Book review - The God Instinct: the Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life

Questioning Church
Image of looking along a footbridge
Jesse Bering

Review by Michael Miller

With chapter headings such as, “Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs”, “When God Throws People off Bridges” and “God as an Adaptive Illusion”, the evolutionary psychologist, Bering, Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, explores why we believe in God – why “even the most committed atheist turns to God when a family member falls seriously ill” - and how this belief contributed to our success as a species. He ascribes this to our brains having evolved to be able to have “a theory of mind”, that is, the ability to see others as conscious fellow creatures, so enabling us to work out their motives and thus live harmoniously in larger groups.

But this capacity has other ramifications; we are perpetually looking for reasons and explanations, we anthropomorphise, believe we have a purpose in life and that we have souls which live on after death. We also apply our theory of mind to God, puzzling about his purposes when disasters happen, or good people suffer misfortune. We see events as signs of God at work, bizarrely so as when Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, suggested that Hurricane Katrina was a sign of God’s fury at drug-taking, the war in Iraq and “black America” all rolled into one! Similarly there were many ascriptions of the Indonesian tsunami to divine punishment or a message to repent.

Having a theory of mind means that we are concerned about what others think, whether other people or an all-seeing God, and that this concern for our social evaluation and reputation inhibits our more instinctive behaviours with consequent benefits for our capacity for living and working together – and our reproductive success: you are less likely to marry someone with a bad reputation. Thus believing God is watching us helps us resist temptation; many experiments show that we modify our behaviour when we think others are watching. Even telling experimental subjects that the ghost of a dead student had recently been seen in the lab made them less likely to cheat, when left alone in the room, in a game to win $50 than those who hadn’t been told this.

Thus this book has a relatively novel, thought-provoking approach to our belief in God. It doesn’t attack such beliefs but explores why having it might give evolutionary advantage. Bering writes in an easy chatty style – he writes a weekly column for Scientific American – with many good turns of phrase. As someone with a background in psychology I would have preferred a more “scientific” approach, but it does make the book readily accessible to the general reader.

Nicholas Brealey Publishing
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Books and book reviews