Religion Explained

I have been too busy this weekend to keep this blog up to date, and one of the things that have been keeping me that way is Pascal Boyer’s book _Religion Explained._ I really think he’s succeeded. Consciousness may yet elude explanation, but this looks like a really first class explanation of the human propensity to religion.

One thing to note is that though it comes garlanded with praise from Pinker, Dawkins, Nick Humphrey, etc; Boyer actually demolishes every one of their grand explanations for religion, though with tact as well as great precision.

I can’t summarise his theory. It’s too rich, and I still haven’t finished the book. But one aspect it worth noticing. He believes that our minds work by using “templates”, which contain largely innate categories like “ANIMAL”, such that if something is identified as “ANIMAL” we expect it to have a whole set of behaviours — to have purposeful movement, to be a member of a particular species, to be mortal, and so on. And the way that way that Gods are constructed is to take one of these templates, and then change one aspect, so the rest continues to behave in ways we find sensible and “logical”. So a spirit, for example, is a PERSON without a body, but with a PERSON’s interests in other people, social relations, etc etc.

When I read this, my little synapses just went SPROING! The insight had nothing to do with religion. It was the discovery that our brains do object-oriented stuff, subclassing concepts out ones that already exist. All that time I wasted writing python scripts in January turned out not to be wasted after all. You see, there is a God.

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2 Responses to Religion Explained

  1. Rupert says:

    Rah! I hope it’s as good as you say – once you notice that God the Father really *is* a father, with all the human failings and as seen through the eyes of a child, certain things about the nature of religion suggest themselves.

    I hope this spikes the guns of the new-agey “Science has nothing to say about religion” wafflebots. I suspect that it will be politely and totally ignored by all, though, rather like one of PJ’s excellent Cix postings which would have shut down an argument altogether had anyone been prepared to acknowledge it…

    R

  2. Anonymous says:

    You won’t get anywhere addressing the question of “religion” while looking only at Christianity, or only at monotheistic religion, or indeed only at theistic religions.
    Certainly “God the father” understood as father image tells us something about the function of religion (or indeed what religion is) for most people in most religions. But that falls far short of explaining religion.
    For non-theistic religions consider taoism, buddhism and branches of hinduism.

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