Book Review by Heidi Simmons
The Belief Instinct
By Jesse Bering
How is it that we can look up at the stars and feel there is something greater than us and other times feel abandoned in the universe? What is hope and despair? Why do we have these moments at all? Why do we ask why? Is part of our human condition to seek understanding and decipher what that means?
The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, by Jesse Bering (Norton, 252 pages) explores why we as human beings believe. Whether born into an ancient faith or a system of belief created on our own, human beings desire some kind of meaning, purpose and intention. In fact, it may be more than desire, it may be instinctive.
Bering is an evolutionary psychologist. He is director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University in Belfast, and one of the principal investigators of the Explaining Religion Project. Don’t let that put you off if you are afraid this book is out to destroy the religion in which you believe. I can’t say that it won’t, but it is not Bering’s intention to change your religion, only to enlighten you as to why you are a believer.
Drawing his research from literature, philosophy and science, Bering looks at our natural tendency to believe in unseen forces that shape our lives. He argues that our religious reflex is an intrinsic human trait, developed over millennium that has carried powerful evolutionary benefits.
Don’t fear, have faith and read on. He shows us that God is not a delusion, but rather a sophisticated, cognitive illusion. It is indeed a brain-based psychological process that transcends religion and is part of every human society on the planet. Bering says God is an inherent part of our natural cognitive system.
The belief instinct, according to Bering is our ability to read minds. Calling it “theory of mind” Bering describes it as our human ability to imagine, anticipate and understand what our fellow human beings are experiencing. Since we are humans, Bering assumes all humans are alike and therefore can imagine what others are thinking or what their intentions may be.
It is Bering’s belief that this trait helped humans survive by giving us tools necessary to recognize those who might want to harm us and to get along with others. Then, we learned to apply it to animals and then to mysterious natural phenomena as well. He argues we have not yet been able to escape our overactive “theory of mind.”
In light of our natural desire to see intentional agents where there are none, God becomes the ultimate mind that we are always trying to read: Why has he put us here? What does he want from us? What is His plan? This line of thought leads to a set of beliefs and cognitive biases which Bering attempts to tackle, revealing the psychological mechanisms that make them so hard to escape. Atheists reading this book will be equally challenged.
What Bering delivers is a way to reevaluate our thinking. In my view, he offers a way to refine how we see and interact with the God of our “mind.” The Belief Instinct challenges the reader to recognize the things that may not jive with our own paradigm but remain lodged in our mind perhaps from a parent’s constant refrain. Ultimately, Bering’s message, whether he intended it or not, is that we must take responsibility for the God that dwells in our mind.
Evolutionary phenomenon or not, humans are believers. If it’s a theory that exists only in our “mind” and if humans continue to evolve, then shouldn’t we improve our belief? Can we act on behalf of God in ways that are kind, generous, and loving in order to achieve a better existence and society? Is it possible to discard the ugly side of religion that generates judgment and instills fear and hate?
Baring writes with enthusiasm and humor. He is not hostile or angry with anyone or any religion. He genuinely wants to understand one of the great mysteries of our existence — God.
Like little Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street, when all she had hoped didn’t seem possible, she chanted to herself, “I believe, I believe, I believe.” It was then that believing changed her reality and a new world was revealed. Can it do our human condition any harm to include in our mind the mantra “I believe?”