Ever yelled at your computer? In ‘The Belief Instinct’, cognitive psychologist Jesse Bering argues that because of a little evolutionary mistake called empathy, we humans have a tendency to attribute a conscience to non-living things. Bering came up with a scientific term for this way of thinking—the ‘theory of mind.’ According to Bering, having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviours, that it has now made our brain hypersensitive to social cues. Therefore we sometimes can’t help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that lack consciousness:animals, plants, and even our furniture.
This idea isn’t totally new. In 1944, Austrian research psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel created a simple animated film, which showed three moving figures: a small triangle, a large triangle, and a small circle.
Participants were asked to watch the film. When they were asked about what they had seen, most of them used a human social behavioural narrative to describe their observations. Generally, the participants perceived the large triangle as ‘bullying’ the ‘timid’ smaller triangle, both of whom were seeking the ‘affections’ of the ‘female’ circle.
So we humans tend to read into things, but that’s not the whole story. Bering follows this thread further by showing how our overactive theory of mind sometimes causes us to see messages from the divine in natural occurrences. As a result, we created the illusion of God.
“What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?,” Bering writes. “That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain?”
God, Bering argues, is an adaptive illusion, which used to be a way for us to stay on the right moral track in order to protect ourselves and our future offspring. However, in today’s modern society we don’t need this supernatural-agent-as-watchdog function anymore. Which is good news. Since we are the first generation to realise this is the case, we are finally given the opportunity to find out where God came from, and furthermore, we can start looking for some alternatives.
You argue that God can be seen as an adaptive illusion. Can you elaborate on this?
“The central adaptationist argument in the book is that, through various innate cognitive biases that are difficult to override, we easily fall under the impression that we are in a moralistic social relationship with God (or whatever ethereal watchdogs you please) who cares about our social behaviours. This illusion of a morally concerned force that ‘responds’ to our (mis)behaviours through natural events motivates people to inhibit behaviours that would harm their reputation. Although the parameters for good and bad behaviour are largely set by the culture at hand, a ruinous reputation translates directly to poor genetic fitness outcomes. So the bottom line is this: feeling watched keeps us from doing things that would only harm our own reproductive interests.”
Why – from a evolutionary perspective – don’t we need this illusion anymore?
“Because, to a large extent, at least for complex societies, we have achieved a degree of technological sophistication that obviates the supernatural- agent-as-watchdog function. These include things like hidden cameras, social-security-number tracking, DNA analyses, and so on, all of which are designed for the same social behaviour- regulating functions. They were designed by human means, whereas God was designed by natural selection, but they both serve to keep the individuals’ selfish or impulsive desires in check. The trouble, of course, is that the human brain hasn’t evolved as rapidly as human technology, so we still suffer the same cognitive illusions that gave rise to supernatural beliefs all those eons ago. So long as we’ve got the brains we’ve been dealt by evolution, God isn’t going anywhere.”
Considering that we are hard wired to believe in some sort of supernatural agents; is it possible for us to be true atheists?
“Yes, because atheism is simply a propositional stance about the reality-outside-our-heads. It’s like an optical illusion. No matter how much you know it’s an illusion, you’re still experience the sensation that, say, one line is longer than theothers in the Müller-Lyer trick. Likewise, my position in the book is that atheists simply don’t trust their “gut” feelings–their intuitions–about their supernatural experiences the same way that fullfledged believers do. The latter buy into the great ruse of God, whereas the former reject their senses as being a reliable gauge of reality.”
Don’t you think that religion – besides its moral watchdog function – serves other functions as well, like providing comfort in times of need? And if so, wouldn’t we miss those functions if we stopped believing?
“Of course – and there’s certainly demonstrable empirical evidence showing that faith and religious convictions can lead to better, say, longterm health outcomes for people with various ailments. And there is good in God, to be sure. But my job as a psychological scientist is not to prescribe a comforting psychological worldview, but to show how our worldview rests on a fundamental set of curious cognitive illusions.”
Jesse Bering is the Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture in the
School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast. A research psychologist by training, he writes the popular weekly column ‘Bering in Mind,’ a featured blog for the Scientific American website. In addition to his popular writings, Bering has published over sixty professional scientific articles, nearly all in the area of human social evolution.
Piazza J, Bering JM, & Ingram G (2011). “Princess Alice is watching you”: children’s belief in an invisible person inhibits cheating. Journal of experimental child psychology, 109 (3), 311-20 PMID: 21377689