NY Times review of “The Faith Instinct” by Nicholas Wade

January 2, 2010

Judith Shulevitz’s review of The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times had three sentences that, for me, captured the essence of the debate over religion:

Why are our gods always equipped with recognizably human minds, even when they’re animals? How do sacred stories differ, if they do, from fairy tales, or from novels? What are holiness, impurity and ritual, exactly, and are they religious in essence, or categories implicated in everything we think and do?

She also references cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s excellent Religion Explained. Amazon says of it, “Readers who can lay aside their biases will find great rewards here; Boyer’s wide scholarship and knack for elegant writing are reasons enough for reading his book.” I found his approach to a very divisive subject to be patient and methodical. (In stark contrast to the combative assault of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, another highly recommended work).

Boyer looks at both the psychology and the evolution of religion. When he does his comparative religion analysis he points out that there are patterns to religious belief. For example, no culture has conceived or, if you prefer, recorded interaction with a god that is all knowing who forgets everything he knows every 5 minutes (like the memory damage suffered by the protagonist in the film Memento).

He also looks at the transmission of religious belief from one generation to the next in a way that suggests Dawkin’s concept of the ‘meme,’ a discrete bit of information (a ritual, a catch phrase, a concept) that successfully multiples in the culture. Think of the ‘viral videos’ on You Tube and the endless stream of alleged ‘jokes’ and ‘weird pictures’ that flood your email inbox.

Of course, there are many who will reject the notion of any analysis of religion on grounds that the supernatural is verboten to rational investigators. Think ‘mystery,’ think ‘faith,’ think  ‘it’s not for us to understand the mind of god, whether Odin, Zeus or Muhammad.’ God as Fu Manchu: inscrutable. . .

That gods and spirits are construed very much like persons is probably one of the best-known traits of religion. Indeed, the Greeks had already noticed that people create gods in their own image. . . All this is familiar, indeed so familiar that for a long time anthropologists forgot that this propensity requires an explanation. Why then are gods and spirits so much like humans? — Pascal Boyer

Can I also ask, why do ghosts wear clothes? I have a soul, supposedly. Alright, it was free and, in my case, very low maintenance. It’s immortal, cool! I can come back and annoy the living, double- cool! But do my jeans and sneakers have souls too? Why does my T-shirt come with me in the After Life?


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