'A balanced and considered approach to this often inflammatory topic' – Nature
The Belief Instinct
The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life
A startling new take on why people believe in God – and how this belief ensured human survival.
God is not merely an idea to be entertained or discarded based on the evidence. Nor is God a cultural invention, an existential Band-Aid or an opiate of the masses. Instead, Jesse Bering argues, belief in God evolved in the human species as an ‘adaptive illusion’.
Drawing on groundbreaking research in cognitive science, he unravels the evolutionary mystery of why we grapple for meaning, purpose and destiny in our everyday lives. He argues that the strangely deep-rooted sense that some intentional agent created us as individuals, wants us to behave in particular ways, observes our otherwise private actions and intends to meet us after we die would also have been felt by our ancestors, leading them to behave in ways that favoured their reputations – and thus saved their genes. But in today’s world, these psychological illusions have outlasted their evolutionary purpose, and Bering points out a whole new challenge: escaping them.
His own experiments have revealed that the perceived presence of a supernatural being can affect a person’s behaviour – although in this case the being was not God, but the ghost of a dead person. He has also done studies that indicate that religion promotes fitness by encouraging collaboration within groups. A sense of being watched by a god might be useful, he says: it might encourage cheats to detect and police themselves.