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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 308-309 ( 22 July )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/boyer.html

Book Review

Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors
by Pascal Boyer
London: William Heinemann, 2001.

Reviewed by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, ISRAEL.

This book is a milestone on the road to a new behavioral understanding of religion, basing itself on what has come to be known as cognitive anthropology, and pointedly ignoring much work done over the past one hundred years in the behavioral study of religion and in the psychological anthropology of religion. The author wishes to challenge accepted wisdom and displays a contrarian spirit. No mention is made in this book of Freud, Durkheim, Wallace, La Barre, or Malinowski. We are in Year I of the Cognitive Anthropology Revolution and the Old Regime has to be erased from memory. What are the benefits, and costs, of this radical approach?

The clearest virtue of this book is that of dealing with the real thing. Even today, most scholarly work on religion consists of apologetics in one form or another, and we are deluged by offers of grants to study “spirituality” or teach “religion and science”. This all serves to make us forget that religion is a collection of fantasies about spirits, and Boyer indeed aims to teach us about the world of the spirits in the grand tradition of the Enlightenment. Any general introduction to the world of the spirits must be ambitious because it hasn’t been done and also because it has been done intuitively by all of us.

The framework is cognitive-evolutionary and assumes that the brain is a machine operating according to rules developed through evolution. “Religion is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies” (p. 8), and is made up of “…a limited catalogue of possible supernatural beliefs” (p. 11). This is a good starting point. This world of the imagination contains “serious” religious ideas, as well as ideas about Santa Claus, witchcraft and various popular magical practices. Psychologically, they are produced by the same processes.

The question is that of that of the seeming plausibility of religious ideas to most humans and the uniform way spirits are perceived. In what ways are they similar to other objects and how are they different? “Religious representations are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions. First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations” (p. 71). This is the main argument, and this is where Boyer’s contribution has to be judged.

Boyer studiously avoids the use of such relevant concepts as projection, animism, or anthropomorphism, but what he presents as the evidence for “intuitive physics” (p. 113), the famous experiments by Michotte showing “causal illusions” in the perception of movement, are indeed evidence for animism. Later on he states that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind” (p. 163). The “violations” of ontological categories that are found in the religious imagination are those that fit our consciousness and early experience, and that is why we don’t find more extreme violations of these categories.

Boyer describes religious ideas as “counter-intuitive”, but their universality shows that these concepts are actually natural and intuitive, and, as Boyer himself points out, much more intuitive than the ideas of physics, chemistry, or cognitive anthropology.

Despite the interesting and lucid attempt to formalize animism and anthropomorphism by detailing general cognitive processes, everything said here is compatible with earlier versions of animism and projection. The common belief is that “God knows that you are lying” (p. 181). The power to read minds attributed to gods and ancestors may be just that attributed to parents by the young child, and later projected. Human experiences must be expressed through a human vocabulary, and so, naturally and intuitively, we ascribe humanity (i.e. conscious agency) to everything around us, until we learn better.

One clear fact is that most denizens of the world of the spirits are ghosts, the souls of human beings now dead. How do souls become ghosts? An interesting transformation takes place at death, as the deceased are beginning to be perceived as malevolent and dangerous. This change demands an explanation. Why do beloved dead become frightening ghosts? Boyer’s explanation is that the fear of ghosts stems from our fear of corpses, and there is an evolutionary acquired fear of pathogens in the corpse. Thus, horror of the dead is reduced to the fear of disease. This claim is made in the absence of evidence for any awareness of pathogens till fairly recent times (vide Ignaz Semmelweis). Humans seem unable to acquire useful ideas about hygiene in many other cases, and these need to be explicitly taught. Besides, in many cultures ways of handling corpses in mortuary rituals are far from hygienic.

The truth is that we are horrified by the corpses we see, but we are just as terrified of ghosts we do not ever see, which are not tied to any experience of corpses. Boyer is correct in pointing out the dead violate our expectations of several ontological categories, and so are ideal candidates for the supernatural world. Still, Chapter 6, titled Why is religion about death?, turns out to be the least persuasive of the whole book, and the transformation of the dear departed into malevolent ghosts remains a mystery. Freud’s recognition of our inevitable ambivalence about the departed has no place in Boyer’s armamentarium.

Despite its limitations, this book is a first-rate attempt to move the study of religion in the direction desperately needed now more than ever.

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© Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi.

Dr. Beit-Hallahmi’s research interests include the psychology of religion, the history of psychology, social identity, and personality development. Among his recent publications are The Psychology of Religious Behaviour., Belief, and Experience (1997, with Michael Argyle), The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions (1998), and Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology: Critical Essays on the Israel/Palestine Case (2002, with John Bunzl).


Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2002). Review of Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors by Pascal Boyer. Human Nature Review. 2: 308-309.

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