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...


  1. I enjoyed it as well, particularly the final injunction to recognize our mortality and fully participate in (and appreciate) the life we have. That appeals to me: If there is no final judgement to right social wrongs, the responsibility shifts to us. Now.

  2. Dean Hamer "The God Gene" 2004 seems to cover the same area to good effect with twin studies.
    - Nadine

  3. Hi Nadine! I'll check that out. I'm surprised Bering doesn't mention it, maybe they're coming from different angles.

  4. "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."

    If religion is something we only do in private then why cherish the more humane and better version?

  5. That's a good point, Joakim. My first thought is: we have the present, pernicious influence of extreme religion in national governments (for a start, think Iran, USA, and no doubt many others) partly because those nations have a lot of people sunk in those particular delusions.
    So if we give other, better religions preference, it might help reduce the influence of the carpet-chewing mass murder crowd.

  6. But then those preferences will influence the public life too. My point being: You can't isolate something called "private" from everything else.

  7. Your politics are showing! Relegating religion to "the privacy of ones home"is at this point sort of a stock answer. While this is admittedly better than the alternative (that being a monotheistic religion gaining political and legal power), I'm surprised that this was your approach. You are reviewing a book that discusses the biological wiring involved in religiosity, and it strikes me that this is an opportunity to go beyond US left and right political thinking. I've discerned two major reasons why this approach fails. First, Jeebus' followers understood that if they want to spread a religion, you must never turn the other cheek! Second, religion seems inseparable from consciousness; even atheists go to church. If we want a religious change, we need to promote active and aggressive competition. Magicians and would-be paradigm shifters could learn a lot from marketing...

  8. Alex: OK, so if there is no way to promote a political culture where mentioning what religion you are is seen as out of order, we are stuck with marketing - but marketing what? Are you advocating the kind of in-your-face left-hand path broadcasts and web presence of the Temple of Set? or something subtler?
    The polarization of 'religious' viewpoints in the US will not translate directly to UK or Europe.