Response to Pascal Boyer on Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

Posted on 6 de Março de 2016


786153Book presentation:

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 admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation. This brilliant and controversial book gives readers the first scientific explanation for what religious feeling is really about, what it consists of, and where it comes from.


My response:

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 specific than imaginary, and it is not because the author finds nothing solid to validate his assumptions. Another mistake is that he chooses to put all religions on the same level with the same degree of credibility. In so doing, anything that is named religion has the same value. It is a nonsense. There are religions with true beliefs that harmonise with reality and logic and there are others that are not. The problem with it is that the Boyer picked the exotic beliefs from different religions to invalidate all other religions system. Boyer’s insistence on including humans in the category of animals evoking few similarities and neglecting the differences is simply without reasoning. Humans and animals are unique in relation to their morphologies, physiologies, behaviors, biochemical particularities, what we call phenotype.

In particular chapter Boyer starts with the following proposition: “It is unfortunate, and almost inevitable, that when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about.” Here are some problems which the author did not anticipate. “…when we discuss about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about.” – What do the writer means with this statement? Is it impossible to know about religious belief? No, that is not so. When the author uses the word “literally” he brings all to a literal stage of ignorance. Yes, in that respect is a little ignorance in knowing, but not only religion, but about everything else in life and science.

We never know literally everything about anything, but we know enough about many things including religion. Let’s suppose that the author’s assumption is applied to physicians. They do not know the cure for all varieties of human disease and yet we don’t argue with the doctor when he decides that we must have an appendicitis surgery in order to get well. We could say: “Well, this doctor doesn’t know the cure for cancer or HIV, his knowledge is defined, however, when we discuss about medical-care we quite literally do not know exactly what we are talking about. However, such an ignorance about some facts does not invalidate the physician capacity of operating anyone for their appendicitis problem.

As for Boyer’s arguments about human, animal, vegetal and material perspectives of things speaks for itself as a non-sense

Another noteworthy aspect of the author proposition regarding the evolution of religion is the way how he reads ancient religion with a postmodern concept. While writing about the relationship between Shiva and her sons, an ancient concept of religion that cannot be understood without taking in account the time, the culture, the language, the meaning and other aspects involving the religious text, the author choose to ignore all these aspects to validate his postmodern mindset. If religion is a result of the evolutionary theory, it is supposed that in religion itself there is an evolutionary process.

I am not trying to discourage anyone to read this book. It is quite an interesting book to read and grasp a bit of the view of the author. As a religious philosopher I just thought that would be nice, at least to me, to point at some misconceptions.

por Luis A R Branco