Questions of religion…
The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life
Jesse Bering is Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture and a Reader in the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, but his work has become well known far and wide. A range of ingenious experiments has made him famous among the growing number of scientists from different fields and nations jointly exploring the roots, functions and evolutionary history of human religiousness, defined as the partially heritable ability to hold beliefs in superempirical agents, such as ancestors, spirits or gods.
For example, Bering and colleagues recorded the behaviours of children who were alone in a room with an incentive to cheat – and with fresh stories about a purportedly present, friendly and invisible ‘Princess Alice’. His recordings confirmed that narratives about superempirical agents were actually able to affect decisions as soon as the children felt observed by one.
In another experiment, children from secular and religious kindergartens saw a stage performance about a little puppet mouse, which was devoured by a puppet crocodile. In follow-up interviews, the children were asked about various states of the poor mouse. Although most of them – including the very young – readily acknowledged the cessation of brain and body functions in the dead mouse (such as ‘No, he is no longer hungry.’), most still intuitively attributed mental states (such as ‘He sure is homesick!’). Bering concludes that in contrast to popular assumptions, religious families and institutions don’t ‘instil’ these narratives into the children’s heads, they just try to hold and shape them into official, religious mythologies.
In a third line of contemporary studies, Bering and his colleagues found that even outspoken atheists tended to ascribe higher meanings to life events in narrative situations, frequently giving answers such as ‘I think this job loss happened to teach me what’s really important in life.’
In The God Instinct, Bering condenses his findings and those of some colleagues into an evolutionary picture of religiousness. According to him, the combination of our propensities to overdetect agency, our readiness to use theory of mind on real or perceived agency and the importance of social reputation and narratives for human cooperation and reproduction resulted in the emergence of the human universal trait we now call ‘religion’ – mythological traditions about superempirical agents observing and judging our behaviours as well as handing out blessings and punishments. And as people who were more religious tended to inherit communally approved rules and sets of specific successful cultural traditions (such as narratives about God commanding ‘Be fruitful and multiply!’), the trait became increasingly advantageous in evolutionary terms. Actually, Bering’s thesis about the evolution of religion built on psychological studies and an increasing body of empirical data comes out as a very close match to the one sketched by Charles Darwin in his Descent of Man from 1871, which has been unjustly ignored throughout the sciences for more than a century.
But surprisingly, The God Instinct doesn’t stop with presenting a captivating scientific thesis and supporting findings. Instead, the author gives insights into his biographic journey and personal struggles. A professing atheist and open about his homosexuality, Bering’s critical interest in the matter is deeply personal too, and he writes vividly about his struggle to cope with the ‘naturalness’ of superempirical beliefs and the evolutionary importance of reproductive success. He has never been a religious person himself, but his scientific curiosity has proved stronger than any tendency to adopt the widespread attitudes of just ignoring or ridiculing other people’s ‘odd’ behaviours. Therefore, The God Instinct is not only a book about sound empirical works in a subject of high importance, it is also a book about the psychological tasks we have to accomplish within ourselves when we try to cope with surprising, and sometimes discomforting, scientific findings.
There’s also a good dose of existential wisdom to be found in these pages, expressed through humour and discussions of philosophy, especially of Sartre. In a nutshell, The God Instinct is not only valuable for any reader interested in the freshly blooming field of evolutionary studies of religion, it is at least as valuable to all of us who are interested in the effects and troubles empirical sciences are exerting on our minds and worldviews – because none of us is as neutral about those questions that matter as we so often pretend to be.
Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 2010; Hb £9.95
Reviewed by Michael Blume who teaches the scientific study of religion at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena, Germany
… and of spirituality
The Psychology of Spirituality: An Introduction
Larry Culliford contends that spiritual experiences (not to be confused with religious experiences) are an important aspect of the human condition, long neglected by psychology.
He has an engaging writing style. He constructs his points well, argues convincingly and provides elegant exemplars in the form of vignettes, personal experiences, opinions and even, if we’re lucky, references to psychological research! He ends each chapter with a summary of the take-home message and some questions to consider, to further consolidate the message.
But there are flaws. Culliford seems to miss some obvious references. Most obviously for example, he talks at length about the effects of spiritual belief in (potentially) polarising groups, without any reference to the vast body of psychological literature on the nature of intergroup behaviour.
It’s a well-written book, with a clear argument, that doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive guide to the spirituality of psychology. It is a little evidence-shy at times, but if it provides a foundation to build upon then it will have had a noteworthy impact upon the discipline.
Jessica Kingsley; 2011; Pb £14.99
Reviewed by Bryn Coles who is a Research Associate in the Division of Health Research, Lancaster University
Too simple to succeed
Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change
R. Barker Bausell
This is a highly personal exposition of a theory for transforming the education system to remove inequalities so that all children will learn. Bausell discusses difficulties in reducing differences in teachers’ efficacy and in home support. The central concept is to increase learning by increasing the amount of relevant instructional time delivered. The fundamentals for this are one-to-one tutoring and highly specific curriculum objectives.
Bausell posits that it is exceedingly difficult to improve learning in a typical classroom setting and therefore addresses the setting directly. He provides a glimpse of his future where children are tutored in computer laboratories with a teacher overseeing them on a bank of computer screens.
The value of this book is in the challenge it presents to the current educational system and the reinforcement of concepts such as teaching based on students’ current knowledge and teaching to mastery. However the theory is insufficiently explored to be usefully persuasive. For me as an educational and child psychologist, the lack of acknowledgement of the emotional and social aspects of learning is frankly unforgivable.
Oxford University Press; 2011; Hb £14.99
Reviewed by Angie Wigford who is an Educational and Child Psychologist with Rhondda Cynon Taf Council
An offer of hope
Silence Is Not Golden: Strategies for Helping the Shy Child
Christopher A. Kearney
A thoughtful book exploring the extremes, functions and factors of children’s shyness. Through a conversational approach, mainly aimed at parents, the author offers strategies, exercises and techniques to help address shyness.
Kearney carefully addresses any feelings of blame and/or guilt experienced by a parent whilst also providing a strong sense of acceptance and hope. Case studies and exercises throughout emphasise key points, clarify and simplify the more complex issues and provide space for reflection.
Kearney emphasises throughout the importance of developing strong parent–school relationships, providing a whole-family approach and collaborative working with the shy child. The inclusion of all of these elements adds to the impact of this book. I did wonder whether parents using it as a guide might feel slightly overwhelmed or underestimate the time, effort and personal and emotional resources required to see effective changes. But this was an enjoyable read offering validation, normalisation and most importantly hope.
A valuable contribution to the parent and professional bookshelf!
Oxford University Press; 2011; Pb £11.99
Reviewed by Hannah Butler who is a trainee clinical psychologist, University of Manchester
Under Pressure: Understanding and Managing the Pressure and Stress of Work
Denis Sartain & Maria Katsarou
Sartain and Katsarou share their evidently vast experience of stressors in the world of work. True to its title, the book is clearly laid out into two parts, the first covering causes of stress and how to recognise it, whilst the second thankfully aims to provide answers to the ‘so what?’ question.
It is good that whilst the book outlines key areas of stress ‘at work’, it nevertheless refers to the potential impact of life events too. It is also useful, particularly for the non-psychologist readers, that the authors draw attention to the effects of different personality types. The MBTI is used for this, which although insightful, is presented in a manner that allows readers to determine their own type – without practitioner input. This could be seen as a weakness by some.
The ‘managing stress’ section provides useful guidance and questions to ask oneself, but without going into depth, which may leave the less aware person wanting. The book is a useful reference checklist, a roadmap to follow – but potentially not alone.
Marshall Cavendish Business; 2011; Pb £9.99
Reviewed by Frieda De Ley, who is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Performance Coach, owner of FDL – For Developing Leaders
Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey out of Depression
James S. Gordon
This book is aimed at anyone who has experienced ongoing depression, and is willing to be open to trying different approaches to understand and manage the experience: to rebalance what may be out of order in their lives. The author advocates developing a sense of hope and a kind, compassionate self-view, qualities his writing style conveys to guide and support the reader throughout.
Dr Gordon encourages the depressed person to take the time and have the patience to understand how physiology, attitudes, behaviours and nutrition may influence how depression occurs and plays itself out in one’s life.
He robustly challenges the medical model of depression and the frequently ‘first resort’ of prescribing antidepressants, vigorously exploring and doubting their accepted benefit. He offers instead a comprehensive, holistic, detailed, individualised approach to living with and coming through the depression experience, as often as may become necessary, to achieve a sustained sense of well-being.
This book has a humanistic emphasis that allows depression to be something one experiences, rather than a disorder one has. As such, it’s a worthy edition to the self-help arena.
Hay House; 2008; Pb £12.99
Reviewed by Marie Stewart, who is an NHS Principal Clinical Psychologist in Preston
The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity
J.C. Kaufman & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.)
Great thinkers from Aristotle to Einstein have considered just what creativity is, yet despite over six decades of research in the field many debates on how to measure, utilise and improve creativity still remain. Anyone interested in the field will already be familiar with the names and work of James Kaufman and Robert Sternberg. For those new to the field, this text provides a comprehensive and scholarly introduction to creativity. For those psychologists, researchers and educators already familiar with the key concepts, this book provides a valuable reference point as well as a detailed discussion of future directions.
The book is divided into discrete sections. The first section, ‘Basic concepts’ provides an excellent historical overview of debates in creativity. ‘Diverse perspectives on creativity’ discusses the different approaches to conceptualising creativity, particularly given the changing debates that have taken place over the past decade. The third section, ‘Contemporary debates’ refers to ongoing discussions in the field.
The book examines functional, evolutionary and neuroscientific approaches to creativity across a wide range of perspectives. This text acts as an excellent reference guide to those interested in creativity across the arts, education, business, society and wider culture, yet also summarises critical debates and concepts for the future. This is a highly recommended text that provides a comprehensive introduction and reference to work in the field.
Cambridge University Press; 2010; Hb £80.00
Reviewed by Ruth Hewston, who is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Worcester
Dissociation in Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Theory and Clinical Interventions
Sandra Wieland (Ed.)
Sandra Wieland combines therapist’s real-life examples in this book to address a largely unaddressed area of clinical work. The book aims explores dissociation in children and adolescents, not through research and theory but rather through examples of therapy cases.
Aside from the first chapter, the book is a rich array of clinical case studies that describe how different children and adolescents have been treated for dissociation. Each case study, of which there are seven, provides a clear summary regarding background, intervention and conclusions. Each is perfectly written and interjected with the therapists understanding of the case, and why treatment progressed as it did. Whist the theory is not explicit it is certainly there, and the way this book has been written makes it both an enjoyable read and informative read.
As a clinical psychologist working with children and adolescents, I find this book has clearly increased my awareness and knowledge of dissociation, but it would also be of huge benefit to anyone starting out, due to its largely atheoretical stance.
Routledge; 2011; Hb £24.99
Reviewed by Helen O’Connor, who is a Clinical Psychologist in Winchester
Sample titles just in:
30-second Psychology Christian Jarret (Ed.)
Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us Susan T. Fiske
Errors in Organizations David A. Hoffmann & Michael Frese (Eds.)
Mutual Support and Mental Health: A Route to Recovery Maddy Loat
For a full list of books available for review and information on reviewing for The Psychologist, see www.bps.org.uk/books
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