The Belief Instinct
by Jesse Bering. W.W. Norton, 2010
Why do so many people believe in God? Evolutionary psychologist and Scientific American blogger Jesse Bering has a novel answer to this tired question. In The Belief Instinct, he explains that although the evolution of language was beneficial—allowing us to communicate easily and disseminate important information—it also brought with it a deeply troubling problem for early humans. Language allowed onlookers to report on someone else’s behavior long after the event had occurred. This meant that if you were caught doing something objectionable, such as stealing, you had “foolishly gambled away” your reputation and consequently your reproductive prospects. Thus, believing in a supernatural being who monitored and judged anyone at all times encouraged people to avoid acting on their immoral impulses, helping them survive, Bering says.
Gossiping, however, was not the only trait that prompted humans to believe in God. Bering argues that our ability to think about what others think, known as “theory of mind,” also played an important role. He writes that our “overzealous” theory of mind motivates us to get “into God’s head” and look for hidden meaning or messages embedded in any event, such as if your alarm clock fails to go off or a hurricane floods your basement. In fact, without this cognitive bias, “much of religion as we know it would never have gotten off the ground,” Bering asserts.
While building his case, Bering tells us about intriguing research, including studies that explored whether chimpanzees have a theory of mind (a definite answer remains elusive) and whether older children are more likely to be superstitious (surprisingly, Bering’s work shows that children six to seven years old see hidden messages in events for which those three to four years old find only rational explanations).
The book’s sharp humor is refreshing and entertaining, but one of its greatest strengths is its clarity. Bering does not use jargon or tiptoe around what he thinks. Of course, we may never know whether his theory is correct, but it certainly injects a breath of fresh air into what seems to have become a stale discussion.