Friday, 25 March 2011

Review of The God Instinct by Jesse Bering

The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life, by Jesse Bering

In 'The God Delusion', it seems that Dawkins would like to give believers a good, sensible talking to about their irrational belief, in the faith that the searing light of reason will banish those ideological shadows. Jesse Bering's book is of a refreshingly different stripe; basically, he is telling us that we are stuck with a tendency to God-related thinking.

He points out that our proneness to believe in God come not from ideology but biology. He takes the main elements that contribute to religious thought - the idea of a personal God, the idea that every life has a purpose, and the idea of life after death - and shows how our mental proclivities add up to a massive pressure to engage in such beliefs.

Why? These behavioural features conferred selective advantages and, as many have pointed out, evolution produces survival, not truth.

The features he examines are the 'theory of mind', the ability we develop during childhood that enables us to put ourselves inside other peoples' heads, and a bias towards teleology. Combined together, these traits bias us strongly towards notions of purposeful design. Also:
'...our theory of mind, erroneously applied to the stateless state of death, orient us toward belief in the afterlife.'

So far, he has due and realistic respect for the million-year old reality generator under our hats, including the departments that just don't listen when we talk reason, if reason is going to vitiate our chances of surviving and passing on our genes.

Occasionally, though, he has a trace of the 'but it's only a trick of nature' parascience ploy, like when he considers how God could be re-introduced into an evolutionary perspective: if we choose (or can't help ourselves) to believe in God as a causal agent in our lives, then the fact that our neurology and endocrinology, as supplied by biological evolution, supplies such a powerful push towards belief in God, may be taken as evidence that God designed us to be able readily to perceive Him.

Bering considers this, and kind of rejects it. Why? Do we have to continue to reject the evidence of our immediate experience in favour of a 'but it's just nature tricking us' explanation? Maybe we have an innate bias towards that kind of thinking - we could call it 'The Completist Delusion'.

Which connects with what he says at the end of his examination of the idea of purpose, where he points out that, if we truly subscribe to Darwinian theory, we have to:
'view human life, generally, and our own lives, individually, as arising through solely nonintentional, physical means. This doesn't imply that we are 'accidents', because even that term requires a mind, albeit one that created by mistake. Rather, we simply are.'

This sounds like the basis for an atheistic mystical vision - but I imagine only a tiny minority of weirdo intellectuals would be able to utilize such a gymnasium of belief.

If there's a principle we can tease out here, it is that of honouring the prime data of human experience, which is subjective, inevitably. Maybe for some people (like the girl in Brian Wilson's song 'Wonderful'), the feeling of the existence of God is a primary datum, like being able to say 'I'.

If that tendency to feel God is not going to go away, then we have to consider the future of religion. Bering prophesies that the God-illusion is so persistent that atheists will never outnumber theists.

So we have a responsibility: we are stuck with religion, so what can we do about it? We can't leave it to what has been called the 'global conspiracy to cover up mass child rape', ie the Roman church. In their case, one can only hope that the social changes that are damaging them will continue escalating, until that church is eroded to a fraction of its present size, a tiny minority of lunatics in barbed-wire underwear, with all the decent folk who can't help seeing God left outside of it, doing something more humane.

We need to cherish and promote the better, more humane end of religion. And keep it out of the state, out of legislation and public life. It should be something you do in the privacy of your own home.

This book is fantastically well written, and abounds in intimate portraits of his own experience, making me think of the literary qualities and personal vividness of Oliver Sacks. Strongly recommended, and maybe I shall take on the magical belief that: the facts of science are given by God...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Breaking Convention - conference on psychedelic consciousness

Breaking Convention - A multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness.
Friday 1st - Sunday 3rd April.
Details at

I shall be giving a talk entitled 'Solve et Coagula: psychedelic self-dissolution and supernormal abilities' at this event.
Aside from that, there are loads of speakers with some very interesting topics.

Check it out!