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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,939 ratings  ·  94 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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3.98  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,939 ratings  ·  94 reviews

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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
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
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
Sep 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Отличная книга, медленно и эффективно разжевывающая описаную проблему. Повествование ведется так, что может понять даже ребенок.
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
Rita Neves
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Super interessante!
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.
Жанна Пояркова
Jul 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cool-non-fiction
Прекрасная книга, описывающая религиозные идеи как распространяющиеся культурные мемы, получающие распространение за счет склонности к коалиционному поведению и ряду когнитивных искажений. Не доказательная, но очень славная работа. Особенно мне нравятся части, где рассматривается, как религия узурпирует интуитивный моральный кодекс у людей и паразитирует на нашем устройстве мышления в принципе. В паре с нобелевской книгой Канемана о выборе прямо чудесно идет.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Nov 13, 2018 rated it liked it
He makes a good argument for why religion arose and why it is so persistent throughout human cultures. However, he focuses primarily on more "primitive" or early-stage religions, and doesn't talk much about religions like Christianity or Hinduism (though based on his arguments, I would think that these more modern religions rest on a much flimsier foundation than some less advanced ones). Anyway, definitely an interesting book though a bit dry at times.
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
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Одна из лучших научно-популярных книг, прочитанных мной за последнее время. Паскаль Буайе не только рассматривает причины возникновения религии, но и раскрывает многие аспекты нашего мышления в соответствии с последними научными исследованиями. Лично я довольно много нового узнал.
Υπάτιος Βαρελάς
Φλύαρο και αδύναμο ως προς τα επιχειρήματα, παρά τον όγκο αξιόλογων στοιχείων που παραθέτει.
Charlie Rose
Mar 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Part of a book class study. Religion explained is wonderfully thought provoking as get inside the authors mind.
Oct 08, 2016 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 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
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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
“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!” 6 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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