In the past few years, several scientists and other thinkers have written books in favor of atheism, most notably biologist Richard Dawkins and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Adding to this milieu of atheistic rationalism is research psychologist Jesse Bering’s new book, The Belief Instinct: The Surprising Psychology behind Why We Believe in God, the Supernatural, and the Afterlife. Unlike some other books in the atheist genre, Bering takes his approach from his background in evolutionary psychology to explain what evolutionary function belief in the supernatural has served. Bering argues that belief in a higher being or beings is not a mere cultural phenomenon even if we were dropped on an island with no cultural input, we would still develop belief in God. That is to say, we are hard-wired for belief.
The basic argument outlined in Bering’s book, which draws from myriad different studies, is that our belief instinct may have first developed shortly after proto-humans had developed language. While language was an incredibly useful tool in communicating information, it also had its disadvantages, namely gossip. If you were engaging in objectionable behavior, you ran the risk of information about you being disseminated to others way after the event occurred, effectively ruining your chances of reproducing. Thus, our ancestors found it convenient to develop the notion that a disembodied being was watching us and judging us, since it was advantageous to have a reason for self-control, lest it ruin our reputation and our reproductive success.
Bering notes that our belief instinct also arises from a hard-wired “theory of mind”, the desire and capacity to seek explanations for the behavior of others. This ingrained instinct became so highly evolved that we sought a theory of mind in everything, whether or not it had to do with human behavior, thus projecting “minds” onto animals and inanimate objects. Recently, Slate Magazine featured an article that excerpted a portion of the book. Bering notes:
“this cognitive capacity, this theory of mind, has baked itself into our heads when it comes to our pondering of life’s big questions. Unlike any science-literate generation that has come before, we now possess the intellectual tools to observe our own minds at work and to understand how God came to be there. And we alone are poised to ask, ‘Has our species’ unique cognitive evolution duped us into believing in this, the grandest mind of all?’ “
Although there are many arguments to be made against Bering’s insights into human belief in the supernatural, his new book is an informative and endlessly fascinating atheistic approach from the annals of the relatively new science of evolutionary psychology.
Katheryn Rivas is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online universities. Questions and comments can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.