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In January 2000, a young psychology graduate student named Jesse Bering moved back to South Florida to watch his mother die. Seven years earlier, Alice Bering had been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, and now her struggle with the aggressive disease was nearing its final phase.
Jesse Bering spent as much time as he could at his mother's bedside, watching as she went through "a really painful, awful death," he says. But there were times when Alice wasn't in so much pain, and she and her son had long talks. She wanted to talk about the afterlife, for example.
Bering says his mother had never been a religious person. Though a lifelong believer in a vague sense of "something" beyond our world, she put little stock in such things as heaven, a soul surviving death, or a grand plan for the universe. She was a skeptic, and being near her own death didn't change that, he remembers.
But that disbelief would falter in moments of intense pain. "If you were to ask her why this illness happened," Bering says now, five years later, "she wouldn't talk about a god. But nevertheless, when she was suffering..." he trails off.
In those moments, she found herself pleading with God, asking for relief. Afterward, she would question herself for doing so. "She caught herself asking 'Why me?' one particularly bad day, then immediately recognized the illogical nature of the question and corrected herself," Bering says.
The wrenching episode made a deep impression on the young scientist, who studies the evolution of the human mind. It was plain to him that his mother wasn't having what some term a "deathbed conversion," because in her good moments, she would recover her skepticism. Bering had a hunch that something else was going on something he suspected came from the very nature of the brain itself, a product of millions of years of primate evolution. That insight soon became his consuming passion.
He was fortunate that the adviser to his PhD program at Florida Atlantic University, David Bjorklund, had himself become interested in how evolution shapes the human mind, and he agreed to help Bering design an experiment. Together, they set out to investigate whether evolution has given humans a tendency to believe in an afterlife.
The work fed Bering's deep need to understand his mother's existential flip-flopping. "These are just questions I can't ignore," he says. "I get really ravenous about them." As a scientist, he says, his way of coping was to examine, weigh, and measure. "I want to get them into a lab," he says of his concerns. "Obviously, my defense mechanism of choice is to intellectualize."
By the time Alice Bering died on January 19, 2001, Bering and Bjorklund's study was already well under way. Its findings are now being cited by other scientists working in an obscure but growing field that seeks to prove a radical notion: that God himself is a product of evolution.
Since the 2004 publication of their experiments, Bering and Bjorklund have been ignored by all but a small group of theorists and experimental psychologists. And talking to Bjorklund, the more cautious of the two, you'd never think that their findings are any threat at all to traditional religion. "Humans have evolved this tendency to look for explanations, to look for causes," he says in a characteristically dispassionate way. "This ends up giving meaning to life. It forms how we think about the world. Religion and spirituality emanate from it."
But Bering, now a professor in his own right at the University of Arkansas, sounds ready to burn down a cathedral. His hunger for the answers to his mother's questions barely sated, his goal is nothing less than to prove to the world, once and for all, that God is a "cognitive illusion" a figment of our imaginations.
"My meaning in life is to illustrate that there really is no meaning," he says matter-of-factly from his cabin in the Ozark mountains. "I feel that, for the first time in the history of science, we've been able to answer these questions.
"We've got God by the throat, and I'm not going to stop until one of us is dead."
Bering and Bjorklund are a rarity, coming along about a century since science was openly in the God-killing business.
In the 19th Century, scientific revelations about the age of the Earth and the development of animal species (and humans) led to the loss of faith of many intellectuals. But the 20th Century had a different legacy. While the technological sciences flourished, the end of the century saw science itself increasingly under attack by religious movements, business interests, and, in this country, at least, an antagonistic presidential administration.
In a nation where most Americans don't accept evolution at all, science has been under an all-out onslaught. Battle lines have been drawn around stem-cell research and global warming, but the teaching of evolution is most visibly under siege. Initially under attack by creationists, evolution was granted a reprieve when the U.S. Supreme Court ended attempts to insert literal biblical interpretations into science classes. But creationists regrouped and struck back with the stealthier strategy of "intelligent design." At the center of the highly coordinated, PR-driven ID agenda: to make biology sound as if it were in disarray, as if science itself were in high retreat.