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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  1,506 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
Many of our questions about religion, says renowned anthropologist Pascal Boyer, are no longer mysteries. We are beginning to know how to answer questions such as "Why do people have religion?" Using findings from anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Religion Explained shows how this aspect of human consciousness is increasingly admissibl ...more
Paperback, 375 pages
Published May 2nd 2002 by Basic Books (first published 2001)
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Jun 25, 2012 Rachel rated it it was ok
The intent of this book is to use anthropology and cognitive science to "explain" why religious beliefs developed (and are still common) in humans. I started reading this book with the expectation that it was intended as popular science; but it assumed that the reader already had a background in anthropology and cognitive science. Boyer made his explanations using terminology that was unnecessarily complex; and although the meaning could be discerned from the context, it made the narrative into ...more
John David
“Explaining” religion has been a cottage industry within the field of anthropology at least since its academic institutionalization in the United States about a century ago. Pascal Boyer, the Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, rejects almost all of these traditional explanations out of hand in the first chapter of his book, and not without reason. He says that all attempts to explain religious thought – the urge to explain the origin o ...more
Jun 24, 2011 Book rated it liked it
Shelves: atheism-religion
Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer

Religion Explained is about providing scientific explanations for why people believe. The author combines multiple scientific disciplines such as: evolutionary biology, cognitive science, cultural anthropology, archaeology and psychology to show how humans in general believe in the supernatural. It's a very frustrating book on many levels. In general, I agreed with many of the assertions that the author makes but the overall approach of the book left a lot to b
Sep 10, 2012 Marije rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion, academic

Frankly, I think this book is brilliant.

Boyer tackles the question 'why do people believe?' with the help of various scientific disciplines, most notably cognitive and evolutionary psychology and anthropology. He combines results from empirical research, current theories, and his own and other scholars' observations from the field to illustrate the diversity and complexity of what we call religion.

How religion is not explained
He starts out with a summary of some of the most common and popular ex
Luis A R Branco
Feb 19, 2016 Luis A R Branco rated it it was ok
Shelves: lidos-em-2016

I was hoping that I would be able to write a proper response in my evaluation of the book once I have finished it. However, I was expecting something a bit clever than what I read. The author develops his assumptions on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution of species yet the writer described the human brain and human thoughts capabilities as "designed", what is a quite interesting paradox.
The author says he uses "imaginary" explanation to make his propositions against religion. It could be more
Aug 22, 2011 Andi rated it liked it
If you can get past the writing style, there are some very intriguing ideas presented in this book. Sadly, that is a big IF. It was sheer determination and stubbornness that allowed me to get through the book in its entirety. I found the information worthwhile, but the presentation to be seriously lacking.
Oct 22, 2012 Mark rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer is a thoroughly researched and considerable book on one of the basic questions that most of us have asked: why religion? Boyer does a good job of differentiating the theories in the book from past attempts ranging from the idea that we are physically designed to worship by god to the arguments put forth by James Frazer in the ‘Golden Bough’. The basic premise of the book is simple: “having a normal brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is ...more
Jan 11, 2012 cerebus rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone with an interest in religion or atheism.
Whilst I agree with some other reviewers that this tends towards the 'dry', I would still highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject of why we have religion. It is a book that requires attention, it's not one to read when you have half a mind on something else. Taking in areas such as evolution, neuroscience, cognitive science and anthropology, the author presents a very convincing case for why humans have religion, and in a way that initially seems counter to most of the commonly ...more
Jun 01, 2009 Alec rated it really liked it
If you can understand this book then you will find it to be one of the most informative books about what happens in the human mind (and brain) when religion is involved. The operative words there are "If you can understand this book" as it was not written for those who are easily lost. If your someone who is pessimistic about how people act when they are we'll say "under the influence" of religion, then this will offer some objective analysis into the issue and you might be a little more sympath ...more
This book gives a convincing explanation on the origins of religious beliefs. However, it misses an important aspect of contemporary religions, which is an unconditional allegiance to a doctrine, usually personified in the figure of a leader, which may be dead or alive, and who is distinguished from all the others in the sense that he/she has a closer relation with the divine. I think this character of modern religion is stronger than the original search for an explanation on the world's mysteri ...more
Robert  Finlay
May 27, 2008 Robert Finlay rated it it was amazing
Why do all peoples (but not all persons) have religion? Why are there many religions? Boyers says it's because of minds shaped by evolution. Goes way beyond arguments for atheism by showing how irrational beliefs have apparent warrant; a very useful perspective.
Lyndon Lamborn
Aug 19, 2009 Lyndon Lamborn rated it liked it
This book was a tough read for me. Pretty slow and repetitive in places, he takes many tangents and tends to (IMO) over-analyze, perhaps wantonly discarding the simpler explanations in favor of more torturous ones. But many of his theories and observations I found noteworthy, enough so to warrant a book report.

First, a summary quote from Boyer:

“For eons, people naturally have talked about [numerous:] things that are not directly observable. It is after all a hallmark of the “modern
Bob Nichols
Jun 08, 2011 Bob Nichols rated it it was ok
Boyer's theme is that humans have been designed by evolution to be group-oriented and they are prone to experience the world in "we" versus "they" terms. Religion is a major vehicle to develop and reinforce a group's identity and, thereby, to clearly mark outsiders as outsiders. We've evolved this way because our group is essential to the individual's survival and religion (right belief systems - morality, worldview, rituals, etc.) reflects and in some form institutionalizes group identity. As p ...more
Feb 09, 2017 Nick rated it really liked it
It's been a while since I read this, but it's one of the best rigorously scientific looks at religion. I'd rank it higher than Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which was intriguing but rather rambling and speculative. I haven't read Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, which is the other obvious comparison that comes to mind.
Oct 08, 2016 Yvette rated it really liked it
It's not the most well-written piece of nonfiction, but I liked how the author presented the facts without lecturing readers how to feel about religion. I should warn you, however, that the writing is dense (it reads more like a journal article) and requires some background knowledge in cognition and basic psychology. But overall, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is wrestling with their religious beliefs.
Last Ranger
Feb 22, 2015 Last Ranger rated it it was amazing
Hidden Pathways In the Mind:

One thing that most humans have in common is a religion of one kind or another. If an unexplained event, good or bad, occurs in your life, then you can blame, or thank, one of your long dead ancestors. On the other hand you may want to thank, or blame, some sort of deity, any number of Gods or perhaps one Supreme Being. It seems that this concept has been around for a very long time, possibly ever since humans first evolved a mind capable of abstract thought. But why
Daniel Solera
I thought Sam Harris’ The End of Faith examined religious beliefs under a microscope but that was before I read Pascal Boyer’s deceptively titled Religion Explained. I was drawn by the subtitle: “The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” for obvious reasons; I like reading critical texts about religion and also enjoy the topics of evolution and psychology. One would guess that this book unifies all three. Then how is it possible that I have never read a more boring book on religion? Maybe i ...more
Apr 30, 2013 FARSHAD rated it it was amazing
Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer

This fascinating, multilayered and complex book takes a fresh perspective on the origin of religion. The author drives heavily on diverse fields of science such as evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and cultural anthropology to show that religion is basically an offshoot of the human mind.

I have read other reviews of the book and I am aware of the readers' complaints regarding how difficult it is to go through this book. I completely agree. But bear in
John D'Alessandro
Jan 31, 2015 John D'Alessandro rated it really liked it
Information: From the little I know, and the reviews I read, this seems to be an up to date account of religion from a cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology standpoint. From my own reading, I know that it delivers on its subtitle: "the evolutionary origins of religious thought", although I think the first chapter, his debunking of traditional and informal origin stories for religion, could have been stronger.

Organization: The chapters are organized well; the first debunks informal origin
Buzz Fledderjohn
Aug 22, 2016 Buzz Fledderjohn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2016, not-owned
Starting with a conclusion: Yes, this book does keep up to its promise and indeed does explain religion. I will not provide a synopsis at this point as there are plenty of other reviews which do so; plus it requires some immersion in the topic, so it is probably best to acquire this by reading first-hand.

However, there are a few obstacles on the way. First of all, the book's structure is didactically suboptimal, with a lot of lookaheads and looks back (where the latter are of course not the prob
Ryan Mishap
May 16, 2015 Ryan Mishap rated it really liked it
"Religious concepts, as I said, invariably recruit resources of mental systems that would be there, religion or no. This is why religion is a likely thing. That, given our minds' evolved dispositions, the way we live in groups, the way we communicate with other people and the way we produce inferences, it is very likely that we will find in any human group some religious representations...."

Sorry for the spoiler, but that's pretty much the explanation of religion that 330 pages produces. It is a
Feb 15, 2008 Don rated it liked it
This is a useful, but challenging book. Boyer's ideas are complex and subtle. Along with folks like Scott Atran, author of, "In Gods We Trust", Boyer advocates a religion-as-by-product approach. If I understand his message correctly, he argues that religion, defined as public displays of belief in supernatural agents, is a spontaneous result of the way our brains have been designed by evolution.

In one example, Boyer argues that the tendancy to ascribe goodwill or malice to anything that moves in
Mar 24, 2009 Claudine rated it it was amazing
This is a review in progress. As a person struggling to define her own faith, this book comes at a very auspicious time in my life. A friend and I had a discussion about religion in general and my pov fits in nicely so far with Pascal Boyer's view. Put simply, going into this book, I believed that religion is a concept that early hominids developed over time to explain the unexplainable every day things they encountered, like thunder, volcanic eruptions, a black cloud on the horizon... His pov w ...more
Feb 23, 2012 Steve rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: physiology, science
Good book that explains...well...religion. He goes in to enough detail about psychology that I was moved to classify this as a physiology book more than say a mere conjecture about religious beliefs. Two main complains however is that he could be a bit wordy which made going more than a chapter at a time pretty difficult. The other complaint is that the religions he talks about are mostly remote religions no one has really ever heard of. This seems to be because he spent time directly studying t ...more
Jul 11, 2007 Sabio rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion
One of the best books I have read on this subject.

"So we can better understand what gods and spirits are doing in rituals, so to speak, once we realize that they are added to the mental representation of the cermeonies. This way of seeing the situation is of course less inspiring than the notion of a human urge to worship the divine, but it is more faithful to what actually occurs in minds acquiring cultural knowledge." (pg 249)

This book is best understood with some previous reading in anthropol
Aug 14, 2011 Kory rated it liked it
This book covers many very interesting topics and observations from evolution, psychology, and anthropology, which made it at least a decent read. However, Boyer could improve his writing style a bit. Boyer often jumps from one point to another, making a series of observations related to certain aspects of religion, which made it tiring to read at times. Also, I think I read the phrase "the world over" more in this book alone than in my entire life. Apart from that, Boyer does make clear a few i ...more
Jan 12, 2014 Jared rated it really liked it
Fascinating and controversial. The early and later chapters make up for the sluggish middle. Well worth the effort to finish.

Boyer's arguments regarding the impact of our hyperactive inference systems on the nature of religious belief have further application in examining our social and cultural biases, etc. Part of the reason it took me so long to finish, besides the writing being dry at times, was that I frequently found myself pondering tangential implications and experiences from my own lif
Hamzah Alrawi
Aug 18, 2012 Hamzah Alrawi rated it it was amazing
Great book, mostly based on scientific research, even though it gets a little boring later. I'd say it's a long scientific paper but for the public reader who is expected to have a little background about the topic (might be difficult for some to understand.

This is a favourite. I recommend this to anyone who ever asked "Why do people believe in religion?" Or "Why do some people believe things that are against evidence and clearly false" or any other similar questions like "How do we believe anyt
Apr 18, 2007 Christina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Religious concepts invariably recruit the resources of mental systems that would be there, religion or no. This is why religion is a likely thing. That is, given our minds' evolved dispositions, the way we live in groups, the way we communicate with other people, and the way we produce inferences, it is very likely that we will find in any human group some religious representations, whose surface details are specific to a particular group.

Religious concepts are influenced by the way the brain's
Jul 04, 2009 Willowwind rated it really liked it
E.O Wilson and Steve Pinker plug this book so you know the true believers won't like it. Boyer, an anthropologist, leads us through the cognitive reasons for the many diverse things that humans attribute to religious belief. His style is wry and gentle but no less learned for that. He loves to build what sounds like and plausible explanation and then jerk the wrong out from under the reader's feet by explaining just why it is incorrect. A great book for those who want to understand the why and h ...more
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“What we mean when we say that something is "cultural" is that it is roughly similar to what we find in other members of the particular group we are considering, and unlike what we would find in members of a contrast group. This is why it is confusing to say that people share a culture, as if culture were common property. We may have strictly identical amounts of money in our respective wallets without sharing any of it!” 4 likes
“[T]he choice of human groupings for cultural comparisons is not a natural or scientific choice, but a political one.” 3 likes
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