Religion Explained Explained

“There is only one God! He is omnipotent. But he only exists on Wednesdays.”

That is one of the examples Pascal Boyer gives in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001) for a presumably unmemorable or unsuccessful religious idea (72). Another is “the gods are watching us and they notice everything we do! But they forget everything instantaneously.”

Maybe I’m just trying to be contrary, but for me, these examples of forgettable doctrines might very well be what stays with me the longest.

Boyer sets himself the daunting task of explicating the origin and persistence of religious beliefs. Not for a single religion, but for all religions, everywhere, throughout human history. My own goal here is much simpler: to summarize this explanation, and draw attention to some of the aspects I found most interesting. At the end I’ll also talk about a Kerouac novel, Big Sur (1962).big_sur_religion

Drawing from evolutionary psychology and comparative anthropology, Boyer makes the claim that all human minds are predisposed towards religious thinking, due to evolved cognitive mechanisms. Our ancestors’ survival depended, he argues, on various mental modules, or systems of inference—neural hardware specialized for considering certain types of problems or information. These modules, part of the shared neurology of our species, are integral to the rational functioning of all humans (religious or not), and give supernatural concepts that activate one or more of these inferential systems plausibility and salience. In other words, as Boyer states, “religious concepts are particularly successful because people represent them in a way that makes use of capacities they have anyway” (202).

Key to his explanation is the now well-established concept that human brains are not simply indiscriminate machines for calculation, computers that process all information in the same way, giving equal weight to all experience and stimuli. Certain kinds of information, and specific kinds of thinking, find a more welcome home in the homo sapien brain, and understanding these built-in biases is crucial to explaining why our minds are hard-wired (though not inescapably) for religious thought.

This explanation is not simple. If it were, it would be easy to dismiss out of hand. There is no “religious center” in the brain that could be lobotomized to produce atheists, or enlarged to induce fundamentalist fanatics. Rather, the cognitive machinery that predisposes humans towards religious inferences evolved in order to solve very different types of problems, in behavioral domains critical for our ancestors’ survival.

One quick example: human psychology, experiments have shown, is biased towards “agency detection,” or an interpretation of stimuli that supposes a human or animal actor. For instance, it was found that people, shown dots on a screen, could very easily be made to think of those dots as engaged in mindful action. The intuitive psychology of the subjects, although they knew the mindfulness was an illusion, couldn’t help but see the dots as chasing, avoiding, and interacting (99). Following the psychologist Justin Barrett, Boyer suggests that this tendency to see conscious actors even when they may not exist is an evolutionary adaptation resulting from our history as hunters (and hunted).

“Our evolutionary heritage is that of organisms that must deal with both predators and prey. In either situation, it is far more advantageous to overdetect agency than to underdetect it” (145).

In turn, this hyper-sensitive system for detecting the signal of a goal-directed mind in the noise of inanimate environments sets the stage for a belief in spirits, gods, ancestors, and other invisible, supernatural agents that are so common across cultures. The same instinct that evolved from staring fearfully into the predatory, prehistoric dark, looking for the smallest hints of a threat from which to flee, is also an instinct for detecting, in everyday phenomenon, the work of spiritual agents. The same logic, in both cases, is serviceable: there is probably nothing there, but it is safer to act as if there is.

The above is a reductive example of the kind of arguments Boyer makes throughout the book to advance the overarching claim that evolved cognitive systems are responsible for the prevalence and consistency of religious beliefs.


“People mostly use memetics to explain things they don’t like,” I remember saying to Pascal Boyer a little more than a year ago, staying as his guest just after we moved to France. “You know, like Richard Dawkins talking about how religion is a parasitic mind virus. If memetics is true, though, then it has to explain everything, not just the ideas we think are stupid.” I was trying to explain to him, at the time, why I’d written my dissertation on evolution and literature.

Reading his book a year later, I wondered if he might have been offended by my off-hand remark, because Boyer does, at one point, invoke memetics as an explanatory frame for how religion evolves. He cites Dawkins’ description of memes as “just ‘copy-me’ programs, like genes. Genes produce organisms that behave in such a way that the genes are replicated—otherwise the genes in question would not be around. Memes are units of culture: notions, values, stories, etc. that get people to speak or act in certain ways that make other people store a replicated version of these mental units” (35).

In a memetic model for the spread of religion, “…familiar religious concepts and associated beliefs, norms, emotions, are just better-replicating memes than others, in the sense that their copy-me instructions work better” (37). Boyer, however, thinks that memetics is only a “starting point” for an investigation into the evolution of religion, because 1) cultural transmission distorts the memetic information (which has to be recreated in a new individuals mind) in a way that genetic inheritance does not, and 2) it doesn’t explain why some memes—in this case religious concepts—are more successful than others.

Boyer has the good sense, which I lacked in graduate school, to use memetics while quietly distancing himself from the terminology itself, which has become overly freighted and unfashionable. Memetics is, ultimately, a pseudo-science, which becomes unnecessary when you have actual science to rely on.

memesAs an anthropologist, Boyer has actually conducted experiments in which he tested the relative ease with which certain religious concepts could be recalled in various cultures, including that of the Fang in Gabon, where he did field work. To simplify his argument, Boyer concludes that there is a kind of recipe, regardless of cultural context, for a successful supernatural or religious “meme”: the idea should violate some of the expectations we have about a an entity or object, while conforming to others. A successful religious concept will be strange enough to catch our attention, yet not so nonsensical (God only existing on Wednesdays) so as to render futile further attempts at inference. Greek dieties, for example, had superhuman or counter-intuitive qualities, such as immortality, and yet behaved in ways understandable in terms of human psychology.

Religion Explained actually spends less time explaining religion as it does explaining human psychology. That makes sense, considering his argument that religious conviction is not the product of some unique, irrational process in the mind, but rather the result of traits common to human cognition, peculiarities of which make the normally functioning brain susceptible to certain kinds of “irrational” belief. Boyer’s study is more interesting than a scientifically grounded attack on the folly of religious delusion would have been. He is not just using memetics (or evolutionary psychology/ anthropology) to denigrate a system of belief he doesn’t like, he is using religious thought to gain insight into human nature, which he clearly does care about.


Similar to how the evolved human propensity to over-detect the presence of agents (as a prehistoric human would benefit from over-sensitivity to signs that a predatory might be lurking in the dark), Boyer notes other trademarks of human psychology that influence the kind of religious ideas that are developed and remembered.

Humans are, by nature, cooperative and social. Our evolutionary past has primed our brains to pay attention to details of social exchange, and has instilled a sense of morality to detect when other members of a society might not be pulling their weight. Because of our “hypertrophied” social intelligence, we are predisposed to think in terms of coalitions, equal exchange, and the strategic information necessary to keep track of various members promises and contributions. “Now humans,” Boyer writes, “being social organisms with complex interaction, not only represent strategic information, they also represent the extent to which other people have strategic information” (154). In imagining supernatural entities, then, gods or ghosts conceived of as potential exchange partners, and that have access to strategic information, are more likely to resonate and take up permanent residence in a “mental basement” in which large sections are devoted to moral/cooperative calculations. Hence, ancestral spirits that need to be placated with a sacrifice of a goat, or a judgemental judeo-Christian God who can see into your secret heart and judge if you are worthy.

The example of a non-starter religious doctrine I mentioned earlier: “the gods are watching us and they notice everything we do! But they forget everything instantaneously,” or another in the same vein: “there is only one God! He is omniscient but powerless. He cannot do anything or have any effect on what goes on in the world” (51) are destined to fail because they don’t recruit the extensive mental toolkits dedicated to questions of strategic exchange. There is no sense thinking about gods that either forget information about moral behavior, or that are powerless to act on what they know. As with many of his arguments, Boyer makes religious beliefs seem natural in the sense that they conform with ways of thinking that humans developed because of their usefulness in other domains.buddha

Of course, as with a lot of evolutionary psychology, the weakness in these type of arguments is that they are necessarily speculative. Yes, there is cross-cultural anthropological data that suggests interesting consistencies in religious behavior and ideas, and yes, experimental psychology can confirm certain biases or pre-occupations in human reasoning, but to claim that facets of human psychology are the result of certain evolutionary pressures, and that religions are in turn the result of those evolved psychological traits…It takes quite a leap of faith.

Like religion, though, even if it isn’t true, it makes a fascinating story.


These gentle tree pulp pages

which’ve nothing to do

with yr crash roar,

liar sea, ah

were made for rock

tumble seabird digdown

footstep hollow weed

move dedarvaling

crash? Ah again?

Wine is salt here?

-Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

Towards the beginning of the book, Boyer invokes “commonsense” explanations of why religion originated, in order to show why these are inadequate. “Most accounts of the origins of religion,” he writes, “emphasize one of the following suggestions: human minds demand explanations, human hearts seek comfort, human society requires order, human intellect is illusion-prone” (5). He points out various problems with these hypothesis, notably that within the diversity of world religions, an anthropologist can always point to a belief system that doesn’t fit within the mold, i.e. a religion that isn’t comforting or does not promote order. As he says, “it is an unfortunate and all too frequent mistake to explain all religion by one of its characteristics that is in fact special to the religion we are familiar with” (6).

The books anthropological scope, encompassing a variety of religions and cultures, makes it more interesting (and less polemical) than if it had dealt primarily with the “major” belief systems, which, it turns out, share something in common that sets them apart from most religions throughout human history: they are based on texts. Large-scale religious guilds or organizations rose, it turns out, concurrently with literate nation-states.

textAs someone who has read and thought about the changes between oral and written narrative, or spoken and printed literature, this section held particular interest for me. Not surprisingly, the shift from pre-literate to literate religion brought a shift away from the personal, local, and experiential to the professional, universal, and abstract. Unlike religious leaders in traditional societies, “literate guilds promote texts as the source of guaranteed truths. They tend to downplay intuition, divination, personal inspiration, orally transmitted lore and ‘essential’ persons because all these naturally fall outside the guild’s control” (278). Rituals performed by official institutions and based in generalized, codified doctrine protect themselves from competition by systematizing their services, Boyer argues, into a recognizable “brand” that can be uniformly understood and administered without knowledge of the individuals or contexts involved.

“Revelation, trance and other forms of enthusiastic ritual are all difficult to codify and control, which is why they are viewed by religious institutions with considerable suspicion” (285).

This would-be monopoly of literate doctrine, of course, is undermined or augmented by idiosyncratic interpretations and local, unofficial practices. Nevertheless, when modern readers think of “religion” what they usually have in mind is literate religion, in the same way that when we think of literature we think of written, rather than oral, narratives.

Literate religions, you might say, are really a religion of literacy, a worship of the idea that there can be a universal, decontextualized doctrine for spiritual salvation and truth. It is no coincidence that those religions spread through written texts are monotheistic, and require a literate priesthood. Even atheists and agnostics, however, no matter how dismissive of the revelations of scripture, are nonetheless worshipful, in most cases, of script.

So far I’ve mostly confined myself to relating (with dubious accuracy) the arguments presented in Religion Explained. Now I’m going to follow a few of my own tangents, and in doing so make this review less official, less sanctioned by the text, and more based in my own localized insights and experiences.

First, as Boyer relates, while state religions arose with literacy, writing itself emerged from the need to keep track of money—to remember debts and administer the pay of armies. It occurred to me while reading this chapter, not for the first time, that in contemporary society, our real religion, superceding all other forms of script and scripture, is the Market. Neoliberal Capitalism is the prevailing cult in the modern world, with its priests, acolytes, and temples.

According to Boyer, remember, our minds are predisposed to think of supernatural entities as 1) having access to strategic information and 2) involved in moral judgements and 3) participants or partners in exchange. This seems to line up perfectly with how most people see the economy: a righteous, all-knowing “invisible hand” whose revelations and sentences should never be questioned. Meritocratic ideals mean that the sufferings of the poor and blessings of the rich are divinely ordained, and therefore just.

Worship of wealth and worship of the (written) Word are two sides, so to speak, of the same coin: faith that meaning/value can be fixed and abstracted, made fungible and absolute.


“It seems to me,” Keith said, “that writing books seldom confers much benefit on the writers themselves.” Keith is a nearly-70 year old British ex-pilot who has retired to a small village near Lyon. He dog-sat for us once when we went on vacation and has become a good friend.keith

He made this comment in November, after I told him about how I was trying to write a 50,000 words in a month as part of National Novel Writing Month. “Of course,” I said. “In most cases, literary ambitions destroy a person’s life. Usually writers end up impoverished, unhappy, and alone.” We are walking by Place Valmy, with a leash-pulling Spaniel, going to visit another friend of his, a woman from Holland who spend most of her life in the Central African Republic, and now, due to health concerns, is virtually house-bound. I give Keith a quick summary of memetics, and how memes (self-replicating bits of information) can be seen as parasites with interests at odds with their human hosts, mind viruses with reproductive cycles detrimental to those unfortunate enough to become infected. Books use authors to write themselves, forcing their hapless humans into destructive or disadvantageous behaviors in the process.

Back when I was staying with Pascal Boyer, I remember telling him, half-jokingly, that memetics had destroyed my career. “How so?” he had asked.

“Well, it’s not a very popular idea in the humanities,” I said. “Using it in my dissertation made it harder for me to find jobs.”

I regret saying that, because it isn’t true. Firstly because (I hope) my career is not yet completely destroyed, and secondly, even if it is, the theory of memetics is not responsible. Certain memes might account for my failure to land a full-time academic position (such as the idea of being a writer, creating books rather than just teaching about them), but memetics, if anything, helped me in graduate school by giving an interesting theoretical frame in which to think about literature.

My dissertation, not to bore you, looked at literary audiences as a kind of environment to which certain texts or narrative strategies were well or poorly adapted. “Just remember,” one of my advisors told me, “you want your dissertation to one of those that is successful.” Meaning that for the sake of academic survival, I shouldn’t stray too far from the conventional style in which graduate theses were typically written. I needed to adapt my own writing to a particular ecology of scholarly expectations, and refrain from the more speculative digressions to which my writing was overly susceptible.

Just today, actually, I received an auto-generated email informing me that the .pdf of my dissertation had been downloaded over a thousand times. I may not have an academic job, but academicians—a few of them, at least—are reading my work. The memes I grew are spreading!

One of my main arguments concerned ambiguity in literary texts: how narratives should be open to interpretations, but not so ambiguous as to make the reader feel cheated. There is, you could say, a sweet spot for subjective suggestiveness: eliciting creative involvement with the reader, but making them feel like their own interpretations are plausible. I was essentially adapting what the critic William Empson had said about poetry in a book called 7 Types of Ambiguity, which I had been obsessed with as an undergraduate.

The moment I’m most proud of in my thesis defense was when a member of the committee asked me if I actually liked Herman Melville’s Mardi. One of my chapters talked about how, as opposed to the enormously popular and endlessly dissected Moby Dick, few people have even read the novel Melville wrote just before his “masterpiece,” in 1849.

“I haven’t ever read Mardi,” the advisor who asked me the question admitted.

“None of us have,” another committee member said, “I think that’s his point.”

When asked if I actually liked Mardi, despite its maladaptation for literary success, I quoted (or misquoted) William Empson on “appreciative criticism,” how he claimed it was impossible to say something interesting about a poem one didn’t actually care for. So yes, I said, I really did like Mardi, which is why I was compelled to try to say something interesting about it.

Boyer, as I mentioned earlier, has interesting theories about religion because (unlike, say, Richard Dawkins) he actually cares about it, at least to the extent that he believes religious thought reveals something about human nature and evolutionary psychology.

There are parts of the book, however, that a religious person might find vaguely offensive. The section “Obsessive Rules,” for example, discusses the similarities psychologists have found between the performance of religious rituals and obsessive compulsive disorder. “Comparing hundreds of ritual sequences with clinical descriptions of OCD cases,” Pascal writes, the anthropologist Alan Fiske “showed that the same themes recur over and over again in both domains. Indeed, Fiske’s list of common themes in rituals could be used as a clinical description of the common obsessions experienced by those with OCD. In both situations, people are concerned with purity and pollution; pollution can be averted by performing particular actions; there is often no clear representation of why these particular actions should have that result; the actions consist in repetitive gestures; there is a sense that great dangers lie in not performing these routines, or in deviating from the usual script…”(238-9).

He doesn’t directly say that religious practices are a form of obsessive compulsive disorder—there is enough ambiguity that I’m not sure if I am reading into the chapter these derogatory implications. There is no question, however, on which side of the Humanist/Theological divide Boyer’s sympathies lie, which is actually refreshing. Before I read the book, I was afraid much of it would be tight-rope walking, dexterous appeasement to the gravity of both camps, the old hand-waving attempt to reconcile irreconcilable world-views. I needn’t have worried: Religion Explained is an analysis of, not an apology for, the psychology of religious belief.

The connection between obsessive compulsions and “rites,” of course (like most of his arguments), applies to more than just religious ritual.

I’m writing this on the 1st of January, having spent last night going through an annual rite of obsessive behavior, counting down to midnight, drinking champagne, making resolutions. Boyer talks about the power of rituals to affect changes in social relationships (manhood rites, marriages) despite the fact that the rituals don’t, in themselves, have any power or meaning. “Rituals do not create social effects but only the illusion that they do” (255). January 1st, 2015, isn’t actually that different than December 31st, 2014, but it seems that way, because the social constructs of ritualistic significance appeal to our obsessive, intuitive psychology.

The Music

Les poissons de la mer

parle Breton–

Mon nom es Lebris

de Keroack–

Parle, Poissons, Loti,


Parlning Ocean sanding

crash the billion rocks–

The novel I wrote, in case you are wondering, is a dark Science-Fiction/Horror story about a world 300 years after the invasion of alien microbes that, despite being microscopic, have managed to take over the Earth. All human beings are neutered, except for feral exiles that roam the wastes, competing and breeding to keep the species healthy, delivering their babies to the cities. The alien microbes’ method of conquering the planet was simple: they infected humans, making them incapable of digesting any food that hadn’t been treated in microbial pools. Billions starved, until eventually a “religion” was set up where the aliens could communicate via aquatic gene-modified intermediaries, and a new society arose, arguably more peaceful and pleasant than the purely human world that preceded it.

The protozoic aliens are, despite their microscopic scale, technologically advanced, and through molecular biology and genetic engineering set about healing the polluted and over-heated Earth, and creating cities where the remaining native populations are happy, if not exactly free. Non-breeding humans all have “nodules” implanted in their chest or shoulders, which regulate their biochemisty, and also keep them from being attacked by Skulls, the darker aspect of the xeno-bacteria’s method of controlling the population—humans whose sexual instincts are rewired towards indiscriminate violence. Hence the horror aspect of the science fiction scenario.Screenshot from 2014-11-30 15:58:21

The genetic and eugenic manipulation of humans sometimes has side effects. The main character is a dwarfish pianist with a disorder causing malformed and excessively brittle bones. The novel is called “The Music” but it could just as well have been called “The Memes.” I was aiming for a kind of metaphor for how we are already controlled by invisible, inhuman entities that manipulate and determine our behavior: ideas and ideologies. Technology, culture, capital. They determine, more than any conscious human decisions, what survives, and what is reproduced.

Big Sur

No human words bespeak

the token sorrow older

than this wave

becrashing smarts the

sand with plosh

of twirled sandy

thought—Ah change

the world? Ah set

the fee? Are rope the

angels in all the sea?

Jack Kerouack’s Big Sur is autobiographical, written after the success of On the Road and Dharma Bums. To escape from drink (alcoholism another host-devouring meme) and fame he goes up to stay in a friend’s cabin on the coast of California, and transcribes into a notebook the speaking of the Sea. Then, later, when his friends come along, he ends up “helling headbent to the silliest hate [he] ever had” (110).

Jack has a nervous breakdown, descending into a paranoia which might be rooted in a religious delusion from childhood, in which everyone but him was a member of an “eternal secret society” that were “peeking” at him and fooling him, until the day when he could finally catch them at their peeking and join in their enlightenment.

“With all this in my background, now at the point of adulthood disaster of the soul, through excessive drinking, all this was easily converted into a fantasy that everybody in the world was witching me to madness…” (92).

All of which illustrates one of the points in Boyer’s book, which is that although religions get codified and standardized by their communication through impersonal print rather than individual speech, “official religion is not the whole of religion” (8) which is to say that subtending the approved doctrines are a vast sea of pseudo-heretical interpretations and experiences. Arguably, these personalized versions of scripted meaning are allowed for, even encouraged, by the ambiguity of religious texts.

The religious nature of Keroak/Duluoz’s paranoid break is even more obvious, later on, when he has a hallucination of the cross. “I see the Cross, it’s silent, it stays a long time, my heart goes out to it, my whole body fades away to it, I hold out my arms to be taken away to it, by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…” except he doesn’t die, and “therefore the devils are back, commissioners are sending out orders in my ear to think anew, babbling secrets are hissed…I lie there in cold sweat wondering what’s come over me for years my Buddhist studies and pipesmoking assured meditations on emptiness and all of a sudden the Cross is manifested to me…” (157).

Kerouac’s experience with religion is his experience with the Sea, the writing of the poem that appears at the back of the novel. As Boyer might have predicted, the poet’s primate brain over-detects agency, hearing spirits and voices in the sound of the waves.

Poetry, it seems to me, are words and meanings resisting the depersonalization of print, the resurgence of ambiguity among “official” modes of discourse. What would Kerouac’s story have been like if I had listened to him tell it (maybe out in the cabin on Big Sur)? What would Boyer’s explanation of religion have been if I had asked him about it when I was staying at his house for those few days, rather than reading it, a year later, in his book? What would these words be like if I were talking to you, rather than writing you this blog?

I started research SEO (Search Engine Optimization), as part of my ongoing quest for gainful employment. The trick, I learned, is to litter your web pages with the precise keywords for which you think your intended audience will search. Suddenly, a lot of the style of internet content became clear, the redundancy, the targeted narrowmindedness of marketing jargon finally swallowing, entirely, content. We will only read what we search for, so only the searched-for is ever written. An ever narrowing noose of feedback loops, tags dragging all non-optimal words into their own closed orbit, a snake of similarly linked descriptors eating its own tail. #readme #givememoney.

Which is why my style of writing is, in a way, search-engine suicide. I shouldn’t talk about both Religion Explained and Big Sur in the same post, because there is no overlap of likely audience. And yet sometimes I sink below official doctrine of the internet, the professional ad-revenue, words pressed out by content-mills, into the crash-whispering sea of personalized, non-optimized, foolish poetry: unprofitable observations that will not survive or be remembered, and don’t particularly care. I worship the God that only exists on Wednesdays, that knows everything, but instantly forgets.

Hopefully, my strategy is better than I give myself credit for. Readers might be impressed enough with my prowess at word-craft that they will visit and hire me as a writing tutor, or editor. I’ll even write indexible, searchable, key-word studded content for your business, if that is what you want. Because I need a revenue stream to survive, to keep writing my stories and novels. Or rather my stories and novels need me to have money so they can keep replicating themselves.

The religion of our society, I know, is business, having income, finding and keeping a lucrative job. The cost of defection, as Boyer would say, is terribly high.

I am a believer, believe me. Without capitalism we are lost. There is no point in writing anything unless money is to be made. Monetization is the ultimate and only good.

Speak to me in person, however, and I might tell you differently.


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