The Belief Instinct

Last week, Slate excerpted Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct. He argues that having a theory of mind was useful for us in the evolutionary process, to be able to imagine other people have thoughts, intentions, and emotions, and extending that even to inanimate objects. Ultimately, then, we projected a being (God) with a super mind, similar to our own. It’s rather simplistic, at least in the excerpt we’ve been given. Other thinkers, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and theorists like Pascal Boyer, have placed the evolutionary origins of religion in other aspects of our brain. Bering does write with humor:

There is a scientific term for this way of thinking—”theory of mind.” It’s perhaps easiest to grasp the concept when considering how we struggle to make sense of someone else’s bizarre or unexpected behavior. If you’ve ever seen an unfortunate woman at the grocery store wearing a midriff-revealing top and packed into a pair of lavender tights like meat in a sausage wrapper, or a follicularly challenged man with a hairpiece two shades off and three centimeters adrift, and asked yourself what on Earth those people were thinking when they looked in the mirror before leaving the house, this is a good sign that your theory of mind (not to mention your fashion sense) is in working order. When others violate our expectations for normalcy or stump us with surprising behaviors, our tendency to mind-read goes into overdrive. We literally “theorize” about the minds that are causing ostensible behavior.

Josh Rothman responds. He views Bering as positing religion primarily as animism:

If belief in God is instinctual, then how do atheists overcome that instinct? I don’t believe in God – but I don’t find myself fighting some built-in tendency to personify the universe. (Neither, I suspect, does Bering.) If Bering is right, then one would expect very religious people to have very overactive theories of mind. But that hardly seems true: religious people don’t, as a matter of habit, personify inanimate things or over-read other people.

He concludes by asserting that religion is not about the search for personality but the search for meaning:

If there’s an instinct at work, it’s the instinct to make sense of things. That’s why it’s a mistake for Bering to dismiss theology: Systematic theology is about making sense of the universe, and it’s at the heart what makes religion useful.

The introduction of animism in the debate leads to another essay. Stephen T. Asma attacked the New Atheists by arguing that their view of religion was too narrow. Instead, one should look at Animism, which Asma contends is the world’s biggest religion. It sees a world inhabited by spirits, who can affect the lives of humans and need propitiation. He writes:

Religion, even the wacky, su­per­sti­tious stuff, is an an­al­ge­sic sur­viv­al mech­a­nism and sanc­tuary in the de­vel­op­ing world. Religion pro­vides some or­der, co­her­ence, re­spite, peace, and trac­tion against the fates. Per­haps most im­por­tant­, it quells the emo­tion­al dis­tress of hu­man vulnerabil­i­ty.


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