Pascal Robert Boyer is a French and American cognitive anthropologist, mostly known for his work in the cognitive science of religion. He taught at the University of Cambridge for eight years, before taking up the position of Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches classes on psychology and anthropology. He was a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Lyon, France. He studied philosophy and anthropology at University of Paris and Cambridge, with Jack Goody, working on memory constraints on the transmission of oral literature.
Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist, studies how human biases and cognitive faculties have resulted in or encouraged cultural phenomena. He advocates the idea that human evolution resulted in specialized capacities that guide our social relations, culture, and predilections toward religious beliefs. Boyer and others propose that these cognitive mechanisms make the acquisition of “religious” themes, like concepts of spirits, ghosts, ancestors or gods, highly transmissible within a community.
Boyer has conducted long term ethnographic fieldwork in Cameroon, where he studied the transmission of Fang oral epics and its traditional religion. Most of his later work consists of experimental study of cognitive capacities underlying cultural transmission. He also conducted studies on supernatural concepts and their retention in memory, and a general description of cognitive processes involved in transmission of religious concepts.
He has written several books, of which Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, is the most known. Boyer introduced cognitive anthropology, which provided a new understanding of religion. Religion for Boyer is a cultural construct and thus it is hard, if not impossible, to find an essence of it. This is also why definitions of religion fail. There is hardly anything in common with all religions except relation to supernatural agents (spirits, gods, ancestors and such). The concept of Supernatural agents is core for his theories working with religion because for Boyer, “Religion is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies.” The underlying basis for his theory of religion is that religions are natural in at least two senses: “that the content and organization of religious ideas depend on properties of human mind-brain and despite ‘socialization’, they are perceived as intuitively unnatural by human subjects.” In this cognitive paradigm belief in supernatural agents is natural and part of human cognition.
The Counterintuitive Concept
In Religion Explained, Boyer uses the word “counterintuitive” as “a technical term” (p. 65) to refer to how “religious concepts seem to go against some of (the) information” that people (consciously or not) associate with “ontological categories” (p. 64). While Boyer does allow for “precognition” as an example of “puzzling mental phenomena” (p. 11), he uses the word “intuition” here to apply to “guess(work)”, which is a “powerful” (p. 53), but “not always reliable” (p. 54) component of “the brain’s inference systems” (p. 18). Important for Boyer is that “when we have relatively stable intuitions about what is ‘all right’ and what is not, it is often because we are using rules without necessarily being aware of them” (p. 54).
Boyer’s suggests that “the neologism counterontological might be a better choice” than counterintuitive, since he is explaining how “concepts are…counterintuitive” in that they “includ(e) information contradicting some information provided by ontological categories” (p. 65). For Boyer, “religious concepts” are counterintuitive in that they both “violate certain expectations from ontological categories [“very abstract concepts…distinguish(ed) from more concrete ones”, see p. 60–61, and elsewhere for definition and detail]” and “preserve other expectations” (p. 62). Boyer asserts that “religious concepts invariably include information that is counterintuitive relative to the (ontological) category activated” (p. 65).
Justin L. Barrett has argued that Boyer’s book, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion is an attempt to reform traditional models and allow understanding religion in terms of cognitive experience. Boyer dismantles many traditional assumptions of cultural studies. However, Barrett claims, Boyer lacks clarity--mostly due to the shift in anthropological to psychological jargon.
- Tradition as Truth and Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992. ISBN 978-0-521-37417-0.
- The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1994. ISBN 978-0-520-07559-7.
- Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2002) Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-00696-5.
- Translated into Greek as Και ο Άνθρωπος Έπλασε τους Θεούς, by Dimitris Xygalatas and Nikolas Roubekas (ISBN 9789602882252).
- Translated into Polish as “I człowiek stworzył bogów… Jak powstała religia?” (ISBN 8373379851).
- Translated into Russian as "Объясняя религию. Природа религиозного мышления" (ISBN 9785916716320)
- Memory Mind and Culture. Edited by Pascal Boyer and James V. Wertsch. New York: Cambridge University Pres. 2009.
- Cognitive Aspects Of Religious Symbolism. Edited by Pascal Boyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992.
- The Fracture of an Illusion: Science and the Dissolution of Religion. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht August 23, 2010.
- Minds Make Societies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, (ISBN 9780300223453)
- Evolutionary origin of religions
- Evolutionary epistemology
- Evolutionary psychology
- Faith and rationality
- Relationship between religion and science
- Cognitive science of religion
- Evolutionary psychology of religion
- Cognitive anthropology
Notes and references
- Official home page Archived 2006-11-14 at the Wayback Machine
- "Pascal Boyer CV".
- "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Pascal Boyer". www.gf.org. Retrieved 2015-12-12.
- "Department of Religious Studies". rel.as.ua.edu. Retrieved 2015-12-13.
- "Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors by Pascal Boyer". human-nature.com. Retrieved 2015-12-12.
- Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books. ISBN 0-46500696-5.
- Boyer, Pascal (1994). The Naturalness of Religious Ideas. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-520-07559-5.
- Boyer, Pascal (1998). "Creation of Sacred: A Cognitivist View". Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. 10 (1).
- Boyer, Pascal (2010). Park, Michael G.; Schmidt, Thomas M. (eds.). The Fracture of an Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. p. 10. ISBN 978-3-525-56940-5.
- Barrett, Justin L. (1996-12-01). "Review". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 35 (4): 449. doi:10.2307/1386422. JSTOR 1386422.