A review of Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

by Clint Rainey

A few scientists and believers once naïvely clasped hands in hope that the evolutionary explanation for belief in God would signal a détente in the science-religion war. Belief could satisfy science by being instinctual, as Dean Hamer’s The God Gene and others argued, while also satisfying religion by being divinely set in motion. This détente, we know now, was a pipedream. Since being etiologically explained as instinct, belief has suffered at the hands of an army precision-trained in the scientific method.

Attempting to deliver the deathblow in a new book is Jesse Bering, an evolutionary psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast. Articulate and amusing, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life is a coupe de grâce as much as it is rage, arguing that belief, for modern man, is indeed an adaptation—a crucial one, up to a point—but that it’s become a vestigial organ of the mind, uselessly outmoded. “It’s not an argument against God,” Bering said in a radio interview. “I think that people would interpret it that way . . . but what I am arguing is that there is increasing evidence that God is essentially a cognitive illusion.”

His argument suffers from fatuousness at times—for instance, sincerely declaring, “My purpose in life is to explain to others why such feelings of purpose are cognitive illusions”—but the less controversial elements, like when he marshals his own research in child psychology to explain why human minds favor purposeful design, are solid and smart. “Thinking like an evolutionist is hard work,” Bering openly admits. Not until age 10 to 12 do children finally show developmental experience—that is, the daughter of evolution-minded parents will use natural selection to explain man’s origins, while her friend, the daughter of creationism-minded parents, will depend on intelligent design. Before that, almost all cosmology is purposeful-creation. The reason lies in a concept called the “theory of mind,” and it is the genesis, as it were, of Bering’s entire jeremiad. As he explains, “We can’t see minds, feel them, or weigh them in any literal sense; we can only infer their existence through observing other actors’ behaviors.”

Bering says the theory of mind was humankind’s big break, the evolutionary apogee that elevated us above apes, but shortly after it kicked in, things went sour. Our ancestors had a postlapsarian Adam and Eve-style epiphany in which they discovered they were being watched and judged. Worse, Bering says, language popped up; it wasn’t necessary to see Mog beat Thok with his club to judge Mog for his Neanderthal hostility. Thok could tell Mog’s friends and Mog’s enemies everything. (So could Thok’s wives!) Gossip, a pernicious social weapon, had arrived. And with it, ironically, so had self-awareness of the need at times for restraint. Bering explains that “reproductive success” took a hit if you failed to restrain objectionable behaviors, a phenomenon that selected for individuals with self-control. Theoretically, proto-dudes who lived as if proto–Big Brother were watching got the most proto-ladies. As ever, man’s exploits spread by gossip, and thus was Big Brother personified—deified—in the form of an omniscient moralizing surveiller. Religion, a more pernicious social weapon, had arrived.

But how did our ancestors use the new theory of mind to judge behavior and in turn modulate their own if both were learned responses to gossip? We know, as does Bering, that concepts require conception, but he offers no elucidation. He seems more concerned that we “make meaning of the meaningless,” that we kick “untrustworthy” vehicles in the sides and verbally abuse “incompetent” computers because our theory of mind “completely flooded our evolved social brains.” Our drive to assign agency and intention causes us to attribute mental states to mindless things. Deluded, we think God communicates by encrypting signs strategically in anomalies (a tsunami, an attractive coworker’s divorce, etc.). Our essential-purpose-giving tendency is the composite of various jargony tendencies, “teleo-functionalism” being Bering’s favorite, which is assuming an unknown thing’s purpose is whatever it looks like it ought to be instead of realizing it’s a product of natural processes (sort of like if a museumgoer saw a hollow, hemispherical artifact and said, “That is obviously a bowl”). Without this inborn cognitive bias, Bering claims, “much of religion as we know it would never have gotten off the ground.”

To strenuous objections, no doubt, Bering argues that extremists use the “essential-purpose argument” as a recruitment tactic. Stick enough teleo-functionalism to you and me, and we will believe God handpicked us to do just about anything. (Strap a suicide vest to us in the square, and we’ll explode with pride because “God doesn’t create ‘terrorists.’”) Infinitely more common, of course, the Rick Warren line of inspiration pushes the idea that God has unique nonviolent callings for us all. Bering says balderdash. “Thoughts of God,” a famous essay by Mark Twain, reasons that since the fly’s only conceivable purpose is divine sadistic annoyance, God doesn’t exist. In his book, Bering is kinder to the fly: He suggests—uncivilly, many would say—that Nature deals man and horsefly uniformly purposeless existences. That’s not to say we’re better or worse, but that it’s irrelevant—we “simply are.” Bering is annoyed with the Christian, one supposes, for thinking he’s better than the fly, and with the Jainist, perhaps, for finding divine purpose in a creature significantly less worthy of having one. For him, it’s a theological precept, not a joke, when Bering wisecracks, “We have no more reason to believe God frets about [human beings] . . . than there is to believe that . . . He loses sleep over whether red-billed oxpeckers decide to pick bloated parasites off the bodies of cows or rhinoceroses in the Sudan.”

Bering must be aware he advances a tenuous argument at times. Because of our theory of mind, he says we cognitively run laps around the animal kingdom, but because of our theory of mind, he also says we as a species are deluded. He may have lost his, but belief—not science, not technology—carries us; if religion is a lifebelt, it’s hard to portray it as useless. In these instances, Bering punts. He acknowledges rather than engages in the theological debates surrounding the issues and makes clear his interest in theodicy and suchlike is psychosocial. Theology is Bering’s terra incognita, but if he wants to be taken seriously outside his fraternity of atheists and Psychology Today referees, he will, alas, have to go there. It is an enigma why Bering cannot admit of the hope and inspiration humanity derives from purpose or calling. So a mechanically inclined and superbly dexterous man is deluded when he thinks he ought to pursue a job in automotive repair? This purpose giving doesn’t even presume a creator, though it can, and where it has, it has found followers in the science community too, from Charles Babbage, the steampunk icon, who considered God a divine programmer who engineered complex laws that produced all life and its miracles, to Alister McGrath, proponent of “scientific theology.”

Bering pays lip service to the belief instinct’s ministrations in proto-society, but if it has so riddled modern society, why doesn’t Bering provide a clearer picture of what the alternative—his areligious utopia—looks like? What does Jesse Bering want us to do? Act like monkeys? In reality, this may be truer than he’d comfortably admit. His book rests on two suppositions: first, that God can die, in the Nietzschean sense, now that we all recognize divinity is an illusion, an antiquated figment of Bronze Age imagination; and, second, that we will join him (Bering, of course) in a future he intuits will be blindly shameless. Coincidentally, that future is the chimpanzee’s present, a Clockwork Orange-on-pot present in which we “lack the capacity to care.” Bering describes this Shangri-La in detail:

All in plain view of each other, not to mention in plain view of your slack-jawed children, chimps will comfortably pass gas after copulating; cavalierly impose themselves onto screaming, hysterical partners; nonchalantly defecate into cupped hands; casually probe each others’ orifices with all manner of objects, organs, and appendages . . . They will rob their elderly of covetous treats, happily ignore the plaintive cries of their sickly group members, and, when the situation calls for it, aggress against one another with a ravenous, loud, and unbridled rage.

Bering notes disapprovingly that we “recoil at the mere thought of these things, cover our children’s eyes and laughingly dismiss these animals.” To which one’s gut reaction is: Surely we do. But there is a point, he says: Recoiling is “nonsense of papal proportions” (because “there’s simply not much reason to refrain from anything” without a theory of mind). That circles us back to the existential difficulty teleo-functionalist humans have accepting we’re moral because we’re moral, not because God “created us to act in specific ways because He knew best.” We weren’t designed; we weren’t even accidents; we “simply are.” Our purposes are as grand as horseflies’, our gods as interested in us as they are in oxpeckers’ symbiosis with Sudanese quadrupeds, and our 6-year-old little atheists as likely to believe in ghosts and creationism as in evolution. We are a sad, uninspired species. “The one thing chimpanzees don’t have,” Bering observes covetously, “is the often crippling, inhibiting psychological sense of others watching, observing, and critically evaluating them.” Humans “are not so lucky.” Our critical evaluator is the God inescapably built into our minds.

Clint Rainey is a religious studies/journalism graduate student in New York University’s Global and Joint Studies Program, studying the intersection of evangelicalism and American culture. He has written about religion for The New York Times, NYTimes.com, Newsweek, Slate, World, The Dallas Morning News, Killing the Buddha and other publications.