on 3 May 2011
In my opinion, this is a far better book than those on the same subject by Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. Barrett says in 120 pages more than the others say in 400. His presentation is extremely clear, precise, evidence-based cognitive psychology.
As a bonus, he reveals at the end that he himself holds religious beliefs. There's no way you would have guessed this from his text. He conveys no partisan `anti - atheism', and is quite happy to acknowledge the mental mechanisms which he feels contribute to religious belief.
His messages are expertly clear. The endemic nature of religion suggests that our minds are structured in a way which favours 'religious belief'. (That is, the existence of agents which have a limited set of superhuman powers.) Such beliefs, he notes, are especially easy for children to develop.
What is known? That we have subconcious mental `modules'. That we have a tendency to very readily interpret events as representing some agency at work. (adaptive in the context of e.g. the need to be highly alert to predators.) That we have a `ferocious desire' to explain and find meaning and meanings.
These are the key mental mechanisms or modules to which Barrett ascribes the near-universal human readiness to `believe in God'.
Why do some then not believe? He sees true atheism (or, for some people, `scientism') as a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, characteristic of highly urban, educated, privileged, late 20th century Western folk, especially if safe from danger (he reminds us of the phrase `there are no atheists in foxholes'). Atheism is difficult, he proclaims: other ways must be found to deal with bewildering issues, such as morality, death, and meaninglessness.
Overall this is a crisp, authentic, level account of a potentially emotive topic.
on 18 February 2015
This is one of the best of the recent crop of books looking at religion through the lens of evolution. The title is apt and the approach in the book is clear and insightful. If a reader finds the question in the title interesting, they will find the answers in the book informative. The gist is that as we evolved we developed certain abilities to help us survive in our environment and that a certain amount of overspecification, combined with putting abilities together in new ways makes belief in the supernatural and God an obvious conclusion. In other words religious beliefs are simply a side effect of our evolution.
This will be more or less satisfying as an answer depending on the starting point of the reader, but those who are believers might take comfort from the confession that Barrett makes towards the end of the book that he is a believer. Ironically having rendered the processes of belief visible, he is not persuaded that belief is therefore invalidated.