Category Archives: Boyer: Religion Explained


Religion Explained: how to make a good religious concept

by Neil Godfrey

fsmLet’s try to understand what religious beliefs are. What makes a religious belief work, take hold, and are found across cultures and generations? In these posts I’m continuing to focus on Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer whose explanation is grounded in cognitive theory. That is, this is a cognitive explanation for religion.

Religious beliefs — gods, ghosts, virgin births, etc — are not randomly fabricated nonsense. (I included ghosts as an example of religious beliefs because I’m discussing religion in its most generic sense and not confining myself to mainstream Western religions.) Religious concepts actually follow certain rules or recipes. They have specific types of properties. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, on the contrary, is a concoction made to look like “randomly fabricated nonsense”; the ingredients that go into the making of real religious concepts could scarcely produce a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I cannot possibly explain in depth how this recipe works in a blog post. To get the details one ought to read the first two chapters of Boyer’s book. I will try to hit key highlights. (And of course the terms used in describing cognitive processes are necessarily metaphorical.)

There are two essential ingredients that go into making a viable religious concept, and they need to be mixed in the right proportions. Boyer discusses the experimental research behind it all but I won’t address any of that here.

Take the overall understanding of what we all have by the idea of “animal”. We have all constructed since infancy an common set of ideas of what being an “animal” means, such as:

  • animals grow and die
  • animals have typical shapes or body plans
  • animals need food to survive
  • animals reproduce “after their own kind” or species

In fact we have “minitheories” about what it means to be an animal. As soon as we understand something is an animal we immediately infer many things about it that we do not need to check or test each time: e.g. it consists of the same sorts of innards, digestive tract, nervous system, as any other animal; that it will have a symmetrical shape; that it eats to survive — either plants or other animals; that if it kills and eats other animals it does so because it gets hungry, and so forth.

If you never heard of an Invisible Rail but were told it was an animal creature of some sort, then you would instantly know all of the above about it before even knowing what sort of animal it was or what it looked like.

An animal category in our heads enables us to make sense of “natural concepts” and to make all sorts of inferences about their behaviour without ever being told such details again each time we learn about a new animal.

In other words, we have a whole range of expectations that come into play whenever we are told about a new animal. If you heard that an Invisible Rail laid eggs from which baby Invisible Rails hatched you would not be surprised. If in addition you learned that it had wings, you would know it is a bird, and you would assume it has a beak and feathers. All of this would be consistent with the sorts of details you would have expected to hear about a something belonging to the animal category of knowledge.

But if you hear that an Invisible Rail had the ability to suddenly materialize anywhere and anytime when a child was deeply distressed, that would be unexpected information. That ability would violate all that you know about the properties of physical bodies. It would not be something your understanding of animals allowed to happen.

In fact, you would almost certainly recall that unexpected detail about the Invisible Rail because it is so unusual, so unexpected. You would imagine the Invisible Rail is a very unusual sort of animal.

But at the same time everything else about the Invisible Rail — laying eggs, feathers, wings, beak — would be exactly as you expect.

A religious concept consists of these two things:

  1. it violates certain expectations from what we call “ontological categories”
  2. it preserves other expectations.

There are a few more rules surrounding these two details, but first let’s understand “ontological categories”. read more »


Where religious beliefs come from

by Neil Godfrey
Tylor and Frazer

Tylor and Frazer

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Sam Harris: Wrong (again) about Religion and Radicalization
  2. Religion: It’s more than we often think
  3. Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

Since we tend to take it for granted that beliefs in spirit beings and associated myths were invented to explain the world around us I was surprised to read in Pascal Boyer‘s Religion Explained that this assumption is problematic and no longer accepted by all anthropologists:

[T]he theme of religion-as-an-explanation was developed by a school of anthropology called intellectualism, which was initiated by 19th-century scholars such as Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer and remains quite influential to this day. (p. 15)

It is not true, Boyer argues, that humans naturally try to find some speculative explanations for commonly experienced phenomena that they lack the conceptual means to understand.

The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general “urge to move around.” Animals never move about for the sake of changing places. They are in search of food or safety or sex; their movements in these different situations are caused by different processes. The same goes for explanations. From a distance, as it were, you may think that the general point of having a mind is to explain and understand. But if you look closer, you see that what happens in a mind is far more complex; this is crucial to understanding religion.

There’s a lot to think about here. Certainly for me there is. Boyer gives an example of one of the most common everyday experiences of every healthy person that is very hard for us to think requires any explanation at all.

Nervous_systemNow, expressed in this blunt and general manner, the statement is plainly false. Many phenomena are both familiar to all of us from the youngest age and difficult to comprehend using our everyday concepts, yet nobody tries to find an explanation for them. For instance, we all know that our bodily movements are not caused by external forces that push or pull us but by our thoughts. That is, if I extend my arm and open my hand to shake hands with you, it’s precisely because I want to do that. Also, we all assume that thoughts have no weight or size or other such material qualities (the idea of an apple is not the size of the apple, the idea of water does not flow, the idea of a rock is no more solid than the idea of butter). If I have the intention to lift my arm, to take a classic example, this intention itself has no weight or solidity. Yet it manages to move parts of my body. . . . How can this occur? How could things without substance have effects in the material world? Or, to put it in less metaphysical terms, how on earth do these mental words and images pull my muscles? This is a difficult problem for philosophers and cognitive scientists . . . but surprisingly enough, it is a problem for nobody else in the entire world. Wherever you go, you will find that people are satisfied with the idea that thoughts and desires have effects on bodies and that’s that. (Having raised such questions in English pubs and Fang villages in Cameroon I have good evidence that in both places people see nothing mysterious in the way their minds control their bodies. Why should they? It requires very long training in a special tradition to find the question interesting or puzzling.)

That illustration got me thinking and wondering. Is it too clever? I can certainly see myself as one of Boyer’s English pub companions thinking there is “nothing mysterious” at all about the process. But of course that’s his point. Then I recalled the (apocryphal) story of Isaac Newton wondering why the apple he had just seen fall from a tree did not instead fall upwards or hang suspended.

If we can throw things up skyward why do they decide at some point to come back down again?

Why does food appease my hunger but then too much food make me feel sick?

Why do babies grow up and not just stay as babies? Why do we get weaker as we age? Why do we age?

Why do we and every other living thing have matching right and left sides?

It takes a little effort at first, but once one starts on that track it does seem there is a point here. And I can only think of some of those questions because I need first to refer to what I have learned from my reading of science. Religious explanations are indeed limited to only certain types of stories and never touch many potential questions for the pre-scientific mind.

The more I think about it the more I think it is true that our minds are not “general explanation machines”.

Boyer’s point is that the mind consists of lots of specialized explanatory engines or “inference systems”. I have hummed and harred whether to set out my own explanations and have finally opted to quote more of Boyer’s own words but with my formatting:

Consider this:

It is almost impossible to see a scene without seeing it in three dimensions, because our brains cannot help explaining the flat images projected onto the retina as the effect of real volumes out there.

If you are brought up among English speakers you just cannot help understanding what people say in that language, that is, explaining complex patterns of sound frequencies as strings of words.

People spontaneously explain the properties of animals in terms of some inner properties that are common to their species; if tigers are aggressive predators and yaks quiet grazers, this must be because of their essential nature.

We spontaneously assume that the shape of particular tools is explained by their designers’ intentions rather than as an accidental combination of parts; the hammer has a sturdy handle and a heavy head because that is the best way to drive nails into hard materials.

We find that it is impossible to see a tennis ball flying about without spontaneously explaining its trajectory as a result of a force originally imposed on it.

If we see someone’s facial expression suddenly change we immediately speculate on what may have upset or surprised them, which would be the explanation of the change we observed.

When we see an animal suddenly freeze and leap up we assume it must have detected a predator, which would explain why it stopped and ran away. 

If our houseplants wither away and die we suspect the neighbors did not water them as promised—that is the explanation.

It seems that our minds constantly produce such spontaneous explanations.

Inference Systems

read more »


Was Religion Invented to Explain Things — or to Compound Mystery? . . . Or. . . ?

by Neil Godfrey

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverThunder, earthquakes, droughts, a good harvest, the movements of the sun, moon, planets — we know that ancient people had hosts of myths to explain how all of these things “worked”. It is easy to assume that religious ideas were developed out of primitive attempts to explain these sorts of natural phenomena.

Then there are dreams, and feelings that our beloved deceased are somehow still with us, hallucinations, “bad vibes” . . . These surely puzzled our pre-scientific ancestors. Was it a need to understand these mental phenomena that led to a belief in spirits as an explanation?

Where did everything ultimately come from? Musical instruments? Metal working? Mountains? The sky? Did religion arise by deciding a God or ancestral hero was “the first cause” of all these things?

What about illness? Premature death? A flood sweeping one’s village away? Surely it is only “natural” to want to understand why evil, why suffering. Was religion developed as an explanation for these calamities? Did religion create the ideas of devils, fate, God, to explain all of this?

Pascal Boyer argues that there is something wrong with the above assumptions that religions arose to explain the mysteries of the world and life. He writes:

Now anthropologists have shown that

(i) explaining such general facts is not equally pressing in all cultures and that

(ii) the explanations provided by religion are not at all like ordinary explanations.

Not seeking to explain evil, but a particular evil


E. E. Evans-Pritchard with a group of Zande boys in Sudan. Picture taken in the period 1926–1930 (Wikipedia)

Take the case of explaining evil and misfortune in the world. In an earlier post I referred to the classic anthropological study by E. E. Evans-Pritchard of the Zande people in the Sudan. They had no interest in explaining evil in general. They had no interest in what to us was the obvious explanation of why the roof of a hut collapsed. They could all see very well that termites had eroded the supporting structures. They knew very well that termites will cause the timber to give way and collapse at some point. But that wasn’t the answer to what they wanted to know.

They were not interested in asking why the roof collapsed. They wanted to know why the roof had collapsed at that particular moment with certain persons beneath it.

There is no curiosity over the origins of evil in general. The obvious explanation does not interest them.

What they wanted to know was why the persons beneath the roof had such powerful enemies and why witchcraft was being used against them.

What they wanted to know was why certain enemies had it in for these hapless victims of the collapsed roof. The explanation they sought was for a particular instance. They wanted to know why assumed spirits were acting in a certain way.

Not seeking to explain origins in general, but particular disruptions

A similar interesting point is made with what we take to be myths of origins.

The origin of things in general is not always the obvious source of puzzlement that we may imagine. As anthropologist Roger Keesing points out in describing myths of the Kwaio people in the Solomon Islands: “Ultimate human origins are not viewed as problematic. [The myths] assume a world where humans gave feasts, raised pigs, grew taro, and fought blood feuds.” What matters to people are particular cases in which these activities are disrupted, often by the ancestors or by witchcraft.

The unlikely explanations of myths

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_ProjectRecall that “the explanations provided by religion are not at all like ordinary explanations.” Recall the complete lack of interest in termites being the explanation for the collapse of the roof.  Take the explanation of thunder as an example:

The explanations one finds in religion are often more puzzling than illuminating. Consider the explanation of thunderstorms as the booming voice of ancestors venting their anger at some human misdemeanor. To explain a limited aspect of the natural world (loud, rolling, thumping sounds during storms), we have to assume a whole imaginary world with superhuman agents (Where did they come from? Where are they?) that cannot be seen (Why not?), in a distant place that cannot be reached (How does the noise come through all the way?), whose voices produce thunder (How is that possible? Do they have a special mouth? Are they gigantic?). Obviously, if you live in a place where this kind of belief is widespread, people may have an answer to all these questions. But each answer requires a specific narrative, which more often than not presents us with yet more superhuman agents or extraordinary occurrences—that is, with more questions to answer.

Boyer then cites another case study, this time of an attempt to cure a mentally disturbed person:

As another illustration, here is a short account of shamanistic ritual among the Cuna of Panama by anthropologist Carlo Severi:

The [shaman’s] song is chanted in front of two rows of statuettes facing each other, beside the hammock where the patient is lying. These auxiliary spirits drink up the smoke whose intoxicating effect opens their minds to the invisible aspect of reality and gives them the power to heal. In this way [the statuettes] are believed to become themselves diviners.

That short passage introduces loads of problems for the “religion is an attempt to explain stuff” model. I’ll quote Boyer’s own commentary: read more »


Religion: It’s more than we often think

by Neil Godfrey
conte-sufc3ad0001-copiaeng (1)

Sufi Story…Elephant & blind sages by Blanca Marti for Equilibre. From wildequus.

Religion is more than the faiths most of us grew up with. Christianity, Judaism, Islam — these represent only one family branch of religion. If we want to understand “what religion is” and explore why it is that religion is so pervasive among humanity then it’s a good idea to have as complete a picture as possible of this thing called “religion” and not limit ourselves to just one part of it. Remember the parable of the blind men describing the elephant.

Here are some reminders of why we should not limit our view of religion to certain features of Christianity or the Muslim faith. They are taken from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001.

Supernatural agents can be very different

Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies. These may be one unique God or many different gods or spirits or ancestors, or a combination of these different kinds. Some people have one “supreme” god, but this does not always mean that he or she is terribly important. In many places in Africa there are two supreme gods. One is a very abstract supreme deity and the other is more down-to-earth, as it were, since he created all things cultural: tools and domesticated animals, villages and society. But neither of them is really involved in people’s everyday affairs, where ancestors, spirits and witches are much more important.

Some gods even die. Boyer reminds us that many Buddhists think gods themselves go through the cycles of reincarnations. The only reason generations of humans worship the same gods is because the gods take a lot longer to get around to dying.

Many spirits are really stupid

We think of religion as devotion to an all-knowing and all-wise being and perhaps his angelic agents. But

In Siberia, for instance, people are careful to use metaphorical language when talking about important matters. This is because nasty spirits often eavesdrop on humans and try to foil their plans. Now spirits, despite their superhuman powers, just cannot understand metaphors. They are powerful but stupid.

In places in Africa people guard against praising the good looks or good nature of children by telling their parents how ugly or unpleasant they are. The idea is to keep their attributes secret from witches who would otherwise try to eat them. Sometimes children are even given names with disgraceful associations for the same reason.

In Haiti one of the worries of people who have just lost a relative is that the corpse might be stolen by a witch. To avoid this, people sometimes buried their dead with a length of thread and an eyeless needle. The idea was that witches would find the needle and try to thread it, which would keep them busy for centuries so that they would forget all about the corpse. People can think that supernatural agents have extraordinary powers and yet are rather easily fooled.

Salvation is not always a central preoccupation

read more »


Is Religion for the Gullible?

by Neil Godfrey

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverIt is easy enough for us atheists to mock religion (and much of it is indeed “mockable”) but we cannot ignore the fact that some very intelligent and well-educated people hold these beliefs. So is it really gullibility that is responsible for people believing that they go to a heavenly paradise or agonizing hell when they die, that some other-worldly power made the universe for his own and our benefit, and even that he made it in six days only a few thousand years ago, and so forth?

I can’t forget how humiliated I felt after finally realising that much of what I had for long believed was nothing but a make-believe fantasy. Yet at the time preceding my conversion I was studying in one of the more reputable universities, and subsequently I studied at a post graduate level the processes of indoctrination and propaganda without my personal faith suffering the slightest dent. Crazy!

But are we crazy?

In my efforts to understand the scholarly research into extremist religious and political movements and behaviour, I have inevitably been led to try to grasp the nature of religion itself more clearly in the light of recent studies. I still have much to learn but in the meantime I think the following is worth sharing. It is from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001).

Boyer observes that religious beliefs are restricted to a certain range of beliefs. People don’t just believe any impossible thing and make it part of their religion. That fact should alert us to something, he says. It may not be gullibility that is the responsible party. Maybe it is something about those specific types of beliefs that strike a plausible chord in many people. If so, we need to study what it is that distinguishes those beliefs from other types of nonsensical concepts and also, of course, the way the brain works in relation to beliefs generally.

Boyer sums up the main points of his argument on this specific question in three points:

• The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes.

• Belief is not just passive acceptance of what others say. People relax their standards because some thoughts become plausible, not the other way around. 

• A different angle: We should understand what makes human minds so selective in what supernatural claims they find plausible. (p. 31)

He begins the question of gullibility by summing up his earlier discussion of other suggested reasons often posited for the origins of religion (my formatting) — pages 31-34: read more »


Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

by Neil Godfrey


Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have in a recent Youtube discussion and publication both explained how they studied religion, read lots of theology, before undertaking their anti-theistic critiques. Harris begins by informing us that in his twenties he read a wide range of religious traditions; Coyne tells readers he read much theology as he “dug deeper” into the questions that troubled him and as he did so he “realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion” that accommodationists “glossed over”. Heather Hastie has taken exception to a recent post of mine and pointed out that in her own research into terrorism she has downloaded a dozen issues of an online terrorist recruiting journal for study.

It is one thing to read what religious beliefs and claims are made by converts. It is quite another to study why they have embraced those beliefs, why those beliefs have the hold over believers that they do, and the relationship between those beliefs and claims and the extremist behaviours of adherents.

Gullible and weak minded?

There is a widespread perception among people who have never had much or anything to do with religious cults that people who join them are somehow the more gullible or weak-willed than average. Such popular perceptions are problematic. Some cult members demonstrate superior intelligence and knowledge in other studies in their life; and many of them are exceptionally strong-willed to the point of undergoing extreme sacrifices and hardship, even giving up their own lives and even the lives of loved ones when tested on their faith. That certain cults can generate a public presence beyond their actual numbers often shows they must have some extraordinary skills and determination to maximise the impact of their meagre human resources. The nineteen men who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks were far from having lesser intelligence and from being weak-willed.

Recently I have been sharing snippets from anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and in follow up comments have added a few more quotations addressing common views that people embrace religion because we they are seeking explanations to big or ultimate questions, or because they are gullible. In the past I have posted some explanations of how religious thinking differs from other types of thinking. (Understanding extremist religion; Religious credence part 1 and part 2; Science and religion; Fantasy and religion)

If we want to find a way to counter potentially dangerous extremist acts in the name of religion or simply wind back daily oppressive practices of some religions (e.g. choosing death over medical care, child abuse, denial of women’s rights) we will need to do more than simply present rational arguments. The converts do not shield themselves from opposing arguments; they are prepared for them and know how to counter them. Religious thinking does not work in the same way – we need to understand that.

I must thank Dan Jones for revitalising my interest in this question and providing me with new readings to follow up. I have already studied a few works on “how religion works” but need to do much more.

In the meantime, here is an alternative approach to what is required to understand how people acquire the religious mind. (Alternative, that is, to simply reading the theologies and ramblings of the religious texts themselves and thinking, “how bizarre!”, “how frightening!”).

The author, an anthropologist, would compare the methods of Harris, Coyne and Hastie to studying in depth the malaria pathogen — such a study alone will never explain how malaria spreads among some people and not others or the symptoms it produces. read more »


Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?

by Neil Godfrey


Here is an answer to that question that I found interesting. It is from Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, pp. 3-4:

Does this mean religion is “innate” and “in the genes”?

I—and most people interested in the evolution of the human mind—think that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why.

Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

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. 

The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of “airy nothing” will find a local habitation in the minds of people. (Formatting mine)