What’s it all about? Though we might never answer the really big questions–with good reason–maybe we can understand why we ask them. Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer tackles this topic in the unapologetically titled Religion Explained, and it is sure to polarize his readers. Some will think it’s an impermissible invasion of mental territory beyond the reach of reason; others will see it as the first step toward a more complete understanding of human nature–and Boyer is acutely aware of the emotionally charged nature of his work. This knowledge informs his decision to proceed without caution, as he warns readers early on that most will risk being offended by some of his considerations. Readers who can lay aside their biases will find great rewards here; Boyer’s wide scholarship and knack for elegant writing are reasons enough for reading his book.
That gods and spirits are construed very much like persons is probably one of the best-known traits of religion. Indeed, the Greeks had already noticed that people create gods in their own image…. All this is familiar, indeed so familiar that for a long time anthropologists forgot that this propensity requires an explanation. Why then are gods and spirits so much like humans?
Peppering his study with examples from all over the world, particularly the Fang people of Africa, Boyer offers plenty of evidence for his theory that religious institutions exist to maintain particular threads of social integrity. Though he uses the tools of evolutionary psychology, he is more careful than most EP proponents to avoid ad hoc and circular arguments. Best of all, at least to those unmortified at the idea of examining religion critically, his theories are potentially testable. Even if he turns out to be dead wrong, at least Religion Explained offers a new and powerful framework for thinking about our spiritual lives. —Rob Lightner