Belief in a god does not mean there is a god

The Guardian has a column devoted to an author plugging his book about the evolutionary benefits of god-belief. It’s called The God Instinct, by Jesse Bering, who writes:

In general, recent findings in the cognitive sciences cast considerable doubt on the everyday atheist’s assumption that religion can be explained by a simple “wish fulfilment” theory – that we believe because we wish it to be true. I do not think this type of generic explanation is entirely intellectually bankrupt but I do think it is perfectly circular. Why does ours species need to feel like there is something bigger out there or to have a sense of purpose and so on to begin with? Do other animals have these same existential needs? If not, why don’t they?

I would venture a guess that they don’t have a bigger sense of their place in the universe because all they need to have is a good sense of where they stand in their own herd or pack and the rest they can leave up to their instincts. I would also venture a guess that the animal world is far better off than we are because they can’t waste their time, energy and ambitions on existentialism and debates about what gods exist and why they don’t do more for us. They’re too practical for that. They just get on with life while we sit around trying to explain it.

as the data mounts, it is becoming clear that even atheists experience the vague sense that they are here for a preconceived purpose, that their minds are endless, that there are inherent moral truths, and that the nonhuman world employs human justice.

Say what? I guess I’d have to read the book to see where his evidence of this came from. I thought humans just had a habit of humanizing the motives of non-human creatures, in the same way as we create anthropomorphic characters for Death, Fate, and the like. Don’t we make them seem human because we think we’ll understand the chaos better that way?

Is God a human instinct? It is instinctive for us to seek a grand, moralistic mind that is not there. God is the default stance. And as I describe in The God Instinct, the illusion of God solved a very specific evolutionary problem for our ancestors – that of reputation-harming (and thus gene-compromising) gossip. By inhibiting selfish behaviours that they feared would be punished by supernatural agents, our ancestors would have promoted their prosocial reputations among actual people. But unlike any previous generation, we are now in a position to correct that wayward stance through an informed understanding of why we sense a mental presence that never was.

Creation of gods would help enforce unity and cohesion within a group. Us versus Them and all that. They’re putting faith in a false god; we deserve to win this war because we have the right one. And around it goes. I think gods and religion in general were useful tools for domination and control of populations. A little fear goes a long way toward motivating people.

Since we are by nature selfish creatures who can leave self-control in the dust when there’s something we want bad enough, it probably made a lot of sense for early leaders to tell their people that some supernatural overlord would grind them into toe jam if they disobeyed the rules of their societies. It’s not like they had a real clue about how nature worked in terms of storms and disasters after all. Giving a deity the credit for that destruction, for life and death, was a clever idea if it kept folks on the straight and narrow. Keep their minds whipped and you don’t need to waste energy whipping their bodies. Plus, with the right beliefs you can encourage them to whip themselves.

Yeah, this might be a book I should look for. It could be interesting reading. But first I have to read all these other things I’ve borrowed and report on them. Methinks the television needs to be unplugged for a while…

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