Pascal Boyer Dissects Religion
Recently Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis wrote an essay for Nature, “Religion: Bound to believe?” In Boyer’s commentary we find the typical approach of those studying the psychology and neuropsychology of religious belief.
For instance, of our capacity to form coalitions, Boyer writes:
This coalitional psychology is involved in the dynamics of public religious commitment. When people proclaim their adherence to a particular faith, they subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence, and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous in other religious groups. This signals a willingness to embrace the group’s particular norm for no other reason than that it is, precisely, the group’s norm.
Now something tells me that religious folk, even rather simple religious folk, might reject Boyer’s characterization of them as people who cling to guns and religion–oh wait, that was someone else–as people who “subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence, and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous in other religious groups.” But let’s put that aside.
The amazing thing is that Boyer rightly maintains that religious belief is easy and natural. It seems to be the natural way our cognitive systems work. But when researchers normally attempt to explain a phenomenon in terms of brain malfunction, it is usually an abnormal belief. For instance, we assume (to use one of Boyer’s own examples) that it is the obsessive-compulsive people, the minority, whose cognitive equipment is misfiring.
But why then
does Boyer seek to explain the dominant religious view, which he admits is the normal way brains function under normal circumstances, as though it was faulty? Why doesn’t he turn it around? Why doesn’t he seek to explain religious disbelief, which is the extreme minority, in terms of cognitive malfunction, if, as he admits, normal brain functioning leads to religious belief? In fact, he doesn’t even need to “turn it around,” seeing as irreligious people all-too-often also fit his definition of folks who “subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence, and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous in other religious groups.”
Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.
Of course this does not follow from any of the research he presents. If anything, the research he cites shows that religious belief is natural, and scientists like Boyer ought to be applying their expertise to find out why the irreligious fail to believe when they are, so to speak, “programmed” (whether by evolution or by design) to do so.