, for what is only a minuscule part of our evolutionary history. [p.322]"