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I thank R.R. Reno for pointing us to Leon Wieseltier’s essay on Alex Rosenberg’s exercise in reductionism, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality .  (And yes, Edward Feser’s review was a real pleasure as well.)  Reviews like this do us a double service: while they entertain and instruct, they also steer us clear of bad books that would be a waste of our time (although I daresay Rosenberg’s title alone would have done the job for me).

Wieseltier calls Rosenberg’s “the worst book of the year.”  Big claim, that.  Many candidates present themselves, some in the remainder bins, some on the bestseller lists.  (Thomas Friedman is always in contention.)  My own nominee—certainly the worst book I read in 2011—is Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life .  (In Britain its title was The God Instinct , and God knows why W.W. Norton decided to change it for the U.S., where Christopher Hitchens had a hit with God Is Not Great .)

Here is Bering’s whole argument, to save you the trouble: Human beings evolved by believing a number of stupid things in order to survive and reproduce.  The dumbest thing they evolved to believe is that there is a God.  If you still believe there is a God, now that you have read my book, you should wise up and stop, already.

Okay, there’ s a little more than that—but seriously, not much.  Bering works in the field of cognitive psychology, which has made a number of interesting findings about the “naturalness” of religious belief.  (A much better exploration of such findings is Justin Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? )  But his book is fatally marred by his smarmy atheism and his gleeful mockery of religion, qualities that are particularly grating in light of the fact that he does not even attempt to offer any warrant whatsoever for his convictions that there is no God, that we are merely bodies with firing synapses in the region above our necks, that those bodies are merely the products of blind evolutionary chance, and so on.  Bering presents himself as a relentless practitioner of “logic,” but he seems blissfully uninterested in our logical nature, and appears never to have encountered a genuine philosophical thought of any kind—let alone a theological one.  In the end, the book is really rather sad for the glimpse it gives of its author’s soul.  (And why that last word appears in his book’s subtitle, I cannot say.)

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