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The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls,…

The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (edition 2010)

by Jesse Bering

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Title:The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life
Authors:Jesse Bering
Info:Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2010), Edition: hardcover, Hardcover, 288 pages
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The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life by Jesse Bering



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Gay Stinson has a copy - Feb. 2017
  kgreply | Feb 5, 2017 |
Shouldn't the single most important scientific question there is be approached with an open mind?

This book takes on a provocative topic: Why, if we do not assume interference from a God or Gods, might we believe in those beings?

This is a question which scientists seem to shy away from, perhaps because they don't want to be seen as "explaining away" God -- after all, they have funding to preserve! And yet, there are very good reasons to think that religion conveys evolutionary advantage. For at least two reasons. (Author Bering never really makes this point explicitly -- I'm not dead sure he even realizes it explicitly -- but I'll say this my way.)

First, human society is based on interactions, which have to be based on trust. You can't have too much cheating, or the system breaks down. So you need an enforcement mechanism. A god who will punish you for doing wrong is an enforcement mechanism.

Second, it is well-known (although Bering does not bring out the research on this) that people who have a purpose in life are more successful. Believing in an afterlife is obviously motivational: We aren't going to die and just vanish; all that work we do serves to build on something. Religious feelings increase reproductive fitness. This has been clearly demonstrated.

Bering does make another point, which I have not seen elsewhere: That our "theory of mind" (that is, our ability to realize that other people and things have a different viewpoint from our own) is tremendously adaptive (and it is -- one of the reason people with autism have so many difficulties is that they have defects in theory of mind). Since it's so useful a trait, it has expanded to be a little too strong: We try to impose theory of mind on things like natural disasters that don't in fact have theory of mind. (Bering is a little fast and loose here; theory of mind is a concept with many parts, and he acts as if only humans have it. But elephants and dolphins and chimps also have some theory of mind, raising the possibility that they might even have some aspects of it that we don't. Bering ignores this completely.) If human beings are guilty of applying theory of mind to all sorts of things that don't have mind, why not apply it to the entire universe, which is certainly too complex for us to be able to test whether it has a mind? God is, in effect, what you get if you look for theory of mind in the universe. (I'm being sloppy in my terminology. Forgive me. It was faster that way.)

So: Bering has found three ways in which religion is evolutionarily adaptive: it (sometimes) makes us more social and moral; it (sometimes) makes us more reproductively fit, and it (sometime) helps us see the universe in a more efficient way. In other words, religion makes evolutionary sense even if it isn't true.

So far, so correct: religion could well exist whether it contains a shred of truth or not. But it's here that Bering falls down. He never takes the next step: Having shown that religion could be false, he does not examine the question of whether it is. He simply assumes religion is false and tries to explain it. He does not attempt to consider the other side (if religion were true, what tests might we be able to apply?). This isn't really science; it's philosophical arguing based on some scientific data.

The result is a good, useful (if slightly ponderous) book, but I found it rather irritating because it operates on an unnecessary assumption (that God does not exist). Any good scientist knows that we should never assume what we don't have to. Instead, we should try to test anything we can test. Right up to the existence of God. ( )
  waltzmn | Jun 25, 2015 |
I found this book very interesting, though it was a little repetitive. I didn't disagree with much, and I did enjoy learning about the theory of mind. It was well-written, with a nice balance of the personal- not too much, not too little. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
The author, Jesse Bering has come up with what could be an important concept on evolution. His ideas involve a psychological evolution of humans that occurred parallel with physical evolution. Specifically, he is convinced that a belief in the supernatural by early humans has had a hugely beneficial affect on humans, so much so that those early humans accepting the idea, predominated over those who did not, eventually coding the belief into our current genetic makeup. He believes we are predisposed to believe in a supernatural being and the predisposition is a result of genetic imprinting formed during prehistoric times.

He has talked on this idea previously and I heard one of his talks on NPR Radio given on August 30th 2010. His idea seemed convincing and when he published a book on his idea, I purchased it to better follow the thought.

I found the book worth reading but less effective than the radio discussion. The writing style is fine but the structure is not optimal. There is no clear statement of the idea anywhere in the first 30 pages of the book, either the acknowledgements, preface, or 1st chapter. This leaves the reader with little interest in continuing through the dialog of seemingly slightly related happenings and previous findings for the next hundred pages.

Finally, at the chapter beginning on page 165 Bering begins to lay out his idea. From then on, the reader follows Bering’s thinking pretty well.

There are psychological tests run mostly on children that Bering covers in the first 165 pages that bear out the scientific basis of his convictions, establishing the idea as science rather than whimsy.

I went back to my copy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” to compare Darwin’s presentation of physical evolution to Bering’s presentation of psychological evolution. I found that Darwin used a writing style that was clearer. Darwin used what later developed into the style used by all hard science researchers, an organizational style that begins with an abstract, a statement of the idea, a discussion of methods, a discussion of the findings, a conclusion, and a summary.

Bering does not follow this style in the book and I found no reference of a companion scientific style publication by him on this idea. The scientific style would possibly work better on this idea, but be less available to the general public if published in authoritative peer-reviewed scientific publication.

Bering does describe in the book many scientific psychological studies that do back up the fundamentals of his idea and so I think his idea is scientifically well founded and deserves serous consideration.

His idea neither encourages nor discourages an individual to believe in the supernatural but simply discusses how the predisposition to its belief evolved. For this reason, his idea should not be the hot button issue that physical evolution is.

For those who want to delve into how the mind works, and why it functions the way it does, I recommend this book. For those who would like a more concise version of Bering’s idea, the archives of his discussion on National Public Radio “All Things Considered” dated August 30th 2010 are helpful. ( )
  billsearth | Jul 19, 2011 |
This was a surprisingly slow read for a book that I picked up very eagerly. I was first introduced to the connection between religion and current cognitive science in a course on ancient near eastern religion, and I was intrigued. The idea is that the human brain is inclined to believe in some sort of divine agent because that sort of belief was beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. For example, when an event occurs, it's useful to think that that event was caused by an active agent rather than happening by chance; the cost of attributing something to an agent when it was really just a coincidence isn't very high, whereas attributing something to chance when it was actually the work of a deliberate agent could have very negative consequences. To take a very simple example, if some leaves move in the wind, that could be a sign of a predator; ignoring that sort of sign because we took it as meaningless might result in death. On the other hand, if we assumed that someone had moved the leaves and it turned out to be nothing, no harm would be done. So assuming agency behind events is a positive, and we evolved accordingly. This, of course, ties in to whether we perceive God's agency behind various events today. Doing so is in some sense natural.

The issue of God is further elaborated by the idea of "theory of mind". Not only do we assume that some active agent is behind things, but we can actually imagine what that agent might be thinking. This ability is apparently more or less unique to humans, and developed as a way to help us live together in society. Because we can imagine what others are thinking about us, and can therefore imagine the negative response to certain behaviours, we have to show some restraint rather than giving in to all of our urges. Incidentally, we come to imagine the mind of God as well.

I personally find these ideas very interesting, so I wanted to find out more after reading a bit about them for class. Within the week, I happened to come across this popularizing account, so I immediately bought it thinking that it would be an enjoyable read that simultaneously helped me understand the issues better.

The Belief Instinct did turn out to be full of interesting facts and did aid my understanding to a certain extent, but I found that the overall presentation was a bit lacking. There are lots and lots of descriptions of experiments, which were fun to read but sometimes made the book feel a bit disjointed. Worse, I didn't like the "popular" writing style at all. Rather than clarifying the issues, I felt that it sometimes obscured them, and it wasn't consistent. The switches between often fairly low-brow humour and somewhat more technical explanations were a bit jarring; at one point the author made a joke about using a big, scary word (teleo-functional), while at other points using unfamiliar psychological terms freely.

In the end, it took me about six weeks to finish this book because it just wasn't as gripping as I had expected. I do feel like I had learned a lot by the end (though my explanations of the theories should be taken with a big grain of salt), but I had expected so much more. I would cautiously recommend this book to those interested in the topic. ( )
1 vote _Zoe_ | Apr 2, 2011 |
Showing 5 of 5
The most one can say about The Belief Instinct is that it makes an uncommonly compelling case for the self-loathing of humanity.
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THE CHILD: I'm frightened.
THE WOMAN: And you should be, darling. Terribly frightened. That's how one grows up into a decent, god-fearing man.
-- Jean-Paul Sartre, The Flies (1937)
For my father, William
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God came from an egg.
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An evolutionary psychologist examines humans' belief in God and argues that it evolved in the species as an "adaptive illusion" that originally had an evolutionary purpose, now outdated, that ensured the survival of the human race.

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