The God Instinct by Jesse Bering (Nicholas Brealey)

Jacket of The God Instinct by Jesse BeringIt’s not easy being an atheist. Your rational self informs you that God – or Zeus, or the Ju-Ju, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster – does not exist. Your intuition, however, often has other ideas. Despite your best efforts, you can’t rid yourself of the feeling that things happen for a reason; that there exists some benevolent force greater than yourself; that departed relatives are still, in some sense, around. After all, whose brain isn’t prone to breaking the wind of superstition from time to time? And, more importantly: why?

Enter Jesse Bering, evolutionary psychologist and author of The God Instinct, a colourful romp through psychology, philosophy and popular culture. He argues that God-belief evolved to help our species reproduce. Yes, you read that right. According to Bering, God enabled our ancestors to get more sex.

But let’s backtrack. Before putting forth his rather bizarre hypothesis, Bering presents some ideas which help explain why modern atheists are troubled by metaphysical impulses. It all boils down to one driving concept: “theory of mind”.

“Theory of mind” is the ability to understand that other people have an inner mental life. Humans know, for example, that someone with a bucket over his head won’t be able to give us food (chimpanzees probably don’t). This ability was pretty helpful in our ancestors’ struggle for survival. So much so, according to Bering, that it became overdeveloped. As a result we came to believe that inanimate objects like the weather, broomsticks and tarot cards had a super-mind lying behind them.

In 1944, this was demonstrated experimentally. People were asked to interpret a screen filled with randomly moving shapes. Large triangles were seen as “bullying” smaller ones, both of whom were “seeking the affections” of the circle. This anthropomorphism was seen as belying an over-developed theory of mind.

“It may feel as if there is something grander out there, watching, knowing, caring,” Bering writes. “But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind.” It is this that makes films such as the 1956 classic Le Ballon Rouge – which features a relationship between a boy and a helium balloon – possible.

This “cognitive illusion”, Bering argues, is responsible for our instinctive belief in God. It encourages us to “reason that human beings are here ‘for’ some divine purpose”, to “think there are subtle messages scratched into the woodwork of nature”. And, supported by an overdeveloped “person permanence” – the ability to understand that people exist even if they are not in front of us – it makes us prone to a belief in the afterlife. That is, we can’t conceive of annihilation without asking,”Yes, but what will it be like?”

So far so good. It is when Bering links this stuff to ancestral sex that I began to glaze over. In a nutshell, he argues that when our species acquired language, we also gained the ability to gossip. A bad reputation became a real possibility, and with it the threat of ostracism and reduced reproductive opportunity.

For this reason, our ancestors evolved a belief in an all-seeing, punitive God, who “assisted their genetic well-being whenever they underestimated the risk of actual social detection by other people”. A belief in God, in other words, stopped us from being naughty, which preserved our good reputation, which led to .... well, more sex.

This thesis is clearly flawed. For one thing, bad boys are sexier than anyone else. For another, religious people are no less prone to bad behaviour than atheists. In fact, they’re often quite a bit worse. Moreover, as Bering himself puts it, “with or without belief, those who don’t play by the rules will suffer the human consequences”. If the repercussions of bad behaviour are self-evident, why bother evolving a God?

Nevertheless, The God Instinct does atheists a service in explaining our species’ innate religious tendencies. It’s not easy being an atheist. This book helps a bit.