Jesse Bering: “The God Instinct” (Part 1)

A while ago, I read Jesse Bering’s The God Instinct (which is the British title, in the US the book was published as The Belief Instinct). It’s a highly stimulating book and one of the more interesting contributions to both the science and religion debate as well as the debate concerning atheism. I published my elaborate review on my weblog in Dutch, but since it attracted quite a few non-Dutch visitors who used online translation tools to make some sense out of my Dutch text, I decided to publish my final evaluation of Bering’s book in English. I now publish a revised version of that evaluation here on my website, again in two parts. This is part one. Please note that this is not the review or summary of the book, but only my evaluation of the book as a whole (in other words: it assumes some knowledge of the book already).

Jesse Bering, The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. London: Nicholas Brealey / New York: W.W. Norton 2011. xiii, 252 pp.


Bering has written a delightful book, funny, stimulating, interesting, irritating and because of the many vivid examples also very concrete. However, as a theologian and philosopher of religion, I have to ask the question whether the central thesis of the books is backed up by the arguments he puts forward. Is Bering’s plea to declare God to be an adaptive illusion really valid? Is the central argument underlying the book correct? In my evaluation of the book, I will focus on two points: (a) the issue whether Bering has sufficiently made his case that (the existence of) God is an illusion, and (b) the issue of the nihilistic consequences of Bering’s worldview as he sketches it in the book. In this first part, I will focus on the first point only.

God’s existence refuted?

A central idea in the book is that in social interaction people use a theory of mind (ToM). We tacitly assume in our daily lives that the other people we meet are conscious beings with convictions, intentions, etcetera. In other words: we assume that those people experience and observe the world approximately like we ourselves do. Bering acknowledges that the functioning of our ToM does not rely on solid proof. So far no one has been able to give solid proof that other people have consciousness. For all I know, the people I meet are zombies or programmed robots. The hypothesis that other people have a ToM therefore is a kind of working hypothesis: we use it, assuming the hypothesis is true until proven otherwise. And as a working hypothesis the ToM has successfully proven its worth in the struggle for existence and via natural selection, first to detect hidden dangers (when I’m in the jungle and hear noises in the bushes, it is quite important for my personal survival when I assume that there is an animal predator lurking in the bushes that considers me a delightful snack), and thereafter to make the individual in a population act cooperatively and empathically to enhance the stability of the group. The ToM works, but whether its hypothesis is true or not, is up for grabs.

Bering argues that our ToM sometimes becomes hyperactive, thereby causing us not only to consider our fellow people as people, but occasionally also objects. We become angry at our desktop computers; we treat our cats as persons with intentions and certain rights in our home; and Tom Hanks talks in the film Cast Away to a baseball which has a face drawn on it, just like he would to a human friend. Objects we would not normally categorize as “persons” can under certain circumstances become persons. Our ToM is thus liable of making “category mistakes”: it creates the illusion of personality.

And, so Bering argues, our hyperactive ToM also causes the idea of a supernatural, all-seeing God to pop up in our minds. God thus is an illusion that arises because of the hyperactivity of our human ToM.

Yet I believe that Bering’s conclusion is premature. There is logical difference between a visible and tangible object like a cat or a ball, and an invisible, intangible entity like God. Or in other words, there’s a difference in the claim that ToM is sometimes hyperactive when applied to physical objects, and Bering’s claim that that the ToM sometimes becomes hyperactive and then constructs or imagines invisible objects and persons. Because that’s what the whole point of the book: God is an invention of our brain, a byproduct of brain processes (such as the ToM), God is a construction. However, under normal circumstances our brains use the ToM to cope with tangible objects. In the case of Tom Hanks’ talking to the baseball, the personality of the baseball is an illusion, yet the baseball itself is a real, physical object, which is granted the quality “personality” by Hanks’ ToM. But when it comes to God we are not talking about a physical object which is assigned a certain illusory quality. God (or at least the Christian God) is by definition an invisible, non-tangible being. And Bering’s entire point is that this God is illusory. But God is a completely different ball-game than a physical object that begets personality traits because of the workings of our ToM. There is a categorical difference here.

Things would be different if Bering’s argument would focus, for example, on the worship of animals and trees as gods. In that case we are indeed talking about physical objects (animals, trees) that are described to have supernatural or divine attributes by religious believers. In that case, Bering would have a point. But about the God of the three great monotheistic traditions it is said that this God cannot and ought not to be equated with physical objects, that no one can make an image of God. According to these religions, God is not a tangible object, and thus categorically different from trees and animals that are given divine qualities. I believe this is a very crucial point that Bering apparently does not consider.

The genetic fallacy

In addition, Bering seems to be guilty of what is called the “genetic fallacy.”[1] In case of a genetic fallacy, the historical origins of a particular conviction are confused with its justification. An example of the genetic fallacy: in a conversation I once had with a Dutch philosopher he dismissed Heidegger’s entire philosophical oeuvre with a single argument: “The guy was a Nazi, for God’s sake!”

Suppose someone says that she believes in aliens because she (so she says) has been abducted by a flying saucer. Now suppose some doctor conclusively determines that persons who claim to have been abducted by aliens suffer from sleep paralysis, which is the cause of their ideas about abductions by aliens. Does this explanation entail that her belief that aliens exist is false? Obviously not. It is possible that aliens exist even if it turns out that the abduction stories are some sort of hallucinations. Her belief thus may be true, even though the reasons she gives for her conviction are erroneous. So a belief may be true, even though the source of that belief is unreliable. Moreover, she may have learnt that e.g. astronomers, astrophysicists, exobiologists, etc. have all given reasons why life on other planets is quite probable given the vastness of space and many other preconditions. There may therefore be other reasons to justify her belief in aliens, although she came to this belief originally because she believed she had been abducted in flying saucers. Therefore, someone who claims that aliens do not exist because her abduction story turns out to be nonsense, commits a genetic fallacy. In that case the cause of a belief is confused with its justification.[2]

In summary, “The genetic fallacy makes the mistake of supposing that the source of an argument affects its validity. Utterly wicked people sometimes utter worthy arguments, while saints are not immune from silliness. The argument stands alone, drawing neither strength nor weakness from its source.”[3] The cause of a belief is mostly irrelevant to its truth or justification; and if someone thinks that the cause is relevant for the justification of a belief, (s)he must give a solid account of why that is so. To establish the truth or falsity of a belief or its justification requires more than simply tracking the causes of that belief.[4]

Now, Bering’s argument seems to come down to the following argument:

(A)   The origin of religious belief in the existence of God is the human theory of mind.

(B)   The theory of mind is not always a reliable source (e.g. the ToM may become hyperactive).

(C)   So belief in God is a false belief (Bering’s term: erroneous). God does not exist.

This argument in my view is an example of the genetic fallacy, as the conclusion do not necessarily follow from the premises, or more accurately: the premises do not justify the conclusion. It is possible that God exists and that the belief that God exists is true, even though what people claim about God based on their ToM is utterly wrong. Even if the human concept of God is rooted in the workings of the ToM, this still does not by itself imply that belief in God is false and irrational. Belief in God would be an illusion if the sole reason for believing in God is the working of the human ToM. However, people give lots of reasons for believing in God, most of them not involving the ToM. Thus Bering’s premises based on the ToM taken by themselves are not sufficient to warrant his conclusion.

In other words, when someone concludes, based on the evolutionary mechanisms at work in religious belief, that religious belief is therefore erroneous and that God is an illusion, then that person commits a genetic fallacy. The evolutionary roots of religious belief can never serve as a justification for the claim that belief in God is either rational (as sometimes religious people are prone to do) or irrational (as Bering and other atheists claim).

In summary, I agree that Bering gives sufficient reasons to at least suspect that people use their ToM in dealing with other people and in the way they treat certain objects. The idea of a ToM is indeed supported by some observations, and is also backed up by research of Justin Barrett and others. However, it is an entirely different matter when it comes to the ToM as an explanation for (or rather: against) the existence of God. The categorical distinction between tangible objects and invisible persons or even Gods is not made explicit in Bering’s book, and that is critical when it comes to his idea that God is an illusion because God is somehow “conjured up” by our ToM. Furthermore, Bering commits in my view a genetic fallacy when he claims that belief in God’s existence is caused by our ToM and is therefore illusory and irrational. Whether a belief (such as the belief that God exists) is true or false is independent of the issue what caused that belief.

Thus I believe the central thesis of the book, that God is an adaptive illusion, is not justified by the arguments put forward in the book.

But what about gossip?

Now, someone could come up with the suggestion that Bering in the sixth chapter of his book develops a theory that explains via the phenomenon of gossip how the idea of God arose. Doesn’t that theory sufficiently prove the illusory nature of religious belief? I think not. Allow me to reconstruct Bering’s theory in the following way:

(A)   People tend to satisfy their animal needs and desires in the short term (by impulsive behavior) at the expense of longer-term genetic benefits.

(B)   This often leads to socially undesirable behavior that negatively affects the stability of the group, and is thus unacceptable to others in the group who observe this behavior.

(C)   The “offender” as a consequence gets a bad name, and thereby is considered an unstable factor in the upbringing of offspring and a threat to the group. For such an individual, the probability of reproduction (and thus the spread of genetic material) decreases.

(D)   Natural selection has invented language, which can be used to talk about other people’s behavior (gossip), allowing the listener to get an (often negative) impression of the behavior of the person though (s)he has not directly observed this behavior.

(E)    The risk of reputational damage through gossip ensures that someone is constantly on the alert for eyes that indicate the presence of observers.

(F)    Conclusion 1: the eyes of others exert a pressure that forces one to control his/her impulsive behavior.

(G)  However, if there are no others present, no observers, then the social pressure is gone, thus increasing the chance that socially unacceptable behavior pops up again.

(H)   Natural selection using the human ToM therefore invented an All-Seeing Eye, a celestial Big Brother: God as omnipresent, omniscient and all-seeing Observer who enforces control to impulsive behavior when no (other human) eyes are present.

(I)     Conclusion 2: God is an adaptive (though socially useful) illusion.

Does this theory truly show that God is an illusion and does it explain why that is the case? The answer to these questions is: “no.” The crux of Bering’s theory is in premise (H): the ToM is the inventor of the idea of God and at the moment that God was invented the idea of God turned out to have evolutionary advantages, and so God became a successful idea in almost all societies that ever existed and still do exist. Bering does nowhere quote scientific evidence that backs up this claim. Though Bering’s theory may explain (at least partly) how the idea of God functions within an evolutionary framework, and so perhaps explains something about the human beings who are religious believers (i.e. it says something about the anthropological side of religious belief), it says nothing about whether God is an illusion or not.

And even if Bering’s claim would prove true, he still has not uncovered the ultimate causes for belief in God. He describes how religious faith may function in an evolutionary perspective (namely as an All-Seeing Eye that keeps humans morally on the right track), but that is merely a proximate cause, just like the idea that religion offers comfort during periods of existential uncertainties. Bering thus may shed some light on the biological basis of human belief in God, but contributes little to the more basic question whether God does or does not exists.

In addition, I explained already why Bering does not succeed in providing a sufficient explanation for the emergence of the idea of God. The positing of an invisible, intangible, omnipotent, etc. God is still a long way from personifying a physically observable red balloon. To personify a red balloon may indeed be the work of our hyperactive ToM, it is not clear whether this also holds for the existence of God. Bering claims that it does, but he provides no arguments.

And the immortality of the soul?

But what about the immortality of the soul? For Bering, God is the guarantee for the immortality of the human soul. Yet the idea of immortality in itself is independent of the existence of God. Human ideas about immortality and the soul arise, as Bering argues in chapter four, because people try to think about their own death while they lack the cognitive skills to do that. Our brains simply are not equipped to think about their own nonexistence and therefore they extrapolate from their everyday world and shape this extrapolation into an afterlife of (according to Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis). Once an afterlife has been constructed, God becomes its guardian (though this is not made explicit by Bering). As Bering himself states, the subjective feeling that the mind survives death is a psychological illusion operating in the brains of the living (130) and in itself has not much to do with God’s existence.

Also that God is necessary to maintain the moral balance in the world (the subject of chapter five) is a rather unsubstantiated claim. The notion of reincarnation does something similar, without the need for any idea of a personal God (though it can be made compatible to it). Reincarnation is also an answer to the question of suffering in this world. Which indicates that Bering needs additional arguments to explain what the difference is between God and reincarnation. Why does one culture prefer God as the response to suffering, while another culture chooses the system of reincarnation? Indeed, if we accept Bering’s argumentation strategy based on ToM, then it seems that the idea of a personal God comes much more “natural” or “intuitive” to humans compared to the more abstract and impersonal “system” of Karma that underlies most notions of reincarnation.

Conclusion to this first part of the evaluation

To advance knowledge, dispute is necessary. Yet, these critical remarks should not discourage one to read Bering’s book, which remains incredibly fun to read and to reflect upon. But as an atheist manifesto it fails, because the philosophical argument eventually turns out to be sloppy and unconvincing. Bering nowhere shows that the ToM makes God’s existence unlikely or illusory (although I foresee that militant atheists will claim the opposite).

Ultimately, it seems that the cognitive study of religion (CSR) ultimately cannot say anything about God’s existence itself. The data of the CSR can be interpreted both in favor of atheism (as Bering does) or in favor of theism (like for example in the work of Justin Barrett [5]). The CSR thus can be “used” for both atheistic and Christian-apologetic purposes. But in both cases there remains some extra argumentative work to be done that the CSR alone cannot do. The CSR may have something to say about how people think, about how religious belief is rooted in the human brain and about the cognitive mechanisms involved in religious belief. However, ultimately the question of whether God is an illusion or not, remains out of reach of the CSR.

== End of part 1 ==


[1] A useful discussion on the genetic fallacy can be found in J. Baggini & P.S. Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods. Malden/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 2003, 89-92.

[2] Note that when the person eventually would come to see for herself that sleep paralysis indeed is the cause of her abduction experiences, that those abductions in flying saucers thus never happened, and that therefore extraterrestrials do not exist, she also commits the genetic fallacy.

[3] M. Pirie, How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. London/New York: Continuum 2006, 82.

[4] Or as Baggini and Fosl (The Philosopher’s Toolkit, 92) formulate it: “Whenever someone confuses the account of something’s origin –  be it a belief, attitude or behavior – with its justification, or when someone inappropriately appeals to the origin of a thing to determine the later character or nature of a thing, a form of the genetic fallacy has been committed.”

[5] Barrett’s book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Lanham, etc.: AltaMira Press 2004) is the theistic-apologetic antagonist to Bering’s book. It is remarkable that Bering in his book hardly refers to Barrett’s work, although Barrett’s is at least as influential in the field of the cognitive study of religion as Bering’s own work.