Q&A: How Our Brains Predispose Us to Believe in God

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Psychologist Jesse Bering is best known for his often risqué (and sometimes NSFW) Bering in Mind blog for Scientific American, which examines human behavior — frequently of the sexual sort. But he’s also the director of the Institute for Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University in Belfast and his new book, The Belief Instinct, examines an entirely different subject: why our brains may be adapted to believe in gods, souls and ghosts.

How do you go from writing about sex to writing about religion?

Morality is probably the common denominator.

What does “theory of mind” — the ability to understand that other people have intentions and perspectives — have to do with believing in God?

I think [perspective-taking] originally just evolved as a social cognitive tool to help us interact with other human beings. My model suggests that this was co-opted by these supernatural beliefs and then that in itself became adaptive.

Theory of mind was so useful and so influential in our success with other humans, and with reasoning about other animals in terms of exploiting and predicting behavior, that it was overgeneralized to all sorts of inanimate objects — even to the universe itself having a mental state and interest in us.

There’s a basic configuration of psychological traits that gives rise to the impression that there’s a morally interested observer watching us.

Many theories about the origins of religion have suggested that it all starts with fear of death.

I think fear of mortality is a central part of people’s susceptibility to belief and faith, but I don’t think it’s the entire story. In the past, I think we overemphasized that fear as a prime motive. I think it’s just part of the puzzle. One really telling thing, at least with surveys, is that there is absolutely no relationship between people’s fear of death and their religiosity and belief in an afterlife. You would expect more [correlation] but there is no connection whatsoever at least in an explicit sense.

[Theory of mind] does foster a sense of an afterlife. Even when we are absolutely convinced that there is nothing after death, we’re mortal, our minds stop working, it’s hard to not take a third-person perspective over your own death, thinking about your funeral, etc. It’s a cognitive limitation that we have. The fact that we so easily take the role of a third-person perspective fosters the illusion of an afterlife.

No matter how convinced people are that there’s no God, [many] still ask, “What’s the meaning of life?” What I’m trying to do is to show why it’s a non-question. We have this tic in our psychology to ask that question. It’s the adaptation that creates the sense that we have a relationship with a supernatural other, having a purpose to life that extends indefinitely gives us this vague sense that something wants us to do something, and that entails some other mind.

No “meaning of life?” Wouldn’t that be a very depressing way of seeing the world?

Somehow understanding this illusion for what it is can make you appreciate life more. If you really are convinced this is the only life we live, you take life more seriously and it’s easier to apply your individual experience and not be so uptight with being eternally judged. To be selfish for selfish purposes and not take into consideration other people’s experience, that’s not natural for us either — that’s the [real] guardrail for not going overboard with a hedonistic lifestyle.

What got you interested in thinking about why people believe?

The book was the culmination of my research over the past 10 years. As I discussed these types of research studies, people were always fascinated, but they didn’t get the full picture of the overall questions we were asking.

[As a child], my first career obsession was to become a parapsychologist, when I was less critical-minded. I read books about ghosts that completely convinced me that these things were real. As I got older, I was more skeptical but maintained an interest in the supernatural, trying to figure out why I was so easily seduced by things like ghosts and God for that matter.

Are you claiming that your ideas prove that religion is wrong?

I am by no means saying that religion is a bad thing nor that religious people are less intelligent. That’s been the primary problem with the new atheists. They take an elitist stance that religion is for fools and the gullible.

I say that we all have the same evolved brain; we’re all susceptible to the same type of what I call illusions. It’s more complicated than the view that religious people are silly. There are definitely significant and empirically verifiable health advantages of being faithful.

You write about how as a child you felt intensely guilty about having broken a neighbor’s fake Fabergé egg and then “swearing to God,” you hadn’t done it.

One of the things you do find cross-culturally is that children are particularly affected by and easily influenced by the threat of punishment from supernatural agents. This is a behavior regulation device, a control mechanism to prevent children from doing things we don’t want them to do when they think we’re not watching.

It’s an additional mechanism on top of self-control that would prevent them from doing things that would ultimately cause them problems or their parents problems.

Why would it help an individual in a species to survive if he or she had a belief in the supernatural?

In the sense of evolution, [belief in gods] inhibits behavior that would [potentially cause social problems].

[It] affects your ability to control negative behavior, [which] is almost always better to inhibit, even if there’s only a remote chance that someone will see you and find out — that could translate into reproductive [failure] by tarnishing your reputation.

The illusion of a watcher, whether it’s a god [or someone else] stops you doing something that you want to do for selfish reasons. It doesn’t have to be real, it just has to work in some sort of mechanistic way. It’s especially important when people underestimate the presence of actual human observers.

But so many religious strictures involve abstaining from sex, and yet inhibiting sex doesn’t seem like it would help reproductive success?

The context matters — all else being equal [there are advantages to inhibiting] antisocial or selfish or “cheating” sex.

When people are basically convinced that God is on their side and God understands why they’re doing what they’re doing, there are lots of loopholes psychologically that also work alongside reproductive interests.

More on TIME.com:

Explaining the Healing Power of Prayer

Religion’s Secret to Happiness: It’s Friends, Not Faith

Jail Time for Parents Who Choose Prayer Over Medicine

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