Robin Hanson wrote,
> I started this book yesterday, am 91 pages into it now, and it is WONDERFUL!
> Up there with the best books I've ever read. More when I've finished it.
Here's a professional theologian's review of
RELIGION EXPLAINED: THE EVOLUTIONARY ORIGINS OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT, by Pascal
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Trying to dismiss religion, starting with growth of ancestors' brains
For a long time evolutionary biology stayed away from religion. Its proponents
were typically reluctant to apply their Darwinian insights to something so
apparently sui generis as the experience of the sacred. But the characteristic
drive of science is to approach its subject matter without appealing to any
supposed nonnatural causes. Why not also look at religion naturalistically?
new science of evolutionary psychology, a derivative of sociobiology, proposes
to "naturalize" our understanding of religion completely by way of
neo-Darwinian explanation. We can now account for the persistence of the gods,
so goes this confident new program, without assuming either the primacy of
cultural factors or the reality of the sacred.
Evolutionary psychology claims that the ways in which the human brain responds
to the world were designed by evolution during the Pleistocene (one to two
million years ago) specifically for a hunter and gatherer type of existence.
The brain comprises distinguishable systems designed to cope with specific
problems related to survival during our emergence as one species among others.
People today carry around the same kind of brain that our Paleolithic
had; and because this organ was shaped by adaptive evolutionary processes in
radically different circumstances from those we face today, contemporary
often have trouble adapting to the new environments that subsequent cultural
developments have brought about.
To evolutionary psychologists one of the more puzzling responses the human
brain has made to the world is its tendency to create illusions of the sacred
and other "counterintuitive" religious ideas garnished with strange rituals
bizarre beliefs. Why, they ask, has religion accompanied us so persistently,
apparently since the very beginning of Cro-Magnon humanity?
Darwinian anthropologists generally agree that religion is an irritatingly
obsolete but stubbornly ineradicable human tendency. Our religious
though clearly out of date, is so deeply rooted and so pervasive that it
be understood simply as an ephemeral cultural concoction. Religion must be
connected, instead, to the specific kind of brains we have, to cerebral
that developed in us because they served the cause of gene survival during the
course of early human evolution.
The latest example of this approach is Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained: The
Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought." The book's immodest title,
with its philosophical assumptions and convoluted argumentation, calls to mind
Daniel Dennett's materialist manifesto "Consciousness Explained" (which, by
way, did not explain consciousness).
Mr. Boyer, a cultural anthropologist and the recent recipient of a prestigious
academic chair at Washington University, St. Louis, tries here to be a
disciple of Mr. Dennett and the British evolutionist Richard Dawkins. So it is
not surprising to hear from him that Darwinian explanations, in combination
with a few other ideas from cognitive science, can settle once and for all the
question of why we are religious.
Our attachment to gods and other facets of religion is simply the consequence
of our Pleistocene ancestors' having developed brains with highly specialized
survival functions. These brains, Mr. Boyer admits, possess no specifically
religious instinct. In fact, in itself religion is an "airy nothing" that
endures only because it is parasitic on several identifiable cognitive
But the brain systems that give domicile to religious imaginings themselves
evolved at all only because they served the cause of gene-survival.
One of these systems, for example, is that of predator detection. During the
evolution of our species, organisms whose brains were not good at detecting
predators obviously could not adapt, and so they proved to be unworthy
for gene-survival. Those that were good at detecting predators, on the other
hand, survived and passed on genes that give us the same predator-detecting
cerebral properties we possess now.
A brain endowed with the capacity to detect unseen predators, Mr. Boyer's
argument continues, is one that can function readily as a host for parasitic
religious ideas. It is only a small step, after all, from our being constantly
vigilant for hidden predators, to our looking habitually for hidden agencies
all kinds, including spirits and gods.
Natural selection caused our brains to develop in such a way that we would
eventually search for supernatural explanations which, like concealed
predators, are taken to be quite real even though they remain out of sight.
Other cognitive and emotive systems are also involved in the fabrication of
religion, but the author's general approach should be clear enough from this
Although Mr. Boyer avoids the more direct language of Mr. Dawkins, his point
finally the same. Religion is a virus. We are a religious species simply
because our ancestors were genetically endowed with brains whose various
systems became, by accident, suitable hosts for illusions of the sacred.
The book is filled with interesting ideas and observations about religion. The
author, it should be noted, is much more subtle than Mr. Dawkins and most of
the evolutionists he emulates. He is also able to use strands of cognitive
science other than evolutionary biology, and his book is reflective of
considerable field work, especially among the Fang tribe in Cameroon.
If we could get past the philosophical materialism that shades Mr. Boyer's
study we might learn a good bit about some of the physical and evolutionary
conditions that incline our species to be religious. Neo-Darwinism, including
evolutionary psychology, may provide one layer in a whole hierarchy of
explanations needed to account for religion richly. But for all we know,
another important dimension of a fertile explanation of religion may be the
that religious persons themselves have given, namely, that "the sacred" has in
some way broken into their awareness, not surprisingly by employing natural
That God or the gods could have anything to do with why we are religious is,
course, not a hypothesis that scientists as such should entertain. Neither,
though, is the opposite belief, namely, that science has ruled out such a
possibility. The problem with this book, as is true of most other applications
of evolutionary psychology, is the extravagance of its claims to explanatory
adequacy. That the author condescendingly refers to religion as "airy nothing"
betrays his own scientistic beliefs, in spite of the fact that nothing he says
in the book logically warrants such a label. Here again the absence of
methodological modesty sabotages whatever good results might come from a
Not unexpectedly, Mr. Boyer's debunking of religion ends up debunking itself.
His own explanation-detecting system, after all, presumably employs the same
cognitive "mechanism" that arose by selection for predator detection thousands
of years ago. He too looks for "hidden agencies," in this case to explain the
troubling persistence of religion. And like his religious ancestors he finds
the actors behind the scene possessing the form of mythicized homunculus-like
subjects - the ones known today as "selfish genes."
Like the gods of religion the mindless and lifeless segments of DNA known as
genes are portrayed by much contemporary biology as competing, cooperating and
battling subjects striving for immortality. What is to prevent us, then, from
concluding that the quasi-religious ideas of Mr. Boyer's book are not also
"airy nothing" parasitically feeding upon the author's own adaptive cognitive
John F. Haught, is professor of theology at Georgetown University. His latest
book, "Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution" will be published in
Useless hypotheses, etc.:
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, CYC, and ELIZA
We won't move into a better future until we debunk religiosity, the most
regressive force now operating in society.
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