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The God Instinct, by Jesse Bering

Third paragraph of fourth chapter:
Of course, Nagin was only reinventing the well-treaded fire-and-brimstone wheel in suggesting that our God is a testy and vengeful one. Just a year before he made his political gaffe, other reflective people from all corners of the globe borrowed from the same barrel of explanation and offered commentary on the “real” reason for the Indonesian tsunami that killed nearly a quarter of a million people in Southeast Asia in 2004. (Never mind the sudden shifting of tectonic plates on the Indian Ocean floor.) All similarly saw that catastrophe, too, as a sort of enormous, Vegas-style, blinking marquee meant to convey an unambiguous message to us superficial, fallen, and famously flawed human beings. Here are a few anonymous samples from some online discussion forums just a few days after the tsunami disaster:
As God says, I send things down on you as a warning so that you may ponder and change your ways.

A lot of times, God allows things like this to happen to bring people to their knees before God. It takes something of this magnitude to help them understand there is something bigger that controls this world than themselves.

It might just be God’s way to remind us that He is in charge, that He is God and we need to repent.

The calamity—so distressing for those individually involved—was for humanity as a whole a profoundly moral occurrence, an act of God performed for our benefit.
I somehow came across Jesse Bering through our mutual connection with the Queen's University of Belfast - he was a lecturer there at the time that I was a visiting research fellow (not that I visited very often) - so when the buzz around this book started I acquired it, but then didn't get around to reading it until now. It's a short and breezy exploration of the psychology of belief - not as wearyingly hostile as Richard Dawkins, but equally taking it for granted that there is no "there" there. I was particularly drawn into the first few chapters' exploration of theory of mind - our ability to attribute mental states to others and to adapt our behaviour to take others' mental states into account. This is one of the things that makes us human - not just that we have a greater cognitive ability than other animals, but that we treat each other as fellow individuals. Bering makes a strong argument that belief in God, or in the supernatural, is a natural development from the fact that we have theory of mind, and therefore is to an extent an evolutionary adaptation to cope with our intelligence and social natures. He then ranges around the areas of philosophy, psychology and organised religion with a bit less impact, but he has set up the argument well enough (and the book is short enough) that I enjoyed following it though to the end. I must read more of his books, which include Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? and Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Docking points, though, for concealing interesting information in the endnotes - why do publishers still do this, when there is perfectly decent technology for footnotes? You can get it here.

This was the top unread book I acquired in 2011. Next on that list is Up Jim River, by Michael F. Flynn.

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