Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review, Part Deux: The Belief Instinct

More on Jesse Bering's book on the psychology of belief . "The Belief Instinct" continues harping on the issue of "theory of mind" throughout, but the points are interesting if not valid (I'm not one to judge).

Whenever I encounter a reference to the naturalness of belief, or basically any claim to the universality of some religious virtue, I want to hear about the unnatural examples.  This book delivers.
Toward the end of the particularly delightful chapter titled, "When God Throws People Off of Bridges," Bering refers to studies of autistics and aspies, and how their reactions differ from those of "normal" people. There are also studies of atheist reactions to "coincidences."  I found both of these particularly validating, as they prove my suspicion that though religious sentiment (or instinct) may be natural, it is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of or reaction to reality.

The surprising and uncomfortable result of studying atheist reaction to coincidences and unfortunate events is that we, too, want to believe in Fate or some guiding hand making things go the way they're supposed to.  He relates this to his pet theory (Theory of Mind) of course, but the very fact that atheists, myself included, feel a kneejerk reaction to these events says to me that 1) religious stories are the window dressing of human thought processes, not the other way around and 2) wishful thinking in atheists is the result of human psychology, not a suppressed belief in the supernatural.  This speaks to the "no true atheist" and "there are no atheists in foxholes" cannards.  Unlike less developed species and less-developed humans (i.e. autistics), most healthy humans not only survive by relating to the minds of other, but by hoping to find comfort and answers by reaching out to those minds.

Research has shown humans to be more susceptible to religious sentiment during trying times.  These are times when our usual social network has let us down somehow.  If you depend on your family for comfort and you get lost in a snowstorm, a fantasy creature that can hear your thoughts will make a fine substitute.  If your spouse has died, the person you would still feel an impulse to turn to is that same person whose death has distressed you.  Believing that your ancestors are watching out for that person will be a comfort both to you and to the spouse you assume will be equally as distressed.  If a tornado roars through town, everyone else feels the same way and they are dealing with their own traumatic stresses.  Enter the all-loving "Creator" (who allowed the destruction) they can gather together to pray to.

And speaking of Death... this is another feature of the Theory of Mind.  Bering cites studies showing that people have a very difficult time handling the idea that their mind will not continue after their body dies, a kind of theory of one's own mind.  He extrapolates this to the death of others, but I think that's the reverse.  We are utterly dependent on other people from our first breath to our last.  Christianity plays up the personal, but Eastern religious play to the theory of mind of others much more.  Ancestor worship and shrines to them play a role in some religions.  I think the difficulty of letting go of the individuals that have made our individual lives possible explains the belief in an afterlife much better.

Even Christians, who supposedly believe that souls go to Heaven or Hell, often want to believe their loved ones are waiting for them or watching over them.  My grandmother used to talk to my grandfather about the events of the day, even decades after his death.  I have heard people talk much more about their loved ones' afterlives than their fears or hopes for their own.  Angels take little children to God because he loves them.  (that one always makes me gag)   And then there's the Rainbow Bridge story, which has taken hold in a surprisingly short time.

I suppose these constitute what apologists like William Lane Craig call "properly basic beliefs."  He even cites the belief in the presence of other minds as a properly basic belief.  Craig tries to argue that some things are just so obvious that they can be treated as givens in philosophical debate, not debatable points themselves.  Alvin Plantinga makes this claim too (interesting video, even though he's full of crap).  Of course I find that idea that you can extrapolate from other humans existing to a supernatural god-human existing laughable, but with this Theory of Mind in mind (so to speak) it's a little easier to understand how Craig and thousands of years of religious thinkers have rationalized seriously irrational beliefs.

As an evolutionary psychologist, Bering believes this theory of mind is part of what gives humans a leg up in the survival of the species.  I can go along with that, and I appreciate the work of psychologists to study the phenomenon scientifically.

In order to appreciate the ease with which the people like Craig and Plantinga can convince people (and themselves) with such slim arguments I think we have only to look at a few logical fallacies.  The main problem with believing that belief in god is correct because it's part of human psychology (properly basic) is the fallacy called an appeal to nature or naturalistic fallacy.  The difference from the classic examples of natural = good is that it associates natural with correct, or justified.

We do unnatural things every day in modern society.  We fly in planes rather than walk barefoot to our destination.  We crap into the toilet rather than in the woods or over a hole in the ground.  We live into our eighties thanks to vaccinations, water sanitation, and antibiotics, among other things.  We wear glasses.  We eat Twinkies.  We blog on the internet.   Even the Amish will get into their horse and buggy and go into town on paved roads. 

None of us lives a truly "natural" life and we don't question it.  But yet when it comes to letting go of our cherished Sky Daddy and imagining our loved ones and ourselves truly becoming "dust into dust," then suddenly we (I mean "they") cry "properly basic" and "oh yeah? then where do you go when you die?"

Atheism is unnatural and difficult to get used to, but once you've freed yourself from the fairy tales, you find yourself wondering "Could I really have believed that?  How could I have tried so hard to believe something so false?"  This book gave me some answers to those questions.

And just as people are sometimes tempted to wizz by the side of the road or crap in the woods, we will sometimes revert to nature and wish a Sky Daddy or our grandparents were watching over us.  That's only natural.

Don't forget to check out The author's site, or read the book yourself.  I've probably garbled his message by putting in my own two cents. It's definitely a mind-changer, and I can imagine some minds being changed because I have a theory that other minds do indeed exist.

1 comment:

LadyAtheist said...

p.s. I still haven't finished this book! Today at Burger King I was reading about how gossip is evolutionary, and that people do more "right" things when they believe someone else is watching them. We know where this is leading. I have long thought that part of the role of religion is having someone looking over the shoulders when you're not there to do it, especially for children and people with antisocial personality disorder or people with Aspergers.

...then as I put my tray away a napkin flew off and I picked it up and put it into the trash. When I turned around a lady looked at me and smiled. It was like "Glad you're part of my society, nice lady." I wonder what kind of look I'd have gotten if I hadn't picked it up!