Pascal Boyer
is the Henry Luce Professor at Washington University , St. Louis,
who does experimental and ancthropological research
on the transmission of cultural knowledge

Religion-based psychologists rewrite history
expecting people who read it often will believe it

Pascal Boyer wrote a book called Religion Explained, (Basic Books, 2002) indicating to his satisfaction that religion is inherent in humans. First erronous supposion, I think he made, is that religious beliefs and practices are found in the very beginnings of human cultures. That is untrue. There is no proof that the most ancient Homo sapiens worshiped the supernatural. There is every indication that early peoples lived in harmony with their habitat. Not that they didn't develop respect and awe for natural phenomena. Recorded history shows many centuries of patriarchy trying to wrest cultural mindsets from Matriarchal domination. As in Matrimony and Easter they never completely succeeded.

Animal studies show no cowering in natural environments, only hunkering down in storms or retreating from explosions or fire. Laboratory animals are conditioned to show fear for experimental purposes - to prove some hypothesis, usually to explain forms of human behavior.

We are all too hasty to assume that ancient peoples feared tornadoes, thunder, lightening, and volcanic activity. Of course they would be startled by loud booms, but afraid only if the noise was followed by physical catastrophe they would experience. Of course they ran from danger, all animals do. They learned to move quickly into some safe place in a heavy storm. Why wouldn't they over centuries be able to tell what danger was imminent or not?

What early Homo sapiens feared were predators but would they would pray for supernatural help unless they had been taught that to go there for help? The first concern would be to avoid the predators and second to devise (make tools) for protection. We know that the concept of avoiding predators and making tools for protection worked far back on the evolutionary scale because animals shared a creative brain and an opposable thumb to accomplish both. The proof is that humans and chimpanzees did those things and survived continuously on separate branches of the evolutionary tree.

And I want to clarify the word "religion" which appears in all dictionaries and encyclopedias. Worship of a higher power is the first definition and sometimes may mean a way of living that achieves the highest possible good by adjusting to the strongest and highest power they imagine, usually called God, because it is above the natural realm..

I maintain that worship is not a natural thing. Animals are born into the natural world and learn to survive, either by example of parents or by actual instruction. Humans are not born with a blank slate for a brain. Many actions are inherent in our DNA but belief in something beyond the natural laws of the universe is not one of them. That has to be taught.

I have yet to read Religion Explained but I thoroughly studied two reviews by psychologists that showed the bias of people already well founded in religious belief. Both reviewers specified what Boyer did not cover, while handing out backhanded compliments about his courage in putting a modern spin on the subject. Both reviewers expect further exploration of the subject although in different areas.

An 2004 article from Skeptical Inquirer also by Pascal Boyer, was headed by the editor as "Why Is Religion Natural" further asking if religious belief is a mere leap into irrationality as many skeptics assume?

Do you freethinkers like having words put in your mouths?

Naomi Sherer

2003 - 2004