“Your belief in God is a cognitive illusion.”
“No it’s not. I am certain that God exists.”
“You see, that just proves what an effective illusion it is.”
It would be unfair to suggest that that exchange, although accurately reflecting the author’s thought, did justice to Jesse Bering’s new book, The God Instinct. That is partly because it is an interesting and pleasurable book to read, but mainly because it throws up demanding challenges. It may never achieve the notoriety of The God Delusion but its fundamental approach took me from Professor Dawkins’s cliché-ridden arguments into more original territory.
Jesse Bering is an evolutionary psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the Queen’s University, Belfast. He writes regularly for Scientific American. Bering argues that we have developed the illusion of a moral God because it has been evolutionarily useful. It derives from our, virtually universal, habit of attributing an interior personal life to other people.
This is technically known as “theory of mind”. That is, the ability to recognise one’s own and others’ mental states such as belief, desires, knowledge etc. Scientific purism names it a theory because mental states cannot be empirically demonstrated, although we are certain that such mental states exist even if in many cases we mistake their nature.
Bering claims that this attribution of mental states runs so deeply in human nature that we often apply it inappropriately. Having just lectured a cat on the unlikelihood of my giving her tea twice, I find that it happens to me. And I certainly say, “thank you”, to Sainsbury’s automatic checkout. What a helpful young lady, and so patient!
He takes us on further to consider our widespread assumption, by no means confined to religious believers, that “there’s a divinity which shapes out ends, rough hew them as we will”. The human tendency to see fate at work, more or less articulated as a superior power or purpose, is widespread even among those who repudiate the supernatural. Few of us can exorcise the suspicion that there is meaning and purpose guiding the events in life, although at the human level these events seem to be random
Bering must now show that having theory of mind is a result of evolution; that is, it has an adaptive capacity in which the illusion of God plays an important part. He focuses on the concept of shame which we experience when others observe us behaving unworthily or immorally. Shame tells us that we are damaging our standing in society by our acts. And that checks us because our reputation in our social groups must be high if we are to obtain a mate. Consequently, those who preserve their reputations have more progeny than those who have lost them. Gossip becomes a sort of social regulator which benefits the morality, and therefore the flourishing, of society.
But our wicked acts do not necessarily have to be seen by others in order for society to be damaged. Indeed, we often behave worse when we think that we are unobserved. Society needs a regulator who will always know what we are doing.
God is the obvious candidate. One attribute which all religions give to God, Bering claims, is that he knows our inmost thoughts. In him theory of mind reaches, literally, its apotheosis. Thus the human race needs a concept of God, illusory though it may be, to act as our ultimate regulator. We experience fear of punishment, or at least shame, because God’s eyes are on us even in an empty room.
But this need is necessary only for the common clay of humanity. The enlightened atheist can see with clarity that the processes of experience are random, and that good and bad behaviour should be more properly styled adaptive and maladaptive behaviour. Morality in the sense of moral obligation or aspiration is replaced by rational decision.
A skeletal summary of his argument cannot be a full substitute for a case which takes some 200 pages to present. But in essence Bering’s argument starts with the presumption that God is an illusion. Given that, his explanation is not implausible – although it leaves many questions unanswered. Had he started with the presumption that God exists and created man as an expression of his love, he could, with equal plausibility, have argued that such a God would have implanted in man a natural sense that he has been created for a purpose and a natural sense that he owes his being to a higher power.
The evidence which shows that religious people have better self control, and that the same brain areas are active both in social communication and in prayer (Bulletin of Psychology, Jan 2009), would not surprise Bering as they are consistent with his theory. They are also consistent with a true belief in God. This is well summed up by Michael Reiss, who is professor of science education at London University’s Institute of Education, and also an Anglican priest: “I am quite sure there will be a biological basis to religious faith. We are evolved creatures and the whole point about humanity is that we are rooted in the natural world.”
The God Instinct is published by Nicholas Brealey, priced £14.99