Why are we here?

W.G. Runciman

  • Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors by Pascal Boyer
    Heinemann, 430 pp, £20.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 434 00843 5

Any argument about religion, whether conducted in the seminar room or the saloon bar, is likely to hit the buffers not just because people hold different religious beliefs but because they disagree about what should or should not be counted as an instance of religion in the first place. Nobody will query the inclusion of what goes on at High Mass in Notre Dame or on the prayer-mats of the Islamic faithful or in a Hindu temple or at a Merina death ritual in Madagascar. But what about initiation ceremonies, hero cults (including Elvis-worship), charter myths, civil weddings, national anthems, silences in memory of the dead, charms, talismans and amulets, taboos on bodily fluids, spiritualism, oneiromancy, rain dances, Christmas presents, oaths and curses, apotropaic rituals in the face of physical danger, Wordsworthian nature-worship (or present-day environmentalism), Confucian respect for authority, Neoplatonist metaphysics, Pythagorean reverence for number and harmony, Wittgensteinian mysticism, Freudian psychoanalysis, autonomist political theory, Kipling’s as well as Socrates’ references to a personal ‘demon’, and the mild fascination with the occult shared by Pliny the Elder, John Buchan, and generations of ghost-story enthusiasts and horror-movie buffs?

Pascal Boyer tells us in his opening chapter that ‘religion is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies.’ He doesn’t appear to have in mind things like gravity or magnetism or radio waves. But much of science is about non-observable causal powers, quite apart from the powers invoked by sorcerers, magicians, faith-healers, fortune-tellers and witch-doctors. One of Boyer’s examples is the belief of the Fang people of Cameroon in the possession by some of their number – those particularly successful in oratory, business, horticulture or witchcraft – of an internal organ called evur with which the possessors are born but which can’t be detected directly. Is that so very different from my belief that a good friend of mine who suffered intermittently from a conviction that he was responsible for the imminent outbreak of a third world war was born with an inherited liability to a psychological condition which has something to do with the region of chromosome 6?

The diverse beliefs which Boyer cites extend from Apollo and Athena, to shamanism among the Panamanian Cuna, to aliens from remote galaxies allegedly landing in New Mexico. But his central agenda is the particular set of unobservable causal agencies cited in his subtitle, and his primary concern is with the question of how we are to account for beliefs that involve the attribution of conscious agency to beings other than humans and animals of the normal and familiar kind. Such beliefs are, as Boyer says, remarkably widespread, and for all their variant forms the variation is neither limitless nor random. His answer falls into two parts: first, these beliefs have in common a counterintuitive attribution of a certain range of properties to certain kinds of quasi-human being; second, the explanation of their diffusion and persistence is to be sought not in the extensive anthropological literature about the origins and functions of religion, but in recent advances in developmental, cognitive and evolutionary psychology.

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