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Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion)

9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0759106673
ISBN-10: 0759106673
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Editorial Reviews


For millennia, philosophers and others have offered explanations of religious belief. Barrett's discussion challenges every explanation I know of, doing so on the basis of fascinating and innovative empirical studies, and acute philosophical analysis. His theory is innovative, compelling, and provocative at many points, not least in its conclusion that theism, not atheism, is our natural condition. It's the sort of book that shakes up the field; all philosophers and psychologists of religion will have to take account of it. (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University)

A brilliant and challenging presentation of the cognitive study of religion, by a psychologist who practically invented the field. Barrett marries exceptional conceptual rigour with an easy, accessible style. This should provide a much-needed guide for students and scholars of religion as well as a roadmap for future developments in the field. (Pascal Boyer, Washington University in St. Louis, Author of Religion Explained)

In a beautifully argued presentation, Justin Barrett brings together diverse material from cognitive psychology to show that belief in God is natural. Belief is intuitively satisfying because it depends on mental tools possessed by all human beings. That it is natural does not imply that it is true, for the mental tools were elaborated through natural and cultural selection to help humans survive, not to find truth. This book will become a classic for religious studies, and should be read by anthropologists, theologians, and scientists, as well as all those puzzled by the force of religion. (Robert Hinde, Cambridge University)

About the Author

After completing his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Cornell University, Justin Barrett served on the psychology faculties of Calvin College (Michigan) and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and as a research fellow of the Institute for Social Research. Recently, he was the Associate Director for the International Culture and Cognition Consortium and an editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture. His cross-cultural, developmental, and experimental research on religious concepts has appeared in numerous books and scholarly journals. Dr. Barrett currently provides consulting on numerous research and evaluation projects for academic and non-profit groups, especially concerning the interface of science and religion.

Product Details

  • Series: Cognitive Science of Religion
  • Paperback: 152 pages
  • Publisher: AltaMira Press (April 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0759106673
  • ISBN-13: 978-0759106673
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.3 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #807,857 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

88 of 91 people found the following review helpful By Gretchen Koch on January 3, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I would recommend Barrett's book to anyone, academic or no, who has an interest in getting a concise and accessible cognitive explanation for religious belief. Throughout his book, Barrett manages to integrate a variety of current cognitive approaches, some of which were originally intended specifically for explanation of religious belief and some of which have been adapted (in ways that I do not think would be objectionable to their original authors) to this field. In particular, those familiar with the cognitive sciences will recognize elements of Cosmides and Tooby's theory of mental modularity, Pascal Boyer's theories on the signifiance of counter-intuitive agents and agency detection, and Harvey Whitehouse's concept of imagistic and doctrinal modes in religious ritual. But those of you who are unfamiliar with these theorizers, have no fear-- everything you need to understand this book is within the book itself.

Barrett's basic thesis is that belief in God (or gods) is a natural byproduct stemming from two particular capacities of the human mind which have served us well in a variety of contexts throughout the evolution of the species. These capacities he calls Hyper Active Agency Detection, or HADD, and Theory of Mind, or ToM. Chapter by chapter, he explains how these capacities work in formulating beliefs generally, in what contexts (or people) they may be strengthened or weakened, and even how people in which they both function quite normally may still end up not believing in deities for one reason or another.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Alexander Kemestrios Ben on March 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
As an atheist, it is easy to view those with traditional religious beliefs in a condescending manner. We atheists are very bright, scientific, rigorous, and advanced; those who believe in silly things like god(s) are primitive, dumb, and bigoted! Or so We like to tell ourselves.

However, the relatively new field of cognitive anthropology has shown this view to be absolutely false. Most works in this field are turgid, slow moving, and difficult. (cf. works by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer) This book is not. It is terse, to the point, and lucid. All jargon is explained in the text and it contains a glossary so you can refresh your memory if need be.

Barrett's basic idea is that our minds have evolved in a way that makes religious belief natural. It is so natural because it fits nicely with many unreflective beliefs that our mind has. For example, all people have mental equipment which makes them hypersensitive to detecting agency, they also have mental equipment which makes them view other things as having minds.
On top of this, people have intuitive moral concerns that are universal. Therefore, they easily view these morals as coming from somewhere.

In short, as a hypersocial species, humans find it quite natural to posit minimally counterintuitive God concepts. These concepts are satisfying and spread easily among others.

Here is an example of Barrett's mode of analysis.

Suppose you talked to a guy named John a few days ago. John tells you that your house is known to be haunted. He recounts some tales that were told to him by the last owners of the home. You don't really believe it, but you do tuck it away in your memory.

Now you are in your home alone at night. Suddenly the radio turns on in the other room.
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49 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Human Being on November 19, 2007
Format: Paperback
Barrett's account and defense of theistic belief is an important contribution to the perennial debate over the existence of God. As an Oxford researcher at The Centre for Anthropology and Mind and The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, he is eminently positioned to offer a theory of theism from the burgeoning field of evolutionary cognitive psychology.

Barrett's claim is that belief in the supernatural is a natural and predictable product of human development. We 'naturally' impute supernatural agency to account for inexplicable phenomena. Barrett fleshes out this basic theory with several cognitive tools. Thus, in not so simple terms the development of 'ToM' (theory of mind)allows for the perception of 'agency' (intentional actions) using 'HADD' (Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices), which naturally select 'MCIs' (Minimally Counterintuitive Agents), which include God. Easy!

So far, non-theists may be nodding their heads in agreement ... until Chapter 8, 'Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?'. Here, things get interesting and apologetic as Barrett weaves a Plantinga-like Calvinism into the narrative to interpret his natural account of theism. His basic thesis: "The naturalness of religion may be discouraged by the artificial (meaning human-made) pursuit of knowledge" begs the question of what is 'natural' and what is not. Arguably, this is a giant but fascinating leap from an account of theism to a defence of the correspondent truth of theism. In my humble opinion this leap is taken prematurely, and unsuspecting readers may not notice the pervasive influence of Alvin Plantinga's presuppositional apologetics popular amoung modern Reform theologians.
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