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God and Gossip

Who will save science from the scientists? I often ponder that question when I peruse the writings of evolutionary psychologists—and did so once again as I read Jesse Bering’s new book, which is at once marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating.

Bering wants to spread the word that belief in a personal God—along with concomitant ideas about the existence of purpose, providence, an afterlife, and a cosmic support for justice—is an “adaptive illusion.” His originality lies not in his confident insistence that such beliefs are groundless—a view that has been defended over and over again in recent years in a series of bestselling books—but rather in the first half of his claim; he contends that theological beliefs serve a crucial evolutionary function. The bulk of his book is devoted to establishing this point, drawing on a wide range of findings in the cognitive sciences to back it up. 

Bering, who serves as the director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the Queen’s University in Belfast, does an excellent job of elucidating these findings. (He is the author or co-author of several of the studies he cites.) As he patiently and absorbingly explains, experiment after experiment has shown that human beings are cognitively predisposed, often from early childhood, to detect signs of order, purpose, and justice in the world. We find it nearly impossible to conceive of our own annihilation, which easily leads to thoughts about the immortality of the soul. All of which means that “contrary to what many atheists tend to believe . . . at least some form of religious belief and behavior would . . . probably appear spontaneously on a desert island untouched by cultural transmission.” Humanity, it seems, is evolutionarily hard-wired for God.

All of this theological thinking is made possible by what Bering calls our “theory of mind”—the uniquely human ability to notice and reflect on the agency and intention of other minds. This capacity is so fundamental to human perception and experience that we have a hard time even noticing it. The capacity functions constantly, and it kicks into high gear when another person’s behavior defies our expectations: when a man on the street asks you a question that makes no sense, or when a friend flies into a rage at what seems to be no provocation.

In such situations, our brains furiously seek to make sense of the behavior by attempting to determine the intention of the mind behind it. The instinctual drive to look for this agency and intention is so strong, in fact, that we sometimes find ourselves attributing mindfulness to inanimate objects—the chair we kick in retributive anger after we trip over it—and even to nothing at all. That is where God comes in. Human beings feel that things happen for a reason, that their lives and their triumphs, failures, and tragedies matter in some larger sense; and their theory of mind allows them to trace this sense of cosmic meaningfulness to the presence of a divine agent that watches over and cares for them—even in the absence of any scientifically verifiable evidence of its existence.

But why did human beings begin to feel in the first place that they and their actions matter to a divine mind? Here is how Bering explains its evolutionary origins: millions of years ago, proto-humans were unselfconsciously “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited.” But then their theory of mind kicked in, enabling them to start judging one another’s actions. We began to realize that we were being watched and judged by other people. And as our species developed language, we came to understand that we were being watched and judged not only by those who directly observed our behavior, but also by those who heard about it through the medium of gossip. Before long, the “reproductive success” of those who failed to restrain their behavior began to suffer, which in turn reproductively privileged individuals with a reputation for self-control. And the most self-controlled—those who lived as if they were being watched and judged at all times by a supernatural entity—were privileged above all others. In this way, our theory of mind and our linguistically based capacity for gossip, when combined with the genetically based imperative to reproduce, conspired to make the human species uniquely predisposed toward moralistic religious beliefs.

The first thing to be said about this account is that it is an example of evolutionary psychology at its very worst: shifting abruptly between experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors; and reducing all human motivation to the desire to get laid; and presupposing what it seeks to prove. (Why did proto-humans begin to condemn “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited” behavior if they did not already possess the capacity for moral judgment and self-restraint that supposedly developed only later, with the advent of gossip?) 

But let’s leave this aside and presume that Bering is right—that belief in God and the moral behavior that flows from the sense that others are watching and judging us are mere adaptive illusions. What makes Bering’s book so insufferable is his utter indifference to the likely psychological and social consequences of the truths that he understands himself to be revealing. One possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame. Bering helpfully provides us with a vivid description of the behavior of chimpanzees who, unlike humans, thoroughly “lack the capacity to care” about what others think of them:

All in plain view of each other, not to mention in plain view of your slack-jawed children, chimps will comfortably pass gas after copulating; cavalierly impose themselves onto screaming, hysterical partners; nonchalantly defecate into cupped hands; casually probe each others’ orifices with all manner of objects, organs, and appendages; and unhesitatingly avail themselves of their own manual pleasures. They will rob their elderly of covetous treats, happily ignore the plaintive cries of their sickly group members, and, when the situation calls for it, aggress against one another with a ravenous, loud, and unbridled rage.

Noting that humans typically “recoil” from such displays, Bering also mocks the reaction as “nonsense of papal proportions” that flows from a misplaced belief that humanity resides at the “pinnacle of Creation.” The truth is that chimps live their lives without the “crippling, inhibiting psychological sense of others watching, observing, and critically evaluating them.” But “humans, unfortunately, are not so lucky.”

Conservative and reactionary critics of science have often accused it of dehumanizing us. They will be delighted to learn that Bering, who clearly implies that we would be better off if we were to follow the lead of our evolutionary cousins and begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public, has made their case for them. But perhaps this is unfair. (Why, though, should I care about fairness, which is no doubt the product of an adaptive illusion?) Bering also indicates, after all, that our evolutionary inheritance so strongly predisposes us toward theological and moral thinking that a fundamental change in our behavior is unlikely, no matter how many books evolutionary biologists write and promote.

But what is the properly human response to our inability to exorcise our groundless moral and religious intuitions? Consoling his readers with a pep talk, Bering tells us that the collective impotence of our species “doesn’t make us weak, ridiculous, or even foolish.” I beg to differ. Repeated, sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception is both ridiculous and foolish. If Bering is right, then human beings, interminably shadowboxing with self-generated delusions, deserve to be considered the laughingstock of the natural world.

This does not make Bering wrong about who we are. But it does make him wrong about how we should react to the prospect of him being right. The most one can say about The Belief Instinct is that it makes an uncommonly compelling case for the self-loathing of humanity.

Damon Linker, author most recently of The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, is the Commentary Editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.