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Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion Series) [Paperback]

By Justin L. Barrett (Author)
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Item description for Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion Series) by Justin L. Barrett...

Because of the design of our minds. That is Justin Barrett's simple answer to the question of his title. With rich evidence from cognitive science but without technical language, psychologist Barrett shows that belief in God is an almost inevitable consequence of the kind of minds we have. Most of what we believe comes from mental tools working below our conscious awareness. And what we believe consciously is in large part driven by these unconscious beliefs. Barrett demonstrates that beliefs in gods match up well with these automatic assumptions; beliefs in an all-knowing, all-powerful God match up even better. Barrett goes on to explain why beliefs like religious beliefs are so widespread and why it is very difficult for our minds to think without them. Anyone who wants a concise, clear, and scientific explanation of why anyone would believe in God should pick up Barrett's book.

Publishers Description
Psychologist Barrett demonstrates how belief in God is quite natural given the structure of our minds.

Citations And Professional Reviews
Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion Series) by Justin L. Barrett has been reviewed by professional book reviewers and journalists at the following establishments -
  • Choice - 02/01/2005 page 1041

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Item Specifications...

Studio: AltaMira Press
Pages   152
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.98" Width: 5.88" Height: 0.39"
Weight:   0.55 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   May 28, 2004
Publisher   AltaMira Press
Edition  New  
Series  Cognitive Science Of Religion  
ISBN  0759106673  
ISBN13  9780759106673  

Availability  103 units.
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More About Justin L. Barrett

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Justin L. Barrett was recently appointed as Thrive Chair and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was director of the Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project at the University of Oxford and a research associate at the Ian Ramsey Centre, also at the University of Oxford. He was the recipient of the William Bier Award in 2010 from the American Psychological Association and is a member of several professional organizations, including the American Academy of Religion, the Association for Psychological Science, and the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry. He is also the editor of a four-volume series, the Psychology of Religion (Routledge).

Justin L. Barrett has published or released items in the following series...
  1. Cognitive Science of Religion Series

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Reviews - What do customers think about Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Cognitive Science of Religion Series)?

atheism is the odd man out  Mar 16, 2008
As an atheist, it is easy to view those with traditional religious beliefs in a condescending manner. We atheists are very bright, scientific, rigorous, and advanced; those who believe in silly things like god(s) are primitive, dumb, and bigoted! Or so We like to tell ourselves.

However, the relatively new field of cognitive anthropology has shown this view to be absolutely false. Most works in this field are turgid, slow moving, and difficult. (cf. works by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer) This book is not. It is terse, to the point, and lucid. All jargon is explained in the text and it contains a glossary so you can refresh your memory if need be.

Barrett's basic idea is that our minds have evolved in a way that makes religious belief natural. It is so natural because it fits nicely with many unreflective beliefs that our mind has. For example, all people have mental equipment which makes them hypersensitive to detecting agency, they also have mental equipment which makes them view other things as having minds.
On top of this, people have intuitive moral concerns that are universal. Therefore, they easily view these morals as coming from somewhere.

In short, as a hypersocial species, humans find it quite natural to posit minimally counterintuitive God concepts. These concepts are satisfying and spread easily among others.

Here is an example of Barrett's mode of analysis.

Suppose you talked to a guy named John a few days ago. John tells you that your house is known to be haunted. He recounts some tales that were told to him by the last owners of the home. You don't really believe it, but you do tuck it away in your memory.

Now you are in your home alone at night. Suddenly the radio turns on in the other room. You get a little scared. Then you here creeks coming from the basement. Now your blood is getting hot and your palms are sweating. You don't believe in superstitious nonsense. All the same, you can't help the fear. Then you remember what John told you. What if it were true, you think to yourself.

Why does this seem so plausible?

According to Barrett this would occur for many reasons.

1) Humans gain social information from others and assume that non-interested parties are not purposefully decieving us. Therefore, John's tale is percieved as being relevant, even if it is first construed as nonsense.
2) Humans have artifact detection devices in their brains. We know that a radio is created for a specific function.
3) Humans have a hypersensitive agency detection device. We are always looking for evidence of agency, even where none exists.
4) Humans have a Theory of Mind (ToM). We are always trying to interpret things mentally. For example, my computer IS STUPID!
5) Combining 2-5, You know that your radio is turned on only when someone purposefully turns it on to listen to music. That it might turn on accidentally, or due to mechanical failure is not intuitive. Thus, your unreflective thought is: Who turned my radio on and why? If nobody is in your house, you can reflectively compensate for your intuitions, but it is tough. Once your mind starts churning, it is tough to shut off. Now that your agency detection device is working in high gear, you hear the creeking from the basement. Your mind interprets this as movement from somebody attempting to do something. After this, you remember what John told you. Think about how intuitively satisfying such implicit reasoning is! It makes sense of everything around you in a parsimonious manner. To deny this and concoct reflective explanations that deny agency and ToM requires that you get very non-intuitive. It is possible. For example, you can reason that a mechanical fluke caused the radio to turn on, and that the creeks in the basement are nothing more than the water heater. My guess is this explanation will not provide total comfort. Nor will you be certain that it is true. It is just not that intuitive. Although your reflective explanation, in this case, is almost certainly the correct one, the mind does not think so.
Why not?
Error management Theory. Suppose you are in the woods and hear a twig snap. Was it the wind or a predator? Your brain can go either way. From the point of view of natural selection, defaulting in either direction has costs and benefits. If you remain calm assuming it was the wind and are wrong, you end up as lunch. If you get nervous, assuming a predator is lurking after you, your body uses up some metabolic energy. After eons of rigorous selection, it clearly pays to error on the side of caution.

This applies, mutatis mutandis, to the haunted house. Suppose you remain calm and believe the events have been caused by non-agents- What if you are wrong? What if it is a ghost or intruder? (BTW, as Barrett explains, a haunted house is even more intuitive because we view houses as having territorial owners. If the ghost owners view you as a trespasser, that is a good reason for getting angry. Your mind intuitively knows this, thus you do not break into homes.)
EMT theory makes it more likely that you will posit the ghost or agent based explanation. My guess is that most of us would consciously believe the mechanistic explanation, since it is rational, while our bodies would believe the agent theory and fire up the fight or flight system.

It is not hard to go from this situation to Monotheism. In fact, as Barrett shows, children seem to be intuitively wired to believe in some sort of all knowing, immortal being.

I recommend this book to all theists and atheists. It is not an apologetic for belief, nor is it an atheist manifesto. It is, rather, an objective look at why so many people believe in God. For an atheist such as myself, Barrett's book gives much food for thought.

Are atheists really superior to theists? Should we discriminate against the religious? Should we try to eradicate religion?
After reading Barrett my view on these questions has changed.
However, I will let the reader draw their own conclusions from this diamond of a book.
Why would Barrett Believe in God?  Nov 19, 2007
Barrett's account and defense of theistic belief is an important contribution to the perennial debate over the existence of God. As an Oxford researcher at The Centre for Anthropology and Mind and The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, he is eminently positioned to offer a theory of theism from the burgeoning field of evolutionary cognitive psychology.

Barrett's claim is that belief in the supernatural is a natural and predictable product of human development. We 'naturally' impute supernatural agency to account for inexplicable phenomena. Barrett fleshes out this basic theory with several cognitive tools. Thus, in not so simple terms the development of 'ToM' (theory of mind)allows for the perception of 'agency' (intentional actions) using 'HADD' (Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices), which naturally select 'MCIs' (Minimally Counterintuitive Agents), which include God. Easy!

So far, non-theists may be nodding their heads in agreement ... until Chapter 8, 'Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?'. Here, things get interesting and apologetic as Barrett weaves a Plantinga-like Calvinism into the narrative to interpret his natural account of theism. His basic thesis: "The naturalness of religion may be discouraged by the artificial (meaning human-made) pursuit of knowledge" begs the question of what is 'natural' and what is not. Arguably, this is a giant but fascinating leap from an account of theism to a defence of the correspondent truth of theism. In my humble opinion this leap is taken prematurely, and unsuspecting readers may not notice the pervasive influence of Alvin Plantinga's presuppositional apologetics popular amoung modern Reform theologians.

The core question Barrett approaches is whether a natural account of the development of God concepts leads 'naturally' to theism or atheism? Barrett comes down clearly in favour of theism, using the analogy in another text, "Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me -- should I then stop believing that she does?" But, is this a relevant analogy? Perhaps, but what of another: suppose science develops a convincing account of why a man thinks he's God - should we then stop believing he is? Or, "suppose science provides a convincing account for why two different men think that they are God - should we then stop believing that either are? I'm not sure Barrett (at least in this short book) gives a good account of why and how we answer these questions in the way we do. Exactly what is it cognitively that draws so many people to and from Christian theism upon deep reflection? If Barrett has provided a natural account of atheism should we stop beliving that the atheists are right? What is it that makes it so 'natural' for once-theists to be disillusioned by the 'supernatural' accounts offered within their religious culture? How can anything (including atheism) be 'unnatural' if it's a predictable response to growing out of a first theistic naivity? Barrett's answer, inasmuchas it relies on a presuppositional apologetic, seems as 'unnatural' as the atheism it attacks.

An answer to a non-question  Jul 10, 2006
This is a good attempt to answer a non-question. The meaniningful question is 'What does a particular person mean by the word "God"?' A second question is 'Does this person behave in ways that seem to fit with what they say they mean by "God"?' There is no general answer to either question, though it would be possible, by interviewing and observing many individuals, to recognize large sets of people for whom the answers are similar. These sets would probably not correspond with traditional labels such as Christian, Hindu or Atheist, but until serious research has been done it is hazardous to generalize. Still, this is a learned and moderately readable book, as long as you don't expect it to answer a question.
Why indeed?  Jun 25, 2006
This is a truly excellent introduction to the cognitive study of religion. Justin Barrett has an amazing gift for communicating difficult ideas and concepts in very simple language. Indeed, as an educational reference it should become a classic in the field, but it is full of seminal and important ideas in its own right. It will surely challenge anyone's preconceptions about how religious beliefs are formed, whether theist or atheist. This is evidenced by the review of the ignoramus below who tries to cough up numbers to 'refute' Justin Barrett's claim that it is natural for the human mind to postulate supernatural persons as part of the world.

It is not, as the one-star reviewer thinks, a work of apologetics. It is not intended to bolster the faith of believers. Even though Barrett is a Christian, the book is neutral (as any work of science should be) on the question of whether God actually exists.

Indirectly, however, this book does provide a defense of theism in the following way. Barrett establishes, through a careful overview of the cognitive literature, that beliefs in God or gods are formed from the same cognitive machinery as that which produces our belief in other peoples' minds, the flow of time and other beliefs which we take for granted. You cannot isolate religious beliefs as an evolutionary by-product and not do the same for these other indispensable beliefs. That does not prove that there is a God, but it does effectively neutralize evolutionary criticism of religious belief.

Barrett makes an interesting connection between the results of cognitive science and Alvin Plantinga's seminal work "God and other minds" which is well worth reading. Overall this book is a goldmine of insights and the best general overview of the cognitive science of religion for non-specialists.
Well written: scientific yet accessible without unnecessary jargon  Jan 25, 2006
Well written: scientific yet accessible without unnecessary jargon

Justin L. Barrett presents a well-substantiated, yet very accessible thesis describing the psychological mechanisms involved in belief -- that is, both belief in general and belief in God in particular. Drawing on clinical research, Barrett demonstrates how from childhood, each of us is predisposed to view adults, such as our parents, as omniscient and omnipotent beings. Though we mature and abandon those beliefs about adults, these concepts still allow us to believe in the omnipotent and omniscient qualities of god (any god of any culture), as transmitted to us by our parents and by our society. Barrett demonstrates how ideas and stories that engender belief in such a god are more easily accepted and transmitted than other types of stories.

The foundation of these beliefs stems ultimately from our instinctual ability to distinguish, often incorrectly, the difference between non-agents (for example, a leaf carried by the breeze) and agents (a live mouse) and to believe that they possess mental functions such as fear and desire (for food, for example) which cause them to act.

In the final chapters, Barrett speculates somewhat sarcastically, but still effectively, why reason, logic, and factual evidence do not easily overcome belief. Reading past the sarcasm, there is much to be learned in this chapter. Finally, Barrett discloses his personal belief in Christianity and speculates that our innate capacity to imagine the divine was not the result of mere natural selection, but supernatural selection. I found the idea intriguing yet I wish the rational were a bit more transparent.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to both believers and non-believers who want a better insight into the psychology of belief. Everyone will recognize within himself these psychological processes that Barrett describes and will find it easy to make the connection between that understanding and the phenomenon of belief.

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