Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
By Pascal Boyer
Basic. 375 pp. $27.50
Pascal Boyer claims, as his book's title proclaims, to have explained religion. What he means, in fact, is that he has explained it away. In making his claim, he enters his name in a long list of previous practitioners, going back probably as far as Cicero, whose dialogue On the Nature of the Gods can at least arguably be read as an exercise in explaining away. It is certain that David Hume thought he had explained religion away two hundred and fifty years ago with his complementary works, Natural History of Religion and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. And since Hume, explanations of religion that also explain it away have been legion: Marx, Freud, Durkheim, and so on through the serried ranks of dusty doctoral dissertations and the proceedings of forgotten academic societies. The enterprise hasn't quite worked to the satisfaction of all, however, and al though Boyer seems largely un aware that what he is trying to do has a history, it is clear that if he were aware of it he would simply say, as so many have said before, that this time it has finally and unimpeachably been done right. So let's see how he fares. How does Boyer understand religion, and what kind of explanation does he offer?
For Boyer, religion is about nonobservable entities and agencies, and most especially about personal or quasi-personal agents with at least some nonhuman powers. Religious concepts, which he also calls supernatural concepts, have such entities as their referent, and religious behaviors are taken by those who engage in them to bring them into relation with such entities. These concepts and behaviors are what Boyer wants to explain, and he begins the explanatory enterprise by asking why it is that among the many possible religious concepts and behaviors, only a small selection appears attractive to human beings. We humans typically believe in and pray only to what he calls "full-access strategic agents," which is to say only to agents who have access to all the information relevant to a particular state of affairs, and who can in some way intervene in or affect that state of affairs. We do not, by and large, believe in or pray to agents of other kinds: agents who don't have the relevant information, or who lack the necessary causal powers.
Why is this? Why are we humans predisposed to have only these kinds of religious concepts? Boyer's answer, in brief, is that our brains have been "designed by evolution" (a recurring phrase) to employ particular cognitive systems that help us to make sense of "particular aspects of objects around us and produce specific kinds of inferences about them." There are, for instance, brain-systems in this sense that deal with inanimate objects, others that deal with human persons, and yet others that deal with supernatural agents. Just as our brains have become by evolution such that they inevitably (and mostly unconsciously) deploy the complex inferential systems that permit us to survive and get around in a world of inanimate objects, so they also have become such that we find ideas about full-access strategic agents to be plausible because these ideas generate for us rich inferences about how to behave and what choices to make, and they do so with particular richness in a social context in which we can reasonably assume that everyone else shares such ideas.
Boyer thus reverses many traditional attempts to explain religion away. It is not that we invent the gods because by so doing we can meet needs otherwise difficult to satisfy, or because they permit us to explain things otherwise hard to explain, or because they give us the illusion of comfort in a harsh and comfortless world, or because they give us persuasive reasons to act morally. It is, rather, that evolution has equipped us (or most of us) with certain proclivities or dispositions to explain misfortune, gain scarce social goods, and act morally (by which Boyer means, roughly, acting in such a way as evolutionarily to benefit either ourselves or the tribe). Moreover, these proclivities dispose us to accept and act upon the idea that there are gods—or, if you prefer, full-access strategic agents. Evolution, in Boyer's story, makes all of us likely worshipers in much the same way that it makes all of us likely language-users. We are innately predisposed for both, and so such disparate religious traditions as Christian theology, Islamic law, and Buddhist metaphysics are merely different forms of baroque ornamentations added on to an evolutionary edifice.
There are many details to Boyer's story. He draws enthusiastically upon ethnographic data, as well as upon half-understood (and often completely misunderstood) fragments of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian thought, to illustrate what he has to say. But in the end, he takes the explanation he offers to be true, its vocabulary to be final ("scientific" is his preferred term), and all competing explanations to be, simply, wrong—or at the very least easily capable of being subsumed as partial truths into his explanation.
This blithe confidence is particularly apparent when, for example, he claims that the explanations offered by Catholics for why they go to Mass cannot be right, whereas his explanations are. And there's a problem here of a fairly obvious sort, one that invalidates many of the book's more extravagant claims. It is, simply, that even if Boyer's evolutionary story about the attractiveness of Mass-going is correct (I doubt that it is, but it can be allowed for the sake of argument), it by no means follows that the reasons that Catholics give for why they go to Mass are automatically false. The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for other religious views and practices he discusses. Here's why.
Boyer's explanation for the attractiveness of Mass-going is that it is a "snare for thought that produces highly salient effects by activating special systems in the mental basement." A Catholic explanation, to put it much too briefly, is that Mass-going is a proper response to a sacramental gift of unparalleled significance given by God. The two explanations are roughly on a par with respect to their use of technical terms unlikely to be easily appreciated by outsiders without a lot of work (mental basement? sacrament?). They are also, and more importantly, not obviously contradictory, which means that both may be true.
Boyer seems not to see this, and in this he is unlike the more intelligent among earlier explainers-away of religion. They—David Hume provides the best example—saw clearly that in order to show the unacceptability of what religious people appeal to when they try to explain religion it is not enough to provide an alternative explanation. For doing so will only show what is almost always trivially true about every state of affairs, which is that there are many sets of conditions sufficient for its occurrence, and that more than one set of such conditions is likely to obtain at any given time. Specifying one such set therefore does not suffice to rule out others.
To apply this obvious point to the case at hand: it may be that God's act and our response to it suffices to establish Mass-going as an enduring social practice; and it may also be that its persistence can be explained by reference to the cognitive and affective advantages it provides for us vis-à-vis evolution. In order to show that the Catholic explanation is unacceptable, Boyer would have to show what's wrong with it in its own terms, and he neither does this nor seems to see that he needs to. Hume, by contrast, did see this need, and this is why he paired the Natural History (which provides the alternative explanation) with the Dialogues (which provides the—putative—demonstration of religion's wrongness).
Boyer, then, fails to establish the unacceptability of religious people's explanations of their religion; the possible validity of his own explanation is thus irrelevant. And what's worse, he apparently fails even to see what he would need to do in order to establish what he claims to have established.
There is, in addition, a further deep fissure in the book's fabric of argument. Boyer wants to provide an evolutionary explanation for the plausibility of religious belief and practice, and in so doing to show that it should not be taken seriously in its claims about the way things are. But such explanations ought to be applicable to Boyer's own views, since he claims that everything about our cognitive life can be explained by appeal to our evolutionary history. What is it, then, about evolutionary selection that makes Boyer's views (his physicalism, his evolutionism, his touching faith in science and its high priests, his apocalyptic enthusiasm for what science can now do) probative? Boyer does not say. His views are, apparently, exempt from the very process of investigation they require. The whole program is thus performatively incoherent, propounding as it does a method of analysis that ought to be applicable to all claims and arguments, and yet exempting itself from that very process. Again Boyer seems not to see the difficulty, and this strains the credulity and the patience of the reader.
Boyer, then, does not establish what he claims to have established. But this is not to say that his book is without merit. It is breezily written, ascending at times to the eloquence of the revivalist preacher. It also has many passing observations of interest on the habits of the Fang people of Cameroon, among whom Boyer has done fieldwork, as well as about the habits of those for whom scientific evolutionism provides the final vocabulary, about which he is a native informant. But it is, in the end, a tract for the faithful that does not take its own faith commitments seriously enough.
Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.