Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors by Pascal Boyer - review by A C Grayling

A C Grayling

In The Mind’s Eye

Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors


William Heinemann 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

Four standard answers are given to the question of why religion exists. One is that it provides explanations — of the origin of the universe, of the way it works, of the apparently inexplicable things that happen in it, and of why it includes evil and suffering. Another is that religion offers comfort, giving hope of life after death, reassurance in a hostile world, and a means (by supplication, propitiation, and following one or another form of prescribed good behaviour) to get a better deal in it. A third is that it makes for social order, promoting morality and social cohesion. And a fourth is that it rests on the natural ignorance, stupidity, superstition and gullibility of mankind.

Among those who strongly disagree with these answers as reasons for the existence of religion are, of course, religious folk, who think that there is religion because there is a god — or gods, and perhaps spirits and ancestors too — and therefore religious belief is the natural and obvious response. But there are others who, without being in the slightest religious, also do not think that the standard answers are right. Pascal Boyer is one of them, and he sets out his reasons in this fascinating book.

Boyer is an anthropologist who has studied the Fang people of Cameroon. But he has also studied the latest research in neurophysiology, psychology and cognitive science, which have jointly given us an excellent understanding of the way human minds work. His book is a remarkably clear and systematic account of

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