Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors 
by Pascal Boyer.
Heinemann, 430 pp., £20, September 2001, 0 434 00843 5
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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.

Whatever reservations that second proposition may invite, Boyer is surely correct in saying that some beliefs about supernatural beings are better candidates for propagation within an established system of ideas than others. No anthropologist ever has, or ever will, come back from the field with an account of a people that worships an all-powerful god who exists only on one day of the week, any more than of a people that believes the spirits of its ancestors will inflict punishment on those who dutifully obey their commands. On the other hand, it is no surprise to find that there are cultures in which it is believed that the soul survives the body after death, or that humans can sometimes metamorphose into animals, or that either saints or demons or both can be supplicated for help or protection, or that local divinities need to be propitiated by sacrifices, or that mountains or jungles have some kind of spiritual as well as physical existence, or that trances or other abnormal mental states enable certain people to see into the future, or that holy men (and sometimes women) can perform miraculous cures of otherwise untreatable illnesses, or that one or more supernatural beings not only observe but pass judgment on the day-to-day conduct of human beings.

Boyer thinks that beliefs like these persist neither because of the social cohesion which they generate, nor because of the psychological gratification which they afford, but because the subconscious architecture of the human mind has so evolved over many millennia as to be receptive to them. Critics of evolutionary psychology will retort that the link between presumptive ancestral cause and present-day behavioural effect is forged (in both senses) with the benefit of hindsight. But the research that Boyer cites from developmental and cognitive psychology does furnish support for his argument for universal psychological dispositions of a kind which help to explain why the beliefs which he counts as ‘religion’ are much more common across all times and places than those which he counts as ‘science’. The latter are often counterintuitive, too. But scientific theories are counterintuitive in a way much less consistent with our inherited mental architecture than religious belief-systems. It isn’t that religious belief-systems are what natural selection has constructed our minds for, but that a side-effect of what our minds have been constructed for is a susceptibility to the belief in gods, spirits and ancestors that Boyer describes.

That natural selection has made the human mind (or, if you prefer, brain) into what it is will not be disputed except by avowed Creationists. Nor will it be disputed that it has done so by selection for a kind and degree of imagination, and therefore credulity, which, over those many millennia, made those of our ancestors with theory-building minds more likely to pass on the relevant genes to their descendants than those without them. As a species, we are born not only to construct all sorts of belief-systems out of what are sometimes the flimsiest materials, but also to retain whatever beliefs our local environment favours in the face of seemingly disconfirming evidence. The history of science is as full of examples as the history of religion, or the ethnography of witchcraft, or the archaeological evidence for voodoo dolls and curse tablets and astrologically calibrated architecture, and it would be perverse for even the most determinedly cultural anthropologist to deny that biology has something to do with it.

Missing from Boyer’s account of why the human mind is receptive to the notion of gods, spirits and ancestors as supernatural agents is any account of the psychology of conversion and apostasy as such. It is highly plausible that in the unpredictable and often threatening environment of the Pleistocene, it was adaptive for our ancestors to attribute agency not only to animals, whether as predators or as prey, but to less directly observable beings of other kinds as well. ‘Scientific’ criteria of inference and test need have nothing to do with it. If the inhabitants of a particular environment are inhibited from maladaptive behaviour by a seemingly irrational taboo or wishful conviction about life after death, their inclusive reproductive fitness will be promoted no less than if they were following the advice of a 21st-century professor of medicine or philosophy. Once such beliefs are there, they will be handed down from parents to children along with the myths and songs and rituals and everything else that makes up the cultural tradition of the community in question. But religion – however defined – is full of doctrinal reversals, disputes, heresies, disillusionments, reformations and sometimes startlingly rapid replacements of one belief-system by another. Boyer explicitly disclaims any ability to explain why some people believe things that other people don’t. But to claim to have explained religion requires more than showing that attribution of agency to gods, spirits and ancestors is ‘part of what the baby’s brain is built to assume’. The baby’s brain isn’t built to assume that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, or that we are all destined for successive reincarnations, or that plague is a punishment for excessive covetousness, or that Muhammad is the last true prophet of the one true God, or that the future can be divined in the T-shaped cracks on heated Chinese bones, or that epileptic attacks can be warded off by carrying a parchment on which have been written the names of the Biblical magi.

It is at this point that Frazer and Durkheim, whom Boyer has kept firmly outside the front door, have to be readmitted through the back. Mistaken as Frazer may have been in equating magic with bad science, he was right in seeing that the acceptance of what to others may seem irrational beliefs is often the result of the universal desire to link causes to effects in matters directly connected with human wellbeing; and mistaken as Durkheim may have been in seeing religion as the worship of society by itself, he was right to point out that it involves not just beliefs of a non-commonsensical kind but an attitude of reverence which extends well beyond gods, spirits and ancestors to things like the eagles worshipped by Roman legions and the regimental standards which soldiers in present-day battles will risk their lives to defend. Much can be explained by bringing together, as Boyer does, the evidence of the ethnographic record and the findings of recent psychology. But there is also a historical dynamic which explains why, under specific sociological conditions, the members of different cultures will adopt or discard belief-systems of different kinds.

What is more, even the most traditional cultures, with the longest histories of religious orthodoxy, contain scoffers, cynics and sceptics who refuse to believe what they are told they should. The anti-Papal conspirator Scaradino, executed in 1629, was surely not alone in his view that only fools believe in the existence of hell, and that rulers want their subjects to believe in it because it makes it easier for them to do as they please. Boyer will be as aware as any practising anthropologist of the danger of talking about the Nuer, or the Cuna, or the Greeks, or the (Protestant or Catholic) Christians, or the (Sunni or Shi’ite) Muslims as either holding or not holding supernatural beliefs of some specific and coherent kind. He is, moreover, alert to the human capacity for fusing adherence to belief in gods and spirits with loyalty to seemingly unrelated national, ethnic or other self-differentiated coalitions in such a way as to generate what is currently termed ‘fundamentalism’. But what about refuseniks like Scaradino, or like Diagoras of Melos who, when shown the votive offerings in the temple of Poseidon at Samothrace, which had been dedicated by the survivors of accidents at sea, replied that there would be a lot more of them if those who were drowned had had the opportunity to make offerings too? If the baby’s brain is so constructed as to jump to conclusions about quasi-human agents when faced with unpredictable events which clamour for explanation, is it not also so constructed as to question explanations which impose too much on its inherited disposition to believe whatever parents, teachers or peer-groups may say? A willingness to act in accordance with ‘religious’ maxims, rather than rely on individual trial and error, may have been not only desirable but essential in the environment in which our ancestors were mothered by Mitochondrial Eve. But, to borrow a phrase from W.V. Quine, ‘creatures inveterately wrong’ in the conclusions they draw from their environment will be unlikely to survive long enough to pass on their genes at all.

Even if the scoffers, cynics and sceptics are no more than a minority incapable of successfully invading, in the game-theoretic sense, a population wedded to its traditional beliefs, the baby’s brain also permits stable sub-cultural variations whose explanation has to be sought in the processes of cultural and social – rather than natural – selection. It is not difficult to find in the ethnographic and historical record cases where inherited religious beliefs are shared by both dominant and subordinate groups but where an alternative creed has been elaborated and preserved by an intermediate group with interests and priorities of its own. If the dissenters are less readily disposed to credit gods, spirits and ancestors with a capacity to intervene in human affairs than their social superiors and inferiors are, it is not because their genes have endowed them with a different mental architecture. Such cases are not inconsistent with the general proposition that all human beings are predisposed from birth to attribute conscious agency not only to animals but to certain kinds of inanimate object on the one side, and certain kinds of supernatural being on the other. But they do demonstrate the extent to which predispositions that derive, whether directly or indirectly, from the selective pressures which maximised inclusive reproductive fitness in the ancestral environment, can be diverted, modified or overridden.

Boyer is sure that religion will persist, and has no lack of evidence with which to support his prediction. But aren’t some kinds of religion more likely to persist than others? Human beings will always have to search beyond the evidence of their senses for answers to the age-old questions ‘What shall we do?’ and ‘How shall we live?’ and although Boyer is dismissive of what he calls ‘metaphysical “religions”’ unwilling to ‘dirty their hands’, he presumably agrees that the ‘Why are we here at all?’ question isn’t going to be solved by science either. The future of gods, spirits and ancestors is, however, more problematic. We may not be witnessing the universal trend towards secularisation which was mistakenly predicted by many 20th-century sociologists of religion. But there has, all the same, been a good deal of the Entzauberung – ‘disenchantment’, or literally ‘demagification’ – which Max Weber took to be one of the defining characteristics of the modern world.

Although Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge did not think that the existence of invisible ‘demons’ could be denied, his view has not been shared by later incumbents of the Chair (even if some of them have believed that the natural integers are the creation of God). Twentieth-century Mongolian shamans ceased to regard as caused by spirits a range of illnesses amenable to inoculation and Chinese medicine, even if they continued to believe that psychological disorders could only be cured by what Western practitioners would dismiss as ‘magical’ techniques. Melanesian islanders whose grandparents founded cargo cults no longer believe that European material goods can be obtained by purely ritual means. None of the peoples of South America still hold the conviction that the regular sacrifice of children or prisoners of war is necessary to ensure the continuing fertility of the soil. Human beings may continue to believe all sorts of things, both metaphysical and ethical, that Boyer is unable to share with them, and to define themselves in relation to those beliefs to the point of being willing to kill other human beings who refuse to share them. But supernatural agency is no longer quite what it was. To put it no more strongly, Hegel had a point when he remarked that ‘before the statues of the gods we no longer bend the knee.’

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