The Belief Instinct

The Belief Instinct

The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

Book - 2011
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Why is belief so hard to shake? Despite our best attempts to embrace rational thought and reject superstition, we often find ourselves appealing to unseen forces that guide our destiny, wondering who might be watching us as we go about our lives, and imagining what might come after death.

In this lively and masterfully argued new book, Jesse Bering unveils the psychological underpinnings of why we believe. Combining lucid accounts of surprising new studies with insights into literature, philosophy, and even pop culture, Bering gives us a narrative that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. He sheds light on such topics as our search for a predestined life purpose, our desire to read divine messages into natural disasters and other random occurrences, our visions of the afterlife, and our curiosity about how moral and immoral behavior are rewarded or punished in this life.

Bering traces all of these beliefs and desires to a single trait of human psychology, known as the "theory of mind," which enables us to guess at the intentions and thoughts of others. He then takes this groundbreaking argument one step further, revealing how the instinct to believe in God and other unknowable forces gave early humans an evolutionary advantage. But now that these psychological illusions have outlasted their evolutionary purpose, Bering draws our attention to a whole new challenge: escaping them.

Thanks to Bering's insight and wit, The Belief Instinct will reward readers with an enlightened understanding of the universal human tendency to believe-and the tools to break free.
Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2011
Edition: 1st American ed. 2011
ISBN: 9780393072990
Branch Call Number: 200.19 BERING
Characteristics: xiii, 252 p. ; 24 cm


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Dec 22, 2014

Fascinating discussion of theories regarding the evolutionary foundation of thought that involves finding meaning and order in the universe, identifying a supernatural being as instigator of events and arbitrator of justice, and proposing a survival of mind or soul after death. The book suffers somewhat from Bering's absolute insistence that any such beliefs are pure fantasy, but the theories here can be appreciated by any open-minded person, whether theist, atheist, or agnostic.

roaddogg09 May 10, 2011

I wasn't sure what to think when I got it. It seemed like all of the other books out there that proclaim to explain why we believe in supernatural entities. "The Belief Instinct" has to be one of my favorite books on the topic. As becomes apparent, Bering's purpose isn't to prove or disprove certain religious beliefs or claims, but to explain why we have such beliefs in the first place. His whole argument rests on a 'theory of mind,' or being able to think about what others are thinking.

Starting with a nice story to do with Philosopher Daniel Dennett, Bering lays the ground work and expands his concept to other domains, including the belief in souls, destiny, and the overall meaning of life. Bering uses studies from many of the sciences to provide examples for his claims.

I gained a lot from "The Belief Instinct." As an atheist, I am interested in what makes people so inclined to accept supernatural claims. Our brains evolved to be susceptible to supernatural claims, and through culture, these manifest as the religions we see today.

I cannot recommend this enough!


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