Religion Explained

The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought


By Pascal Boyer

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Many of our questions about religion, says the internationally renowned anthropologist Pascal Boyer, were once mysteries, but they no longer are: we are beginning to know how to answer questions such as “Why do people have religion?” and “Why is religion the way it is?” Using findings from anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Boyer shows how one of the most fascinating aspects of human consciousness is increasingly admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation. And Man Creates God tells readers, for the first time, what religious feeling is really about, what it consists of, and how it originates. It is a beautifully written, very accessible book by an anthropologist who is highly respected on both sides of the Atlantic. As a scientific explanation for religious feeling, it is sure to arouse controversy.



Also by Pascal Boyer

The Naturalness of Religious Ideas
Tradition as Truth and Communication





That I should write this book was clear in the minds of my editors, Abel Gerschenfeld and Ravi Mirchandani, long before I had even started. I am grateful for their gentle prodding. Abel in particular showed great persuasive power, was patient enough to read many different versions, and always trusted me to produce something readable, a real triumph of hope over experience. I must also express my deep gratitude to a number of people whom I coaxed or coerced into imparting their knowledge and intuitions, perfecting or rejecting many versions of each argument, reading and correcting parts or even the whole of the original manuscript, and generally helping me better understand all these complicated issues: Anne de Sales, Brian Malley, Carlo Severi, Charles Ramble, Dan Sperber, E. Thomas Lawson, Harvey Whitehouse, Ilkka Pyssiäinen, John Tooby, Justin Barrett, Leda Cosmides, Michael Houseman, Paolo Sousa, Pascale Michelon, Robert McCauley, Ruth Lawson.


A neighbor in the village tells me that I should protect myself against witches. Otherwise they could hit me with invisible darts that will get inside my veins and poison my blood.

A shaman burns tobacco leaves in front of a row of statuettes and starts talking to them. He says he must send them on a journey to distant villages in the sky. The point of all this is to cure someone whose mind is held hostage by invisible spirits.

A group of believers goes around, warning everyone that the end is nigh. Judgement Day is scheduled for October 2. This day passes and nothing happens. The group carries on, telling everyone the end is nigh (the date has been changed).

Villagers organize a ceremony to tell a goddess she is not wanted in their village anymore. She failed to protect them from epidemics, so they decided to “drop” her and find a more efficient replacement.

An assembly of priests finds offensive what some people say about what happened several centuries ago in a distant place, where a virgin is said to have given birth to a child. So these people must be massacred. Members of a cult on an island decide to slaughter all their livestock and burn their crops. All these will be useless now, they say, because a ship full of goods and money will reach their shores very shortly in recognition of their good deeds.

My friends are told to go to church or some other quiet place and talk to an invisible person who is everywhere in the world. That invisible listener already knows what they will say, because He knows everything.

I am told that if I want to please powerful dead people–who could help me in times of need–I should pour the blood of a live white goat on the right hand side of a particular rock. But if I use a goat of a different color or another rock, it will not work at all.

You may be tempted to dismiss these vignettes as just so many examples of the rich tapestry of human folly. Or perhaps you think that these illustrations, however succinct (one could fill volumes with such accounts), bear witness to an admirable human capacity to comprehend life and the universe. Both reactions leave questions unanswered. Why do people have such thoughts? What prompts them to do such things? Why do they have such different beliefs? Why are they so strongly committed to them? These questions used to be mysteries (we did not even know how to proceed) and are now becoming problems (we have some idea of a possible solution), to use Noam Chomsky’s distinction. Indeed, we actually have the first elements of that solution. In case this sounds hubristic or self-aggrandizing, let me add immediately that this “we” really refers to a community of people. It is not an insidious way of suggesting that I have a new theory and find it of universal significance. In the rest of this book I mention a number of findings and models in cognitive psychology, anthropology, linguistics and evolutionary biology. All of these were discovered by other people, most of whom did not work on religion and had no idea that their findings could help explain religion. This is why, although bookshelves may be overflowing with treatises on religion, histories of religion, religious people’s accounts of their ideas, and so on, it makes sense to add to this and show how the intractable mystery that was religion is now just another set of difficult but manageable problems.


The explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work. I really mean all human minds, not just the minds of religious people or of some of them. I am talking about human minds, because what matters here are properties of minds that are found in all members of our species with normal brains. The discoveries I will mention here are about the ways minds in general (men’s or women’s, British or Brazilian, young or old) function.

This may seem a rather strange point of departure if we want to explain something as diverse as religion. Beliefs are different in different people; some are religious and some are not. Also, obviously, beliefs are different in different places. Japanese Buddhists do not seem to share much, in terms of religious notions, with Amazonian shamans or American Southern Baptists. How could we explain a phenomenon (religion) that is so variable in terms of something (the brain) that is the same everywhere? This is what I describe in this book. The diversity of religion, far from being an obstacle to general explanations, in fact gives us some keys. But to understand why this is so, we need a precise description of how brains receive and organize information.

For a long time, people used to think that the brain was a rather simple organ. Apart from the bits that control the body machinery, there seemed to be a vast empty space in the young child’s mind destined to be filled with whatever education, culture and personal experience provided. This view of the mind was never too plausible, since after all the liver and the gut are much more complex than that. But we did not know much about the way minds develop, so there were no facts to get in the way of this fantasy of a “blank slate” where experience could leave its imprint. The mind was like those vast expanses of unexplored Africa that old maps used to fill with palm trees and crocodiles. Now we know more about minds. We do not know everything, but one fact is clear: the more we discover about how minds work, the less we believe in this notion of a blank slate. Every further discovery in cognitive science makes it less plausible as an explanation.

In particular, it is clear that our minds are not really prepared to acquire just about any kind of notion that is “in the culture.” We do not just “learn what is in the environment,” as people sometimes say. That is not the case, because no mind in the world–this is true all the way from the cockroach to the giraffe to you or me–could ever learn anything without having very sophisticated mental equipment that is prepared to identify relevant information in the environment and to treat that information in a special way. Our minds are prepared because natural selection gave us particular mental predispositions. Being prepared for some concepts, human minds are also prepared for certain variations of these concepts. As I will show, this means, among other things, that all human beings can easily acquire a certain range of religious notions and communicate them to others.

Does this mean religion is “innate” and “in the genes”? I–and most people interested in the evolution of the human mind—think that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why. Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of “airy nothing” will find a local habitation in the minds of people.


What is the origin of religious ideas? Why is it that we can find them wherever we go and, it would seem, as far back in the past as we can see? The best place to start is with our spontaneous, commonsense answers to the question of origins. Everybody seems to have some intuition about the origins of religion. Indeed, psychologists and anthropologists who like me study how mental processes create religion face the minor occupational hazard of constantly running into people who think that they already have a perfectly adequate solution to the problem. They are often quite willing to impart their wisdom and sometimes imply that further work on this question is, if not altogether futile, at least certainly undemanding. If you say “I use genetic algorithms to produce computationally efficient cellular automata,” people see quite clearly that doing that kind of thing probably requires some effort. But if you tell them that you are in the business of “explaining religion,” they often do not see what is so complicated or difficult about it. Most people have some idea of why there is religion, what religion gives people, why they are sometimes so strongly attached to their religious beliefs, and so on. These common intuitions offer a real challenge. Obviously, if they are sufficient, there is no point in having a complex theory of religion. If, as I am afraid is more likely, they are less than perfect, then our new account should be at least as good as the intuitions it is supposed to replace.

Most accounts of the origins of religion emphasize one of the following suggestions: human minds demand explanations, human hearts seek comfort, human society requires order, human intellect is illusionprone. To express this in more detail, here are some possible scenarios:

Religion provides explanations:

  • People created religion to explain puzzling natural phenomena.
  • Religion explains puzzling experiences: dreams, prescience, etc.
  • Religion explains the origins of things.
  • Religion explains why there is evil and suffering.

Religion provides comfort:

  • Religious explanations make mortality less unbearable.
  • Religion allays anxiety and makes for a comfortable world.

Religion provides social order:

  • Religion holds society together.
  • Religion perpetuates a particular social order.
  • Religion supports morality.

Religion is a cognitive illusion:

  • People are superstitious; they will believe anything.
  • Religious concepts are irrefutable.
  • Refutation is more difficult than belief.

Though this list probably is not exhaustive, it is fairly representative. Discussing each of these common intuitions in more detail, we will see that they all fail to tell us why we have religion and why it is the way it is. So why bother with them? It is not my intent here to ridicule other people’s ideas or show that anthropologists and cognitive scientists are more clever than common folk. I discuss these spontaneous explanations because they are widespread, because they are often rediscovered by people when they reflect on religion, and more importantly because they are not that bad. Each of these “scenarios” for the origin of religion points to a real and important phenomenon that any theory worth its salt should explain. Also, taking these scenarios seriously opens up new perspectives on how religious notions and beliefs appear in human minds.


Let it not be said that anthropology is not useful. Religion is found the world over, but it is found in very different forms. 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. Anthropologists are professionally interested in cultural differences, and they generally study a milieu other than their own to avoid this mistake. In the past century or so, they have documented extremely diverse religious notions, beliefs and practices. To illustrate why this knowledge is useful, consider the inadequate information found in many atlases. At the same time as they tell you that the Arctic is all ice and the Sahara mostly sand and rock, they often provide information about religious affiliation. You will read, for instance, that Ulster has a Protestant majority and a Catholic minority, that Italy is overwhelmingly Catholic and Saudi Arabia Muslim. So far, so good. But other countries are more difficult to describe in these terms. Take India or Indonesia, for example. Most of the population belongs to one of the familiar “great religions” (Hinduism, Islam); but in both countries there are large, so-called tribal groups that will have no truck with these established denominations. Such groups are often described as having animistic or tribal religion–two terms that (anthropologists will tell you) mean virtually nothing. They just stand for “stuff we cannot put in any other category”; we might as well call these people’s religions “miscellaneous.” Also, what about Congo and Angola? The atlas says that most people in these places are Christian, and this is true in the sense that many are baptized and go to church. However, people in Congo and Angola constantly talk about ancestors and witches and perform rituals to placate the former and restrain the latter. This does not happen in Christian Northern Ireland. If the atlas says anything about religion, it is using a very confusing notion of religion.

The diversity of religion is not just the fact that some people are called or call themselves Buddhist and others Baptist. It goes deeper, in how people conceive of supernatural agents and what they think these agents are like or what they can do, in the morality that is derived from religious beliefs, in the rituals performed and in many other ways. Consider the following findings of anthropology.:

Supernatural agents can be very different. Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies. These may be one unique God or many different gods or spirits or ancestors, or a combination of these different kinds. Some people have one “supreme” god, but this does not always mean that he or she is terribly important. In many places in Africa there are two supreme gods. One is a very abstract supreme deity and the other is more down-to-earth, as it were, since he created all things cultural: tools and domesticated animals, villages and society. But neither of them is really involved in people’s everyday affairs, where ancestors, spirits and witches are much more important.

Some gods die. It may seem obvious that gods are always thought to be eternal. We might even think that this must be part of the definition of “god.” However, many Buddhists think that gods, just like humans, are caught in a never-ending cycle of births and reincarnations. So gods will die like all other creatures. This, however, takes a long time and that is why humans since times immemorial pray to the same gods. If anything, gods are disadvantaged in comparison with humans.

Unlike gods, we could, at least in principle, escape from the cycle of life and suffering. Gods must first be reincarnated as humans to do that.

Many spirits are really stupid. To a Christian it seems quite obvious that you cannot fool God, but in many places, fooling superhuman agents is possible and in fact even necessary. In Siberia, for instance, people are careful to use metaphorical language when talking about important matters. This is because nasty spirits often eavesdrop on humans and try to foil their plans. Now spirits, despite their superhuman powers, just cannot understand metaphors. They are powerful but stupid. In many places in Africa it is quite polite when visiting friends or relatives to express one’s sympathy with them for having such “ugly” or “unpleasant” children. The idea is that witches, always on the lookout for nice children to “eat,” will be fooled by this naive stratagem. It is also common in such places to give children names that suggest disgrace or misfortune, for the same reason. In Haiti one of the worries of people who have just lost a relative is that the corpse might be stolen by a witch. To avoid this, people sometimes buried their dead with a length of thread and an eyeless needle. The idea was that witches would find the needle and try to thread it, which would keep them busy for centuries so that they would forget all about the corpse. People can think that supernatural agents have extraordinary powers and yet are rather easily fooled.

Salvation is not always a central preoccupation. To people familiar with Christianity or Islam or Buddhism, it seems clear that the main point of religion is the salvation or deliverance of the soul. Different religions are thought to offer different perspectives on why souls need to be saved and different routes to salvation. Now, in many parts of the world, religion does not really promise that the soul will be saved or liberated and in fact does not have much to say about its destiny. In such places, people just do not assume that moral reckoning determines the fate of the soul. Dead people become ghosts or ancestors. This is general and does not involve a special moral judgement.

Official religion is not the whole of religion. Wherever we go, we will find that religious concepts are much more numerous and diverse than “official” religion would admit. In many places in Europe people suspect that there are witches around trying to attack them. In official Islam there is no God but God; but many Muslims are terrified of jinn and afreet–spirits, ghosts and witches. In the United States religion is officially a matter of denomination: Christians of various shades, Jews, Hindus, etc. But many people are seriously engaged in interaction with aliens or ghosts. This is also among the religious concepts to consider and explain.

You can have religion without having “a” religion. For Christians, Jews or Muslims it is quite clear that one belongs to a religion and that there is a choice, as it were, between alternative views on the creation of the universe, the destiny of the soul and the kind of morality one should adhere to. This results from a very special kind of situation, where people live in large states with competing Churches and doctrines. Many people throughout history and many people these days live in rather different circumstances, where their religious activity is the only one that is conceivable. Also, many religious notions are tied to specific places and persons. People for instance pray to their ancestors and offer sacrifices to the forest to catch lots of game. It would not make sense to them to pray to other people’s ancestors or to be grateful for food that you will not receive. The idea of a universal religion that anyone could adopt–or that everyone should adopt–is not a universal idea.

You can also have religion without having “religion.” We have a word for religion. This is a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God. Not everyone has this explicit concept or the idea that religious stuff is different from the profane or everyday domain. In general, you will find that people begin to have an explicit concept of “religion” when they live in places with several “religions”; but that is a special kind of place, as I said above. That people do not have a special term for religion does not mean they actually have no religion. In many places people have no word for “syntax” but their language has a syntax all the same. You do not need the special term in order to have the thing.

You can have religion without “faith.” Many people in the world would find it strange if you told them that they “believe in” witches and ghosts or that they have “faith” in their ancestors. Indeed, it would be very difficult in most languages to translate these sentences. It takes us Westerners some effort to realize that this notion of “believing in something” is peculiar.

Imagine a Martian telling you how interesting it is that you “believe” in mountains and rivers and cars and telephones. You would think the alien has got it wrong. We don’t “believe in” these things, we just notice and accept that they are around. Many people in the world would say the same about witches and ghosts. They are around like trees and animals–though they are far more difficult to understand and control–so it does not require a particular commitment or faith to notice their existence and act accordingly. In the course of my anthropological fieldwork in Africa, I lived and worked with Fang people, who say that nasty spirits roam the bush and the villages, attack people, make them fall ill and ruin their crops. My Fang acquaintances also knew that I was not too worried about this and that most Europeans were remarkably indifferent to the powers of spirits and witches. This, for me, could be expressed as the difference between believing in spirits and not believing. But that was not the way people saw it over there. For them, the spirits were indeed around but white people were immune to their influence, perhaps because God cast them from a different mold or because Western people could avail themselves of efficient anti-witchcraft medicine. So what we often call faith others may well call knowledge.1

The conclusion from all this is straightforward. If people tell you “Religion is faith in a doctrine that teaches us how to save our souls by obeying a wise and eternal Creator of the universe,” these people probably have not traveled or read widely enough. In many cultures people think that the dead come back to haunt the living, but this is not universal. In some places people think that some special individuals can communicate with gods or dead people, but that idea is not found everywhere. In some places people assume that people have a soul that survives after death, but that assumption also is not universal. When we put forward general explanations of religion, we had better make sure that they apply outside our parish.



On Sale
Mar 21, 2007
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Pascal Boyer

About the Author

Pascal Boyer is Luce Professor of Collective and Individual Memory at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.

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