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May 01, 2004

Religion "explained"

Pascal Boyer has an article in the most recent Skeptical Inquirer (not online) titled Why is Religion Natural?. It seems to be a short introduction into the argument elaborated in his book Religion Explained. Though I have not read the book itself, Scott Atran has stated that it is very similar to his book, and the article above seems reminiscent of ideas hinted at in Prehistory of the Mind. The most important point one can take away from the thinkers above is to be wary of a conception of a "God Module" (analogous to a "Language Module"). Below is a selection from Boyer's article:

...religious thought activates cognitive capacities that developed to handle non-religious information. In this sense, religion is very similar to music and very different from language. Every normal human being acquires a natural language and that language is extraordinarily similar to that of the surrounding group. It seems plausible that our capacity for language acquisition is an adaptation. By contrast, though all human beings can effortlessly recognize music and religious concepts, there are profound individual differences in the extent to which they can enjoy music or adhere to religious concepts. The fact that some religious notions have been found in every human group does not mean that all human beings are naturally religious. Vast numbers of human beings do without it altogether, like for instance the majority of Europeans for several centuries.
In other words, religion seems to have a heritable component, as the cognitive domains that it is rooted in have heritable components (phenotypic variation do to genotypic variation), and is unlike the capacity for language (as opposed to eloquent fluency in), which shows no great inter-individual variation sans a serious disease.
Posted by razib at 01:21 PM