Pascal Boyer, Washington University professor of psychology and anthropology and author of the ambitiously titled Religion Explained, recently offered his explanation of religion to readers of Nature (Vol 455 23 October 2008). In general, Boyer’s essay is remarkable not for the ideas advanced but for the insight provided into what its readers think are acceptable explanations. It is the “thinker’s Religulous“, an intellectually insubstantial attack on non-materialist worldviews (traditional religion) bolstered by questionable findings from psychology. We must assume that the typical reader will not examine the argument very carefully as long as it bashes religion. For example,
… experiments reveal that most people entertain highly anthropomorphic expectations about gods, whatever their explicit beliefs. When they are told a story in which a god attends to several problems at once, they find the concept quite plausible, as gods are generally described as having unlimited cognitive powers. Recalling the story a moment later, most people say that the god attended to one situation before turning his attention to the next. People also implicitly expect their gods’ minds to work much like human minds, displaying the same processes of perception, memory, reasoning and motivation. Such expectations are not conscious, and are often at odds with their explicit beliefs.
So most people have a hard time grasping omniscience? Quick, grab me a feather; I need to knock myself over. Boyer stresses that he is not the vulgar sort of materialist who is still looking for a “God gene” or “God circuit” in the brain. He acknowledges that human consciousness – by its very nature – produces the materials of religion.
Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. (Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 4)
Yes, indeed. We perceive that we will die one day. We do things we shouldn’t. We see that the virtuous are not always rewarded nor the wicked punished. Nonetheless, good and evil remain distinct. If Hitler had won World War II and died peacefully at 85, surrounded by mournful admirers, which of us would choose to be among them? Ergo, there are fates worse than death.
Observations like these generate non-materialist world views (traditional religions) without any need to invoke genes, dedicated neural circuits, Darwinian evolution, or materialism.If the universe were designed by a Creator God, I would expect precisely this situation. We have enough evidence to point well beyond nature but not enough to draw firm conclusions without learning more about the Creator.
In fairness, it is very difficult for a social scientist to write a book about religion that does not fundamentally distort its nature. Those who can write such a book usually have a background in the humanities — Peter Berger comes readily to mind. Most attempts sponsored by atheistic materialists do not explain, they merely explain away.
Boyer, for example, constantly compares humans to animals, ending in the swamp of the ridiculous. For example,
Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.
Hmmm. I don’t suppose lemurs have imaginary friends; they probably don’t have actual friends either. So something about humans is definitely different, …. Tellingly, while natural scientists quite often regard social scientists with contempt (having the style of science without the substance), Nature gladly prints an article by a social scientist if it tries, however inadequately, to explain away religious belief. The journal’s editors would not likely print a similar article explaining away Darwinism as a mere “cognitive construct” whose “truths” about nature are no more valid than the “truths” of African mythology or medieval Catholicism. Darwinism is, after all, their cult.Three things about Boyer’s essay particularly struck me, and I will unpack them in Part 2.
Denyse O’Leary, a journalist, author, and blogger, is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.