The Origin of Religion

March 18, 2013

I’ve written frequently about my admiration of Julian Jaynes and his seminal 1976 treatise, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a work that, unfortunately, “has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas,” as a reviewer observes about a posthumous followup, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, by the founder of the Julian Jaynes Society. Although I haven’t read Reflections, I agree with the general conclusions of the book review, which gives a broad summary of Jaynes’s work and life. You should take a few minutes to read it.

It’s sad that Jaynes hasn’t received more mainstream attention just because he was an intellectual who didn’t know how to market his work. “Origin likely would have fared better had it been presented as literary provocation rather than scientific fact,” reviewer Rachel Aviv writes. “But Jaynes saw his book as a work of science, and so it was critiqued, deconstructed, and made nearly irrelevant because the theories were impossible to test.”

I’ve read anecdotally that what she says is true. Jaynes was a psychologist in a field that expects its members to have their work peer reviewed before publication. Perhaps bullheadedly, he chose to bypass this step because he already knew what his peers would say about it.

All this being said, I still wonder how often a trained scientist proposes a comprehensive theory explaining why religion exists.

In this week that has seen the selection of a new pope and has continued to see the destinies of entire political systems shaped by conjectures about what deities want for our lives, I can’t think of a more relevant book for anybody who fancies himself an atheist, agnostic, or plain old skeptical intellectual with an admiration for science.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind remains one of my favorite, 5-star books.