Scattered Thoughts on Belief

I recently read (and reread) a fascinating and rather provocative book, The Belief Instinct, by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering. Bering — never one to shy away from controversial topics (as a cursory glance at the link above reveals) — argues that belief (in God, gods, spirits, the afterlife, ancestors/saints, or anything supernatural or numinous) is an evolutionary adaptation that benefited our ancestors and allowed them to succeed. Or perhaps to put it otherwise, the cognitive changes that make humans human also make belief in the supernatural both possible and practically unavoidable. (He concludes: “This pattern of thinking strongly implies that atheism is more a verbal muzzling of God — a conscious, executively made decision to reject one’s own intuitions about a faceless übermind involved in our personal affairs — than it is a true cognitive exorcism” (164).)

There is much to be said about this book and the arguments contained therein. I genuinely appreciated the freshness of the arguments, and Bering’s attempt to go beyond the clichéd answers (e.g., God-of-the-Gaps, belief in immortality as a coping mechanism for fear of death, etc.). I found this particularly useful in understanding my own journey of faith (and unfaith), since I never needed a God-of-the-Gaps — a scientific understanding of the universe always made sense to me — and believing in some semblance of an afterlife was one of the hardest aspects of Christianity for me to accept — when I was an atheistic teenager I found the idea of the end really being the end very comforting. So, I found Bering’s appeals to Theory of Mind (the human ability to understand that others have minds and even to hypothesize about what is going on in them), Teleo-functional Reasoning (the human tendency to ask “What’s this for?”), and Simulation Constraint (e.g., we have no relatable concept of non-existence, so we conceive of death as a kind of continuing existence) far more personally satisfying in explaining the nature of belief.

The interesting thing, of course, is that such explanations can be interpreted theistically as much as atheistically. Certainly, within Christianity at least, there is an assumption that humanity was purposefully created by God in such a way that it could know and perceive God. In some ways the psychological evidence Bering presents merely confirms this basic intuition. So, what this research does is not present an argument against belief in God per se, but rather presents a viable, logical, and sensible explanation for why supernatural belief is a universal human phenomenon without reference to an intentionally creative Force. In this sense, it’s helpful for atheists without being too troubling to theists.

I guess the last thing I wanted to say right now in relation to The Belief Instinct is that it seems to me that Bering’s ideas make understandable why religious belief on a practical level seems so often to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. What I mean is that, when I was a believer, when I read the Scriptures and thoughtful spiritual/theological writings, the vision of the faith and God was so grand, vast, and beautiful that I was constantly frustrated that for many people, faith seemed to be reduced to superstition or belief in God as some sort of universal hall monitor. Yet, this sort of belief in God is exactly what is predicted by Bering’s arguments. After all, what is superstition if not an attempt to discern patterns and meaning out of our experiences? And what is God-as-hall-monitor if not an example of an extension of Theory of Mind as it relates to social mores? It all goes a long way, as I see it, in helping to explain why, for example, despite two thousand years of teaching against it, Greek women still insist on wearing their little blue marbles to ward off the ‘evil eye’, or why otherwise intelligent and thoughtful believers can still tend to see God’s judgment in random geological or meteorological events.

Anyway, interesting stuff, as always, from an always-interesting writer.

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2 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts on Belief

  1. Cassiane September 6, 2012 / 7:02 pm

    So if Bering’s arguments predict a lowest-common-denominator understanding of God, I guess that raises the question of where a “vision of the faith and God … so grand, vast, and beautiful” comes from, if it’s not just what basic human cognition gives rise to.

    I’m sure there could be all kinds of answers to that; does Bering deal with anything relevant to it?

    • stufffromthestuff September 6, 2012 / 9:18 pm

      No, he doesn’t. The aim of the book was to examine where the capacity and tendency to believe in the supernatural comes from. He hardly touches on ‘religion’ itself (or ‘religions’ for that matter) at all.

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