DynaPsych Table of Contents


Religion Not Explained



A Reaction to Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

by Pascal Boyer,

and a Reflection on the Subtle Relationship between

Spiritual Experience, Ritual and Belief


Ben Goertzel

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 point.  


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, when 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 title…?   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 experiences?

·        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 different contexts?


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 enlightenment?   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 together.