on January 3, 2005
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. Barrett argues that the mental equipment we as homo sapiens have evolved for myriad purposes ranging from detecting predators to romantic relationships to finding food actually end up working together in a fashion that causes us to find the existence of supernatural agents entirely plausible-- and not just plausible, but necessary.
Of course, one's immediate response may be, "Well, that is all very good...but if that is the case, how do some of us end up not believing in gods?" And Barrett expects this objection. His penultimate chapter is entitled "Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?" and in it he explains why even though religious belief may be natural, it is not inevitable in all of us. Personally, I feel that the book lets us down a bit at this point-- Barrett's answer is basically that atheists are generally people who have frequent occasion to challenge their own perceptions, specifically the ones that cause us to suspect that there are agents present when we can't be sure, or to attribute agency where there may actually be none. He surmises that this is most likely to occur in academic circles and/or in western, affluent societies, specifically urban areas, where the common understanding is that the environment is designed by humans, not supernatural entities, and intentionality may very well be ascribed not to deity but to more abstract entities such as the government, the market, or society. He describes atheism as seeming natural to some who "enjoy an environment especially designed to short-circuit intuitive judgments tied to natural day-to-day demands and experiences." (118) This is fair enough, but deserves quite a bit more analysis, and in my assessment does not warrent Barrett's conclusion that atheism is therefore "unnatural." Abnormal? Certainly. But it is quite possible to make an effective argument for the naturalness of a belief without maintaining that those who do not have it fall into the category of "unnatural." My suspicion is that Barrett overstates his position a bit in defiance of academics he describes as stating unabashedly that theistic belief is absurd and unworthy of rational-thinking people. But this does not detract from the very worthy points made throughout the book up to this point.
By and large, the book could have been written by theist or non-theist-- its goal is emphatically not to make an argument for or against the existence of God. Rather, it is to explain how each of us enter the world pre-equipped with minds containing a legacy of engineering which has served us in the goal of surviving through the ages, and how this equipment has made belief in the supernatural an entirely natural part of that world...for better or for worse.
on March 16, 2008
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. You get a little scared. Then you here creeks coming from the basement. Now your blood is getting hot and your palms are sweating. You don't believe in superstitious nonsense. All the same, you can't help the fear. Then you remember what John told you. What if it were true, you think to yourself.
Why does this seem so plausible?
According to Barrett this would occur for many reasons.
1) Humans gain social information from others and assume that non-interested parties are not purposefully decieving us. Therefore, John's tale is percieved as being relevant, even if it is first construed as nonsense.
2) Humans have artifact detection devices in their brains. We know that a radio is created for a specific function.
3) Humans have a hypersensitive agency detection device. We are always looking for evidence of agency, even where none exists.
4) Humans have a Theory of Mind (ToM). We are always trying to interpret things mentally. For example, my computer IS STUPID!
5) Combining 2-5, You know that your radio is turned on only when someone purposefully turns it on to listen to music. That it might turn on accidentally, or due to mechanical failure is not intuitive. Thus, your unreflective thought is: Who turned my radio on and why? If nobody is in your house, you can reflectively compensate for your intuitions, but it is tough. Once your mind starts churning, it is tough to shut off. Now that your agency detection device is working in high gear, you hear the creeking from the basement. Your mind interprets this as movement from somebody attempting to do something. After this, you remember what John told you. Think about how intuitively satisfying such implicit reasoning is! It makes sense of everything around you in a parsimonious manner. To deny this and concoct reflective explanations that deny agency and ToM requires that you get very non-intuitive. It is possible. For example, you can reason that a mechanical fluke caused the radio to turn on, and that the creeks in the basement are nothing more than the water heater. My guess is this explanation will not provide total comfort. Nor will you be certain that it is true. It is just not that intuitive. Although your reflective explanation, in this case, is almost certainly the correct one, the mind does not think so.
Error management Theory. Suppose you are in the woods and hear a twig snap. Was it the wind or a predator? Your brain can go either way. From the point of view of natural selection, defaulting in either direction has costs and benefits. If you remain calm assuming it was the wind and are wrong, you end up as lunch. If you get nervous, assuming a predator is lurking after you, your body uses up some metabolic energy. After eons of rigorous selection, it clearly pays to error on the side of caution.
This applies, mutatis mutandis, to the haunted house. Suppose you remain calm and believe the events have been caused by non-agents- What if you are wrong? What if it is a ghost or intruder? (BTW, as Barrett explains, a haunted house is even more intuitive because we view houses as having territorial owners. If the ghost owners view you as a trespasser, that is a good reason for getting angry. Your mind intuitively knows this, thus you do not break into homes.)
EMT theory makes it more likely that you will posit the ghost or agent based explanation. My guess is that most of us would consciously believe the mechanistic explanation, since it is rational, while our bodies would believe the agent theory and fire up the fight or flight system.
It is not hard to go from this situation to Monotheism. In fact, as Barrett shows, children seem to be intuitively wired to believe in some sort of all knowing, immortal being.
I recommend this book to all theists and atheists. It is not an apologetic for belief, nor is it an atheist manifesto. It is, rather, an objective look at why so many people believe in God. For an atheist such as myself, Barrett's book gives much food for thought.
Are atheists really superior to theists? Should we discriminate against the religious? Should we try to eradicate religion?
After reading Barrett my view on these questions has changed.
However, I will let the reader draw their own conclusions from this diamond of a book.
on November 19, 2007
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.
The core question Barrett approaches is whether a natural account of the development of God concepts leads 'naturally' to theism or atheism? Barrett comes down clearly in favour of theism, using the analogy in another text, "Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me -- should I then stop believing that she does?" But, is this a relevant analogy? Perhaps, but what of another: suppose science develops a convincing account of why a man thinks he's God - should we then stop believing he is? Or, "suppose science provides a convincing account for why two different men think that they are God - should we then stop believing that either are? I'm not sure Barrett (at least in this short book) gives a good account of why and how we answer these questions in the way we do. Exactly what is it cognitively that draws so many people to and from Christian theism upon deep reflection? If Barrett has provided a natural account of atheism should we stop beliving that the atheists are right? What is it that makes it so 'natural' for once-theists to be disillusioned by the 'supernatural' accounts offered within their religious culture? How can anything (including atheism) be 'unnatural' if it's a predictable response to growing out of a first theistic naivity? Barrett's answer, inasmuchas it relies on a presuppositional apologetic, seems as 'unnatural' as the atheism it attacks.
This is a truly excellent introduction to the cognitive study of religion. Justin Barrett has an amazing gift for communicating difficult ideas and concepts in very simple language. Indeed, as an educational reference it should become a classic in the field, but it is full of seminal and important ideas in its own right. It will surely challenge anyone's preconceptions about how religious beliefs are formed, whether theist or atheist. This is evidenced by the review of the ignoramus below who tries to cough up numbers to 'refute' Justin Barrett's claim that it is natural for the human mind to postulate supernatural persons as part of the world.
It is not, as the one-star reviewer thinks, a work of apologetics. It is not intended to bolster the faith of believers. Even though Barrett is a Christian, the book is neutral (as any work of science should be) on the question of whether God actually exists.
Indirectly, however, this book does provide a defense of theism in the following way. Barrett establishes, through a careful overview of the cognitive literature, that beliefs in God or gods are formed from the same cognitive machinery as that which produces our belief in other peoples' minds, the flow of time and other beliefs which we take for granted. You cannot isolate religious beliefs as an evolutionary by-product and not do the same for these other indispensable beliefs. That does not prove that there is a God, but it does effectively neutralize evolutionary criticism of religious belief.
Barrett makes an interesting connection between the results of cognitive science and Alvin Plantinga's seminal work "God and other minds" which is well worth reading. Overall this book is a goldmine of insights and the best general overview of the cognitive science of religion for non-specialists.
on January 24, 2006
Well written: scientific yet accessible without unnecessary jargon
Justin L. Barrett presents a well-substantiated, yet very accessible thesis describing the psychological mechanisms involved in belief -- that is, both belief in general and belief in God in particular. Drawing on clinical research, Barrett demonstrates how from childhood, each of us is predisposed to view adults, such as our parents, as omniscient and omnipotent beings. Though we mature and abandon those beliefs about adults, these concepts still allow us to believe in the omnipotent and omniscient qualities of god (any god of any culture), as transmitted to us by our parents and by our society. Barrett demonstrates how ideas and stories that engender belief in such a god are more easily accepted and transmitted than other types of stories.
The foundation of these beliefs stems ultimately from our instinctual ability to distinguish, often incorrectly, the difference between non-agents (for example, a leaf carried by the breeze) and agents (a live mouse) and to believe that they possess mental functions such as fear and desire (for food, for example) which cause them to act.
In the final chapters, Barrett speculates somewhat sarcastically, but still effectively, why reason, logic, and factual evidence do not easily overcome belief. Reading past the sarcasm, there is much to be learned in this chapter. Finally, Barrett discloses his personal belief in Christianity and speculates that our innate capacity to imagine the divine was not the result of mere natural selection, but supernatural selection. I found the idea intriguing yet I wish the rational were a bit more transparent.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to both believers and non-believers who want a better insight into the psychology of belief. Everyone will recognize within himself these psychological processes that Barrett describes and will find it easy to make the connection between that understanding and the phenomenon of belief.
on July 29, 2014
I have read Pascal Boyer's earlier book “Religion explained“ before reading this book and must say that I am somewhat disappointed about this book. The main content of the book, namely why religion and in particular god concepts are natural (chapters 1 - 5), has been explained much more convincingly and understandably in Boyer's book (which I fully recommend!).
The rest of Barrett's book I found much less convincing, in particular chapter 7 where he argues that believing in God is just as natural as believing that other people have minds, too: While indeed both these objects of belief cannot be scientifically proven, believing that others have minds is by far the simplest explanation for their behavior. The same cannot be said about belief in God, since there are equally (or even more) convincing explanations for all that is named as evidence of God's existence (e.g. evolutionary selection advantage of moral behavior as an explanation for the existence of conscience and sin).
So, too make a long story short: Better read “Religion explained“ than this book!
on November 30, 2014
on July 10, 2006
This is a good attempt to answer a non-question. The meaniningful question is 'What does a particular person mean by the word "God"?' A second question is 'Does this person behave in ways that seem to fit with what they say they mean by "God"?' There is no general answer to either question, though it would be possible, by interviewing and observing many individuals, to recognize large sets of people for whom the answers are similar. These sets would probably not correspond with traditional labels such as Christian, Hindu or Atheist, but until serious research has been done it is hazardous to generalize. Still, this is a learned and moderately readable book, as long as you don't expect it to answer a question.
on June 26, 2005
With terms like the "hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD)" and "minimally counterintuitive (MCI) agents", the writing in Barret's book is turgid, pretentious, full of acronyms, and pseudoscientific. If Christians want/need a book to try to reinforce their faith in Christianity, I suggest reading C.S. Lewis. His books are better written and perhaps more persuasive.