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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 6 July 2011
I really enjoyed this book. I am somebody who takes a fair bit of interest in psychology of religion discussions and found Bering's book extremely accessible. It is written with humour, humility and intelligence. His conclusions may not be pleasing or make comfortable reading for theists; however his argument does not make necessarily comfortable reading for agnostics or atheists either! Significantly, Bering distances himself from the Dawkins-type argument that sees religion as some sort of erroneous misfiring. Rather, Bering proposes an interesting theory about religion which places it firmly within the epic narrative of evolution. I particularly enjoyed reading the empirical work which he and others have engaged in with respect to theory of mind research. As a student of pyschology I was especially intrigued by the 'Princess Alice' experiments which are discussed within these pages.

This book is easy to read, entertaining and one of the better books of its type out there on the market. Enjoy!
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 27 November 2010
I found the "The God Instinct" to be a wonderfully written, provocative, and intellectually stimulating book. Bering brings the latest research and theory from several areas of psychology (cognitive, developmental, evolutionary, and the psychology of religion) to explain how human's evolved tendencies to "read the minds" of others leads inexorably to a belief in the supernatural and all that entails. The scholarship is first rate (I loved reading the more detailed notes that accompany the text), the arguments clean and clear, and the book can be appreciated by the professional and layperson alike. It is written with great wit, and there was barely a page in which I didn't crack a smile.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2011
I was simply blown away by this book. The title makes it sound like another dud but do not be put off by that -- this is an engaging (addictive!) read that will completely flip your worldview and have you questioning things that you did not even know needed questioning. I have been around a long time and have seen it all. This book is special: beautifully written and as much a work of literature as it is pop science. I do not define myself either as religious or atheist and care little for such discussions. Theology bores me to tears. You won't find any of that in The God Instinct. However, if you are a fan of existential philosophy (as I am) in the spirit of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky and their ilk, you will love, love, love Bering. It is not an uplifting book by any stretch of the imagination but if you want reality informed by science this is a MUST READ.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 3 January 2011
I wanted to find out about why religion (established or new age) is so important to some people and what compels a person to believe so wholeheartedly in something that seems so strange and distant to me. I'm not coming from an academic background, simply curious and in need of a good read and found this book really thought provoking, well constructed and highly accessible to the layman, certainly plenty for me to chew on while I go walking! The writing is engaging and a delight to read. Definitely worth reading.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 5 January 2011
Given their apparent ubiquity, minds can be very elusive. Each one of us has firsthand experience of our own mind, of course, but by definition we cannot similarly experience other people's minds. In fact, we can't see these other minds, or feel or weigh them in any literal sense. Instead, we must infer their existence by observing the behaviour of other people. We "reason about what others see, know, feel, believe, or intend" and arrive at our own beliefs about their mental states. Such beliefs about beliefs are an example of second-order intentionality, or theory of mind, which comes into play naturally and effortlessly whenever we think of friends and family. We can also assume the intentional stance toward strangers we have never met or fictional characters who don't even exist. Throughout this absorbing book, Jesse Bering shows how this aspect of human psychology underpins the diversity of religion and accounts for the tenacity of superstitious belief. He concludes that "God was born of theory of mind" and explores the possibility that God evolved in human minds as an "adaptive illusion", one that directly helped our ancestors solve the unique problem of human gossip.

This capacity to think about minds is very likely the one big difference between humans and other animals. There is no question that many other species have sophisticated minds capable of all sorts of marvellous cognitive feats, but we should resist the temptation to imagine the only differences are of degree and not of kind. There is an ongoing scientific debate over whether the human species is "unique in being able to conceptualize unobservable mental states" but what is not in doubt is "that we're uniquely good at it": human beings "are exquisitely attuned to the unseen psychological world".

It's a short step from unseen minds to wondering whether there could be unseen agents at work in the universe. Bering introduces "a fancy philosophical expression" - "teleo-functional reasoning" - to describe how we come to think that something exists for a preconceived purpose rather than simply came to be. Teleo-functional reasoning is appropriate when thinking about artifacts (the handbrake is there to stop the car rolling away) but not when thinking about the natural world (the sun is there to give us light). An artifact implies a maker, a purposeful creator, and theory of mind helps us recognize and understand that purpose. It's perhaps not surprising that children, while getting to grips with this powerful cognitive tool, sometimes get carried away and "over-attribute reason and purpose to aspects of the natural world". Bering cites the work of Deborah Keleman, who refers to young children as "promiscuous teleologists" because of their tendency to mistakenly endow natural, inanimate objects with their own teleo-functional purposes.

What's more surprising is how many adults are like children in this respect. In a chapter entitled "Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs" Bering gives several examples of "seeing God's mind at work in nature" to illustrate this cognitive promiscuity. From the face of Jesus on a piece of toast to the death toll following a tsunami, there is no shortage of raw material for would-be interpreters of the mind of God to work with. Which deity or spirit is doing the communicating (and doing it poorly, it must be said) depends on your particular culture, although the underlying psychological mechanism remains universal. Indeed, without the "general cognitive bias to see hidden messages as being embedded in natural events, much of religion as we know it would never have gotten off the ground".

Theory of mind enables us to perceive natural events as being about something other than their surface characteristics, and by analysing things in this way, some can convince themselves that they are getting inside the mind of God. Eavesdrop any conversation between religious believers and sooner or later there will be a reference to the mental states of their god: he "wants" us to behave in a particular way or follow a "calling", he "observes" and "knows" about our otherwise private actions, he "communicates" his desires in code by means of natural events, and he "intends" to meet us after we die.

This kind of talk strikes non-believers as fanciful in the extreme. The God of the gaps should by now have shrivelled out of existence. This may be true for some of us, but it's worth remembering that, even when the true causes of an event are known, "many people still appeal to God for an explanation". Knowing how doesn't stop us from asking why, and in every human society studied by anthropologists, "uncontrollable tragedies have been seen as caused intentionally by a mindful, supernatural agent". What is more, "the ability to be superstitious actually demands some mental sophistication" and so cannot be dismissed as "the product of an imperfectly evolved brain".

The resilience of religion is also a problem for evolutionary by-product theorists, such as Richard Dawkins, who, according to Bering, "may have been a bit hasty in dismissing the possibility that religion - and especially, the idea of a watchful, knowing, reactive God - uniquely helped our ancestors survive and reproduce". Bering argues that if God evolved as an "adaptive illusion" then supernatural reasoning and the activation of God concepts - the "sense of being observed by a morally invested, reactive Other" - may have been one way for our ancestors to curb their selfish and impulsive behaviour and so strengthen their social ties.

For some, the idea that God, souls and destiny form "a set of seductive cognitive illusions" will be a depressing thought, and simply ridiculous for those believers well and truly in the grip of these illusions. For those of us not so invested, we're more likely to agree with Bering that "being in the full godless light of this shattered illusion is... a spectacular position to find oneself in". For anyone interested in what it means to be human, this is a fascinating slice of cognitive science.
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on 10 May 2014
We develop the ability to predict the reactions of other people, even when those people are absent. From this simple statement, Bering investigates the implications for our psychologically, socially and culturally constructed beliefs in everrything from ghosts to God. The result is a well-reasoned and stimulating read, drawing heavily from research on both sides of the Atlantic.

He is especially good on 'the intoxicating pull of destiny beliefs' and in using research with children at different ages to demonstrate the development of the idea of the unknown, unseen viewer.

My one caveat is that the book came out before recent neurological research has demonstrated the inherent rewards of social behaviour. However, such research merely reinforces his core arguments.

A good read.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 6 February 2011
This book is brilliant and challenging. Personally it through light on and turned upside down alot of my own preconceptions, assumptions and cognitive illusions and for anyone interested in evolutionary psychology and the cognitive architecture of the human species this is a must. Jesse Bering pulls no punches but boy he strikes with a humble, humorous and witty intelligence and a sophisticated penmanship that makes this the most enjoyable psychological science book I have read. I am not going to comment on the content of this book as another reviewer has concisely provided an excellent over-view of Jesse Bering's fascinating and powerful psychological proposal based on empirical evidence derived from some brilliant creative research (including his own) in the fields of 'theory of mind' and related cognitive processes.
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on 4 April 2013
A very thought provoking and intelligent analysis of human behaviour. The explanations of why humans have been and are still attracted to religion, should make you question any religious beliefs you have and put your mind at ease that religion is entirely imaginary and can be safely abandoned.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 February 2011
An insightful, and indeed humorous, look at why we necessarily invent/need/depend on God and his cohorts. Theory of mind is everything to humankind, but is it a good thing?

A stimulating read.
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32 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on 14 March 2011
When I reached page 190 of Jesse Bering's attempt to show belief in God as evolutionary, I knew I'd been sold down the river, not that the journey hadn't been interesting. What he said on page 190 of a book just 205 pages long was "as we've seen, God was born of theory of mind", so I turned back to the explanation on page 37. Here he starts his argument "what if I were to tell you that God's mental states (too) were all in your mind?" and I though, oh God, he really does mean God with a capital "G". Further down the page he goes on to describe a "strangely sticky sense that God `wilfully' creates us as individuals and `knows' about our otherwise private actions, `communicates' messages to us in code through natural events, and `intends' to meet us after we die" and suggests our Pleistocene ancestors would have felt this too.

The trouble is that the God Jesse is discussing is very recent in terms of human evolution. It's obvious that He is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, such as the One revealed to Moses. I can't find out when this was reckoned to have happened but the Israelites are thought to have entered Canaan circa 1,000BC already cognisant of the Ten Commandments. Circa 1,500BC the radical pharaoh, Akhenaton, tried to introduce monotheism in Egypt. He failed, but perhaps Moses came down from the mountain with his tablets of stone around the same time. Even so, this was a mere 3,500 years ago. Compare this trifle with three million years. If the australopithecine, Lucy, could be said to be part human, she lived longer ago than that. The Pleistocene era Jesse refers to ran from two million to 10,000 years ago and spans the development of homo habilis, homo erectus, homo neanderthalis and, yes, it does include homo sapiens, us, emerging in Africa around 100,000 years ago and spreading to Europe within 60,000 years.

Jesse should read up on the old religions. In his seminal work, The Golden Bough, JG Frazer attempts to define the elements of religious belief common to settled tribes engaged in farming. His thesis is that these early religions were fertility cults centred in the honouring and periodic sacrifice (to fructify the fields) of a sacred king. They weren't anything to do with a personal God but everything to do with getting fed. Joseph Campbell, influenced both by Frazer and psychology, particularly Jungian, attempts to show how religion is part and parcel of a society in the conditions in which it lives. A particularly fascinating example would be the bear cults of nomadic hunter gathers in which there is ritual atonement for the killing of an animal so that its spirit will return to its archetypal source to be reborn as a willing sacrifice. Again, there's no personal God, just the need for food.

The deities of the Ancient Egyptians were of a practical bent, as with those of any agrarian people, but they also propitiated deified menaces, such as the crocodile and tomb-robbing jackal.

As civilisation progressed, Ancient Greeks had a whole pantheon of amoral gods and goddesses who meddled capriciously in the affairs of human kind. There were gods of the sun, moon, sea, sky, rivers, winds, love and war, wine and wisdom, crafts and even abstractions such as persuasion. These deities weren't personal Gods, they just wanted recognition and for humans to know their place. The Greek pantheon was itself a late development and the stuff of art and poetry. In her work, Jane Harrison attempts to find the roots of Greek Mythology in ritual.

Read, Jesse, there's a whole world back there. I haven't even mentioned sympathetic magic, totem and taboo and the intriguing possibility that our early ancestors, not understanding sexual reproduction, assumed fertility was a solely female attribute. Accordingly, they worshipped Gaia, Mother Earth, who they saw as the bringer-forth of all that was.

You could well be right in thinking belief in a retributive deity was an adaptive advantage to be selected in evolution. Say society has reached the stage in which it is settled, agrarian and large enough to need laws which need to be enforced to prevent anarchy. It may have a king and most of his subjects will be engaged in the hard slog of ploughing, sewing, tending and reaping. How does the king, a puny individual, keep control? Along with the overseers, wouldn't it be a huge advantage for him to be closely associated with a god or even regarded as one? In which case, those subjects who believed and behaved themselves would also have had an advantage, especially if those who did not were either cast into the wilderness or done away with.

Of course, this still doesn't explain where the notion of deity, a spirit world, came from. Did it, as JG Frazer suggests, grow out of man's observing his own shadow and wondering why it sometimes existed and sometimes not? Psychologically, might it have something to do with residual memories of helplessness and dependency, as in an infant's utter dependency on his or her mother?

Thank you for your explanation of belief in an afterlife. Unlike monotheism, this does have a history that stretches way back, witness, careful burials with the inclusion of grave goods.
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