Most of you have a full reading list, but if you don’t read anything else by anthropologist Pascal Boyer, please read these short paragraphs I have copied below from the opening to his new book, “The Fracture of an Illusion: Science and the Dissolution of Religion.” (free on-line).
On reading it this morning, I heard a succinct version of what I often try to communicate here on Triangulations. Maybe Boyer will make it clearer for some of you.
The point of this book is not to argue that religious ideas are creations of the mind. That point was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago byvKant and other Aufklarung scholars. We are all in debt to the Enlightenment – and conscious enough of that debt, that we need not restate what was so lucidly demonstrated at the time.
No, the point here is to carry on where these scholars left off- this time with the use of a better science – and show that the very existence of some thing called “religion” is largely an illusion. What I mean by “illusion” is actually very simple, but also rather counter-intuitive and therefore difficult to present in a succinct yet persuasive manner. Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing as “religion”, meaning a kind of existential and cognitive “package” that includes views about supernatural agency (gods), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers. In all this, each element makes sense in relation to the others. Indeed, this is the way most major “religions” – Islam and Hinduism for instance – are presented to us and the way their institutional personnel, most scholars and most believers think about them. By considering, studying or adhering to a “religion” one is supposed to approach, study or adhere to that particular package : an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims.
All that is largely an illusion. The package does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviors. What would seem to be integrated wholes, the Shinto system or the Islamic world-view, are in fact collections of such fragments.
So why do religions, and by extension religion, appear to be such integrated wholes, such systems? That is largely a matter of stipulation. That the package is a package is not a fact but the wish expressed, or rather the slogan put forth with great animus by the members of many religious institutions – the priests, the ritual officers, the office-holders in religious institutions. There is no reason to take this postulate at face-value. Indeed, there is every reason to think that the notions of a religion (the Hindu religion, the Islamic religion) and of religion in general, are the main obstacles to the study of why and how people come to have what we generally call “religious” notions and norms, that is, why and how they find plausible the existence of non-physical agents, why they feel compelled to perform particular rituals, why they have particular moral norms, why they see themselves as members of particular communities. These phenomena cannot be understood unless we first accept that they do not stem from the same domain, they do not actually belong together, except in what amounts to the marketing ploys, as it were, of particular religious institutions.
The notion of “religion” as a package seems so plausible that even people who intensely dislike what they see as the supernatural fantasies, odd rituals or extravagant moral exigencies imposed by religious institutions, still assume that there is such a thing as religion – which they see as nefarious set of thoughts and institutions, the influence of which has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Framing the conflict as a struggle of reason or lucidity against the obscurity, indeed obscurantism, of a single enemy, “religion”, simply perpetuates the illusion that there is a domain of religion – a single fortress for the militant rationalist to assault. That it is an illusion may explain why the best efforts in this epic struggle are often in vain.
Pascal Boyer is a French anthropologist who teaches and researches at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is presently finishing a leave in France where he is working at the “Evolution, Cognition & Culture” team at the University of Lyons.
Boyer has written many articles (see here) and his book have been.
- 1992 Tradition as Truth and Communication
- 1992 Cognitive Aspects of Religious Symbolism
- 1994 The Naturalness of Religious Ideas
- 2001: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (amazon)
- 2009 Memory in Mind and Culture
- 2010: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion (amazon)
See my other posts on “Defining Religion“.