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The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life Paperback – February 20, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“A colorful romp through psychology, philosophy and popular culture.” (New Humanist)

“Voted one of the 11 Best Psychology Books of 2011.
Blending empirical evidence from seminal research with literary allusions and cultural critique, Bering examines the central tenets of spirituality, from life’s purpose to the notion of an afterlife, in a sociotheological context underlined by the rigor of a serious scientist.” (The Atlantic)

“Witty . . . . [Bering] employs examples and analogies that make his arguments seem like common sense rather than the hard-earned scientific insights they really are.” (New Scientist)

“Bering ranges comfortably among evolutionary biology, psychology, and philosophical concerns, and finds the good science in belief.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“An interesting and pleasurable book to read, mainly because it throws up demanding challenges. It may never achieve the notoriety of The God Delusion but its fundamental approach took me from Professor Dawkins's cliché-ridden arguments into more original territory.” (The Catholic Herald)

“Bering's contribution to answering the question [of God] is worthy of consideration by any thinking person.” (The Scientist (Magazine of the Life Sciences))

“[Bering] approaches these dicey subjects with a dazzlingly insightful reading of the empirical literature on human cognition and development, a sly sense of humor, and an obvious compassion for those who do not share his beliefs. He also has a lot of fun. Richard Dawkins and others have surveyed some of this terrain before, but few have done it as convincingly and enjoyably.” (American Library Association, Choice Reviews (Top 25 books of 2011))

“Jesse Bering is a brilliant young psychologist, a gifted storyteller, a careful reader of Jean-Paul Sartre, and a very funny man. And his first book, The Belief Instinct, is a triumph―a moving, provocative, and entertaining exploration of the human search for meaning.” (Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, author of How Pleasure Works)

About the Author

Jesse Bering, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Slate, and Das Magazin. His work has also appeared in New York Magazine, The Guardian, and The New Republic, and has been featured on NPR, the BBC, Playboy Radio, and more. Bering is the former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, and began his career as a professor at the University of Arkansas. He lives near Ithaca, New York.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (February 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393341267
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393341263
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

109 of 120 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Adam L. on January 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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. Yet in the past year, Bering's book is one of only two that have kept my attention so captured.

As one of the leading scholars in the field of religious cognition Bering weaves a persuasive thesis that builds on the strengths of his research and others. Herein you will not find someone wrestling with theological minutia as cognitive accounts of religion go right for the root of what really matters for a rigorous account of the supernatural--the structure of the conceptualization rather than the propositional content. As Bering amply demonstrates, the foundations of religious thought are based on cognition that is much more general and deep than any specialized religious expression may superficially hint at.

The first chapter opens with an exposition on theory of mind--that ever present and nearly ubiquitous feature of our brains that fills it with recognition and understanding of other minds (only those with Autism and Asperger's syndrome typically have an impaired theory of mind). As the level of social sophistication was ratcheted up by evolution in our species, we broke into new niches that had previously been denied other Hominidae by their biological equipment--namely laryngeal and cerebral. A theory of mind allows us to represent what other minds may be thinking or intending and language allows these things to be communicated.

How does theory of mind relate to God?--in a foundational manner Bering argues. What is God but theory of mind applied to the mindless domain of nature where it does not belong?
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Lanz on February 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Make no mistake about it, the title may sound mundane and overplayed but this is a VERY unusual book that had me thinking in genuinely new ways that I did not expect possible (and I am an old curmudgeon who has little patience for foolish ideas.) For a "popular science" book it is uncommonly well-written and so literate and is so persuasive that I would dare anyone who reads it to present a compelling counterargument to Bering's thesis. As another reviewer has said there is some "just so story" qualities to Bering's ideas about God and gossip but it is a hell of a good story with data to stand on. Due to the controversial topic (can anything be more incendiary than what he covers so gently in this book?) there will be many detractors and critics and some have already come out of the woodwork but notice how many of these are emotional reactions to the moral(istic) implications of what Bering is saying. Indeed some have said that Bering is more dangerous than Dawkins and I could not agree more.
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85 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Saganite VINE VOICE on January 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's like this: I had become an atheist about a decade ahead of the New Atheist surge beginning roughly with the publication of Sam Harris's The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. In most of that time the only books I could find addressing the issues of atheism that interested me--after reading Hume and Russell and a couple others--were deplorable, dull, badly written and uninspired affairs. Which is a shame, and rather surprising since some of the best writers I know about are actually atheists (Douglas Adams springs to mind--his The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is wonderful fun).

But then came the New Atheist "revival," and with it, several interesting and enjoyable books. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The God Delusion. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Several others.

And then it just all started feeling like too much. Each book started looking like just one more aspect of a dreary polemic about how god almost certainly doesn't exist. This is true. There is no cogent evidence whatsoever for the existence of a god, and several excellent reasons that argue AGAINST the existence of a god. But that's kind of dull, once you realize it.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that the LIFE of an atheist (this atheist, anyway) is dull or dreary. Not at all. But the TOPIC starts to feel almost as played as religion is.

There were a couple of works that took an approach and filled niches in ways that sparkled and stood out: The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods, for example, and Letting Go of God. But most of the material being produced that was skeptical of religion or argued for atheism felt listless, pedantic, and unnecessary.

Enter "The Belief Instinct.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Book Shark TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 23, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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. Curiously Immortal, 5. When God Throws People Off Bridges, 6. God as Adaptive, and 7. And Then You Die.

1. An enjoyable, well-written, well-researched book that builds up an interesting theory to a satisfactory end.
2. Elegant prose, very conversational tone throughout.
3. Mr. Bering is a well-read author who doesn't hesitate to immerse quotes, anecdotes, studies smoothly into his narrative.
4. At times, though-provoking but never unintelligible.
5. "Teleo-functioning reasoning" explained.
6. Evolution of our cognitive systems.
7. Interesting look at autism.
8. The human penchant to see meaningful signs.
9. Many references to scientific studies sprinkled throughout book.
10. The idea of an afterlife guided by our intuitions.
11. The illusion of purpose.
12. A thorough and satisfactory explanation of the "theory of mind".
13. Human evolution lead by the coevolution of the theory of mind and language.
14. The impact of human gossip.
15. The cognitive illusion of "God".
16. Good use of links and an excellent comprehensive bibliography.

1. I really wanted to give this book 5 stars but I was a little disappointed in what was not included in the book versus what was in it.
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