Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion Series) Paperback – 21 Apr 2004
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A brilliant and challenging presentation of the cognitive study of religion, by a psychologist who practically invented the field. Barrett marries exceptional conceptual rigour with an easy, accessible style. This should provide a much-needed guide for students and scholars of religion as well as a roadmap for future developments in the field.--Pascal Boyer, Washington University in St. Louis, Author of Religion Explained
In a beautifully argued presentation, Justin Barrett brings together diverse material from cognitive psychology to show that belief in God is natural. Belief is intuitively satisfying because it depends on mental tools possessed by all human beings. That it is natural does not imply that it is true, for the mental tools were elaborated through natural and cultural selection to help humans survive, not to find truth. This book will become a classic for religious studies, and should be read by anthropologists, theologians, and scientists, as well as all those puzzled by the force of religion.--Robert Hinde, Cambridge University
For millennia, philosophers and others have offered explanations of religious belief. Barrett's discussion challenges every explanation I know of, doing so on the basis of fascinating and innovative empirical studies, and acute philosophical analysis. His theory is innovative, compelling, and provocative at many points, not least in its conclusion that theism, not atheism, is our natural condition. It's the sort of book that shakes up the field; all philosophers and psychologists of religion will have to take account of it.--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
About the Author
After completing his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Cornell University, Justin Barrett served on the psychology faculties of Calvin College (Michigan) and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and as a research fellow of the Institute for Social Research. Recently, he was the Associate Director for the International Culture and Cognition Consortium and an editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture. His cross-cultural, developmental, and experimental research on religious concepts has appeared in numerous books and scholarly journals. Dr. Barrett currently provides consulting on numerous research and evaluation projects for academic and non-profit groups, especially concerning the interface of science and religion.
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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.
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.
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Barrett's basic thesis is that belief in God (or gods) is a natural byproduct stemming from two particular capacities of the human mind which have served us well in a variety of contexts throughout the evolution of the species. These capacities he calls Hyper Active Agency Detection, or HADD, and Theory of Mind, or ToM. Chapter by chapter, he explains how these capacities work in formulating beliefs generally, in what contexts (or people) they may be strengthened or weakened, and even how people in which they both function quite normally may still end up not believing in deities for one reason or another. Barrett argues that the mental equipment we as homo sapiens have evolved for myriad purposes ranging from detecting predators to romantic relationships to finding food actually end up working together in a fashion that causes us to find the existence of supernatural agents entirely plausible-- and not just plausible, but necessary.
Of course, one's immediate response may be, "Well, that is all very good...but if that is the case, how do some of us end up not believing in gods?" And Barrett expects this objection. His penultimate chapter is entitled "Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?" and in it he explains why even though religious belief may be natural, it is not inevitable in all of us. Personally, I feel that the book lets us down a bit at this point-- Barrett's answer is basically that atheists are generally people who have frequent occasion to challenge their own perceptions, specifically the ones that cause us to suspect that there are agents present when we can't be sure, or to attribute agency where there may actually be none. He surmises that this is most likely to occur in academic circles and/or in western, affluent societies, specifically urban areas, where the common understanding is that the environment is designed by humans, not supernatural entities, and intentionality may very well be ascribed not to deity but to more abstract entities such as the government, the market, or society. He describes atheism as seeming natural to some who "enjoy an environment especially designed to short-circuit intuitive judgments tied to natural day-to-day demands and experiences." (118) This is fair enough, but deserves quite a bit more analysis, and in my assessment does not warrent Barrett's conclusion that atheism is therefore "unnatural." Abnormal? Certainly. But it is quite possible to make an effective argument for the naturalness of a belief without maintaining that those who do not have it fall into the category of "unnatural." My suspicion is that Barrett overstates his position a bit in defiance of academics he describes as stating unabashedly that theistic belief is absurd and unworthy of rational-thinking people. But this does not detract from the very worthy points made throughout the book up to this point.
By and large, the book could have been written by theist or non-theist-- its goal is emphatically not to make an argument for or against the existence of God. Rather, it is to explain how each of us enter the world pre-equipped with minds containing a legacy of engineering which has served us in the goal of surviving through the ages, and how this equipment has made belief in the supernatural an entirely natural part of that world...for better or for worse.
However, the relatively new field of cognitive anthropology has shown this view to be absolutely false. Most works in this field are turgid, slow moving, and difficult. (cf. works by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer) This book is not. It is terse, to the point, and lucid. All jargon is explained in the text and it contains a glossary so you can refresh your memory if need be.
Barrett's basic idea is that our minds have evolved in a way that makes religious belief natural. It is so natural because it fits nicely with many unreflective beliefs that our mind has. For example, all people have mental equipment which makes them hypersensitive to detecting agency, they also have mental equipment which makes them view other things as having minds.
On top of this, people have intuitive moral concerns that are universal. Therefore, they easily view these morals as coming from somewhere.
In short, as a hypersocial species, humans find it quite natural to posit minimally counterintuitive God concepts. These concepts are satisfying and spread easily among others.
Here is an example of Barrett's mode of analysis.
Suppose you talked to a guy named John a few days ago. John tells you that your house is known to be haunted. He recounts some tales that were told to him by the last owners of the home. You don't really believe it, but you do tuck it away in your memory.
Now you are in your home alone at night. Suddenly the radio turns on in the other room. You get a little scared. Then you here creeks coming from the basement. Now your blood is getting hot and your palms are sweating. You don't believe in superstitious nonsense. All the same, you can't help the fear. Then you remember what John told you. What if it were true, you think to yourself.
Why does this seem so plausible?
According to Barrett this would occur for many reasons.
1) Humans gain social information from others and assume that non-interested parties are not purposefully decieving us. Therefore, John's tale is percieved as being relevant, even if it is first construed as nonsense.
2) Humans have artifact detection devices in their brains. We know that a radio is created for a specific function.
3) Humans have a hypersensitive agency detection device. We are always looking for evidence of agency, even where none exists.
4) Humans have a Theory of Mind (ToM). We are always trying to interpret things mentally. For example, my computer IS STUPID!
5) Combining 2-5, You know that your radio is turned on only when someone purposefully turns it on to listen to music. That it might turn on accidentally, or due to mechanical failure is not intuitive. Thus, your unreflective thought is: Who turned my radio on and why? If nobody is in your house, you can reflectively compensate for your intuitions, but it is tough. Once your mind starts churning, it is tough to shut off. Now that your agency detection device is working in high gear, you hear the creeking from the basement. Your mind interprets this as movement from somebody attempting to do something. After this, you remember what John told you. Think about how intuitively satisfying such implicit reasoning is! It makes sense of everything around you in a parsimonious manner. To deny this and concoct reflective explanations that deny agency and ToM requires that you get very non-intuitive. It is possible. For example, you can reason that a mechanical fluke caused the radio to turn on, and that the creeks in the basement are nothing more than the water heater. My guess is this explanation will not provide total comfort. Nor will you be certain that it is true. It is just not that intuitive. Although your reflective explanation, in this case, is almost certainly the correct one, the mind does not think so.
Error management Theory. Suppose you are in the woods and hear a twig snap. Was it the wind or a predator? Your brain can go either way. From the point of view of natural selection, defaulting in either direction has costs and benefits. If you remain calm assuming it was the wind and are wrong, you end up as lunch. If you get nervous, assuming a predator is lurking after you, your body uses up some metabolic energy. After eons of rigorous selection, it clearly pays to error on the side of caution.
This applies, mutatis mutandis, to the haunted house. Suppose you remain calm and believe the events have been caused by non-agents- What if you are wrong? What if it is a ghost or intruder? (BTW, as Barrett explains, a haunted house is even more intuitive because we view houses as having territorial owners. If the ghost owners view you as a trespasser, that is a good reason for getting angry. Your mind intuitively knows this, thus you do not break into homes.)
EMT theory makes it more likely that you will posit the ghost or agent based explanation. My guess is that most of us would consciously believe the mechanistic explanation, since it is rational, while our bodies would believe the agent theory and fire up the fight or flight system.
It is not hard to go from this situation to Monotheism. In fact, as Barrett shows, children seem to be intuitively wired to believe in some sort of all knowing, immortal being.
I recommend this book to all theists and atheists. It is not an apologetic for belief, nor is it an atheist manifesto. It is, rather, an objective look at why so many people believe in God. For an atheist such as myself, Barrett's book gives much food for thought.
Are atheists really superior to theists? Should we discriminate against the religious? Should we try to eradicate religion?
After reading Barrett my view on these questions has changed.
However, I will let the reader draw their own conclusions from this diamond of a book.
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