Pascal Boyer illustrates the one-sidedness that often comes with religious belief

Pascal Boyer introduces the concluding chapter Why Belief? of his excellent book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought with the following passage:

Some Fang people [a present daytribe in Africa] say that witches have an animal-like extra internal organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes get together for huge banquets where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf or throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.

I was mentioning these and other such exotica over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Catholic theologian, turned to me and said: “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe in such nonsense.” Which left me dumbfounded. The conversation had moved on before I could find a pertinent repartee—to do with kettles and pots. For the question: “How can people possibly believe all this?” is indeed pertinent, but it applies to beliefs of all hues and shades. The Fang too were quite amazed when first told that three persons really were one person while being three persons, or that all misfortune in this vale of tears stemmed from two ancestors eating exotic fruit in a garden.

I actually have more respect for the Fang here. The reason being that they do not have access to information on other belief systems or of the many findings of a enriched scientific community. Catholics nor most of the members of most other prominent present day religions have either of these alibies.

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6 Responses to “Pascal Boyer illustrates the one-sidedness that often comes with religious belief”
  1. Rachel says:

    Does Boyer actually answer the question? You’re welcome to tell me “yes, and read the book…” I’ll add it to my list of books to get from the library…

  2. ronbrown says:

    Long story short: our cognitive systems have evolved to be prone to such belief, not because religion was selected for though, but for other reasons. e.g., he argues that we have an overblown tendency to infer agency (an exageration of our ability to infer that others have minds). People infer minds onto all sorts of things, including the universe or some supreme intelligence, and to smaller elements of the environment (e.g., that which causes thunder and illness). Certain types of things are more memorable than others, so certain ideas are more likely to be successfully passed on. There’s also coalitional psychological theory as to belief and group commitment—e.g., going through an arduous ordeal with a group makes one less likely to want to leave the group (e.g., hazing). There’s the human confirmation bias—a bias in which we pay more attention to info confirming our beliefs than disconfirming.

    Basically, he argues that religious belief is the result of independently evolved cognitive factors concerning agency inference, memory, cognitive biases, as well as social-cognitive factors (e.g., coalitional factors). He may have also mentioned spiritual experiences (e.g., feelings of loss of sense of self, connectedness with universe) and having these experiences being linked to the prevalent religious beliefs of one’s community—-how else is one to interpret such experiences?

    This is just a hodge-podge rehash, though. You could probably find a book summary/precis online. It’s also a worthwhile read.

  3. I am currently writing a series of articles on this topic. I try to consider some phenomena of everyday life on the basis of Boyer’s Religion Explained.

    Rachel, this blog may well interest you.

    Ron, I would be happy to obtain your opinion about it. Another thing: would you please send to me some bibliographical references about the Frame problem? I am interested in it. Thanking you in advance.

    http://jeanlucjucker.wordpress.com/

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