International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors

by Pascal Boyer

Introductory Essay by Willaim Grassie

Pascal Boyer proposes to explain religion by combining evolutionary psychology and the cognitive sciences. In his analysis, religions are neither true nor functional, merely confabulations of the evolved human brain.

Anthropologists have surveyed and detailed a world full of strange religious beliefs and practices but have been less successful in explaining why and how humans create these religions. Boyer argues that the answer lies in how the brain receives and organizes information. “Our minds are prepared [for religions] because natural selection gave us particular mental predispositions,” writes Boyer.  “[A]ll human beings can easily acquire a certain range of religious notions and communicate them to others.” [3]

Boyer begins by deconstructing the traditional accounts of religion 1) as pre-scientific explanations of the world, 2) as psychological coping mechanisms, 3) as moral orders promoting social cohesion, or 4) as illusion/delusion-predispositions.  Boyer shows why these four approaches are inadequate and advocates instead a cognitive scientific approach based on an understanding of “mental templates.”

All mental representations are the product of complex inference systems that have evolved in the human brain.  For instance, natural selection gave us an innate goal-detection system, an intuitive sense of physical reality, an intuitive psychology, a structure-function system, a contagion avoidance system, and more.  These separately-evolved mental systems are functional adaptations to the conditions of our hunter-gatherer forbearers.  Religion, in Boyer’s view however, is a dysfunctional combination of multiple cognitive models. “The ones that do all this are the religious ones we actually observe in human societies…  they combine features relevant to a variety of mental systems” [50]

Religions are culturally transmitted in the same way that people acquire language, food preferences, musical tastes, and social customs. “There is no religious instinct, no specific inclination in the mind, no particular disposition for these concepts, no special religion center in the brain, and religious persons are not different from nonreligious ones in essential cognitive functions” [329-330].

Humans have evolved to be socially-minded cooperators, hungry for information about their social environment, adapted for social exchange, the evaluation of trustworthiness, and the formation of coalitions. In the cultural transmission of religious beliefs, there are consensus effects, generation effects, memory illusions, source monitoring defects, confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance reduction tendencies. Religions are potent because they harness a number of especially memorable, counterintuitive templates. “Persons can be represented as having counterintuitive physical properties (e.g. , ghosts or gods), counterintuitive biology (many gods who neither grow nor die) or counterintuitive psychological properties (unblocked perception or prescience.)”  [78]

Boyers’ a priori commitment to explaining religion as a nonfunctional and/or dysfunctional byproduct of our evolved brain means that functional, adaptationist accounts of religion are not entertained.  This can be seen as a major weakness of his approach.  An account of religion based on natural selectionist paradigm could be more indicative of religion as functional and adaptive based merely on its ubiquity and resilience throughout human history.  Religion might be seen as pragmatically useful, but cognitively mistaken.  The utility of religion to the wellbeing of individuals and groups might also be taken as indicative of a deeper truth intuited by religions about the universe and ourselves. 

One can fully appreciate Boyer’s understanding of mental templates in the construction of religion and still hold that religions are functional and adaptive, as well as potentially true and profound but that is certainly not his position