Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Agustin Fuentes
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019, 206 pp. Hardcover, $28.

In this book, Agustin Fuentes, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, addresses belief, why we believe, and how our beliefs shape ourselves and the world around us. He explores belief in three areas: religion, economies, and love.

Fuentes takes us on an anthropological deep dive into what makes us human and how the “human niche” developed. He gives a detailed time line of this development, as well as the evolution of plants and animals and the construction of the “human place.” He stresses that “the capacity for belief is not rooted simply in neurobiology.”

One third of the way through the book, Fuentes defines human culture as a system of the “distinctive processes of humanity that evolves as a central component of the human niche.” He tells us that “how we believe is explicitly an aspect and outcome of human culture . . . and why it is central to the processes of belief.”

To believe, explains Fuentes, “is to invest in something, utterly, wholly, and authentically such that it is one’s reality. So cultural constructs are real for those who hold them.” He goes on to say, “Much of what humans do is structured by what they believe.” Evolution of culture is ongoing largely because “becoming human is ongoing . . . We are humans evolving past, present, and future.”

The human mind enables belief by giving us our ability to imagine. According to Fuentes, imagination consists of “mental representations of objects or events not present in the subject’s current or recent external context.” Obviously our idea of God would be a mental representation as well.

In Fuentes’s view, belief, especially religious belief, “is not about being fooled.” Indeed it can be a “certainty of something that cannot be seen.” He considers religious belief to be just a small part of what humans believe, although “it is a major element in the human story.” Indeed religious beliefs, perhaps more than any other kind except love, have shaped our world and culture. As he says, religious belief “has massive impacts on the processes and experiences of humanity, and thus is central to an understanding of becoming and being human.”

Fuentes goes on to address belief in economies, which has relevance for us today, given the dissonances regarding the role of government in the economy and the economic system that best serves our needs. Economic systems, Fuentes says, “are not naturally occurring features of the world. Economic systems and ideologies . . . are human made, certainly creative and imaginative and very real, but the products of human society. They exist because we created them, and they are maintained because we believe in them.”

When it comes to love, Fuentes says that “belief and love are intertwined” and that “humans have to believe in some, or many, forms” of love. Perhaps love is the form of belief that is most vital for becoming human. “Our capacity to believe emerges from evolutionary processes and is intrinsically tied to our abilities to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, and to infuse the world with meaning. This enables us to love.”

Does belief matter? Fuentes concludes that it does: “Knowing why and how we believe is central to making belief matter for the better in the future.”

Does what we believe matter? Again, Fuentes says it does—in matters such as climate change, social justice, and inequality. He notes that “patterns of . . . inequality, driven by beliefs, are not uncommon.” Fuentes deplores fundamentalism in both religion and in “scientism,” writing that fundamentalism is “an abuse of the human capacity to believe.”

If you are looking for Fuentes to enter the realm of truth in his discussion, you will be disappointed, because the truth of belief is far beyond the anthropologist’s purview. The most beneficial act might be for us to learn to hold our beliefs lightly as we constantly progress in the act of becoming human.

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Group, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth.