The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering

the belief instinct

At 205 pages. this is a pretty short book for one that has a subtitle of “the psychology of souls, destiny, and the meaning of life.”  Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and has done all sorts of interesting studies which have led him to be able to make a good case on the psychology behind why humans believe in God and all that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

Bering explains that even those of us who consider ourselves to be atheists will still have deep-down feelings of unseen forces that drive our destiny, and of there being explanations for why things have happened to us.  His reasoning being that we have evolved this way.  Humans have a “theory of mind,” in other words, we can empathise with another person and have some understanding of another person’s point of view.  We needed this skill of predicting other people’s behaviours to survive.  He suggests that this may be the one big special thing that makes us human and sets us apart from other mammals.

He cites various studies that show that both religious and non-religious children and adults will be compelled to reason in terms of an inherent purpose when discussing the origins or reasons for something.  Our minds are heavily hard-wired to imagine a designer with a function in mind.

He quotes one of Voltaire’s most famous statements, that “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”  He suggests that the idea of an all-seeing being was what was keeping us all in line, but now, he says, with the internet, hidden cameras, and good old-fashioned gossip, we do not need the imaginary supernatural being any more, we really are being watched all the time.

I doubt anyone who believes in a God would pick up this book, so he is only ever going to have an agnostic or atheist audience.  I like that he does not even bother to discuss the possibility of a God, and I like his tone.  He manages to achieve what, in my opinion, Dawkins and Hitchens do not, he is not smug or patronising towards the believer.  This is purely a psychological study of the human mind’s predilection towards a common belief in some kind of supernatural higher power.  There is not a great deal of new information in this book, as far as I am concerned, but I like the way he brings it all together.

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