Parasite of airy nothings?

Religion Explained
December 14, 2001

This is a bold and far-reaching book. What its author lacks in modesty, he makes up for in cogency of argument and elegance of style. His "explanation" of religion is lucid, entertaining, full of valuable insights and almost, but not quite, convincing. The usual explanations of religion - as an attempt to explain what is otherwise puzzling, as a provider of comfort, as a good thing for society or as an escape from reason - are quickly dismissed. Pascal Boyer seeks to demonstrate that its origins and motivations are more deep seated in our mental structures than any of these, which is why religion is so universal, so powerful and so unlikely to disappear even though, as he also claims, it is in the end only a mental phenomenon. Recent experience of the dreadful consequences of religious fanaticism gives his analysis a frightening contemporary relevance, not least because of the minor role within religion that he assigns to rationality.

Boyer's explanation rests on anthropology, cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. Anthropology provides evidence of the huge, but not limitless, variety of religious belief and practice. We have intuitions about what is or is not religious because our minds build religious concepts according to particular mental recipes. One of these is the violation of certain expectations. Virgin birth, for instance, carries all the normal associations of birth, but with one exception.

Cognitive science can throw light on the subconscious inference systems that underly this mode of thinking, and evolutionary psychology can give reasons why they developed as they did. Crucial to religion is the concept of agency. Things happen because someone makes them happen. But in the evolutionary development of cooperative behaviour, it is important not only to recognise what agents do but also to have some insight into their intentions. Gods, spirits and ancestors, according to this scenario, differ from human beings in having full access to strategic information. They know what is going on. They are enormously relevant, therefore, to people's everyday dealings with each another, and to their relationships with other groups relying on other gods. The belief, whether true or not, that such knowledge is available to one's gods, enjoys an advantage in cultural transmission.

This is a much compressed version of a subtle and complex argument, but it is enough to give a flavour of the kind of explanation on offer. The nub of it is that religion is felt to be of practical relevance because it draws on a number of inference systems, concerned with social, ritual and moral behaviour, which evolved separately and for reasons unconnected with anything supernatural. In other words, religion is a mental construction, parasitic upon mental capacities that human beings would have anyway, whether they were religious or not.

Boyer has interesting things to say about the dynamics of fundamentalism. If the emotional relevance of religion lies in the maintenance of coalitions, encounters with well-adjusted people who believe differently might suggest to hesitant members that they could defect without paying too heavy a price. This is a threat to the orthodox members, who thus have an interest in making defection very costly. Hence the fact that much fundamentalist violence is directed, not at the external world but at the community itself, and is usually performed as publicly as possible.

The religious significance of death, according to Boyer, is less focused on the terror of mortality than on practical questions about what to do with the body. A dead body can create a kind of mental dissociation. The "person file" in the mind of the bereaved cannot simply be shut off. There is a period during which it goes on making inferences about what the person is or wants. The need for rituals, and the traumas created by unburied body parts, are both aspects of this rupture between the various systems that contribute to our total picture of what a person is. There are also fears of pollution, vividly illustrated by the strange ritual surrounding the death of the king of Nepal. A high-caste Brahmin was deliberately contaminated with his body, and then expelled permanently from the kingdom.

All this, and a great deal more, is fascinating stuff from which there is much to be learnt. But does it justify the book's title? To explore the inference systems on which the religious consciousness may depend, and to be made aware of their aggregate relevance, is certainly a useful step towards explanation. Boyer's claim, however, that the ultimate focus of religion is on "airy nothings" does not follow from an account of the mental processes through which religious feelings and practices are expressed and sustained. The argument cuts too wide. All human experiences are shaped to some degree by similar mental processes, and there are relevant and sometimes exceedingly controversial questions to be asked about the kind of reality to which they refer. These cannot be answered simply in terms of the processes themselves, particularly when it is clear that Boyer has already decided for himself what can or cannot be real.

An anthropologist, faced with the extraordinary diversity of religious experience and expression, must inevitably wonder what reality, if any, it could possibly refer to. A religious historian, on the other hand, might be more aware of the continual adaptations to perceived reality made by those religions that profess some kind of universal validity. A mature and potentially universal faith shares with other forms of experience its character as a journey of exploration, in which testing and learning play a vital role. This historical dimension is lacking in Boyer, in fact his account of the actual content of the major faiths is extraordinarily thin.

So too is the role he ascribes to reason in religion, confining it only to professionals with a vested interest, and transmuting questions about rationality into rather different ones about why otherwise intelligent people can find religion plausible. This is a very plausible book. But as the author himself makes plain, plausibility is not enough.

Lord Habgood was formerly archbishop of York.

Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors

Author - Pascal Boyer
ISBN - 0 434 00843 5
Publisher - Heinemann
Price - £20.00
Pages - 430

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