The Belief Instinct

In a few days Jesse Bering‘s new book, The Belief Instinct, will be published in the United States. It has already been published in the UK as The God Instinct. The title change seems a bit odd and the opposite of what one might have expected. Something like ninety percent of Americans believe in God, so using the word in the title might seem like a good idea. But because Bering argues that belief in God is a cognitive illusion, perhaps the publishers decided it would be less offensive to Americans if the title were less clear. Apparently, it is better to corrode belief in Belief than belief in God.

Whatever the reason for the change, it better conforms to the evidence. Humans do not instinctively generate beliefs in God. Societies and cultures generate beliefs in God. Indeed, the very notion of “God” or of gods is a relative latecomer on the supernatural scene.

Before humans had anything like organized religions that focus on gods (i.e., theism), there was a long period of time during which supernatural belief was organized around shamanic ideas and activities. Shamanisms are highly variable, loosely organized, quite fluid, and most importantly — are not big on God or gods. Although something like “gods” can be found in many kinds of shamanisms, these gods are usually removed from or indifferent to human action. Shamans do not spend much time supplicating deities or worrying about them. While the shamanic world is filled with all manner of supernatural agents, these agents are not gods and are not worshiped.

Although I have yet to read Bering’s book, he has posted an excerpt over at Slate. Bering argues that “theory of mind,” a hypertrophied cognitive capacity that is mostly unique to humans, gives rise to belief in God. Setting aside for the moment that the “strong” idea of God can be historically situated — that is, it was developed by interested people under particular social and economic conditions, Bering is correct: theory of mind plays a critical role in the formation of supernatural beliefs. As I noted in this post, autistics are deficient in theory of mind and thus are unable to generate the kinds of supernatural beliefs that are essential to being religious.

For those who have a background in evolutionary religious studies, Bering’s ideas will sound familiar. His Slate excerpt clearly echoes the classic work in the field, Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. It is probably not an understatement to say that Guthrie’s 1993 book is largely responsible for the explosion of evolutionary religious studies over the past fifteen years. If you have not read any books on the subject, Faces in the Clouds is a great place to start.

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9 thoughts on “The Belief Instinct

  1. Mitchell Diamond

    This issue of religion as byproduct bugs me. I’ve yet to see anybody clarify what a biological byproduct is. I believe it started with Gould and Lewontin’s Spandrels of San Marcos article, but in all the research I’ve done, I’ve never found anybody that elaborates on the frankly lame presentation of their byproduct theory. Most scholars just assume the legitimacy of byproduct theory without actually asking what is a biological byproduct or what criteria are used to establish a trait as a by-product. There’s so much information out there, perhaps I’ve missed it. As a grad student, you’re probably much more aware of the literature on this. Perhaps you can point to some articles that would clarify this for me. Thanks in advance!

  2. admin Post author

    Great comment. This is certainly something we should be considering in more depth and asking questions about. I don’t think the byproduct arguments started with Gould and Lewontin, but they definitely are responsible for bringing the issue front and center. Despite their spandrels argument, I think most evolutionists are adaptationists or at least assume, as a null hypothesis, that a trait, phenotype, or behavior is adaptive. This assumption drives me nuts, especially when it comes to life history theory. Virtually everything can be an adaptation if our criterion rests on the slippery slope of “cost/benefit” analysis. Such analyses seem easier when dealing with morphology, but when it comes to human behaviors and cognition, the plasticity is so immense that one hardly knows where to begin. These articles might shed some light on the issue:

    My view is that if a highly plastic human behavior, such as belief in the supernatural, can be more parsimoniously explained via aspects or traits of mind that are habitual, “hard-wired,” testable, and universal, then we should at least start there before we begin telling stories about proto-religious hominids holding hands around a campfire whilst singing songs of praise and praying for success in the hunt and war.

    Finally, I think the arguments about whether supernaturalism/religion is adaptive or non-adaptive are a complete waste of time and energy. These are highly charged philosophical and metaphysical issues just as much are they are evolutionary or biological ones. It is far more important to locate supernaturalism in deep time and trace it to the present. At times such thoughts/behaviors will look adaptive and at other times they will look non-adaptive. It is kaleidoscopic and will change constantly over time and space. This tells me that a priori assumptions and agendas are at work, so I find the arguments on both sides unconvincing; indeed, banal.

  3. Mitchell Diamond

    Thanks for your comments on spandrels, but it’s not clear to me that evolutionists are consistently adaptationists. Note Pinker and Dawkins. Sure, they’re adaptationists the rest of the time, but when it comes to religion they don’t believe in adaptation and evolution. I find that disturbing.

    >belief in the supernatural,
    >can be more parsimoniously explained via >aspects or traits of mind that are habitual, >“hard-wired,” testable, and universal, then we >should at least start there

    I’m not sure where you’re going. Yes, we want an empirical, testable approach, but what’s the paradigm? Yes, people have agendas, but isn’t evolution still the basis of sound investigation? What alternatives are there?

  4. Mitchell Diamond

    I’ve been perusing elsewhere on your blog to get an idea of your approach. It’s a tricky business.

    >Out of body experiences are a human universal. >Why? Because human brains are constructed in >a way that enables such perceptions…from >impairment of the temporal-parietal regions of >the brain, which have long been known to be >association areas.

    Why are brains constructed that way? Just because we can fake the brain into this type of dissociation doesn’t detract or trivialize the trait in the first place. Is the ability to achieve ASC an evolved trait? It’s hard to imagine how something universal could be otherwise.

  5. admin Post author

    Given that I am writing a dissertation/book, I can’t give away all my secrets! Why are brains constructed the way they are? They evolved that way and there is a pan-human cognitive architecture. This architecture gives rise to the universal human ability to experience ASC. These kinds of experiences are not spiritual or metaphysical, they are the result of whatever induces the ASC. David Lewis-Williams writes extensively on this. Because ASC’s can reliably be induced under various kinds of conditions, all replicable, the simplest explanation is that they brain-mind products and nothing more.

  6. Mitchell Diamond

    I guess if you’ve got big revelations, we can’t get into it too much. Let me know when it’s published. Since I’m not an academic, I don’t have the luxury of keeping it ‘close to the vest’. If you’re inclined, check out my website for articles about Dawkins’ faith-based arguments in God Delusion and why byproduct theory is a ‘just-so’ story.

  7. admin Post author

    Hi Mitch,

    They are not big revelations, but I have yet to see anyone else put all the materials together in the way I do. The long and short of it is that if we (or rather, I) simply stick to telling the history of supernaturalism (which became “religion” later) using all available evidence, the issue of adaptation/byproduct becomes irrelevant. As the story unfolds, it sometimes looks like a byproduct and sometimes looks like an adaptation. Because it could at times be one, the other, or both, I think the entire line of argument is non-productive. I am not a fan of Dawkins’ religion/faith arguments, so don’t spend much time thinking about them or writing about them. All intellectual genealogies amount to a form of debunking that I think is far more effective than spats over whether something is or is not an adaptation.

  8. Mitchell Diamond

    For good or ill, I believe that humans are subject to the same evolutionary forces as the rest of the biological kingdom (unlike SJ Gould), so I carry the adaptation banner. It bothers me that people continue to engage the world geocentrically–Galileo axed that one at a astronomical level, but it’s an innate way every organism interacts and people more so. I’m tilting at windmills, but at least for those willing to consider it in the academic community, I fight the good fight. For human religion to be an exception to Darwinian theory is an anathema and suggests an exception to evolution. That’s not OK, for what it’s worth…

  9. admin Post author

    Just because something is an “adaptation,” which is a slippery concept and difficult to prove, does not mean it did not come about through evolutionary processes, which in the end means nothing more than change. All living organisms are subject to such processes, which includes natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift or founder effects, horizontal gene transfer, geologic events, cultural activities, etc. Gould is an evolutionist through and through. I encourage you to read his essay “The Pleasures of Pluralism.”

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