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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  2,118 ratings  ·  112 reviews
Many of our questions about religion, says the internationally renowned anthropologist Pascal Boyer, were once mysteries, but they no longer are: we are beginning to know how to answer questions such as "Why do people have religion?" and "Why is religion the way it is?" Using findings from anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Boyer shows ...more
Paperback, 375 pages
Published May 2nd 2002 by Basic Books (first published 2001)
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Jun 25, 2012 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
Sep 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: academic, religion

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
Jun 24, 2011 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
Luis Alexandre Ribeiro Branco

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
Munthir Mahir
Apr 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book proposes an explanation of religion based on evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology. The proposition is not well formulated, and though it has an appealing aesthetic it is also a bit misleading as the proposition is not really based, or is only fragmentally based on cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology (and evolutionary biology being stuck in there in the title for marketing reasons). The proposition could be qualified as cognitive science (research) however the link be ...more
Jan 11, 2012 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
Aug 22, 2011 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.
Bob Nichols
Jun 08, 2011 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
Andrew Lucas
Sep 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I finally finished 'Religion Explained'. It is a dense read and almost every sentence is meaningful and asks to be re-read to ensure that it has sunk in. Having got to the end, I feel I should now re-read it to imbue it as a coherent whole. My only reservation is that, whilst the book is pitched to a general audience, it's thesis that this-or-that religious inclination is rooted in 'such-and-such' mental system assumes that those systems exist - assertions that are open to challenge by specialis ...more
Dennis Littrell
Jul 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Misses the point

Boyer sees religion as a by-product of the way our minds have evolved. His "explanation"--laboriously presented in a most excruciatingly detailed manner--left this reader exhausted and a little annoyed. Much would have been gained had the text been reduced by perhaps two thirds. Although Boyer writes in a clear manner, the tedious qualifications and the needless repetitions make the book exasperating to read.

But that's just the minor problem. The major problem is that after all t
Oct 22, 2012 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
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was ok
I cannot help but think of my apartment's kitchen when I read this book. One could cook in it, but you wouldn't want to. The most basic necessities are taken care of. I do the dishes. But the silverware is disorganized and the spice cupboard is likely to have cleaning supplies in it.

Boyer avoids the errors of nearly every other author in this genre in that he does have accurate ethnographic information - something completely alien to the Dawkinesque writers of "evolutionary" behaviorism. Yet Boy
Jun 01, 2009 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 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.
Jun 27, 2011 rated it liked it
finding it difficult to read but some good stuff here
Dec 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating and very readable examination of the evolutionary basis of religious thought.
Lyndon Lamborn
Aug 19, 2009 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
Kim Symes
Pascal Boyer is Professor of Collective and Individual Memory at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri.

I first came across Pascal Boyer in 1991 when I was a student on the M.Phil Social Anthropology course at Cambridge University, and he was a young, post-doctoral researcher. He'd been given the job of delivering a short module on Cognitive Anthropology, and was one of the very few academics at the time to be working in this inter-disciplinary area.

Reading this book, some 19 years after its
Aug 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book takes on what seems like a daunting subject for ~350 pages but manages to actually cover enough territory, and do it well, to leave me wondering how much more there is to be said on the topic. Boyer’s use of evo psych + cog sci + anthro evidence to explain how religious concepts “stick” in the brain better than other concepts is largely persuasive. Some of the specific explanations of why humans tend to conceive of Gods in certain ways, and thus have certain religious beliefs/practices ...more
Chuck Kollars
Jan 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
The main point made by the book is that "religion(s)" exist because of quirks in the way human minds work, not because of anything in the religion(s) or because pf any effect of the religion(s). It works better to think of religion(s) as a "meme" (a mindworm subject to evolution) than to lay out any case containing the word "because". The author shows that this approach can explain a very wide range of things, and that it's consistent with the latest ideas and research results from a lot of rela ...more
Karl Strobl
May 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A revelation (pun intended}

Pascal Boyer is an anthropologist doing a courageous thing that the anthropologist community usually frowns upon, which is to generalise in order to extract larger truths about how societies work, specifically about how religions emerge and evolve and why. He is exceptionally balanced and doesn't make outlandish conjectures as many would be prone to entertain in this highly abstract domain. His painstaking effort to avoid concise and soecific terminology like group se
Simča Hendrychová
Mar 30, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
I like the way it is written, with all the examples, but I think it could be shorten to 50 pages. But I guess that the author is aware of this and that is why he writes some summaries.
For me the structure of the book was quite confusing, cause some informations needed in the beginning were presented in the middle of the book. Furthermore, I miss the essential definition of what is considered “religious belief”.
The explanation are also a little bit fuzzy, with all the “the way the brain works”
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
I get very suspicious seeing the term 'evolutionary explanation' as it usually involves specious arguments such as 'the giraffe developed a long neck to reach food higher up' (which is thoroughly disproven BTW). Evolutionary arguments around religioni usually focus on things like 'religion facilitates group bonding, so that one tribe fights better and survives'. Yes, that kind of nonsense is quite common.
Instead there were a series of fairly thoughtful ideas carefully worked out. Yes, it is ver
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The title of Boyer's book is a bit misleading. While giving an explanation of how religious beliefs are so persistently seen through different times and cultures he produces one of the most readable summaries of recent thoughts in the cognitive and social sciences, mixed together with some anthropology.

Regardless of whether or not you find Boyer's analysis and conclusion convincing, the book is well worth reading for anyone who wishes to get a concise, though not entirely comprehensive, summary
A more naunced exposition than most.

Boyer attempts to explain the cognitive mechanisms common across all religious thought; ambitious, but he does it well. While I think in some cases more simple explanations explain specific evolutions of religion, his manner of thinking is fairly convincing.

I do think he description and explanation of fundamentalism requires further explanation and justification, but is perhaps sufficient for the topic at hand.

Overall the central thesis, that religious though
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is science at its best. Exploring new territory with humility and inquisition and hunger for new knowledge. I gather this is early but pioneering research as the author abundantly clarifies it. Its a must read for someone interested in evolutionary psychology or someone asking a simple yet most difficult question - why on earth do we gain strong convictions about anything for that matter.. although the focus here is mostly supernatural entities and traditions. In my active research for an a ...more
Stephen McQuiggan
May 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
Why do so many of us believe in Gods and Spirits? Why is religion all about death, and why do we kill, exclude, and sacrifice in the name of unseen deities? An interesting concept but the book does not live up to the claim of its title. An apologetic side effect of our cognitive processes is its underwhelming conclusion - one, ironically, we are expected to accept, without proof, on faith alone. Boyer's convictions, and his forcibly argued theories, tend to be built on the shaky foundations of n ...more
Sep 14, 2018 marked it as to-keep-reference
The anthropologist Pascal Boyer points out that gods and ancestor spirits are often thought to be omniscient, yet what they most care about in this vast universe is the moral intentions hidden in the hearts of the living.

The Happiness Hypothesis Pág.234
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Pascal Robert Boyer is an American anthropologist of French origin, mostly known for his work in the cognitive science of religion. He taught at the University of Cambridge for eight years, before taking up the position of Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches classes on psychology and anthropology. He was a Guggenheim Fell ...more

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