For a long time, evolutionary studies about religiosity and religions have struggled with a psychological problem: Many atheists and antitheists found it hard to accept that religiosity turned out to be evolutionary adaptive, rather than a mere by-product or even a parasite. Only a few found the strength mustered e.g. by Susan Blackmore to accept the findings concerning the cooperative and reproductive potentials of religion. Among these strong few is Jesse Bering. Openly atheistic and comfortable gay, he nevertheless went along with true curiosity, evolutionary logic and clever experiments, adding serious science, colorful humor and a kind of existential wisdom to studies, conferences and debates exploring the evolution of religion. Although I sure went down in his estimation by "coming out" as a happy theist, I enjoyed valuable chances to exchange ideas, data and jokes with him. Thus, I couldn't wait for his book "The God Instinct. The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life" (which will be published as "The Belief Instinct" in the United States in February 2011.) And to put my review in a nutshell, let me assure you: Jesse sure did a great and readable piece of sound science, deep thoughts and delightful humor!
Last year, I introduced Jesse Bering here on this scilog as one of "the most creative and captivating proponents of evolutionary psychology in the dynamic field of the Evolutionary Religious Studies". But I wondered if he could bring the many findings of evolutionary psychology (including his own - often ingenious - experiments) into a readable form, suitable to colleagues and interested readers alike? Now, I know: Yes, he could!
In fact, the evolutionary psychologist condensed a sample of scientific studies and findings into a, well, "classic" thesis: Religiosity started as a combination of human traits as especially agency detection, theory of mind and narrative constructions of meaning. And although this perspective is widely (and increasingly) accepted in the field, it is presented here in a well-written and accessible shape. Jesse is offering a valuable introduction to those new in evolutionary studies of religion - and a collection of colorful anecdotes and philosophical reflections to those who are well versed therein. In addition to his own works, he managed to include Sosis and Sartre, so to speak. Actually, "The God Instinct" turns out to be a two-in-one-book: One about the rich empirical findings concerning the (ongoing) evolution of religiosity, the other about the scientist's psychological abilities to integrate those into his personal and atheistic worldviews.
To accuse the author of materialistic reductionism or nothing-butism would imply to miss the point here: Jesse Bering is presenting sound, empirical observations and his respective, personal interpretations and struggles. To him, the beliefs in superempirical agents turn out to be "adaptive illusions", but he doesn't claim to have a final say on the matter. Instead, he is clearly understanding and promoting methodological agnosticism, as did Charles Darwin. Clearly aware that there are evolutionary atheists, evolutionary agnostics and evolutionary theists out there, Jesse is opting for wise humor in his arguments.Take a glimpse at p. 8:
Ultimately, of course, you must decide for yourself whether the subjective psychological effects created by your evolved cognitive biases reflect an objective reality, perhaps as evidence that God designed your mind to be so receptive to Him. Or, just maybe, you will come to acknowledge that, like the rest of us, you are a hopeless pawn in one of natural selection's most successful hoaxes ever - and smile at the sheer ingenuity involved in pulling it off, at the very thought of such mindless cleverness. One can still enjoy the illusion of God, after all, without believing Him to be real."
Nothing to object? Well, no. I found two points to adress. The first one is an underestimation of Charles Darwin. Jesse is assuming that the learned theologian didn't include the theory of mind in his evolutionary hypotheses of religiosity. But Darwin did exactly that. In his eminent "Descent of Man", he pondered the underlying modules of religious beliefs, identifying overdetection of agency and theory of mind, as e.g. formulated in Chapter 2, p.67:
The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods. For savages would naturally attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves experienced.”
And secondly, Jesse is rightly describing that religious beliefs bestow (on average) reproductive success, the "currency" of biocultural evolution. Although I presented respective data to him, there is not a single citation. *Shock, despair & chagrin *
But then, look what he wrote at the very conclusion of his acknowledgments:
Finally, because the theoretical story simply took me where it led, no more and no less, I wish to give a special thanks to all those talented scholars whom I have inadvertently offended by failing to cite their work in this book. There are probably many and sundry otherwise gentle intellectuals and scientists who will want my head for this."
Now, it is proven! This psychologist IS able to read his fellows minds! ;-)
I hope you might enjoy "The God Instinct" as thoroughly as I did! To me, it is to be counted among the very best books about the evolution of religion yet available. Give it a try!