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The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  461 ratings  ·  64 reviews
Lively and brilliantly argued, The Belief Instinct explains the psychology behind belief. Drawing on surprising new studies as well as on literature, philosophy, and even pop culture, The Belief Instinct will reward readers with an enlightened understanding of belief—as well as the tools to break free of it.
ebook, 272 pages
Published February 20th 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Adam Lewis
A superb and accessible account of religious cognition.

I do not read many non-fiction books in one sitting no matter how interesting I find their subject material as it is nearly impossible not to become bored at some point and put them down. Yet in the past year, Bering's book is one of only two that have kept my attention so captured to be finished within 24 hours.

As one of the leading scholars in the field of religious cognition Bering weaves a persuasive thesis that builds on the strengths o...more
May 29, 2014 Armin rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who want to know why people believe in god/supernatural entities
This book is not about the existence/nonexistence of god. Bering believes this is a trivial question! His main interest is why most societies throughout history have believed in some sort of god or supernatural being. He scrutinises beliefs through an evolutionary psychological lens.

I think this a good no-nonsense intro to evolutionary psychology of religion. I learned about some compelling ideas in this book, such as the absolute importance of a theory of mind when it comes to belief in god.

Thomas Lanz
I was blown away by this book. The title makes it sound like another dud but do not be put off by that -- this is an engaging (addictive!) read that will completely flip your worldview and have you questioning things that you did not even know needed questioning. I have been around a long time and have seen it all. This book is special: beautifully written and as much a work of literature as it is pop science. I do not define myself either as religious or atheist and care little for such discuss...more
Maughn Gregory
Bering is "an atheistic psychological scientist who studies religion" (4). The problem he addresses is that many people experience beliefs and feelings of being the object (the toy, the victim, the darling, the child, the creature) of a big mind out there (God, destiny, ghosts). This is problematic because (a) it can be scary and counterproductive and(b) even when we don’t believe in such things we sometimes feel, intuit them, and what accounts for that? Bering's hypothesis is that these beliefs...more
The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering

The Belief Instinct is an enjoyable book whose response to our basic belief system can be attributed to an understanding of the "theory of mind". Mr. Bering weaves an interesting narrative on how psychological illusions caused by the "theory of mind" gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. This 272-page book is composed of the following seven chapters: 1. The History of an Illusion, 2. A Life without Purpose, 3. Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs, 4. Curious...more
**Padding the existential givens**

The existential givens of life can be quite brutal: there is no absolute meaning, purpose, destiny, order, or permanence to our lives. (Yikes!)

The truth is, it's hard to really, deeply believe those truths. Although accepting these existential givens is ultimately (and counter-intuitively) a way towards a meaningful life, our primitive brains are designed to pad us from these realities. (After all, if our ancestors were truly aware of the truths of life, they mi...more
Quick run down: Cognitive psychology has made a breakthrough discovery in theory of mind, where humans have the capacity to analyze the minds of others and therefore anticipate their behavior and our own. Because of this, we've invented God as someone who can keep us all in line, as a sense of a mind who is watching helps us modify our behavior. First of all, reducing human belief in God to a natural explanation does not make a case against God's existence. The strength of any argument should be...more
Arjun Ravichandran
The basic gist ; we are deeply social creatures, and our much-prized cognitive faculties are due to our highly complex primate sociability and the associated need to decipher what the 'other' is thinking about us. This basic thrust behind our cognitive character accounts for us positing 'teleo-rational-projection' which simply means positing intentionality and personality to aspects of reality that simply do not entail such a projection e.g. the natural world. The author shows that this compulsi...more
Slim Khezri
This is a great read for anyone willing to think outside the box of religion. Very interesting. It kept me captivated and thinking about the theories presented for days. I am deeply fascinated by how the human mind makes sense of the world, and religion is one of the primary sensemaking mechanisms humanity has created to explain reality. This book could not have been organized or written any clearer. I would highly recommend it to believers and nonbelievers alike. It was completely engaging from...more
Bering is funny and to the point. He covers a lot of material in this book, in support of his main thesis: humans invented god because they are predisposed to see minds and intentionality in their worlds. He is also very well read, quoting Sartre on one page and the creator of Sex in the City on the next one.

The book was a little too long for my taste. It felt that he could have stated his arguments more concisely, but that might just be the academic in me.
Nicole Napier
One of the best books I've ever read. It talks about how as human beings we're prone to make connections between strange nuances and bizarre coincidences that are not necessarily there. This is why God has been used as a guiding light by so many people in their lives. This book claims that this is really nothing more than a psychological "theory-of-mind".

Fascinating book. Used many interesting examples to prove its point. Definitely recommend it.
The Belief Instinct is pleasurable in that it's wholly unlike books by the sort of atheists who doggedly pursue the conversion of their readers to their way of thinking. Bering is methodical and scientific in building his argument. He's also very personable and quite funny. [full review]
An evolutionary psychologist's take on how our adaptations that allowed for continued survival also made it instinctive for us to believe in some supernatural presence, even for those who rationally know the existence of such things is improbable.

Jesse Bering does a great job of writing science in a way that is engaging and accessible to non-scientists.
Amy Turner
Not as good as I expected. The author is not a strident atheist like Dawkins, but is very convinced that God is all in our heads. I don't think he did that good a job of building the case. Some interesting results of surveys and experiments.
A well-reasoned and clear explication of the cognitive biases underlying our theistic beliefs.
Because the author is so open about his atheism, I think it's easy to forget at times that the topic of this book is not the existence of God / a god / gods / deities, etc. Instead, the book reviews how the evolutionary psychology of humans has uniquely pre-disposed us to believe in the existence of an omniscient deity or deities that observe(s) and judge(s) our thoughts and actions and in of some form of afterlife. I actually feel like these are questions you can engage with and think about reg...more
I've been pondering the issues in this book for many years, and I may finally have stumbled on a book with new insights. This is a book selection for a skeptics discussion group.

(1) ABBA's song "Knowing me, knowing you" kept going through my head while reading this book. That's what the essence is: we know ourselves, and when we observe others act or react, we project our motives onto them. This is called the theory of mind.

(2) This "theory of mind" is also at work when people assign mo...more
At 205 pages. this is a pretty short book for one that has a subtitle of “the psychology of souls, destiny, and the meaning of life.” Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and has done all sorts of interesting studies which have led him to be able to make a good case on the psychology behind why humans believe in God and all that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

Bering explains that even those of us who consider ourselves to be atheists will still have deep-down feelings of unseen forces that drive o...more
Dare Johnson
Fascinating take on the adaptive value of religion and belief in God from an evolutionary psychology perspective. These forces are so interwoven into our social and emotional survival that they will not soon disappear, nor be easily replaced, even for the scientific mind. Bering uses examples from history, popular culture and his own life, so his writing is far from dry and academic. He gave me a lot to think about concerning "theory of mind" and its simultaneous role in empathy (the foundation...more
Tédio do princípio ao fim. Consegue cometer os crimes todos: é simplista, é superficial, é desengraçado e é condescendente. Pior: não oferece nada de novo; quem tiver lido sequer um parágrafo sobre a teoria da mente não chegará ao fim do livro mais bem informado. E a maneira como Bering simplifica o problema que se propõem tratar é ofensiva para um leitor realmente interessado no assunto: ao que parece é possível escrever 243 páginas em que se repete, sublinha e reitera a ideia "acreditamos em D...more
Bering thinks our commonsense notion of God is an "adaptive illusion" that evolved because it puts checks on our behavior, which is especially important for beings with language who can gossip about each other.

Noting a study that showed that nearly all 8-year-olds assume a creationist view of the world before they are taught otherwise, Bering argues that our obsessively, incessantly intentional stance leads us to be "teleo-functional," i.e. to see created/designed purpose in everything, especial...more
This is an elegantly written and entertaining read. It looks at how our theory of mind (our ability to enter into the thoughts of others) is central to our being human and is probably why we believe in a supernatural agency. It makes a lot of heavy science easy reading and is sprinkled throughout with cultural references as diverse as Sex and the City and Par Lagerkvist's The Dwarf. I first came across the theory of mind through the work of Simon Baron Cohen (cousin of Sacha) and was grateful to...more
Alexi Parizeau
This book is going to play an important role in the development of artificial cognition. Bering makes a critical argument for how terrifically useful it is for an entity to have a Theory of Mind. But just as critical is how having a Theory of Mind also implies a tendency towards unsubstantiated beliefs (ie believing in the supernatural, the afterlife, God(s) and fate). I'm going to have to keep Bering's thesis in mind while researching safe implementations of AGI.
Cassandra Kay Silva
I am vacillating between four and five stars on this one. I picked it up at a bargain book store and did not expect much out of it but for a couple bucks I thought ahhh what the heck. I really wouldn't judge this one too much by its cover, the content is surprisingly good. His train of thought is similar to an approach that I would take if I were undergoing a lot of these questions. He starts with and sticks with neural biology and case studies of the mind. I think this is a really really good a...more
Very mixed feelings about this book. Really interesting to have read this just after finishing "Galileo's Daughter" and learning about the Catholic church's reaction to Galileo's work. When new science comes to light, how to we incorporate that into our faith?

This book describes in a very straightforward way how evolution, especially the development of a "theory of mind" could predispose us to perceiving God even if he isn't there. As a scientist, absolutely fascinating book and ideas.

As a Chris...more
I thought this book was excellent. Many books that discuss the topic of belief are usually jaded towards just trying to disown religion as an anthropological/evolutionary adaptation. I enjoyed how Bering took things to a deeper level to look at the actually psychological and sociological implications and underpinnings of belief. His use of historical quotes/figures as well as references to classic literature were well down as well as the studies he used. He kept a conversational rather than argu...more
Dave Schey
Jessie Bering approaches the subject of the belief instinct from the point of view of an evolutionary psychologist. As such, he gives a nice summary of what psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists have learned about Theory of Mind and how our mind works to create beliefs in God, the afterlife, purpose in life, morality, etc. The Belief Instinct is a short easy read and well worth reading, particularly if this is the first book of its kind that's come to your attention.
This was a fascinating read about the evolutionary, sociological and psychological reasons people believe in god or create religions. The chapters I particularly enjoyed explored "theory of mind," that humans are the only creatures who try to read others' minds because we are the only ones who fathom others have thoughts like we do, and how this extends to our belief in God. I also loved the section on autism and how autistic people conceptualize God (if they do). It was an interesting read. Pre...more
A charming quick read about the biggest questions of all: what is it to die? what is it to live? what is God? Despite these heavy questions' historical entanglement with religion, this is not a book about religion per se. It is about how evolution has conspired to give us the inkling of the diving watching over us, or of the hidden meaning of apparently coincidental events.

Bering is a young man with great promise - he will be someone to watch carefully if he continues his productive career on t...more
The Belief Instinct is a compelling look at the biological origins of such things as belief in God, the afterlife, and divine punishment. Many of these things, the author argues, are due to our evolution of a "theory of mind," which allows us to assume that others think and feel as we do and put ourselves into their heads. Although Bering himself is a non-believer, this book should be interesting to those of every religious stripe or none, since, as he points out, the believe can always argue th...more
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Jesse Bering began his career as a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas and is the former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University Belfast. In 2011, Bering left his academic post in Northern Ireland and returned to the U.S. to write full time, settling in Ithaca, New York with his partner, Juan Quiles, along with their kind cat with a weight problem (T...more
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“Thoughts said aloud are mutant by nature. No matter how expertly one plumbs the depths of subjective understanding, Gorgias realized to his horror, or how artistically rendered and devastatingly precise language may be, truth still falls on ears that hear something altogether different from what exists in reality.” 1 likes
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