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Good on the evidence, bad on many of the implications
on May 28, 2014
Born Believers summarizes some findings of contemporary cognitive and evolutionary psychology that suggest humans have an "instinct for religion." Barrett hypothesizes this instinct is based in something like the hypothetical "Language Acquisition Device," emerging in infancy and developing in children apart from any cultural influences but declining in power with age. Barrett uses western and non-western studies plus some anthropological data to make a case for there being several points of "natural religion" that nearly all people will normally gravitate toward, at least early in their life. Barrett does not spend much time speculating why this is the case, what good it is, and what problems it may cause. Instead he wishes to complicate skeptical arguments from Freud to the New Atheists that describe religious belief as infantile, illusory, and natural to outgrow if one is not exposed to religious indoctrination in one's family or culture. Barrett succeeds at all this, but his last three chapters are almost not worth reading. They fall into a confusing, disingenuous attempt to explain why atheists exist with mock suggestions for how they can build their confidence and numbers. This chapter seems to develop into satire with a polemical edge. The last two chapters advocate and prescribe both religious inquiry and passive indoctrination that will only make sense to western readers with some type of Christian background. Most will find Barrett's prescriptions too committed to a specific, rather deistic construction of God to jibe with their religious tradition. Barrett also seems highly conflicted in his attempt to assimilate (as a Christian and scientific researcher) modern, western values for dispassionate and critical thinking as well as fairness and tolerance to a religious commitment. He does not seem to appreciate the profound difficulty of reconciling the totalistic qualities of theistic belief with intellectual inquiry throughout the history of western theism and religion in general. (See Alasdair MacIntyre's "God, Philosophy, Universities" for example.) Barrett would have parents inculcate openness to critical questioning about religious topics as well as a sense of certainty and unshakeable conviction regardless of the parent's actual feelings. This is an interesting paradox if not an open contradiction that Barrett seems not to notice and leaves unexplored.
==In-Depth Summary and Review==
In Barrett's relatively young field, it has been established that people are biologically biased toward belief in gods and the supernatural as well as basic moral norms. We start by seeing all others (people and animals) essentially as gods, and we learn only slowly and with difficulty about the limited knowledge, power, and mortality of other humans. Young children don't have easy access to their own mental processes, for example, and it takes them a long time to understand other minds and perspectives as potentially mistaken or deceived. Young children assume no one else shares their ignorance to the point that they cannot comprehend that someone else could be wrong about or hold a contrary view of something that is plain to them. But even young infants are able to tell when purposeful, intentional action is taking place as opposed to random or arbitrary action. These and other related factors in early cognitive development collaborate to produce an initial conceptual framework defining our childhood experience of the world and others that is functionally religious. We simply assume there is a benevolent creator-god and supernatural forces behind and responsible for the natural world in whom fairly universal moral norms tend to be grounded later. Later intellectual development, whether it explicitly elaborates or contradicts these early ideas, must necessarily engage with them, amplifying, modifying, or inhibiting them.
Some religious readers may be troubled by the evidence for seeing their basic beliefs as artifacts of the limitations and misperceptions of the developing mind, or as the basis for some type of universal "natural religion." Certain western theologies and religious traditions are more and less hospitable to these ideas, but Barrett is not out to validate or falsify any of them. Instead he wishes to falsify certain anti-religious arguments. Non-religious readers who are troubled by the evidence for how widespread and "natural" religious beliefs are the targets of the middle and later chapters.
Instead of religion as a virus needing a vaccination as Richard Dawkins contends, Born Believers says religion is more like E. Coli -- a beneficial bacteria you can't live without, as long as it stays in your gut. This may not really disagree with Dawkins since religion that gets out of control tends to be ideological and totalistic, and totalistic ideologies that go viral among adults are like a deadly strain of influenza. If you see the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) as legitimately attacking mainly fundamentalist religion, this book largely supports that view. If you think they are attacking all religious belief or that all religion is basically fundamentalism pumped into people by force, then you'll find that view being complicated if not dismantled by Barrett. He seems unsure which of those positions is actually held by the New Atheists, which is not an uncommon reaction -- they are very scattershot and not very theologically informed in their attacks on religious belief. But if Dawkins and Hitchens overstate the oppressiveness of religion and the ease with which children may be indoctrinated through more and less passive pressuring, Barrett probably understates how common and problematic it is.
Barrett believes his field of cognitive research establishes that religious belief is inevitable and benign if not beneficial in the basic concepts that most people start with. He acknowledges religious beliefs can become perverse and connect with oppressive and violent behavior, but how this happens, how often it is the case, and what should be done about it are not things he deals with. He seems entirely opposed to coercive, anti-intellectual fundamentalism that is closed to reason, but he seems to think that is not what a lot of religious belief and practice actually is. He cites studies showing how religious people are happier, better adjusted, and so forth while acknowledging that is no reason to be religious. Barrett does point out that it is adult religiosity that is violent, non-cooperative, and coercive while children rarely exhibit these traits. How that transition occurs in adults, from a benign childhood religiosity to a perverse form of religion is not explored. Instead he asks why there are atheists at all in a not very serious chapter that reveals the limits of his own perspective.
Barrett's own position is one he makes fairly clear in the course of the book, but it would have been better for him to lay it all out very clearly at the beginning. His institutional affiliations are Reformed/Calvinist, and he described himself as a product of a relatively soft fundamentalism that he has no great grievances against. In a book that should not be polemical or apologetic, Barrett does slip into those modes. He does not say atheism is unnatural in the chapter that considers this question, but it is clearly rare, and the best Barrett can do to account for it is to speculate how it might be a kind of disability, like not being able to walk. Male-brainedness, not having children, limited social networks, secure and privileged first world environments, less sensitive agency detection, and modern biases in favor of talking about human causes or pseudoagents instead of supernatural ones are all offered as reasons why there are atheists. The way Barrett then suggests atheists build "confidence" and propagate themselves (including the advice to not have any children) seems hostile and unserious. It is hard to say if any of this chapter is remotely serious or credible, but there are serious arguments from religious and non-religious perspectives about the social and intellectual history that produced western atheism, and any of it would be more relevant than Barrett's half-hearted jibes. The standard view is that missteps and misdeeds among and between religious thinkers and communities are highly responsible for the rise of modern skepticism -- something Barrett does not seem to recognize.
One important thing Barrett gets right about the "new atheists" is that they've made a mistake to think it would be good for the world if they imposed their own rather elaborate idea of the truth of reality on everyone because they assume what really matters is that people have "true" rather than "false" ideas. That is just a hopeless cause for so many practical social and epistemological reasons, but there is still a real problem the new atheists recognize that Barrett does not deal with: we need some basis for consensus and order in society. Sufficient agreement and trust is needed to hold things together, but this cannot happen with some people convinced that agreement and trust must flow from (especially a single) religious position while others are convinced it must flow from some type of rationalistic and skeptical if not anti-religious position. Both views tend to produce extremists so there are always plenty of unhelpful, immoderate voices wishing to drive their opposition into an irrelevant marginal status or eliminate it entirely. Barrett would have done better to focus on this problem and develop some of the ideas embedded in his last chapters in light of how several religious traditions have learned to handle the need to propagate themselves and live as active contributors to a society that includes others who don't share their beliefs. It is clear Barrett values curiosity and intellectual openness, the need for intellectual humility, and he sees the necessity for trusting people and believing something to learn and grow or communicate and interact socially at all.
Barrett seems to hesitate whenever he approaches a pragmatic view of the utility of religious belief apart from unresolvable ideas about its truth, probably because this is alien to the sensibility of both religious and non-religious dogmatists who insist things that are true are also good for us and vice versa. Barrett comes close to making the point that people can believe far-out religious myths for centuries and sustain complex and advanced civilizations. It has been possible, for example, for ancient Egyptian judges to behave in a recognizably just and impartial way because they believe they have been ordained by the Pharaoh -- the son and incarnate representative of Ra, the principal (solar) deity -- and for this reason the ma'at (divine justice, reason, truth, law) flows through them. The truth or falsity of these specific beliefs matters a lot less than the social proof for their value and legitimacy affirmed by the social cohesiveness they are able to effect and sustain. However, if people use belief in supernatural beings to avoid reality, slough off personal responsibility, and justify murder this would obviously be a bad outcome and the work of evil deities even if the reality of the supernatural beings was apparent to everyone.
Perhaps there is a Darwinian logic at work where religions conducive to human flourishing tend to prevail over time, but they can also fall into decadence, decline, and self-destruction. If religion is inevitable we should strive to keep it healthy, not dismantle it, but some (including religious believers) might argue some or all of the major religions are past redemption. It would have been interesting to see how Barrett would handle these issues because he clearly holds a pragmatic faith perspective that sees religion as inevitable, needful, and possible to keep on a healthy track. This position tends to carry its own skepticism and arrogance because it necessitates saying most people need to believe (and be helped to believe) things as certainties that really are no such thing. The collapse of objects of faith into quasi-scientific dogma probably marks the point where religion goes bad by trying to do science (describe how things are or came to be) rather than offer motives, goals, and limits for human knowledge and power through an ethical vision of how things should become. Barrett would have done better to acknowledge and wrestle with these problems. His own views on religious development in the final chapters are well-intended but superficial; they will probably disturb almost any religious perspective from the most conservative to the most liberal.
In the final chapters Barrett articulates a rather liberal, humanistic, and somewhat idealized vision of how religiosity should be shaped in children to support their increasing independence and maturity. For example, he recommends telling them what you regard to be true with love and humility (as in "you know you might be mistaken"), and he advocates shared inquiry that can never be resolved into simple, certain answers. Then he goes on to say "don't say you 'believe in' or 'have faith in'" something -- instead you should "talk as if there is no question about it." Barrett also advises that God be frequently referenced as a detectible, ultimate (not immediate) cause in all areas of life. This is similarly indoctrinational, but it also reduces the doctrinal content to forms of deism that lean heavily on European Christian assumptions. Barrett is very committed to the idea that religious belief ultimately ought to be the result of a relatively free adult choice, which also is intelligible only within substantially post-ethnic, post-traditional modern cultures influenced by Judaeo Christianity, European modernity. Without a favorable conception of individuality and conscience Barrett's prescriptions are threatening or nonsensical since they rehearse the compromises the Liberal state requires from religious particularists: you cannot impose your beliefs on others, even your own children as they come into their majority. In these matters Barrett is out of his area of competence. It would have been a better book if he focused more on explaining the science in his field with a more honest and rigorous account of its possible implications for how we understand religious belief in children, adults, and societies.