A reaction to:
Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion
Gods, Spirits and Ancestors
by Pascal Boyer
A Reflection on the Subtle Relationship between
Spiritual Experience, Ritual and Belief
May 22, 2002
I just finished Pascal Boyer's book. I found it to be both extremely
interesting and extremely frustrating. It says so many fascinating things
about its subject matter, and yet manages to almost entirely miss the
In this way it is similar to the book from which its title was likely
inspired, Daniel Dennett's popular Consciousness Explained.
Dennett's ambitiously-named book gives a lot of nice ideas about the neural
underpinnings of conscious experience, and the various cognitive phenomena
with which it is associated. But it completely avoids what some other
philosophers call the "hard problem" of consciousness
i.e. how does all this neuropsychology and cognitive science relate to
the subjective experience of consciousness, of being aware and being there.
Similarly, Boyer's book gives a lot of interesting, insightful ideas regarding
the roots of various beliefs and behaviors associated with the world's
religions. He asks questions that few bother with, such as
· Out of the set of all possible counterintuitive and rationally
peculiar beliefs conceivable by the human mind, why are some such beliefs
very common across world religions, whereas others are rare?
· Out of all the apparently-rationally-useless group behaviors
easily executable by human groups, why are some such behaviors commonly
parts of religious rituals whereas others are not?
· How do religious beliefs and behaviors connect with the evolutionarily-derived
cognitive biases of the human brain?
And for these questions, he provides intriguing, usually convincing answers.
But, just as Dennett avoids the hard problem of consciousness, Boyer avoids
the hard problem of religion, which I would define as the relationship
between spiritual experience and the various beliefs and behaviors associated
with world religions. Indeed, in the whole book he does not mention spiritual
experience at all. In a few places, he just barely intimates that it exists,
for instance observing that even though marriage and initiation rites
and other rituals are essentially "socially symbolic" in nature,
nevertheless they make the participants feel different in a subjective
and hard to articulate way. But all in all, there are only a few sentences
in the whole book devoted to religious experience even in a broad sense,
and this seems to be to be a very egregious omission. Even Dennett does
not give experience quite such short shrift!
The back cover of the paperback edition of the book contains a quote from
Steven Pinker, which calls the book "The most important treatment
of the psychological bases of religious belief
since William James."
While Boyer's book is a good one, I doubt very much this assessment will
hold up over time. The irony of this quotation, however, is that Religion
Explained is the polar opposite of James' The Varieties of Religious
Experience. For James, religion was centrally about what religious
people felt and experienced, whereas for Boyer it is primarily about what
religious beliefs they hold and what religiously-related social and ritual
behaviors they engage in.
Of course, religion does have an aspect of "routine adherence to
belief and ritual," apart from its spiritual-experience aspect. And,
as Boyer points out, religion is by no means unique in this regard. Much
of human life consists of routine, unthinking, non-intensely-felt adherence
to belief and ritual. Look at the rituals associated with dating in modern
Western society, for instance. Or look at the naïve beliefs many
Americans have about the rest of the world, in spite of the ready availability
of information that would enrich their perspectives. Any careful observer
of their own society could cite hundreds of examples.
However, religion also has a different aspect, an experiential aspect,
which has to do with spiritually aware states of consciousness. These
states of consciousness are associated with religious activities and beliefs
in a variety of ways, some obvious and some subtle. Whatever one thinks
about the ultimate nature of these states of consciousness, there is no
question that they exist, in the same sense that subjective states of
mind like "love", "rage" and "madness" exist.
A huge amount of knowledge exists about these states of consciousness,
which Boyer complete ignores. Allan Combs' book Radiance of Being
is an excellent survey and systematization of the range of knowledge about
spiritual states of awareness, incorporating the modern psychological
perspective and the insights achieved by various pre-scientific cultures.
Some spiritual experiences are huge and profound ecstatic oceanic
feelings, flashes or long stretches of enlightenment, sensations of total
communion with God, with one or another spirit or deity, with other humans
or animals, with the cosmos as a whole. Others are more mundane, such
as the feeling of communion and comfort that a devout Christian feels
while praying before bed each night, or the strange feeling some people
get at funerals, sensing somehow the soul of the deceased passing on.
All in all, it seems very clear to me that religion would not have evolved,
nor would have it survived as long as it did, if not for the depth and
breadth of spiritual experience. Any explanation of religion that ignores
this component is, at best, severely incomplete and at worst, missing
the point entirely.
Gregory Bateson, in the posthumously published book Angels Fear,
gave the best analysis I have seen of the connection between seemingly
senseless religious rituals and beliefs and spiritual experience. The
core of his analysis was a concept that Boyer does not seriously discuss
at all: the sacred. What makes something sacred, according to Bateson,
is that one is not supposed to analyze it or try to understand it. Why
not? A simplistic evolutionary-rationalist answer would be: "Because
the thing in question is nonsense, and whomever tries to analyze or understand
it will realize that it's nonsense. So the only nonsense-heavy belief
systems that have survived, are those that come along with the belief
that the nonsense in the belief system should not be analyzed."
I think there is definitely some truth to this perspective -- but as
Bateson points out, it is incomplete. Another key point is that as a whole,
the set of beliefs and behaviors constituting a certain religion, tend
to cause the members of the religion to have certain subjective experiences.
The slightly subtle point here is that, in the context of the human psyche,
it is quite possible for a set of "irrational, nonsensical"
beliefs and behaviors to lead the mind to subjective experiences that
are positive in every sense. The beliefs and behaviors are then sacred
because questioning them too thoroughly may lead to their destruction,
what may then lead to the loss of really valuable experiences. This is
a deep connection between religious beliefs and religious experiences,
which Boyer misses entirely.
Religious Love and Romantic Love
A half-appropriate analogy for this phenomenon, outside the domain of
religion, is romantic love. The person who is in love believes, subjectively,
that their paramour is the most wonderful and exciting person in the world.
They feel it's impossible for them to be happy for very long without their
lover around. This irrational set of beliefs associated with romantic
love can lead to a lot of trouble, as we all know but it also leads
to wonderful feelings, which seem not to be fully accessible to the average
human psyche in its absence. In a sense, the irrational beliefs that one
holds about their lover during the "madly in love" phase of
a romantic relationship, are a sacrament. One does not want to question
them very much, because to question them too deeply might destroy the
magic. One becomes annoyed if someone tries to force one to look at one's
love from a more objective perspective i.e. from the perspective
one would oneself take if one were not in love with the person.
The experience of being in an intense romantic love relationship includes
a wonderful feeling of oneness, of so much intense emotional give-and-take
between two people that in a sense there is one combined emotional system
instead of two separate emotional systems. Of course there are other social
contexts in which vaguely similar sorts of emotional-system-fusion exist,
as well: a small child and their doting parent; a team climbing Everest
together, or closely collaborating on a tough software project with a
tight deadline. But the point here is that it is, empirically speaking,
hard for the human mind to get into this intense, desirable state of substantial
emotional fusion without the irrational beliefs that are attached with
romantic love. The beliefs and the state of consciousness feed off each
other. One has to believe one's lover is really great to feel comfortable
fusing with them emotionally. But once one has fused emotionally for a
while, one is getting a truly great feeling out of one's lover, and this
naturally increases one's impression of how awesome they are. Of course,
these same dynamics can turn negative. Emotional fusion can also lead
to terribly bad feelings, and these bad feelings can then cause one to
drastically decrease one's impression of one's lover, a dynamic that plays
a role in "love/hate" romantic relationships.
An interesting thing about romantic love is that in most cases the lover
realizes that their beliefs about their lover are irrational, but in a
sense they still maintain these beliefs strongly. Knowing that your girlfriend
is really just a fairly ordinary girl, you can still believe she's the
most amazing, wonderful creature in existence. Knowing that by one's own
usual standards your girlfriend is average-looking, nevertheless, you
can look at her and find her ten times more beautiful than any other female.
And, when one is dumped by a romantic partner, the pain often exceeds
all practical sense. Knowing that in practical fact it won't take too
long to find another roughly equally satisfying relationship, one still
reacts as if a terribly traumatic event has occurred.
Now, if we humans had better control over our own thoughts and feelings,
we could approach romantic love quite differently. We could simply induce
ourselves to have romantic love feelings for whomever we rationally decided
it would make the most sense to feel that way towards. And when our lover
dumped us, we could simply turn our romantic feelings toward them off.
Lovelife would be come a lot simpler, albeit also far less interesting.
But there is one big difference between religious beliefs and rituals
and the irrational beliefs one holds about a lover. In both cases, there
are patently silly and irrational beliefs that are closely connected with
certain subjective experience, which are sometimes very intense and sometimes
very pleasurable. But in the romantic love case there is a lot more realization
that the beliefs in question really are silly and subjective. If asked,
nearly anyone in love will admit that, in fact, their lover isn't all
that beautiful or clever even though they seem so subjectively. On the
other hand, very few religious people will say "Yeah, I know that
there probably is no entity called God that listens to my prayers in any
sense closely approximating the sense in which a human listens'
to something said to them but holding this belief is really rewarding
so I'll continue to hold it!"
I think this difference is largely due to the fact that romantic love,
in the human psyche, tends to fade over time. This fading over time has
been shown to have physiochemical roots, and it's something that everyone
has gotten used to by their mid-20's or so, in modern Western culture.
It's famously true, in our culture, that many teenagers don't understand
the subjectivity and irrationality of their feelings for their lovers,
or "crushes." But in time, after a few romantic ups and downs,
we get better sense of the way love works, and the way romantic feelings
rise and fade.
On the other hand, spiritual experience does not have the same physiologically-based
brief time span that romantic love does. Quite the contrary: spiritual
experience has the property that, generally speaking, it intensifies over
time. So the beliefs and ritualistic habits attached to spiritual experience
do not become weaker over time, rather they become stronger, as they are
associated with powerfully positive experiences, and the mind tends to
reinforce successful associations.
How Might One Really Explain Religion?
What kind of information would be in a book that really lived up to Boyer's
? A real explanation of religion would not be a dismissive
reduction of subjective religious experience in evolutionary, neuroscience
or cognitive science terms. Rather, it would be a careful correlation
between the experiential and empirical aspects of religious reality. It
would ask and answer questions such as:
· Which combinations of beliefs and ritualistic behaviors tend
to lead to which kinds of subjective experiences, especially spiritual
· What can one say about the mutual reinforcement dynamic by which
positive experiences reinforce the beliefs/behaviors that were associated
with them? Does this dynamic have different properties or parameters in
Another natural question is whether there are religious traditions that
have the spiritual-experience aspect but not the belief-system/ritualistic-behavior
aspect. The interesting answer is that there are some religious traditions
that claim to be only about spiritual experience, with no care for beliefs
or rituals of any kind. Zen Buddhism and Sufism are two examples. However,
in all cases, the practice of these religions still seems to involve plenty
of odd beliefs and ritualistic behaviors. Zen Buddhists who accept that
rituals are meaningless and only the experience of enlightenment is important,
will nonetheless keep little stone Buddha statues around, or wear necklaces
with precisely 108 beads on them as prescribed by Buddhist tradition?
Would wearing a 107-bead necklace really slow down one's progress toward
Of course not. But the point is that the sacramental act of wearing a
necklace that is associated with one's religion, which is associated with
Enlightenment, makes one feel that Enlightenment is always present with
one, is a key part of one's life. And this feeling may make one more likely
to proceed smoothly along the spiritual path. Ironically, in traditions
like this, rituals and beliefs are used explicitly to help move the mind
to a position where it can do completely without rituals and beliefs.
Boyer does a good job explaining the particular beliefs and rituals associated
with the world's religions, in terms of human cognitive mechanisms. But
he does not explain why we have evolved to have religion, not really.
He explains why the various aspects of religious belief and behavior make
some sense evolutionarily, but that's it. What he's missing is the immense
positive value that religious experience obviously has for the human psyche.
The advent of the rational mind has brought us out of touch with the world
and with each other it has brought us objectivity, and with objectivity,
has come a feeling of separateness, distinctness, alienation (This point
has been made in countless ways by countless commentators see e.g.
Freud, Civilization and its Discontents or David Bohm, Thought
as a System for interesting perspectives.) Religious experience, among
other things, is a way of partially overcoming this separated feeling,
of feeling one with other beings and with the world as a whole, in a simple
and yet sometimes overwhelmingly powerful way.
The power of religion is not explained by considering its belief-systems
and rituals separately from its experiences. On the other hand, the nature
of religious experience itself does not explain why there should be so
many different religions, and so much subtlety and complexity to religious
ritual. The essence of the "religion" phenomenon lies in the
way the experiential, ritual, and belief-based aspects of religion bind