Boyer, Wilson and superstitions

Posted on December 2, 2008

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While DS Wilson’s group adaptation theory of religion is the one I tend to focus upon, the most well-known evolutionary theory of religion seems to be that developed by Pascal Boyer and others. Their view is that religion is a by-product of our cognitive abilities. In other words, their theory about religion is pretty much the same as my own view on superstition. Not surprisingly, they tend to focus on religious phenomena much closer to the kinds of phenomena I consider than the religious groups Wilson focusses upon. This makes me think that Wilson and Boyer are not inconsistent but approaching religion from different directions. What is more, I expect that cognitive and evolutionary basis of the phenomena he examines and that I am interested in must be very closely linked – the bounded rationality approach seems just as appropriate to what they are doing as to my own work. This makes me wonder whether superstitions may not offer a way to link Boyer and Wilson. I am far from clear on the exact story but it seems pausible to me that some superstitions/mechanisms underlying them might have originally been by-products but then been exapted to strengthen religions in their function as group adaptations. This sounds like an interesting avenue of thought to pursue, which will force me to re-read Boyer’s Religion Explained book. This would, quite independently, be a good thing since I originally read it right when I started to think about superstitions as an area to examine and lacked the ability to appreciate much of what he was saying.

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