Chapter

Gods and the Mental Instincts That Create Them

Pascal Boyer

in Science, Religion, and the Human Experience

Published in print May 2005 | ISBN: 9780195175325
Published online February 2006 | e-ISBN: 9780199784707 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/0195175328.003.0013
 							Gods and the Mental Instincts That Create Them

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This essay offers an evolutionary explanation of religion, in particular, religious mental concepts. Boyer argues that the human “mind-brain” consists of multiple systems that guide understanding and action in different realms. Although none of these is specific to religion, several may be connected to religious concepts, and some concepts may be more successful at cultural transmission via these systems than others. The first important feature of religious concepts to Boyer is that they are supernatural concepts, defined by their violation of some, but not all, normal domain-level expectations. Boyer further clarifies that religious concepts tend to build on our templates of persons, but emphasize their intentional agency, which can be evolutionarily explained either in terms of the mind-brain’s need to understand complex social interaction characteristic of humans, or as an asset in predator-prey interactions. Religious concepts are also about social interaction, yet in contrast to ordinary people, supernatural agents have “perfect access” to all strategic (socially relevant) information relevant to a given social situation. Boyer cites research which suggests that people who believe in the Christian God combine features of omniscience with a human-like mind, for instance, one must pray in order for God to hear you. Finally, Boyer argues that religious concepts prey upon common intuitions about misfortune. Gods that do not matter much to people’s daily lives — no matter how powerful they are otherwise — are not that religiously important. Thus, these concepts focus not on how but why the supernatural agents cause misfortune, the reason tracing back to some mishap of social interaction with these agents.

Keywords: agents; concepts; evolution; mind-brain; religion; supernatural

Chapter.  10859 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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