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The Belief InstinctReview - The Belief Instinct
The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life
by Jesse Bering
W. W. Norton, 2011
Review by Brad Frazier, Ph.D.
May 31st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 22)

If you're going to write about God, it helps to have a sense of humor.  Jesse Bering, an evolutionary psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University Belfast, puts his considerable wit on display in The Belief Instinct, a very engaging and thoughtful book in the growing literature of evolutionary perspectives on religious belief.

The book consists of a brief but useful introduction followed by six well-developed chapters, culminating with "God as Adaptive Illusion."  In the concluding (seventh) chapter, "And Then You Die," Bering uses the controversy over Darwin's so-called deathbed conversion to highlight the power of the belief instinct but also this breathtaking moment in the history of our species wherein we are poised more than ever before "to shatter the adaptive illusion of God."  The main themes of the preceding chapters, which contain the heart of Bering's central argument, include a) our unique evolved capacity for theory of mind -- better known to philosophers familiar with Daniel Dennett's work as "the intentional stance"; b) our corresponding overwhelming penchant for "teleo-functional reasoning" -- "a fancy philosophical expression that refers to people's thinking that something exists for a preconceived purpose rather than simply came to be as a functionless outgrowth of physical or otherwise natural processes" (55); c) how belief in the afterlife, or denial of the death of the mind, is grounded in our "illusion-generating theory of mind" and makes evolutionary sense, even if it is completely illogical; d) likewise, why suffering, especially the unjust, gut-wrenching sort, inevitably bends us in a supernatural direction.

The Belief Instinct is laced with interesting psychological and anthropological research and provocative arguments Bering draws out from this research.  His story-telling ability, sense of humor and self-deprecating style make the more scholarly sections easy to digest and a pleasure to engage.  Although the book seems to be aimed at an intelligent, reading public, it certainly will be of interest to philosophers, psychologists and sociologists of religion, in addition to other academicians who are interested in religious belief and our preoccupation with the problem of evil and the meaning of life.

The central argument of the book -- originally published under the title, The God Instinct, in Great Britain -- is that the idea of God (and other supernatural agents) is a very significant adaptive illusion.  When we evolved capacities for theory of mind and for language, we also created what Bering calls "the unique problem of human gossip."  Unlike other animals, our reputations precede us.  Once there is even a single witness to one's actions, there is a "carrier" of strategic information about oneself.  As Bering notes, "a carrier can often mean trouble, especially if it involves information about your failure to heed the warnings of the new part of your social brain" (174).  Carriers with a theory of mind understand that they are in possession of potentially juicy information that others don't know.  Once this information is shared with others -- another common human propensity, since gossip is much more efficient than trial-and-error learning -- it is quite possible that one's chances for reproductive success will deteriorate.  So, as Bering points out, "inhibition is very often the key to our survival."  Enter God, undoubtedly the most significant artifact of our theory of mind and that inhibitor than which none greater can be conceived.

It turns out that thinking about God tends to yield "a heightened, almost invasive sense of individuation" (190).  This was just too good for natural selection to ignore.  As Bering explains:

The illusion of a punitive God assisted [our ancestors'] genetic well-being whenever they underestimated the risk of actual social detection by other people.  This fact alone, this emotional short-circuiting of ancient drives in which immediate interests were traded for long-term genetic gains, would have rendered God and His ilk a strong target of natural selection in human evolution (191).

In short, the idea of God (and other supernatural voyeurs) helped our ancestors solve the not-to-be-underestimated problem of human gossip.

Bering summarizes his broader argument as follows:

The intoxicating pull of destiny beliefs, seeing "signs" in a limitless array of unexpected natural events, the unshakable illusion of psychological immortality, and the implicit assumption that misfortunes are related to some divine plan or long forgotten moral breach--all of these things have meaningfully coalesced in the human brain to form a set of functional psychological processes.  They are functional because they breed explicit beliefs and behaviors (usually but not always of a religious nature) that were adaptive in the ancestral past.  That is to say, together they fostered a cognitive imperative--a deeply ineradicable system of thought--leading our ancestors to feel and behave as though their actions were being observed, tallied, judged by a supernatural audience, and responded to in the form of natural events by a powerful Other that held an attitude toward them.  By helping to thwart genetically costly but still-powerful ancestral drives, these cognitive illusions pried open new and vital arteries for reproductive success, promoting inhibitory decisions that would have been highly adaptive under the biologically novel, language-based rules of natural selection (191-2).

Bering is fully aware of the counterargument that God "microengineered" the evolution of our brains in such a way as to make belief in God (and related beliefs) practically irresistible.  In response, wielding Occam's razor, he notes: "such philosophical positioning becomes embarrassingly like grasping at straws" (196).  In other words, evolution accounts for God and God-related beliefs much better and more simply than God accounts for evolution.

In addition to the virtues of The Belief Instinct already noted, Bering's positions are clearly stated, make sense, and are well supported.  For an evolutionary psychologist, he employs a very impressive array of literary, film, and philosophical perspectives to illustrate his points.  His reading of Sartre, in particular, is illuminating.  It is to Bering's credit as well that he manages to advance the discussion of how evolutionary theory helps us understand our propensity to religious belief, not to mention that his particular ideas are novel and fascinating.  There is just the right mixture of personal and scholarly reflection in this book, too.  I plan to use it in the near future for an undergraduate course on belief and knowledge.

There are no glaring weaknesses in Bering's arguments.  However, in his discussion of the damaging effects of the teleo-functional bias to which we are prone, he places too much blame on this bias and, in turn, underplays the cultural and sociological roots of the problems he mentions.  For instance, while there is no doubt that teleo-functional reasoning helps to underwrite homophobia ("it's unnatural"), it's also undeniable that hostile attitudes of this sort are at least partly grounded in xenophobia and complex, culturally variable social and political phenomena.  Darwin does not render Foucault irrelevant.

Furthermore, whether we like it or not, many great human achievements probably trace back to teleo-functional reasoning ("I was destined to do this").  Bering almost completely ignores this fact; his discussion here is not as even-handed as it is elsewhere in the book.  Still his chapter on this pervasive bias, "A Life Without Purpose," is a nice companion piece to Nietzsche and Rorty on the difficulty of getting out from under stultifying inherited vocabularies in pursuit of novel self-creation, and to Sartre's many takes on the inhibiting presence of others -- especially God -- and their potentially suffocating expectations and descriptions of us.

There is a mild tendency to reductionism in Bering's thought as well.  For instance, he refers to "why" questioning being "secreted by our human brains" or "done by a brain" and belief in God as a "glandular feeling."  He also states that moral rules are "nothing but the logistical details by which group members can coexist without tearing each other to bits" (186).  He wonders as well whether our capacity for theory of mind is the "one big thing" that will "help us finally understand what it means to be human" (23).

These are hiccups in an otherwise elegant, sophisticated, and measured perspective.  For whatever is involved in religious and moral beliefs, it is human beings in complex community with other such beings who harbor such beliefs and evolve diverse and intricate rituals and practices that do not admit of such simplistic explanations -- at least not without much more argument than Bering gives for these claims.  Moreover, why do we still pine for the "one big thing" that captures the human condition?  We should subject this propensity to over-simple explanations to the same scrutiny with which we approach the God instinct.  Perhaps it is just another hangover from too much teleo-functional reasoning.

Along these lines, Bering's work leaves me wondering even more about how the hardwiring of natural selection works in tandem with cultural conditioning to produce the amazing diversity of religious beliefs that exist.  This is not a weakness of The Belief Instinct, however.  It's simply a reminder that we need as many research angles on this complex phenomenon as we can generate to reach a fuller understanding of our ineluctably religious selves.

Bering doubts we'll ever be fully rid of God.  He thinks "nature has played too good a trick on us" (201).  He's not even sure it would be a good thing, all things considered, to overcome the God illusion.  So what's the payoff of Bering's own work then?  He suggests that it enables us to "distance ourselves from an adaptive system that was designed, ultimately, to keep us hobbled in fear."

This is quite a paradox we are left with as Bering concludes his book.  If belief in God is, after all, an adaptive illusion, what are we doing to ourselves as we continue systematically to deconstruct it?  Can we still benefit from the illusion even if we've seen through it?  Have we evolved forms of higher consciousness and self-understanding that are inimical to our own preservation -- an interesting nuance in the "disease of consciousness" perspective Nietzsche bequeathed to us?  I hope in future works that Bering wrestles more with this paradox.  His reflections undoubtedly would be insightful, authentic and amusing.

Bering humorously notes that he would be happy if his book still had a "faint pulse" in a year.  I hope so.  We would all be the better for it.  I highly recommend this book.


© 2011 Brad Frazier


Brad Frazier is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wells College in Aurora, New York.  He recently published Rorty and Kierkegaard on Irony and Moral Commitment: Philosophical and Theological Connections (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).  He also has published essays in Philosophy and Social Criticism; Journal of Religious Ethics; International Philosophical Quarterly; History of Philosophy Quarterly; and The Daily Show and Philosophy


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