The Psychology of Meaning

Review :

A superb and accessible account of religious cognition.

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 and put them down. Yet in the past year, Bering's book is one of only two that have kept my attention so captured to be finished within 24 hours.

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 minds 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 for 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 We see this illustrated by the numerous and interesting historical examples that Bering gives us such as the disaster with a bridge and a clown and some geese where many people died. (You'll have to read it to get the details.) In the aftermath, natural causes were ascertained (a faulty weld) but God was nevertheless invoked by many in the town as the "meta-agent" overseeing the event (note this was not to the exclusion of the actual cause). Indeed, a preacher even penned some sermons that laid blame to the "sins" of the town. God was therefore sending a symbolic message with the disaster to the townsfolk to get back on the straight and narrow. Such instances are not the sole property of the past as the rhetoric of many Christian evangelicals surrounding hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake demonstrate. When looking at such examples it becomes clear that intentionality is also tied up in this process and is a clue as to why one of the most fundamental aspects of religion is the interpretation of natural events within a social-teleological frame.

In another central chapter to the argument, Bering takes on the afterlife and why these beliefs are often central in the constellation of important religious subjects. Included here is the claim that the precursors to reasoning about the afterlife emerge as a developmental regularity. Bering and psychologist David Bjorkland conducted an experiment where a puppet show about a mouse getting killed by an alligator was shown to a large sample of children. The surprising results demonstrated that even young children not yet enculturated into a particular religious tradition had a clear concept of biological death, yet still attributed thoughts and emotions to the mouse as if its mind were still functioning. More research covered here discusses how even many atheists that did not believe in life after death still reasoned about it as if consciousness were still active--such as saying that a dead man "realizes he's dead now." Bering calls this the "simulation constraint hypothesis" and argues that it is a foundational aspect of afterlife beliefs since it is impossible to imagine what it is like to be dead and this imparts the illusion that people can "go somewhere" after they die.

At the end of the book Bering makes a claim that I feel has been sorely lacking in this subject's literature--the explicit argument that this science is the way to pull back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz of God and all his mental minions. As Bering notes, this is not a slam dunk argument for one could believe that this was the way in which the Almighty Creator of the Universe tinkered with human cognitive evolution to give us these, ahem, imperfections so we can recognize Him. Indeed, a leading scholar in the field, Justin Barrett, believes just such a thing. Yet, as one concerned with parsimony as Bering is, I find this to be very weak sauce.

Of course, this review merely constitutes a very poor, incomplete summary of an excellently explicated and important book that cannot even begin to give the full text its due. I hope that it may spark the interest of readers enough to pick Bering's book up and be introduced to the fascinating topic of religious cognition.

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