Boyer: Is there such thing as religion?

Pascal_Boyer-2Most 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“.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

21 responses to “Boyer: Is there such thing as religion?

  1. Thank you for the link to this book. It is very expensive on Amazon.
    For anyone interested in the nitty gritty of why and how humans developed religious ideas, Boyer’s Religion Explained is a godsend (pun intended). He really gets into the function of how the brain handles ideas and projects concepts and identities into a cognitive system that has led to “spirituality”. I highly recommend it for the curious.

  2. @skeptnik:
    We are in debt to Mark (Ananimal) for the link. I too have read “Religion Explained” and recommend it.

    However, I must say, that ironically, this book and the quote I included here should challenge the title of his previous book as being GROSSLY misleading. Perhaps you agree, but here are just 2 reasons why (tell me if you agree):

    (1) “Religion” is an arbitrary construct, so explaining it ONLY with cognitive perception illusions is highly faulty.

    (2) “Religion” is practiced differently from individual to individual. Some individuals religiosity, for instance, is comprised of almost no mystical, magical or perceptual elements but is more alliance and safety and identity.

    So explaining religion is, as this article’s last line says, an effort often in vain. Explaining the modules that are rallied by others to call spirituality or religion (differing from individual to individual and present even in atheists) is, instead, the more accurate scientific approach — one that hyper-rationalist atheists are slow to see.

  3. rautakyy

    This reminds me of my observation, that good willing people find good morals and good reasons for their action and inaction from their religion (which is ultimately just a part of their cultural heritage and identity) while selfish people find excuses and cheap moralism from the very same social constructs that we call religions. But it also reminds me of my other observation, that authoritarian systems and segragation cause harm wether religious, or of any other origin and tend to produce even more selfish moralism. Where do gods step into this mess? Nowhere. They are nowhere to be found.

  4. Right, rautakyy, I think we agree. Believers and non-believers alike use the same modules of mind to produce similar outcomes (good or bad). Some are dressed up and rationalized with religion, others with “reason” and some not at all.

    So you agree that generalizing about religion is a mistake?

  5. Eaglejorge (@eaglejorge)

    [deleted for comment policy violations – no interaction with post]

  6. I am studying sociology and the current class that I am taking is titled “Sociology of Religion”. In this course the sociologist suggests that Religion is anything that attempts to answer the ‘Big Questions of Life’. So whether that be the traditional faiths like Islam, Christianity, or Judaism or science, spirituality, consumerism etc.. I suppose if this were true than everything would be a Religion, as we all seem to seek out answers to the ‘Big Questions’ whether that is through a religious institution or just discovering meaning in the daily grind, making a buck, family, friends or just creating a balanced life. Many people I know who are ardent Christians hate the word ‘Religious’ yet are also offended by being placed amongst all other beliefs, or ideals, as solely attempting to answer life’s ‘Big Questions’. “It is not a Religion! It is a Relationship” they say. Sure it is. 🙂

  7. @ Called to Question:

    Yes, everyone has their favorite definition of religion. And if they are a professor, they profess it to you, test you on it and pretend it is true. Arggghhhhh.

    And as you ably point out, for every definition, due to the artificiality of the word, we can find many exceptions.

    Seeking the Big Question is a luxury of actually a very small part of the population of the planet. Most are just trying to get by.

    Boyer’s books are good, if you get a chance. It will introduce a very disciplined way to thinking about these things. Thanx for the comment.

  8. Earnest

    Maybe the title of the book should be “Religion as a failed and fragmented concept”.

    Sabio, can you provide us an ngram of “religion”? Maybe it is a word, when used in its earliest form, that showed the speaker had an understanding that other tribes had alien rituals that were nonetheless used in a similar social way to ones own rituals? “That person is doing something repetitive that I do not recognize, yet they appear otherwise well. Maybe I am witnessing a religious thing.”

  9. 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.

    I’m curious, have there been actual brain scans that have shown these concepts exist independently from each other or is he merely just contending this? In other words, what is his evidence to support this contention in the book?

  10. @ Earnest:
    The history of the word is interesting, pointing to the packages and agenda hidden inside it. The google ngram actually shows a fall in the use of the word.

    @ Consoledreader
    I had a PET scan done yesterday and they told me you were a figment of my imagination.

  11. Ok, that doesn’t really answer my question.

  12. You are right, consolereader, I supplied the link. If you want to read the book and find out, be my guest. If you want to share more here than just questions, others may be motivated to take time to write more meaningful replies. Remember, dialogue is an effort so we want to make either worthwhile or fun or both.

  13. amanimal


    You want to look into the concept of cognitive modularity. It does not infer physical correlates.

  14. amanimal

    @Sabio, re your ‘Defining Religion: An Index’ post – of the 6 main links only the ‘Religious Prescriptionists’ is working, others yield Page: Not Found message.

    I was hoping to reread the ‘Religion Does NOT Exist’ post 😦

    I see the link does work from this post, comparing it seems there’s a trailing ” (quote mark) on the links in the index post causing the error.

    – Mark 🙂

  15. Thanx, Mark, I fixed them and updated that post. There was an extra quote mark in the link. Often, btw, when you see those problems, you can look up at the URL itself and see the problem — then fix it and find the page. But thank you so much for letting me know. Link added at the bottom of this post too.

  16. @amanimal

    Thanks for your response! I’ll check that out.

  17. amanimal

    @skeptnik @Sabio

    I very much enjoyed ‘Religion Explained’. Most memorable for me was Chapter 3 and Boyer’s comparison of the mind to a grand English estate with the guests upstairs quite unaware of all that goes on downstairs in providing for their sustenance and comfort – initially led me to:

    ‘The Unconscious Mind’, Bargh & Morsella 2008

    Click to access Bargh_Morsella_Unconscious_Mind.pdf

    … and much more at:

    ‘Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation – Publications’

    … and subsequently the works of people like Timothy Wilson, Daniel Wegner, and more – then just today:

    ‘Conscious and Unconscious: Toward an Integrative Understanding of Human Mental Life and Action’, Baumeister & Bargh (in press)

    Click to access Baumeister%20&%20Bargh%20-%20Conscious%20and%20unconscious,%20toward%20an%20integrative%20understanding%20of%20human%20life%20and%20action.pdf

    … all utterly fascinating!

  18. Sabio,
    No time to read this yet. I replied to other postings however. I spend one weak in Kalavryta, a village in Northern Peloponnese, and even went to midnight mass (for 20 minutes). Sorry for the off-the-topic posting, but I wanted to explain my silence 🙂

  19. @Sabio

    Here’s a link to a related post I saw today.

  20. Lutek

    Not just religious ideas, but all ideas, are creations of the mind. I don’t see why Boyer felt he needed to mention that, unless he himself is one of those militant rationalists. I haven’t read any of his books yet, so I can’t tell.
    I would argue that there is such a thing as religion, and it comes in two flavors.
    One flavor consists of those packages of elemental components of cosmology, morality, etc. that are sold commercially as Christianity, Islam, and so on. Those packages certainly exist, even if the ‘reality’ they describe doesn’t.
    The other flavor is that of individual and personal packages of beliefs, which each of us has assembled for oneself. They could be called personal ‘religions’, depending of course on your definition of the word. A synonym for this flavor of religion is ‘worldview’.
    The religious “packages” Boyer refers to include “views” about certain elements in the package. Views are, of course, subjective and therefore relative, not absolute. However, reality itself is, by definition, absolute, whatever its attributes may be. There must be a set of interrelated concepts and propositions, a “package,” that objectively and correctly delineates reality. The truth is the truth, whether it’s an accidental and meaningless universe, one grounded in some sort of ‘spiritual’ matrix, or by far the least likely, one set up and administered by an old guy with flowing robes and a white beard.
    Each of us has a subjective conception of objective reality, which could be called one’s religion. Many people make a conscious effort to incorporate objective truth into their personal religions – perhaps scientists more ‘religiously’ than most. But objective reality will never be fully revealed. Individual experience is subjective. Group experience, no matter how large the group, can never be fully objective. It is collective, but still also subjective. Gaps in knowledge are filled with speculation and educated guesses, both of which, if unchallenged for long enough, tend to become beliefs.
    Without a doubt, religion does exist. Each of us has formed our own, personal one. Even extreme atheism is a theological belief, and therefore a religion, at least of the second ‘flavor’.
    But I think what Boyer is trying to say is that those militant rationalists attacking some cohesive entity known as ‘religion’ are trying to knock down a straw man. I couldn’t agree more.

  21. Earnest

    @Lutek: I agree.

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