scilogs Biology of Religion

The God Instinct - by Jesse Bering

from Michael Blume, 07. December 2010, 20:45

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!

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Biology of Religion: Atheists a dying breed as nature 'favours faithful' - Sunday Times Jan 02 2011 - Jonathan Leake - Full Draft Version
Biology of Religion: Jesse Bering - Why is there a place for God in our head?


  1. J. A. Le Fevre Hopeless pawn in natures hoax
    11.12.2010 | 19:53

    To avoid any surprises, I will once again post in opposition to the condescending tone . . .

    Living ‘across the pond’, I do not yet have access to the text, but why read a book before criticizing it? I have, after all, read all the reviews I came across!

    It sounds like a good book, though just a step in the right direction. Observing that religious beliefs bestow (on average) reproductive success could explain why natural born atheism went extinct with the Neanderthals, but I hold that there is a lot more to it. Such a dismissive really does nothing to explain why communities with religion build satellites while communities lacking religion have never developed out of the Stone Age.

    ‘Religiosity started as a combination of human traits . . .’ – To resurrect a tired analogy, your Mercedes started as pile of rocks. It takes more than ore to build a car, it took more than instinct to build religion, but at least he is not, as was Boyer, insisting that it does not exist ;)

    Keep faith in your faith, keep faith in science.

  2. Michael Blume @J.A. Le Fevre
    12.12.2010 | 22:09

    Thanks for your thoughts. In a certain sense, I would say that evolutionary and scientific processes do share a specific trait: They proceed step by step.

    And Jesse Bering did not only present a good-to-read overview, but also a reflected atheist's perspective on the matter. I think, "The God Instinct" is a step, indeed!

  3. Michael Blume Intervie by Jesse Bering
    24.12.2010 | 10:54

    I just found a very insightful interview by Jesse Bering here:

    He also quoted my work in a blogpost of his at Scientific American:

    Best wishes & merry Christmass

  4. Ormond Otvos Why even try?
    30.12.2010 | 02:15

    hyper assignment of agency is only useful when it's useful...

    We live in a world where many of the innate characteristics that religion amplifies are counterproductive to the mere existence of the species.

    I'm kinda fond of humans, can't really explain it. Must be because I'm a bit like them, except perhaps I'm not willing to kill them if they aren't my religion, breed like crazy in a world of population overshoot, limit the agency of women and children by weird bans on sexual behavior and constrictive teachings.

    Anyone want to comment on how much we need to modify/redirect religious instinct bases to save humanity?

  5. Michael Blume @Ormond Otvos
    30.12.2010 | 13:50

    Thanks for your comment and mail.

    Actually, birth rates are in sharp decline in almost all economically developping countries. Demographers expect the world opulation growth to stop and to turn into a decline during the 21th century. Europe is already facing a demographic implosion and the fertility rates of countries such as Turkey and Iran just dropped below replacement level. Therefore, I don't think that the existence of our species is at risk, if we proceed to further education, economic development and democracy. But perceiving your questions to be of high interest to many readers, I would like to respond to your comment and mail in a blogpost of its own during January.

    Thanks & best wishes!

  6. J. A. Le Fevre Talk to your mother.
    30.12.2010 | 16:59

    Earth has born witness to countless visions of nirvana, dreams of paradise to replace this mortal coil. Each, in turn, has been tested. Through fate or fortune, I too share a common bond with these humans, but harbor a deep suspicion of utopias. When reflecting on the failures of our fellows to favor our fond fantasies, factor in humanities foundations. Not just apes, mind you, but alas with a taste for flesh and a penchant for sharp objects. We present our ideas and ideals with our life choices, and nature alone picks the winner.

  7. John McKeown Fertility and population.
    02.01.2011 | 08:23

    Yes a peak circa 2070, but only if global fertility drops to 2.02 (currently 2.5)

    Also if religious groups eg Mormons gain a larger share of population that will raise national averages. UN forecasts do not yet account for (currently) small but religious subgroups' futures.

    > dropped below replacement level.

    "replacement level" is confusing concept: the USA has (with fertility 2.1) has twice as many births as deaths, 4 million vs 2m per year. With rising lifespan TFR has to go below 2 to stabilize population.

    Ecological sustainability is a problem. Look at history of other species; over long-term none has continuous rise in numbers; human fertility that exceeds true replacement (births = deaths) is in that sense not an evolutionary good.

    regards, John

  8. John McKeown typo missing word
    02.01.2011 | 08:38
    sorry, that should be "small but FERTILE religious subgroups"
  9. Michael Blume @John McKeown
    02.01.2011 | 09:15

    Large parts of the European (rather secular) populations are already imploding and depending on immigration (mostly from religious populations). Other countries are following suit, such as the USA, Turkey, Russia etc. Secularization is pushing towards demographic decline, religious pluralism towards higher fertility. I would be happy to see and accept clear cases with high-fertile non-religious groups lasting just a century! You know, I didn't make these many kids - that's just biocultural evolution taking place. I agree that this might be partially upsetting - but don't accuse the messenger! :-)

  10. John McKeown Thank you Michael
    03.01.2011 | 08:28

    Dear Michael,
    Apologies, no wish to accuse messenger; your work is very interesting and helpful. I will now read more of your writings at religionswissenschaft website.
    best wishes,

  11. 03.01.2011 | 11:37

    I am very grateful about your lively interest, looking forward to more exchanges with you!


  12. Gruesome_hound Non reductive natural explanations of religion
    04.02.2011 | 16:54

    Well, the problem of the approach of most evolutionary psychologists towards religion is that they presuppose without evidence the truth of reductive materialism:, namely that the mind, our emotions and our thoughts, can be fully reduced to the interactions of molecules.
    Assuming that, they then wonder: but why do so many people believe they have a soul, and that invisible beings exist, and that there is a God beyond the universe ?
    By investigating the possible explanations, they fully rule out the possibility that people have these beliefs because they may be partially true.
    They have therefore to resort to materialistic explanations like the idea we are deceived by this hyperactive agent detection device.

    But let us examine the problem of religion's origin from an other standpoint: let us just assume, like many modern philosophers, that feelings (qualia) and thoughts are immaterial, that they are a part of nature, but irreducible to material processes.
    Thomas Nagel argued for example that the full knowdlege of the neuronal processes going on in a bat sending out signals can not show us how it is felt by the bat itself, and that therefore subjectivity is something radically different from the material world studied by science.

    If one presupposes this is truly the case, the explanation of religion's appearance looks quite different: people are rightly aware that their feelings, thoughts and personality is something different from matter, and they infer that other humans and animals must also have this kind of subjective experience, they form thus their own theory of mind in this way.

    Like philosopher Keith Ward argued, since their immaterial mind is the first reality they encounter, they intuitively think that there may be also invisible minds, and that the ultimate reality itself must rather be something spiritual rather than material.

    The fear of death, coupled with the queerness of their own existence may then lead them to believe they are immortal.

    Note that my non-reductive account of religion may be fully naturalistic, if one accepts that subjective feelings, ideas, and concepts like mathematical truths are a part of nature, although not reducible to matter.

    Likewise, I am not a dualist in the traditional sense: I believe that the immaterial feelings, thoughts which makes us a person emerge from the brain and are completely dependent on it, and would disappear if the brain was damaged.

    According to my non-reductive theory, people began to believe in immaterial spirits mainly because they were puzzled and amazed by the non-material character of their being which they intuitively recognized.

    Now, many religious beliefs could be false of course: it is quite possible, like Thomas Nagel postulated, that nature does not only consist of matter but also of ideas and the potentiality for subjectivity , but that there is no God, no invisible spirits, and no afterlife. By the way, I believe there are strong reasons for believing so, like the problem of evil and poor design nature.

    Basically, I don't agree with the evolutionary psychologists because they assume the truth of reductive materialism and limit the possible explanations to material processes, although many philosophers of mind hold a non reductive position.

  13. Michael Blume @Gruesome_Hound
    05.02.2011 | 18:29

    Thank you very much for your thoughts! I don't know if you are yet aware of it: But your line of thought closely resembles new perspectives in emergentism, exploring the unique features brought about by the combination of formerly isolated phenomena into new systems. It is increasingly succesful in challenging the long prevalence of materialistic reductionism.

    For a historical introduction and some reading tips, you might like to see here:

    Thanks for the interest & best wishes!

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