Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review: The Belief Instinct, a.k.a. The God Instinct

Jesse Bering's book on the psychology of belief was titled "The God Instinct" in the U.K. but released as "The Belief Instinct" in the U.S.  I would love to hear the story of how they decided to change the title.

This is a rare book that cites verifiable research sources and yet reads like something you could pick up at Waldenbooks.  I'll link to some of these sources in this review.

The book starts off rather tedious, but I didn't know a lot of this stuff so I stuck with it.  The main point seems to be that "Theory of Mind" (i.e., theory that others have minds) is behind the need to believe in some intelligence in the universe. 

The next section talks about the concept of having a purpose in life.   I've heard this argument many times from theists:  If you don't believe in God, then your life has no purpose.  Their purpose?  If they're glassy-eyed fundamentalists, it's to glorify god, or perhaps just worship him.  But in reality their purpose is to stay on God's good side so they won't go to Hell.  Ask a Christian sometime if they would still worship God if they knew with 100% certainty they would be going to Hell anyway.  I bet they've never considered that.   If you've never encountered such a theist, I suggest having a listen to this caller (Clifton) on the Atheist Experience.  He demonstrates both of these first two psychological needs perfectly.  Note that it doesn't matter whether any of Christianity is true, only that it supposedly gives one a purpose. Believers don't cling to their religions because they really believe in everything in the ancient texts.  They cling to them because these religions fulfill an existential need and they can't imagine going through life with that need unmet.

The chapter that particularly intrigued me is called "When God Throws People off of Bridges."  There is a remarkable history of people plunging to their deaths from bridge collapses, and preachers afterward trying to defend God's decision to dump them into the drink.

The first of these happened in Britain in 1845.  A crowd of women and children gathered to watch a stunt on the river below.  The bridge collapsed and about sixty children and as many as forty adults lost their lives.  The local reverend urged the grieving townspeople to reflect on their sins, which he blamed for the disaster.  (A local inquest blamed the design of the bridge)

Piaget's theory of the moral development of children to the rescue!  We want JUSTICE!  We want things to make sense.  We want some parental surrogate to sort out the good from the bad and mete out the punishment to those who deserve it.  This is somehow tied to a concept called "intentionality."  Things happen for a reason, and someone intended things to be that way.  When good things happen, it's because we're good people and we deserve it.  When bad things happen we must be to blame, and some supernatural entity metes out the punishment.

So... the more you suffer, the more you believe in God.  If you live in Northern Europe, you're fairly comfortable and you don't need God.  If you're unhealthy and living in poverty in Mississippi you're likely to be part of the overwhelming majority in that state that believe in God.  This whole thing also explains what I considered a surprising denouement in PBS' Nova episode "The Bible's Buried Secrets," that I reviewed here.  When the Jews were defeated and dragged off to Babylon, they became more religious.  It also explains the (false) idea that "There are no atheists in foxholes."  If you believe in your own religion because it helps you deal with existential fears, the fear of death would be the ultimate.  Psychological projection takes it into the realm of the other's mind (theory of mind again).  It's hard to imagine another mind that isn't like our own.

I'm still only halfway through the book but I thought I'd post this half-book review, seeing as I keep digressing into my own ideas anyway!

I recommend it for anyone who is tired of the Science vs. Religion debate.  The scientific method plays into this because of the studies the author cites, but it's about the psychology of belief, which I think is at the root of religion.

While you wait for me to get around to the rest of the book for the second half of my review, check out The author's site

What is the Square Root of a Tomato?


T. A. Lewis said...

Great review. Bering is one of the best minds working in the field of cognitive science of religion and he's a good writer as well.

I don't completely agree with him about the power of explaining theism with theory of mind (I think he relies on it by itself a little too much) but it is certainly one of the core components.

krissthesexyatheist said...

Mmmm, so this is what a 'real' book review looks like (as opposed to mine)-nice. Without knowing anything about the title change I'd say it was, mmm, idunno...Christian Privilege. In 2011, even after the Awesome New Atheist have been around for almost ten years now, we still can't hurt their feelings. Sheez.


LadyAtheist said...

Thank you both. I don't really have time to read this book but it drew me in. A lot of Christians reject the creation story and the flood and yet remain believers. Rejection of science really doesn't have much to do with clinging to religion.

Never Was An Arrow II said...

Northern European CONSUMERISM squelches more than belief in God.

Besides, the liberal northern Europeans are all on drugs, are just perpetual rebellious punks in existential crisis. I'm praying for calamity to befall them! Soon, the throwback Muslims will rule those nations. Soft and hard Islamic jihad is set to replace more than their IKEA furniture. I'm really surprised the nipply Little Mermaid statue remains untouched by the drones of Muhammed as they reach the 10 percentile mark regionwide~

Fortunately, we'll watch the whole hilarious deconstruction process unfold in the upcoming years, on CNN.

LadyAtheist said...

Arrow, your ignorant bigoted comments just prove what many atheists suspect: that Christians are ninnies.

Mike D said...

Interesting. I highly recommend the book "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer. He's an anthropologist and studies religious belief through the lens of evolution, cognitive psychology and behavioral sciences. I really wish I could persuade more of my religious friends to read it, since scientific dissections of religion are IMO much more devastating than polemics.

LadyAtheist said...

That sounds like a good book! Studying anthropology was part of my deconversion. If everyone thinks they're right, it's more likely that everyone's wrong.

Unfortunately, the idea that religion fulfills an organizational social function leads to the conclusion that the state is a substitute for that function, i.e. communism. Considering how many fundies are fascists erm. right wingers as it is, I would want to be ready with an answer to that

Chatpilot said...

Aside from allaying real and imaginary fears religion in my opinion is also plays a role in giving a theist a sense of grandeur and privilege. They like the idea of feeling above all of creation, besides... they're God's children. I refer to religion as preconditioned beliefs that are taught to us by our parents and the society of our upbringing. Theists love the feeling of belonging, of cohesion, of being a part of something as a whole. Atheists like myself are individuals, I don't need to feel or belong to anything. I am content to live my life my way and enjoy every moment that I have on this Earth. The biggest fear that religious delusion alleviates is the fear of death. Theists believe that because of their beliefs they will inherit "eternal life," what a ridiculous notion.

Tristan D. Vick said...

Another good book along the lines of Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained" and Jesse Bering's "The Belief Instinct" is Bruce M. Hood's excellent book "Supersense."

I feel all three of these books should be read together as a set. Together they cover just about all the bases in terms of how we develop beliefs, and it really does destroy most religious belief by proving it inauthentic and entirely man-made.

LadyAtheist said...

Thanks for the recommendation. It's so frustrating to have Dawkins giving the impression that religion is merely unscientific. We need to speak to the true reasons for religiosity, not just the creation story, which a lot of Christians recognize as myth