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Is God a Social Illusion?

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 10, 2011 09:42 AM

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In Slate this week, Jesse Bering, a psychologist at Queen's University in Northern Ireland and a blogger for Scientific American, has published an excerpt of his upcoming book, The Belief Instinct. In the excerpt - "Are You There God? It's Me, Brain" - Bering argues that belief in God is a near-inevitable result of the way our brains are built. We've evolved, he writes, to be "natural psychologists," and so we see minds everywhere - even where none exist.

Is God just a social illusion, like the red balloon?

Bering's argument starts from the fact that, as human beings, we've inherited incredibly powerful social brains. We intuit one another's emotions and mental states with incredible speed and accuracy. Evolutionary psychologists say that we have a powerful, built-in "theory of mind," which we use to guess what's going on inside one another's heads. We don't have to intentionally use our theory of mind: It's part of our brains at an unconscious level, and we use it the same way we use our 'theory' of depth perception - without thinking about it. But we rely on it whenever we intuit what another person is feeling, or what another person knows. Some social situations, like poker or speed-dating, push us to use our theories of mind in new ways; they suggest that we even like 'flexing' our social intuition muscles.

Perhaps, Bering suggests, belief in God is only a kind of 'flexing' - an overextension of theory of mind to the universe as a whole. "After all," he writes, "once we scrub away all the theological bric-a-brac and pluck the exotic cross-cultural plumage of religious beliefs from all over the world, once we get under God's skin, isn't He really just another mind - one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps, above all else, intentions?" Bering argues that we're like the lonely boy in the movie Le Ballon Rouge, who befriends a red balloon out of desperation. Of course, the red balloon is just a piece of plastic filled with gas, and eventually, "a mob of cruel children corners the boy and begins pelting the 'kindhearted' balloon with stones, ultimately popping it." (Maybe that's where Bering got the inspiration for his book.)

Bering's idea is hardly new - Richard Dawkins, for instance, suggested something similar in a TED talk a few years ago. Color me unconvinced, though. If belief in God is instinctual, then how do atheists overcome that instinct? I don't believe in God - but I don't find myself fighting some built-in tendency to personify the universe. (Neither, I suspect, does Bering.) If Bering is right, then one would expect very religious people to have very overactive theories of mind. But that hardly seems true: religious people don't, as a matter of habit, personify inanimate things or over-read other people.

More importantly, Bering misunderstands the value that religion provides. His idea is that all people are religious the way children are religious - that is, in a literal, animist way. (The title of his essay plays off a Judy Blume book, Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret?) Being religious, though, isn't about having an imaginary friend; it's about understanding the meaning of life. Victor Frankl called his book Man's Search for Meaning, not Man's Search for a Personality Up There in the Clouds. If there's an instinct at work, it's the instinct to make sense of things. That's why it's a mistake for Bering to dismiss theology: Systematic theology is about making sense of the universe, and it's at the heart what makes religion useful.

My guess? It's the search for meaning, not the search for personality, that makes religion part of the fabric of human life. Aristotle called it "the desire to understand." That's a desire we all share - atheist and religious alike.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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