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.