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Review: Theories of Religion

Reviewed Work(s):
The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion by Pascal Boyer
'The Heathen in His Blindness...' Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion by S. N.
Stewart Guthrie
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 1. (Mar., 1996), pp. 162-163.
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Thu Mar 29 20:31:36 2007

Theories of Religion
Fordham University
l%eNaturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theorg
of Religion. Pascal Boyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.324 pp.

'The Heathen i n His Blindness . . .' Asia, the West and

the Dynamic of Religion. S. N. Balagangadhara. Leiden:
E. J. Brill, 1994.563 pp.
Theoretical studies of religion remain poles apart on
fundamental issues. Can, or should, religion be the subject
of a theory? Can it be defined? Is there any "itnto define?
If so, is it a human universal or a cultural singularity?The
present two books are on opposite sides of several of
these divides.
Boyer, a social anthropologist, sees religious ideas as
a nearly universal human phenomenon distinctly in need
of explanation. Questions about the origins of such ideas,
though central for early anthropologists, have been abandoned by most later ones. Boyer claims that these later
anthropologists have been preoccupied with cultural diversity and human malleability and equipped only with a
naive empiricism. They therefore have misconceived religion, as they have culture in general, as the indefinitely
variable product of experience acting upon the blank slate
of the human mind. In contrast, Boyer aims at a "general
theory of religion, explained in terms of universal cognitive processes" (p. xv). Boyer hopes both to account for
the cross-cultural appearance of religious ideas and to
point toward a general theory of the transmission of culture by showing that our slates are far from blank.
In holding that cognition should be prominent in
analyses of religion, Boyer subscribes to a minority opinion (though an important one) held by such writers on this
topic as Hume, Tylor, and Horton. Boyer claims distinction from his predecessors, however, by his emphasis on
cognitive and developmental psychology and on universal
properties of the human "mind-brain." These properties
constrain human intuitive assumptions and thus shape
our acquisition of ideas or representations. Among the
most salient are a mentalistic psychology (a readiness to
ascribe minds, with desires and beliefs, to others), an
intuitive divide between artifacts and living beings, and an
essentialistic understanding of living kinds.
What is it that these properties explain? Although he
promises a theory of religion, Boyer soon denies Cp. 21)
that religion in fact is a proper object of a theory or even
of a definition. Instead, the term religion (like culture) is
a misleading reification,labeling a probabilistic aggregate
of similar, but not identical, ideas in individual heads.

Religious ideas, however, can be both characterized

and theorized. They concern agencies and entities
(ghosts, gods, and other spirits) that are "extranatural,"
"supernatural,""nonnaturallnand "counterintuitive,"not
only to outsiders but also to people who believe in them.
Their counterintuitivenesslies primarily in their invisibility and intangibility, qualities that conflict both with their
possession of minds and with their ability to interact with
the material world. Our sense of paradox at these qualities
evidently is enhanced by our essentialism.
The object of the theory, however, is not the counterintuitiveness of religious ideas but their transmission and
stability. These in turn are aspects of an evolutionary
system in which ideas, like genes, propagate themselves
by random variation and natural selection,and with varying degrees of success. The model is selective rather than
generative, accounting for ideaslgenes not by how they
arise but by how, once arisen, they survive.
Natural selection within the mental environment favors religious ideas because they have an optimal balance
of the intuitive and the counterintuitive. The former
makes them easy to entertain and to extrapolatefrom,and
hence to reinforce. The latter makes them remarkable and
thus memorable.
Several doubts about Boyer's theory occur to this
reader. Logically, for example, his model rests on an
analogy between a natural selection of ideas and one of
genes, which requires that ideas have the same selective
relationship to their bearer as do genes. Just as the success of genes depends on some advantageto their bearers,
so the success of ideas also should depend on some
advantage to their thinkers. However, Boyer does not say
what advantage religious ideas as a whole give people
who have them, but only what advantages they have for
their own survivalwithin their (mental) environment. The
survival of that environment itself simply is assumed.
A second problem is both logical and psychological.
It concerns the distinctive advantage that religious ideas
ostensibly have over nonreligious ones: that they are
memorable because they are counterintuitive. As noted,
the key counterintuitive qualities are invisibility and intangibility. However, many other qualities (extreme size, or
a diet of wood, or omniscience) might be equally counterintuitive. Why these in particular? Counterintuitiveness
may or may not be necessary to explain them, but it does
not seem sufficient. Psychologically, the question is similar: are all counterintuitive ideas memorable?
Ethnographicallyand again psychologically,one may
question whether invisible and intangible agents are even
counterintuitive at all. Boyer asserts that people (chiefly
the Fang) find them so, but he produces little evidence.

He also associates such agents with the supernatural; yet

crosscultural studies suggest that the supernatural is primarily a Western concept and that little corresponds to it
in other cultures.
Even more important, in my view, is that we actually
do encounter invisible and intangible agents in everyday
life. This is because humans and other animals often are
invisible,in that they conceal their presence, asby camouflage, or are intangible, in that they act from b e h d the
scenes, as by sounds and scents. Correspondmgly, our
feeling that there are hidden agents about, whether under
a leaf or in a shadowy alley, appears not only intuitive but
also well founded and indeed inevitable. At the same time,
many deities (e.g., Greek ones) are only contingently invisible--often by the most prosaic means-or intangible.
Thus invisibility and intangibility are neither unique to nor
universal in religious agents; nor are they contrary to
common expectation.
A last doubt concerns Boyer's assertion that our
distinction of artifacts from living things is intuitive. Entities that are simultaneously artifacts and living beings
range fi-omthe Greek philosophical cosmos and its component parts to the dancing California Raisins. When we
mutter at a stuck drawer, cuff a computer, or urge a balky
auto engine (a list of such actions would be endless), we
similarly and involuntarily animate artifacts.
Nonetheless, Boyer's book generally is carefully argued. His cognitive approach to religion and especially his
emphases on psychology and on universal mental constraints are important. Through them, Boyer strengthens
a slender but growing procession of cognitivists who,
after a century of near eclipse by functionalists and symbolists, are beginning to regain the spotlight.
In the second book, Balagangadhara, a philosopher,
also addresses religion as a category, but with very differ-

ent views. The central point of this circuitous, quarrelsome, and often careless work is that religion is a Western
notion (based on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as prototypes) that Eurocentric observers have mistaken for a
cultural universal.
This is an important, if not novel, claim, but the
author offers only patchy support. He provides interesting
accounts of the encounters of Christians with pagan Others, from Rome to India, but these are heavily interlarded
with seemingly random asides. His conviction that the
Abrahamic religions are the sole model for the concept of
religion leads him to claim that any major features they
share, and only those, are crucial. The result is a list of half
a dozen criteria for religion, which he uses singly or
together to exclude anythingAsian from the category. For
example, he asserts without argument that "religion must
make claims about the origin of the world" (p. 395). Hence
"Indian culture could not possibly have religion because
it knows of no unique and radical creationn(p.403). Again,
a religion must have an organization to transmit and
propagate its worldview; hence Hinduism, Buddhism, and
Jainism cannot be religions (p. 416).
Non sequiturs, unsupported allegations, and digressions abound, as do writing errors. The author remarks
more than once that some stretch of foregoing material is
irrelevant. One wishes he had given prior warning.
In sum, these two books reflect, if darkly, something
of the divided condition of current theory of religion.
Balagangadhara holds that there is no there there, except
in the threefold prototype. In effect, comparative religion
is an oxymoron. Boyer's universalistic view of what is
there is more traditional, though his explanation is not.
Together, they suggest how far theorists of religion are
from even the most basic consensus. W

Letters from a Marriage

University of Ghicago

The Story of a Marriage. The Letters of Brmidaw Malirwwski and Elsie Masson. Volume 1: 1916-20; Volume
2: 1920-35. Helena Wayne, ed. New York: Routledge,
1995.196 pp. and 261 pp.
I read these volumes in the light of three prior reading
experiences: the recently corrected page proofs of a book
in which Malinowski figures prominently; his Diary in the
Strict Sense of the Temz, which helped to constitute the
interpretation therein advanced; and Nigel Nicolson's
Portrait of a Marriage, which was called forth from a
further reach of memory by similarity of title.

Although the personae and the marriage of Harold

Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West were in critical respects
very different from those of Bronislaw Malinowski and
Elsie Rosalyn Masson Malinowska, they had in common
the fact of being unconventional but enduring relationships between contrasting but complementary personae
of very striking sorts. The intellectually robust daughter
of Scottish parents of the Australian scientific elite, Elsie
Masson had literary ambitions, suffragist sympathies, a
concern for the welfare of Australian "blacks," and a
somewhat paternalistic interest in the Australian working-class movement--she herself played a role in improving the demanding and demeaning working conditions of
nurses in the hospital where she had chosen to make her