Pascal Boyer

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Pascal Robert Boyer is a French anthropologist, and Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, teaching classes on psychology and anthropology.[1] He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting professor at the University of Lyon, France.[2] He studied philosophy and anthropology at University of Paris and Cambridge, completing his Masters and PhD in Ethnology at Universite de Paris-Nanterre,[2] focusing on memory constraints on transmission of oral literature.[3]


Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and cognitivist, is a scholar on the study of how people and communities perceive features of their culture, such as religions. His work centers on the human brain and how its evolutionary biases and functions have resulted in or encouraged apparent cultural phenomena.[4]

He advocates the idea that human instincts provide us with the basis for an intuitive theory of mind that guides our social relations, morality, and predilections toward religious beliefs. Boyer and others propose that these innate cognitive mechanisms, such as agency detection devices or intuitive ontological sets, make the acquisition of "religious" themes, like god-concepts, highly transmissible within a community. His research thus involves the cognitive processes requisite for acquiring, storing, and transmitting cultural knowledge, norms and preferences, showing how the organization of the human mind influences human cultures by making certain types of ideas or norms extremely easy to acquire and communicate.[4]

Boyer has conducted long term ethnographic fieldwork in Cameroon, where he studied the transmission of Fang oral epics and its traditional religion. Currently, Boyer is conducting cognitive experimental work on young children's concepts of animate beings and number. Most of his 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.[3]

He has written many books, of which Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, is the most known. Boyer introduced cognitive anthropology, which gave a new understanding of religion.[5] 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).[6] 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."[6] In his jargon Supernatural agents. 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 non-cultural properties of human mind-brain and despite 'socialization,' they are perceived as intuitively unnatural by human subjects."[7] Thanks to his cognitive paradigm it is possible to connect culture (religion) and biology,[8] because belief in supernatural agents is natural and part of human cognition.[9]

The Counterintuitive Concept[edit]

In Religion Explained, Boyer uses the word "counterintuitive" as "a technical term (p. 65)"[6] 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)."[6] While Boyer does allow for "precognition" as an example of "puzzling mental phenomena (p. 11),"[6] he uses the word "intuition" here to apply to "guess(work)," which is a "powerful (p. 53),"[6] but "not always reliable (p. 54)"[6] component of "the brain's inference systems (p. 18)."[6] 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)."[6]

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)."[6] 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]"[6] and "preserve other expectations (p. 62)."[6] Boyer asserts that "religious concepts invariably include information that is counterintuitive relative to the (ontological) category activated (p. 65)."[6]


Justin L. Barrett has posited 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.[10]

Charles W. Nuckolls argues that Boyer and his colleagues do not consider emotion, and thus neglect the relationship between action and the desire for attachment. Furthermore, Boyer's hypotheses do not recognize emotionally complex origins of the assumptions described as intuitive.[11]


See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Official home page
  2. ^ a b "Pascal Boyer CV". 
  3. ^ a b "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Pascal Boyer". Retrieved 2015-12-12. 
  4. ^ a b "Department of Religious Studies". Retrieved 2015-12-13. 
  5. ^ "Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors by Pascal Boyer". Retrieved 2015-12-12. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books. ISBN 0-46500696-5. 
  7. ^ Boyer, Pascal (1994). The Naturalness of Religious Ideas. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-520-07559-5. 
  8. ^ Boyer, Pascal (1998). "Creation of Sacred: A Cognitivist View". Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 10 (1). 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Barrett, Justin L. (1996-12-01). "Review". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35 (4): 449. doi:10.2307/1386422. 
  11. ^ Nuckolls, Charles W. (2004-01-01). "Toward a Cultural Psychology of Voluntary Action Beliefs". Anthropos 99 (2): 411–425. 

External links[edit]