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The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

by Jesse Bering

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering
© W.W. Norton
W.W. Norton, February 2011

In The Belief Instinct, evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering sets out to illustrate why belief in God is not a delusion, as Richard Dawkins would have us believe, but a useful illusion, an adaptive trait that we humans have evolved over time.

Bering's writing is accessible, even humorous. He draws on popular culture references from Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet to the 1999 Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich in launching into his foundational premise - that the human ability to think about the minds of others, known as our "theory of mind," makes us prone to the belief that something outside of us thinks about us and indeed has a purpose for our lives.

Bering considers the thoughts of Sartre, who believed that we should rejoice in God's nonexistence as that which frees us from a pre-ordained purpose, and of Richard Dawkins, who scoffed at the notion of life's purpose as a question with the same measure of validity as "why are unicorns hollow?" He points to our innate propensity for "teleo-functional reasoning," the idea that things (and indeed people) exist for a purpose, as the scaffolding behind our creationist tendencies, and ultimately, quoting scientific study, he argues that there really is no essential purpose in our lives, going as far to show the detrimental consequences of such thinking in religious martyrism, skewed self-concept, and homophobia.
Bering follows this thread further in the next chapter by showing how our overactive theory of mind sometimes causes us to see signs in natural occurances, messages from the divine where there are none. He cites examples that include New Orleans' former mayor Ray Nagin, who famously called Hurricane Katrina an act of God, saying "Surely God is mad at America. Surely He's not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense." In response, Bering, in characteristically sardonic style muses, "There's no more reason to believe that God frets about the social, sexual, or moral behavior of human beings - just one of hundreds of presently living species of primates - than there is to believe that He's deeply concerned about what Mediterranean geckos have for lunch or that He loses sleep over whether red-billed oxpeckers decide to pick bloated parasites off the backs of cows or rhinocerouses in the Sudan."
Yes, Bering finds ample opportunity for humor and his delivery is on-target in calling out what he sees as the varied absurdities of creationsist ideas. What's more, he's methodically scientific in building his argument - that natural selection itself has disposed us towards a belief in God because such a belief has the effect of "short-circuiting our ancient drives in which immediate interests were traded for long-term genetic gains." Translation: Despite the intrinsically selfish and hedonistic desires of our monkey minds, the notion that some Other is constantly watching us keeps our actions in check. Clearly, in social and genetic terms this is a good thing, as those who behave morally will tend to receive more social privelage and have greater opportunity for passing these traits on to future generations.

The Belief Instinct is an engaging and insightful inquiry into our tendency to believe in God. While remaining clear on his personal atheistic stance, Bering freely admits that his studies do nothing to prove or disprove the existence of such a God; they simply show why we tend to believe. In his parting comments, Berin is, by my reckoning, a bit heavy-handed in his insistence that his readers abandon their spiritual fantasies in favor of a more rational truth, though he fairly and light-heartedly welcomes the opportunity to be proven wrong:
"If one has faith in an improbably Second Coming, a reanimated two-hundred-year-old corpse might one of these days crawl out of her tomb, straighten out her bodice, shout over to me that she's dying for a cold pint of Guinness, and say, 'Would you be so kind, love, as to fetch me one.' If that happened, and were I not already having my intestines gnawed on by some fiendish devils in hell as one of the wicked myself, I would be delighted to do so for her... I would also endeavor, once the alcohol made her comfortable enough to share such a personal experience with me, to find out fom this woman all that I could about what it's like to be dead."
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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