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

3.99  ·  Rating Details ·  845 Ratings  ·  86 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 (first published September 8th 2011)
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Nov 18, 2014 Caroline rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 26, 2014 Armin rated it really liked it  ·  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.

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
Thomas Lanz
Feb 23, 2011 Thomas Lanz rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Zaher Alhaj
Very interesting, amusing, informative, and accessible intro into the evolutionary psychology and the cognitive processes that enable humans to believe in metaphysical things. Nature does not care about being moral or not, as its main concern is the survival and reproduction (i.e. genes passing). Everything that ensues is the cultural product of each community or society.
However, it is a very illuminating notion to make distinction between what is scientific (i.e. real or true) and what is prac
Nov 03, 2016 Abraham rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: misc-non-fiction
An old guy at a party once jokingly asked me, "Does God exist?" "Yes," I said, with an absolute certainty that surprised even me. I felt a little stupid. It was completely the wrong tone to strike. My dad -- a big reason I've been more or less an atheist my whole life -- was standing right there. The old guy was totally thrown. It was like doing improv with Michael Scott, only I was Michael Scott. Even now, I'm like 98% certain that God does NOT exist. None of this stops me from believing in Him ...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
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
Dec 20, 2011 Denise rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 19, 2012 Deb rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
**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
Jun 24, 2011 Book rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Apr 18, 2011 Vicky rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am ready to give the book 10 stars or more. The author does not try to prove or disprove many important beliefs developed by humans. He talks about human evolution and the tendency to believe in God, to look for meaning during different stages of life, to have purpose for existence. God or Gods were always a tool to explain mysteries, to ask for answers. In our adaptive biological development, we use our brain to create explanations, to link events, to look for coincidences and to find explana ...more
Sep 18, 2012 Shai rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 05, 2013 Nicole Napier rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mark Flanagan
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]
Aug 23, 2012 Kara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Clark Hays
Oct 22, 2016 Clark Hays rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"The mind is what the brain does..."
The Belief Instinct is a short, punchy exploration of why belief in god, any god, is misplaced and merely a function of often-overwhelmed biological equipment ever-struggling to successfully pass our DNA forward. I first encountered the author in his wonderful book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which really opened my eyes to sexual orientation, behavior and deviancy (at least as a function of social norms). This is an earlier book and though it lacked
Mar 06, 2017 Jessica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Theory of mind, man

Feb 22, 2017 Debbie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Dec 16, 2011 Tucker rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished, relativist
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
Sean Goh
Read this a while back but forgot to summarise it until now. Have forgotten my impressions of the book. ohwell.

The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity (person, animal etc) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its choice of action by a consideration of its beliefs and desires .. the basic strategy of this stance is to treat the entity as an agent in order to predict and explain, in one sense, - its actions or moves.

Our minds are heav
Rob Thompson
The primary idea Bering presents is that theological beliefs serve a crucial evolutionary and present us with an "adaptive illusion", a useful trait that we humans have evolved over time. In other words, humanity is evolutionarily hard-wired for a belief in God. Why is this useful? The belief in a supernatural being that monitors and judges us always encouraged early humans who were:

impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited

... to avoid acting on these impulses, helping us to survive as a species.

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
Nov 15, 2013 Claire rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 08, 2014 Alexandra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I wish Dawkins wrote this book. Just because he is a much better writer. In fact, when I read "The God Delusion" I expected to find this kind of book, not the one that was under that cover.
The author doesn't call religion simply nonsense and stupidity, he recognizes that such a wide-spread phenomena must have a deeper evolutionary meaning. If you are convinced that god(s) do not exist, then what is causing it?
I loved the approach, although some of the concepts in the books are kind of slippery a
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
Dare Johnson
Nov 01, 2011 Dare Johnson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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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
“almost succeeded in single-handedly shooing the faithful out of their pews in the French cathedrals. Unfortunately for him, this notion of God the Creator is nearly as rampant in the world today as it was when the first prophet sat down to put words in God’s mouth.” 0 likes
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