Monday, August 30, 2010


On NPR, a story asks the musical question "Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?" The work of psychologist Jesse Bering is profiled--Dr. Bering has written extensively on the intuitive conceptions (mainly in children) of various supernatural beliefs, like invisible observers, gods, and the mental capacities of dead entities. He speaks of religious belief as an epiphenomenon, that there is an abstract belief in intentional agency that gives rise to, rather than springs from, religious thought.

I am hoping that he has been the victim of quote-mining, but with such a pithy quote I rather doubt it:
Bering has a credo, a truth he says he's learned after years of studying this stuff.

"I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists either," Bering says. "Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives."
He certainly seems to have found this in his research. It does not match my own experience (although it did when I was younger), and I have certainly read of other atheists who claim it does not match theirs. But Bering has an explanation for that:
In fact, Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother's death.

"They experience it but they reject it," Bering says. "Sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition. But that's not to say that they don't experience it. We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way."
Ah. He felt something shortly after his mother died (the wind chimes tinkled, and he felt it was a message from his mother--he does not say he believed this, but rather that he felt it, which is a meaningful distinction), and thinks we all must feel the same?

"I don't believe in atheists", the man said with a smile
"See, everyone believes in God, but some are in denial"
It must have been convenient, though, as anyone can see--
Just throw away the data points with which you disagree!
I'd like to try this method--goodness knows what I will find--
The greatest boon to science in the course of humankind!
There's guaranteed significance! The dumbest will look smart!
We can find the things we're looking for, and know before we start!
No more "plus or minus" error bars, uncertainty, or doubt;
When data disagree with you, you simply throw them out!
"I don't believe in atheists"--it's really rather dim.
If that's his methodology, I don't believe in him!


Pigbristles said...

Oh noes! I read an umoderated comment by Dreadful Mabus and now I'm gonna die!

Or not. FYDM.

Golden, as usual, Cuttlefish!

Cuttlefish said...

Yeh.. Blogger apparently has a new spam filtering deally, so I'm trying to train it to recognize He Who Makes Impotent Death Threats. So far, it seems to be adding one step to my "delete" process.

Philip said...

Anatheism? Is it time to coin a new word, or should we just lump him in with the faitheists?

Anonymous said...

Can we find a better word than "atheism"? The "-ism" suffix makes it sound like a belief system, like CatholicISM or JudaISM or BuddhISM. A-the-ism means no god, but still some people think it's a belief, which it is not. And the subject of the NPR story (which I heard, yuck) is also talking about sympathy with "supernatural" phenomenon such as the idea that his dead mother tinkled the wind chimes (sheesh). (Yeah, I have a name for that phenomenon: it's called a "breeze.") Maybe a good word for us is REALISTS, or "science-based thinkers."

Cuttlefish said...

But Anon, not all atheists are realists or science-based thinkers! The privative "atheist" category is problematic in that it is negatively defined, but that is what it is. While I would hope to consider myself both a realist and a science-based thinker, neither of those things is identical to "atheist"--indeed, there are a good number of science-based thinkers who are also religious (hey, people compartmentalize!), and I'd rather be problematic and accurate than try to be happy with a square-peg-round-hole category.

Anonymous said...

OK, good points, I need to think about it some more. But I'm still not comfortable with "atheist" because, as you say, it is essentially a negative, and, I would add, that almost in its very construction acknowledges a god (no-god-ism). Perhaps "non-religious and skeptical of the supernatural" -- hmm, that's clunky.

Cuttlefish said...

For myself, I actually like the privative or negative definition; I just wish that A) more atheists used it, and B) it was better understood by others.

Essentially, all it is is the "none of the above" that remains after any other god-belief category remains unchecked. Catholic? Nope. Baptist? Nope. Calvinist? Nope. Muslim? Nope. Hellenic Pantheist? Nope. (several hours later) ... ok, "none of the above"? Yes! That's the one!

Beyond that, belief in a material world is a positively defined belief, as is, say, humanism, or cephalopodism, or naturalism, or whatever. But those are separate, and essentially independent (especially, as I said before, given our ability to compartmentalize) from religious category (including "none of the above").

The Ridger, FCD said...

It strikes me that his statement doesn't follow from his observation.

"Everyone experiences the illusion..." but some recognize it for an illusion and learn to ignore it. Experiencing an illusion doesn't make you a theist in denial.

Sarah said...

The wind-chime story reminded me of something similar that happened to me. Several years ago, my husband was very ill and in the hospital. Between visits, I went to our garden to cut some flowers for him. I was very worried and distraught at the time, as he had been near death and his prognosis was still unclear. As I cut some red bee-balm, a hummingbird flew in and hovered just a few inches in front of my face. It was so tempting to interpret this amazing close-up experience as some special manifestation of a "life force" or "god" or something - I was desperate for comfort and reassurance, and here was this beautiful bird humming in my face. Some people might have interpreted it as a "message." But the bird's approach was likely triggered ONLY by my getting too close to the red bee-balm that this bird had guarded all summer long as her personal feeding station. Not god, just a hungry, territorial bird. Lovely, but just a bird.

Cuttlefish said...

A very cool experience, though, Sarah! I love hummingbirds!

What irks me to no end is that there are those out there who will actively suggest spiritual connections like this in order to profit. Sylvia Browne, for instance, will croak out "she sends you birds" or "she sends you butterflies", meaning that the next time you notice a butterfly flitting past, that's a message from the dearly departed. Demeaning to everyone from the deceased to the survivor to the bird, and Sylvia charges for it.

Blake Stacey said...

Well, he's got me there! Though on the Internet I play like I'm PZ Myers' long-lost, even more atheistical twin brother, I have seen with my own inner eyes the pattern and the order of Creation. I have vibrated in time with the heartbeat of the world. In other words, I spent spring break in Amsterdam my junior year.