Review: “Religion Explained:The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought”. By Pascal Boyer. Basic Books, 2001. 359 pages, US$27.50.


Reviewer: Peter Sellick, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Perth, Western Australia. Home Page


This book may not get the readership it deserves, especially from those involved in Christian Academe because it appears from the title that it is yet another attempt by a scientist to “explain” religion and hence do away with it. It would appear that Boyer is an evolutionist like many before him who would reduce all human behaviour, including the religious to evolutionary theory. This is in part correct but his argument go far beyond the speculation evoked by the idea of the  “selfish gene”. It has been the habit of evolutionary biologists to explain animal and to some extent human behaviour in terms of individuals being motivated to project their genes into the next generation. Part of the problem with this approach is that the mechanisms of motivation were invisible. Evolution was understood to work via an “unseen hand” that worked somehow to produce behaviour that was oriented around self preservation and the preservable of offspring. In the last decade evolutionary theory has been directed towards discovering the neurological  mechanisms that promote the behaviour that is directed towards the promotion of genes. If evolution is the ultimate mechanism, these mechanisms are proximate; they generate behaviour. This move has produced a new psychology, called evolutionary or Darwinian psychology. Its primary assumptions are that before humans spread over the earth we experienced an extended time (millions of years) as small groups of hunter gathers most probably on the continent of Africa. During this time our nervous systems evolved via the mechanisms of natural selection to produce advantage in this environment. Since the environment was communal, neural adaptations that advanced cooperation were selected for. These adaptations were modular in that they responded to particular stimuli. For example, the module that was adapted to recognise faces was activated by seeing a face, the module that was adapted to detect a cheat was activated in situations of social exchange. These  modules may be absent in some individuals without affecting the overall function of the mind.   For example some people suffer from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise faces while functioning very well in other domains. The thing about this theory is that it predicts  the evolution of what may be called the social brain, that part of the mind that enables us to be in relation to others and is common to the whole of the human race. This means that there are universal neural mechanisms that will be found equally in the Inuit and the Nuer, a discovery that must be one of the most compelling arguments against racism. This way of understanding brain mechanisms is quite different to mainstream psychology which places much emphasis on learning. Learning in evolutionary psychology is understood as evoking and refining existing domain specific mechanisms.

In an earlier book ( The Naturalness of Religious Ideas) Boyer investigated native religion and found that much of it was underdetermined as regards how it was transmitted from one generation to another and he concluded that it was the inherent structure of the brain that determined the essentials of religious belief. This may be compared to the way language is acquired. The language acquisition area is activated by the language the child hears wether that be Japanese or English and the child learns to understand and to speak. This happens at an early age and with remarkable speed as compared to  learning to read and write. The acquisition of language relies on a specialised mechanism while reading and writing must be painstakingly acquired using cognition alone. We might say that language is underdetermined while reading and writing is wholly determined by experience. Boyer denies that there is a specific mechanism for the acquisition of religious ideas. There is no natural thirsting after God in the mind. Rather, religious ideas are parasitic on brain mechanisms that have evolved to facilitate relationships with others. Fauerbach observed that God was just a projection of the human father and had all of the attributes of a real father. Boyer observes that supernatural agencies in all religions have most of the inferences that pertain to the person. The spirit or ancestor remembers, knows, sees, communicates and is located in space. However, although all of the inferences of the person are intact there is always a violation of at least one of those inferences, e.g. he/she is immaterial or does not die. It is the violation of intuitive categories that mark the entity off as supernatural and which acts as a highly salient marker in oral traditions. The stories that contain violations of intuitive concepts are the ones that are remembered over those stories that are naturalistic. The inescapable conclusion in regards to our attitude of biblical miracle stories is not that the writers of miracle stories belonged to a prescientific age and did not understand how the world worked, but that they used these highly salient markers to facilitate memory and to make a theological point. It is interesting that the writings of Paul that relied on very little oral tradition have so few references to miracles or the supernatural while the gospels, which did rely on oral tradition over many years, do. When we understand what Boyer is telling us we cannot help seeing aspects of Christianity that are explained, not by doctrine but by how our minds have determined theological belief. For example, Anglicans all over the world use the prayer of preparation: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden:” One of the most crucial and active modules is the one that has been called “Theory of Mind”. This adaptation may be absent in some individuals, (autism) and it allows us to intuit the motivation of others.  It is a form of mind reading and those individuals that do not have it are denoted as “mind blind”. This is an inference of person-hood and hence of God. While our intuitions about the state of mind of others that we unconsciously read off from expression, body language, tone of voice etc are only approximate, we understand that God has perfect Theory of Mind. This is the violation that signals a supernatural concept. It is also interesting that God only cares about strategic information, the topics that inform gossip. He is not interesting in the contents of your refrigerator but is interested in who you slept with or how you got so much money. The structure of our mind determines how we understand God. Boyer’s point is that this is more important that doctrine. Anyone who has been in parish ministry will confirm that no matter how much teaching and preaching they do about , for example, the Trinity, members of the congregation cling to what can only be described as folk religion, that is, the religion that their minds determine for them. After all these years with the Trinity as the centre of Christian theology our members are still practical Unitarians.

This book is a very broad treatment of religion. It deals with ritual, ordination, the supernatural, inter religious strife, initiation, death and the funeral and grief. Much of the practice and belief of Christians is discussed. However, because Boyer deals with religion in general he does not approach what is unique in the Judeo/Christian tradition, the reliance on historical event. It is certainly true that the way those events are remembered owe much to how our minds work as do the various rituals of the church. Popular or unchurched belief is rife with intuitive folk religion. But how do these realisations challenge the writing of Christian theology? Do we sift out beliefs that are obviously a product to our minds from those doctrinal statements about the life, death and resurrection of Christ?  How do these realisations help us deal with the belief in the supernatural and with ghosts and if we do what will happen to our congregations who rely so heavily on them? If the mechanisms in our mind that constrain the form of religious belief are an inherent part of us what does that do to our attitude towards natural theology? These are only a few of the questions that come to mind. Boyer’s book deserves the interest of academic theology. Despite our aversion to its title it demands serious consideration. The church has not adequately dealt with the questions concerning ontology that Darwin’s theory of evolution has raised. This extension of the theory will challenge us in more places than in our ontology, it will challenge what we do, what we believe and how our religious institutions function.


Perth 23rd Nov 2001.