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94 of 97 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accessible, yet chock-full of relevant theories, January 3, 2005
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This review is from: Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion) (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 13, 2011, 3:04:42 PM PDT
Scientific K says:
A very well-written review. I'm afraid Barrett's beliefs may have somewhat biased the Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project he led.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 24, 2012, 7:25:21 AM PST
David T. says:
Well in all fairness, beliefs will bias your views on the matters. I read the very short J. Anderson Thomson book and his atheism also biased his views, it's nice to have views from both someone who believes and someone who disbelieves, the field is surely large enough for that. I don't believe that anyone can truly be unbiased on anything, our bias completely shape the way we see the world.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2017, 8:14:20 AM PST
D. Randall says:
No one is unbiased. This is as true in the world of science as in any other area. It is fair enough to understand that an author is coming at a subject from a particular world view, but it is not legitimate to be critical of the author for having a world view. Michael Polanyi has made the case that science does not operate, and cannot operate, without a subjective element.
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