Saturday, July 16, 2005

Would you mind if I talked to you about a good book?

Part of the reason why I am thinking about the question of why religious beliefs are so tenacious is that I am reading a good book. Pascal Boyer – Religion Explained. He applies evolutionary and cognitive psychology to that very question. Still haven’t finished it so I’m not ready to give a final evaluation but he argues that religion is tied closely to the belief in agents that are alike normal agents in most respects but that have full awareness of strategic facts like whether you’ve been a good boy. Basically, his argument is that while there is no specific God module in our heads, we are structured mentally in such a way that religious beliefs come about very naturally. This is because, according to him, they utilise the very same inference modules in our minds that we use to function in society. My worry at this point of the book is that he relies heavily on Steven Pinker’s work which I am somewhat sceptical about, myself. Still, I think many of his points could be made in a way that did not rely on that particular view of the human mind. Having said that, the title of the book has got to be seriously off-putting. It is simply too ridiculously grand to be taken seriously. I guess someone – most likely not the author – must have thought that it makes for a more readily marketable title than Religion Possibly Explained or Religion Considered.

It is very good to see this kind of work being done. That we need to understand where religion comes from is something that I think most could agree with, the exception being fundamentalists of any stripe. The Boyer book is not the definitive answer the title purports it to be but it is a valuable addition based upon what I have seen – plenty of other work being done in psychology and cognitive science is helping to cast light on the issues as well.

What I found interesting is that Boyer seems to assume that superstition and religion are pretty much one and the same, giving examples from both and only noting that religious beliefs are those superstitious beliefs that people happen to put great value upon. I’ll have to think about that.


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