The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering

The full title of the book, published in 2010, is The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life. I just came across this book online and wondered if anyone has already read it. It didn’t come up as I was writing this under “Your topic is similar to …” so I’m not sure it has been discussed here. It looks like it might be even handed given what I was reading here.

I’ve just requested it from the library and intend to give it a go. Has anyone else looked into this one? I don’t expect it will be a quick read for me but if anyone else is interested in reading it and perhaps discussing it via PM that would be great.

I seem to remember a thread a few months ago, I’ll see if I can dig it up but I don’t think it got too in depth (Do modern, naturalist theories prove Nietzsche right?).

I grabbed a short quote from the author:

the illusion of God solved a very specific evolutionary problem for our ancestors – that of reputation-harming (and thus gene-compromising) gossip. By inhibiting selfish behaviours that they feared would be punished by supernatural agents, our ancestors would have promoted their prosocial reputations among actual people.

I think this is the main argument that I’ve seen circling around for explaining why humans evolved a belief in gods. It seems like a plausible explanation but at the same time, there’s nothing that I can see that contradicts the Christian idea of God creating us so we would ‘naturally’ seek him.


I agree on both points, both the plausibility of its evolutionary advantage and the of lack of any reason against believing in the actual existence of the Christian God.

But I note that he himself does not believe in that God, admits that his position amounts to nihilism but apparently doesn’t find that an unacceptable state of affairs when he answers the last question in the interview: “How would you describe your personal attitude to religious belief? Are you an atheist?”

It is exceptionally easy to say, “I don’t believe in God,” and to mean it wholeheartedly. Such people are increasingly common and I have numbered among them for a very long time. But this type of epistemological atheism is yawningly boring from a psychological perspective because it tells us so very little about how the mind secretly works. Once we stop boasting about our immunity to irrational or quasi-religious thought and pause long enough to look carefully, critically and objectively at the data, it becomes startlingly obvious that the innate human mind is cognitively prepared to believe in God.
But-and this is a very big but-this doesn’t mean that God is real. On the contrary, this is why I refer to God as a cognitive illusion; not a delusion, mind you, but an illusion. For these are very different concepts in psychological terms. One is pathological, the other normative. One can be “cured,” while the other is a permanent fixture, a shadow state, of evolved cognitive architecture. One is largely impregnable to self-critical introspection, while the other can, once the magic trick is given away, easily be evaluated in objective terms and recognized as not reflecting actual reality. The God Instinct is, to be honest, a nihilistic book. But I don’t see nihilism necessarily as being a bad thing. In fact, there’s a certain humanistic appeal in it-personally, I’d much rather spend my limited time as a subjectively experiencing self with people who see life as I do, which is, rather humorously I think, fundamentally absurd and meaningless, than I would with people who are operating under the more frightening, strident, and, frankly, false assumption that there are inherent moral truths. I’m not keen on replacing God with “mystery” and just leaving it at that. Why worship mystery when the answers are becoming increasingly obvious?

Like him, I do not believe in an actual, external God as is generally understood. But I would not be as content to accept nihilism as acceptable, at least not so long as an alternative exists. He says that he is not keen on replacing God with “mystery” but I think that is exactly what we have is a mystery. And I don’t find the meaning I glean by contemplating the mystery anymore counterfeited by his ideas than you do your satisfaction with Christian faith.


Don’t just limit the analysis to social factors like countering gossip.

They have done experiments with subjects where they asked each of them to drink a small paper cup of an unpleasant tasting beverage. And they create a competition that motivates people to drink as much as they can (either for themselves or for their team).

One group experienced the basic competition. Another set of participants were reminded of their religious beliefs. Those who had been re-set or re-minded of their underlying religious convictions ended up drinking significantly more cups of unpleasant beverage.

People tried harder when they realized/perceived there was something more at stake than just the bad taste of the drink.

Now ramp this up to a charismatic tribal leader… explaining why the whole Cosmos… and probably the annual harvest would be at stake if they didn’t go on a raid of a neighboring tribe - - who held some “repellent” religious ideas. Those tribes (or primate troops you might even say) who were less likely to feel motivated even by the charismatic religious leaders, were [all things being equal] less likely to withstand the predations and zeal of those tribes/troops that did respond to religious ideation and “fighting for their God”.

Religion has had a survival value for thousands and thousands of years…

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To repeat a thought I expressed in another thread…

This may well be true, but it sounds like the author may have jumped the rails from “explaining” (which is a fine and worthy activity), to “explaining away” (which does not seem either wise or warranted in this case.)


I believe someone could think that natural causes can explain the way in which people have evolved to be predisposed toward religious experience, and still reasonably conclude that that experience is nonetheless valid and authentic. I don’t think the natural explanation of how we have evolved changes anything in terms of conclusively demonstrating the existence of God one way or the other.



What is it that he is “explaining away”?

Part of Mark’s quote reveals how the author thinks about religion. [Edit: This came from an interview with the author, rather than the book.] :

“…once the magic trick is given away, [it can] easily be evaluated in objective terms and recognized as not reflecting actual reality.”

The explicitly stated implication here: If you can “see through it”, then we need not believe it to actually be real … hence it is “explained away”.

I’m reminded of (I think from either Lewis or Chesterton) the acute insight that I think applies so well here (my paraphrase): If we can “see through” everything, then all this means is we can see nothing at all. Our sight is only useful when it can finally land on something solid.


Ding! Ding! Ding! Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

I’m going to disagree with Bering’s analysis of the evolutionary pathway. The need to track “reputation” in social groups (primates, wolves, etc.) has long been considered a selective pressure in the evolution of larger brains, since the “computing” power necessary to track individual reputations increases exponentially with the size of the group. But this occurred far back in the past, prior even to the split from our common ancestor with chimpanzees. In short, reputation-tracking is not a recent development, is not limited to humans, and does not depend on language (gossip) for success. Bering missed the mark in the same way as Nietzsche, who posited a similar scenario to explain the evolution of morality in The Genealogy of Morals.

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@Mervin_Bitikofer. Thanks. He is

Actually I was quoting an interview with the author about the book. Just FYI.

I’d prefer to say the author may lack perspective … always a possibility no matter how much we may know in specific domains.

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Thanks for the correction about the source, Mark – I edited accordingly.

As for lack of perspective … yeah, I’m with you (or @gbrooks9 's uncharacteristically terse appraisal). But to allow for at least a little nuance, we have to remember that we all do have a long heritage of “explaining things away” which certainly isn’t all bad in every situation. We do it for magic tricks, claims of sales people, or even some specific claims of [typically: other] religions, as religious skeptics remind us.

So the author could rightly claim he comes by the habit honestly. It doesn’t stop me from standing by the original observation, though, that this is not always a reliably warranted habit in every context.


Yes. Or we may not know the whole story. Thanks.

he argues that humanity’s religious instinct is what sets us apart from other animals – and it carries powerful evolutionary benefits.


Voltaire raised the question. "if God did not exist, humans would have to invent God " or Is something real because it is true or true because it is real?

Most of us would say that something is true if it is real, but there are somethings that challenge this view. For instance is 2 + 2 = 4 because it is real, or because it is true? I would say that is real because it is true although the reality of mathematics is different from the reality of a thing.

Now probably because so much science is being done through math and not in the lab these days the line between truth and reality seems to be getting very thin. The math supporting the multiverse appears to be true, but there is no hard evidence that it is real.

Since atheists deny the existence of God the necessary Being Who gives true and reality to Existence many atheists have decided a utilitarian approach to Truth and Reality, in other words practical truth is reality. If something works it is true and real.

The problem with this happens when they find that the Christian faith is practical, it is both true and real. Does that mean they change their mind about the reality of God. Sadly not because their assumption is that God is not real or true and they are not willing to challenge that assumption.

In a sense it is the flip side of fundamentalism. They believe that the Bible is the absolute Word of God. When they find out that it is not, do they stop believing in God or change their belief in how God works, because God is not dependent on our theology?

I do not know of atheists have that flexibility.

If God did not exist, humans would have to invent Him." God does exist so we do not have to invent God.

If anyone actually believes in God because they think His existence is necessary to cosmology as they conceive it, then it would seem that they too are acting in a utilitarian manner.

I neither have nor feel the necessity of nor think it will ever be possible to obtain a theory of everything. But life goes on and reality is what it is with or without my comprehension.

I do find that a concept of God is a useful thing in explaining the phenomenology of human subjective experience. I just don’t personally find I require a literal concept of God.

This is CS Lewis, from The Abolition of Man.

I stumbled upon it before reading your post about “explaining away” because as I read this thread, I too was searching for where this helpful distinction came from. In fact, I think Lewis talks about it in more than one place, because I haven’t read The Abolition of Man, but I distinctly remember getting this idea from him, along with the related idea that just because we have explained something’s origins does not mean that we have discredited it (“explained it away”). These are two separate issues. (I believe this is called the Genetic Fallacy, but I didn’t learn that term from Lewis.)

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I would not argue against utilitarian thought. As I said math is real and true because it works. I just hope they understand what they are saying and doing. Jesse Bering and others do not so it seems.

Also when I make a utilitarian argument to verify the existence of God, I should hope that it be respected by those who claim to believe in utilitarianism. It is not the only argument, but it is an important one.

You seem to have a low concept of humanity, that we have no will of our own, but go with the flow. Is that true because you do not believe that life has meaning or purpose, or is it true because your life has no meaning or purpose?

Do you mean that our knowledge of goodness is purely subjective (please define this concept)? What do you mean by a literal concept of God? How is it different from a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim concepts of God? If you don’t need it or don’t want it, and I do, does this make you right?

Not sure why what I said would lead to the evaluation you gave of my regard for humanity. I also never said life has no meaning or purpose. I certainly did not say my life has no meaning or purpose. Did you mean that as the slur it sounds like? Is your own life devoid of meaning and purpose?

I certainly did not say that and since I have said nothing of the kind no I will not define the concept. You really need to find someone who wants to have this conversation with you. I have not said any of these things you keep trying to find in what I have written.

Not a literal concept of God, a concept of a literal God is what I was referring to. In addition to believing that God is something out there in the world at large, some people believe God is something that exists in the minds of people. That doesn’t mean I think God is a deliberate fabrication. I think that a relation to an idealized other (God) is something that occurs to people quite naturally. I don’t however think that is an indication that the idealized other exists anywhere else besides our minds. For that matter who we think we are is likewise something that our minds create.

I’m sorry but I don’t like the hard edge of accusation I find in your posts. I don’t want to have this conversation with you. I’m not here to defend myself any more than I’m here to argue that “I’m right and you’re wrong”. All of that is coming from you, not me.

The questions I asked were not accusations, but seeking to know where you stand on this issue. As I understand what he writes, Dawkins believes that the universe is without meaning or purpose, so that is way some pe4ople think. I want to know how you think. You still have not said.

Again I am trying to find out where you stand. I used the relationship between truth and existence in order to set up a dialogue. Some people think that if something is not physical, it does not exist. You make a distinction between the subjective and the real. I would make the choice between the true and the false. Goodness is not subjective. It is real.

To reduce God to an idealized Other reduces the intellectual tradition of Western civilization to a joke. It does mean that life can have no significant real meaning and purpose, because an idealized Other cannot create a real universe.

The reason I brought up the different faith traditions is because the way we understand Who God is does influence the way we live our lives. There is real intellectual content is the way people understand God, which can be good or not good.

Yes, we are a creation of our thoughts, but that does not make you and me any less real.

Sharing of natural thoughts is not per se proof of their reality. We need additional evidence. However most people would say that people naturally understand facts like math and time are good evidence that they are real.

I’m sorry that we do not see eye to eye on these issues. That is why have these discussions. I still so not know how you find meaning and purpose in life. I just know how I find them. Maybe you know something that I do not.

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