“The God Instinct”

I finished reading Jesse Bering’s new book, “The God Instinct”. It was really interesting, and for me, shed new light on why I ask the kinds of questions that I do!

Jesse Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and he explains the feature of our minds known as “theory of mind”: the ability to theorise about other minds, to think about others’ thoughts, to interpret others’ behaviour in terms of their intentions, desires, beliefs and so on. Some other species may have a limited ability to do this, but in humans this tendency is so pervasive that almost everything we see is coloured by it, regardless of whether there is really another mind involved or not.

Think for example about how we get annoyed with computers or cars when they break down, as if they are doing it deliberately. 😀 Or how in poetry and literature we often personify inanimate objects or phenomena. In these examples we know we are creating fictitious minds and we just humour ourselves and go with it. It isn’t hard to see, though, how belief in supernatural agents (such as God) is facilitated by precisely this tendency.

“once we get under God’s skin, isn’t He really just another mind – one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps above all else, intentions?” (Ch. 1)

The next step is to note how the whole notion of purpose or meaning in life – something which rather preoccupies me, as this blog can testify 🙂 – is subtly underpinned by an assumption of there being someone, some mind, having such a purpose or a meaning.

“Many people don’t believe in God, yet they still ask themselves about the purpose of life and can’t easily shake their curiosity about this seemingly grand and obscure mystery. Even though we know our biological facts … the question of why we’re here still occasionally rises up in our thoughts like a case of hives – and it’s an itchy rash that science just can’t seem to scratch.” (Ch. 2)

We are so adept at interpreting signs and signals in other people’s behaviour that we readily see these kind of coded messages in all the events of life, however random. I’m certainly very familiar with how religious believers search for the voice of God in the smallest of coincidences. As Jesse points out, when you stop and think about it, it’s very odd to think that God would communicate through cryptic signs rather than speaking directly! What’s equally odd is how such superstitious responses disturbingly pop up even in the rational minds of unbelievers (if we’re honest), before being waved away. It all makes sense in the realisation that our evolved theory of mind has saturated our mental life.

Often we understand how things happen – we have natural scientific explanations – and yet this doesn’t stop us asking the “why” question. The desire for a satisfying explanation on a personal level almost consumes us. We are inclined to see our lives as a coherent story, and to look for the “narrative climax that will eventually tie all the loose ends together”. People who don’t believe in God often believe in fate, which “is really just God stripped of His identity but retaining His storytelling abilities.”

It is our rampant theory of mind, and our inability to conceive of nonexistence, that also leads us to believe in the continuity of consciousness after physical death – another very curious belief that doesn’t make any rational sense given how obvious the dependence of mind on brain is.

So why has theory of mind completely flooded our brains? It is fairly clear that the ability to understand others’ thinking would give us an edge in terms of survival. The tendency to overshoot on theory of mind to the extent of believing in gods, Jesse Bering postulates, had the advantage of making us behave ourselves even when we think no-one’s looking. Communication through language meant that being caught doing something antisocial could be catastrophic for an individual – the gossip that ensued would destroy his standing in the group. So a tendency to overestimate the extent to which we are being watched and scrutinised was an evolutionary advantage. It’s an interesting idea.

The worry forming in my mind at this point was what this implies for our ability to be moral without God. In the final chapter, Jesse briefly states that there are enough other deterrents to acting selfishly, including actually being watched much more in the modern Big Brother world. He optimistically reflects on the fact that we are uniquely able at this point in history to see our cognitive illusions for what they are: “being in the full godless light of this shattered illusion is, I think, a spectacular position to find oneself in” – because it’s good to know the truth!

What I loved about the book was that unlike some atheist writings there is no hint of smugness. God is an illusion, but an illusion that we are nevertheless wired up to have, and perhaps some of us more so than others. It certainly made me feel more sympathetic towards that aspect of myself.

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6 Responses to “The God Instinct”

  1. Suresh says:

    “The worry forming in my mind at this point was what this implies for our ability to be moral without God.”

    On the contrary, this ability to theorise about what others are thinking is related to imagining what others are feeling and hence leads to the concept of empathy. Which should lead to morality based on comparing to how the other would feel if we acted in a certain way.

  2. anattacitta says:

    I am sure Bering is right that a sense of being watched (even when no one is there) is a good influence on moral behaviour. I love the experiment he refers to in his book in which the simple presence of cartoon eyes can make people contribute more to a tip box. I also hope you are right too Suresh – that the empathy generated by a theory of mind is enough in and of itself to persuade us to behave well. Even if God is not watching, I am able to watch myself, and this is another ability (this self-awareness) that I try to use to motivate myself to behave well. I have an image of the kind of person I’d like to see myself as. Sure, I don’t live up to that image much of the time, but I do try, even when no one is looking – honest 🙂 However, I don’t doubt that a belief in God could significantly enhance that desire to maintain a positive self-image, especially if laced with threat of eternal damnation for stepping out of line :-/

  3. Sarah says:

    It’s certainly an interesting question, isn’t it? I definitely think that the empathy and compassion we naturally have is the main driving force of moral behaviour. Nice point about “watching oneself” too – so much of our selfish and hurtful actions are done completely mindlessly, and might not happen if we were a bit more self-aware.

    It makes sense that having the intuition of there being an all-seeing, judging God would make people behave better. But when you look at the actions of some religious people, you have to wonder… :/ Perhaps people develop the ability to turn this aspect of their minds off!

  4. Achelois says:

    I’m sure I’ll love this book. This post is such a stimulating read. I really enjoyed reading it. Can’t wait to get my copy of the book.

  5. Pingback: What is this here to teach me? | Meaning and Truth

  6. Pingback: Delusions of Gender: so why do girls play with dolls and boys play with cars? | Meaning and Truth

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