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Which came first: the chicken or the egg?  Or if you're a Harry Potter fan was it the Phoenix or the flame? That is the question that anthropologist Pascal Boyer brings forth in his essay titled Religion: Bound to believe? However, rather than dealing with poultry origins he seems to be more curious about religion and its origins in our culture.  Boyer wants to find out if "religion [is] an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution" and though it would be great to have one single answer it appears to be a question that can be argued in many different ways.

Pascal Boyer is a french anthropologist who continues his work today as a Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, and has published multiple books, including  Religion Explained (2001), and The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (1994).  He studied anthropology at the University of Paris and at Cambridge, and was a professor at Cambridge, San Diego, Lyon and Santa Barbara before finally settling in St. Louis Missouri, where he continues to teach anthropology and psychology today.


Religion and Its' Contributing Factors

Boyer's research mainly discusses why cultures have religious beliefs, and why it continues to be such a popular topic of conversation and controversy among groups.  He discusses how findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology all contribute to ours and/or other culture's basis of religion.

  • Cognitive Psychology: scientific study of mind and mental function including learning, memory, attention, perception, reasoning, language, etc.
  • Neuroscience: sciences which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain
  • Cultural Anthropology: branch of anthropology that deals with human culture and society
  • Archaeology: study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains

Religious Theories

So these are some of the contributing factors behind our religious ideas, but what  are some of the actual beliefs people hold on the topic? Due to the many perceptions of religion by different groups in society, multiple theories have surfaced. Many religious people do not want religion to be dissected and explained through science, because they feel as though it will lose its power if science is able to explain it.  On the other hand, certain scientists believe that religion is childish or make-believe, and so they disregard it and view it as unimportant.

What we have come to realize is that religion should not be dissected or examined too closely by science.  Religion is represented by the combination of the following practices: Ritual, morality, metaphysics, and social identity.

  • Ritual: established or prescribed procedure for religion or another rite
  • Morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct
  • Metaphysics: branch of psychology that treats of first principles, including ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology
  • Social Identity: one's sense of self  as a member of a social group (or groups)


The Social Identity Theory is a popular idea today,because everyone can relate to it.  Henri Tajfel believed that groups that we belong to are important because they give us pride and boost our self esteem.  Here at the University of Alabama we all know what it is like to have a sense of social identity, because anytime anyone says anything about our school we can't help but be proud to say "Roll Tide".  As humans we want to feel like we belong and like we are a part of something that is bigger than ourselves.  However, like in any social group, at Alabama we discriminate and stereotype those who are not a part of the Crimson Tide.  For instance, anytime we see someone with an Auburn license plate, or an Auburn sweatshirt on we automatically assume that said Auburn fan is stupid... or redneck... or inbred, etc. (just a few examples).  What Henry Tajfel believed was that this is a normal part of social identity: separating the "us" from the "them".  This kind of separation increases our pride in our own social group, and gives one a sense of belonging.

Religion As We Grow

Our view of religion as we grow older can be compared to our view of Santa as we were kids.  Growing up your parents would always tell you that you had to be good because Santa was watching, and if you weren't good you'd end up with coal in your stocking.  Therefore we would keep track of the things we did right and wrong because we thought that Santa only cared about acts that involved morality.  Boyer explains that our thought processes with religion are very similar.  We tend to pray and ask for God's forgiveness when we have done something wrong because we believe God knows when those events occur, yet we don't concern ourselves with God's opinion on random events in our day to day lives that don't actually have anything to do with morality. This is just one of the things about humans that make us unique to other species:  our sense and understanding about morality.

Another unique trait among humans is our ability to form bonds with large groups of people with which we have no relation to whatsoever.  Our ability to form and maintain these bonds affect our religious beliefs.  It all can be linked back to the social identity theory, because part of being involved with organized religion is submitting to one groups sets of certain beliefs, while completely disregarding another group's.  This signals that one is ready to fully submit to a group and in return this person can now include religion as a part of their social identity.

In Conclusion

Poyer is able to express many ideas on humans and how religion came to be.  His study of our cognitive traits have led to many significant theories and ideas about how religion and humans have intertwining histories and have evolved together through time.  So I suppose the question of "Which came first?" isn't as important as we make it seem.  The question I would like to pose is how has the development of religion throughout or evolution made us better over time?  Has it? Do we want to know the answer? So while we never really decided if one came before the other, it seems as though a continued growth and understanding of how religion and evolution have developed over time is what is most important. After all, a circle has no beginning, right?