Book Review: The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not about the existence/nonexistence of god. Bering believes this is a trivial question! His main interest is why most societies throughout history have believed in some sort of god or supernatural being. He scrutinises beliefs through an evolutionary psychological lens.

I think this a good no-nonsense intro into evolutionary psychology of religion. I learned about some compelling ideas in this book, such as the absolute importance of a theory of mind when it comes to belief in god.

This is a rather short book, but if you ask me, it could have been made even shorter. There are many personal anecdotes and case studies which definitely make the book more enjoyable to read, but are not essential to understand the subject.

While reading, I highlighted some key quotes on my kindle. I would like to reproduce a few of the more thoughtful ones here. More excerpts from the book could be found on this pdf
"Perceiving the supernatural isn’t magic, but something patently organic: a function of the brain."
The quote below pretty much sums up the theory of mind:
"Success for our human ancestors must have depended on being able to get inside the minds of those they lived with, second-guess them, anticipate where they were going, help them if they needed it, challenge them, or manipulate them. To do this they had to develop brains that would deliver a story about what it's like to be another person from the inside."
And this one, explains why a hyperactive theory of mind is the real reason behind the belief in god.
"So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people's behaviours that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that's just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe."
I particularly loved the following statement on the question of fairness of ones life. It's astonishing that even people who are scientifically-minded don't can't easily escape this trap.
"Life isn't fair. But it isn't unfair either. It just is. The very asking of the question, "why do bad things happen to good people? presupposes an intelligent, morally concerned agent, or at least a mindful instigator, behind the scenes."
This one is actually from Paul Bloom, as quoted by Jesse Bering in the book:
"The driving force behind natural selection is survival and reproduction, not truth."
All in all, Bering thinks belief in god has been an adaptive illusion in the evolution of our species; an illusion which is no longer relevant but it is hard to get rid of.