In one of psychologist Jesse Bering's experiments at Queen's University in Belfast, researchers told children (ages 5 to 9) to throw Velcro balls at Velcro dartboards. They promised the children special prizes for hitting the bull's eye. But the rules of the game made it difficult for the children to win. First, researchers required the children to stand with their backs to the dartboard. Second, they required them to throw the balls with their wrong hands: left-handed throwing for right-handed children, right-handed throwing for left-handed children. The only way the children could win was to cheat.
The researchers divided the children into three groups. In the first group, they left the children unsupervised to play the game as best they could. In the second group, they remained in the room and supervised the play. In the third group, they told the children that someone special would supervise them. In National Public Radio's report of the experiment ( Is Belief in God Evolutionarily Advantageous?), reporter Alix Spiegel described Prof. Bering's way of simulating the presence of an invisible supervisor - of simulating a deity:
"The experimenters showed the kids a picture of a very pretty woman, a character that Bering had made up whose name was Princess Alice. The kids were told that Princess Alice had a magical power. Princess Alice could make herself invisible. Then the children were shown an empty chair and were told that Alice would watch them play the game after the researchers had left."
The question Prof. Bering sought to answer was this: Which group of children was least likely to cheat? As it transpired, the unsupervised children in the first group cheated more - as any parent or teacher would have anticipated. The supervised children in the second group cheated less. The children in the third group - supervised only by an imaginary princess in an empty chair - matched the children in the supervised group in obeying the rules of the game.
Convinced that the children supervised by "Princess Alice" were as likely to play by the rules as the children who'd been supervised by a real person, Prof. Bering repeated the experiment (slightly altered) with adults. It produced the same result: Adults were much less likely to cheat when they thought God (or, at least, a god) was watching them.
For Prof. Bering, who studies God through the prism of evolutionary psychology, the experiments proved that people do restrain themselves - and play more by the rules of the game - when they think that someone, or something, is watching. "Whether it's a dead ancestor, or God, whatever the supernatural agent it is, if you think that it is watching you, your behaviour will be affected."
Oddly enough, atheists experience the same kind of God-fearing response as do people who believe in God. Based on his research, Prof. Bering says this instinctive response goes with "being human."
"I've always said that I don't believe in God," he says, "but I don't really believe in atheists, either. Everybody experiences the illusion that God - or some kind of supernatural agent - is watching them, is concerned about what they do in their private, everyday moral lives." Whether the supernatural agent is called God or karma "or, literally, thousands of other names," it produces the same cautionary inhibition against cheating.
Prof. Bering says atheists "experience it" - but then repudiate it. They "stomp" on their own intuitive sense of supernatural experience. But he adds: "We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way." Prof. Bering should know. A confirmed atheist, he experienced a personal supernatural moment when his mother died. He now describes himself as an agnostic rather than as an atheist.
Prof. Bering's first book, The God Instinct, will be published in Britain this week (and, subsequently, as The Psychology of Souls in North America). It will argue that, whether God made man or man made God, humans survived through the ages mostly because they believed they were being watched - all the time.