As we’ve seen throughout this book, our private experiences generated by thinking about our individual purpose, the meaning of life, the afterlife, why bad things happen to good people, and so on, are highly seductive, emotionally appealing, and intuitively convincing — in most cases leading directly to belief in God. It is therefore more than a little foolhardy to think that human nature can ever be “cured” scientific reason. As a way of thinking, God is an inherent part of our natural cognitive systems, and ridding ourselves of Him –really, thoroughly, permanently removing Him from our heads — would require a neurosurgeon, not a science teacher. So the real issue is this: knowing what we know now, is it wise to trust our evolved, subjective, mental intuitions to be reliable gauges of the reality outside our heads, or do we instead accept the possibility that such intuitions in fact arise through cognitive biases that——perhaps for biologically adaptive reasons—lead our thinking fundamentally away from objective reality? Do we keep blindly serving our genes and continue falling for this spectacular evolutionary ruse of a caring God, or do we peek behind the curtain and say, “Aha! That’s not God, that’s just Nature up to her dirty little tricks!”
Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct
As we learned earlier in this chapter, however, we also possess an especially effective, adaptive safeguard to protect our genes against our evolved impulses and our vulnerably overconfident judgment: the inhibiting sense of being observed. Again, ancestrally speaking, eyes meant carriers, and carriers meant gossip. What further derails our selfish streak is the conscious awareness that an observer can identify us as an individual: a specific person with a name and a face. The more obvious —or traceable— our individual identity, the less likely
we are to engage in intemperate, high—risk behaviors that, though they may well reap immediate payoffs, can also hobble our overall reproductive success, owing to the adaptive problem of gossip. Only a rather dim—witted bank robber, for example, would enter his targeted establishment without a disguise. If one is convinced of being absolutely unidentifiable, the fear of punishment—or retribution vanishes. The famous social psychologist Leon Festinger referred to this general phenomenon as the process of “deindividuation,” which “occurs whenever “individuals are not seen or paid attention to as individuals.” ” Deindividuation is quite clearly a potentially dangerous scenario for the social group as a whole; if the individual actor cannot be identified, then the threat of gossip loses that personal punch, one that otherwise helps keep the actor’s egoistic needs in check.
Deindividuation is, of course, at the core of a mob mentality. It can also lead to acts of brutal violence against out—group members, because a “deindividuated” person is absorbed into an anonymous group identity and no longer fears the consequences of toting around an insolvably tarnished reputation. When faced with a frenzied mass of angry, anonymous people, relatives and friends of the out—group victim wouldn’t know where to begin looking for revenge against a speciﬁc perpetrator. In anthropological circles, it is well known that Warriors who hide their identities before going into battle are more likely to kill, mutilate, or torture than are those who do not bother to disguise themselves.