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How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

by Michael Shermer

W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999

302 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

Michael Shermer has presented us with a new perspective on the study of God belief by using scientific methods of data gathering through polls, statistics and historical records. Why do so many believe in the existence of something where no evidence exists, or especially when direct evidence contradicts the belief? Shermer suggests that as evolutionary pattern-seeking animals we find patterns where none exist which can lead to errors of thinking. Type 1 errors result in believing a falsehood and Type 2 errors lead to rejecting truths.

Shermer also provides a critical examination of millennial beliefs and claimed "proofs" for God and brilliantly shows the flaws in each argument without ridiculing believers. In spite of its skeptical thrust, this book should appeal to both believers and disbelievers; how could a religionist not feel intrigued by the religious look of the cover or a search for God in an age of science? If you've looked for a way to present a non-deriding argument to your religious friends or family members (who never seem to tire of giving you their religious perspective), then I cannot think of a better way than to give them this book as a gift. Shermer does not aim to dissuade believers, only to provide answers of how and why people believe. It probably won't convert them, but at the very least it will give them an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments.

I also found Shermer's clarification of Steven Jay Gould's concept of contingency a masterful accomplishment of scientific explanation. Moreover he helps clarify free will and determinism arguments from his added concept of contingent-necessity.

Encyclopedic in scope, yet eminently readable, How We Believe gives us fresh insights on the nature of belief and finding meaning in a meaningless universe.

A few quotes from the book:

American church membership rates have risen from a paltry 17 percent at the time of the Revolution (!), to 34 percent by the middle of the nineteenth century, to over 60 percent today.

One deeper motive contributing to the search for God comes form the fact that the Hebrew Bible has God's influence slowly but ineluctably fading as the story unfolds, to that by the end God's face is almost completely hidden and humans are left to fend for themselves.

If my hypothesis is correct-- that humans evolved a Belief Engine whose function is to seek patterns and find causal relationships, and in the process makes mistakes in thinking-- then we should find evidence for this engine in our ancestors as well as ourselves.

...about one-half of the differences among people in their religious attitudes, interests, and values is accounted for by their genes.

Specifically, what Ramachandran said was that an individual's religiosity may depend on how enhanced a part of the brain's electrical circuitry becomes: "If these preliminary results hold up, they may indicate that the neural substrate for religion and belief in God may partially involve circuity in the temporal lobes, which is enhanced in some patients."

In a large population there will be a wide range of mental experiences, with the more fantasy prone people interpreting these as being outside the mind (demons, spirits, angels, ghosts, aliens, God), and the more rationally prone people interpreting these as being inside the mind (lucid dreams, hallucinations, fantasies).

For Brierre de Boismont, Satan is a socially constructed hallucination, the product of a mind trapped in a demon-haunted world.

Of all the sciences, Larson and Witham found that mathematicians are the most likely to believe in God, coming in at 45 percent.

There is a significant difference between having no belief in a God and believing there is no God...

Measuring "piety" as a function of religious affiliation, church attendance, doctrinal orthodoxy, and self-rated importance of religion, "researchers have consistently found positive correlations with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, social distance, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and blacks." That is to say, greater religiosity was associated with higher scores for these personality traits-- traits that are the very antithesis of political liberalism.

So, overall, belief in God was significantly related to being conservative and being tender-minded, but because laterborns are more liberal and also more tender-minded than their elder siblings, these two predisposing factors will tend to cancel themselves out in the expression of religiosity.

Our Bible is anything but a letter-by-letter transcription from ancient Hebrew. Ronald Hendel adds: "We do not have the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament, and all ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible that we do have differ in the number of letters."

Gerald Larue also notes that even allegedly original biblical documents are anything but-- quotes may be from memory or a compilation of several sources, errors are faithfully reproduced from one manuscript to another, and Hebrew letters look enough alike that names and words can be easily confused with others that are similar.

Drosnin says the Bible Code predicts that the end of the world will occur in 2000, or 2006, or it will be delayed until a later date, or it might not happen at all. Some prediction!

If Stephen Hawking's no-boundary universe is true, for example, then there is no beginning, no end, and no need for a creator.

Paleontology, geology, comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, molecular genetics, population genetics, zoology, botany, biochemistry all independently point to an evolutionary history of life on Earth. Together they converge to an inescapable focal point of scientific truth.

It was that humans can relate to stories better than they can to pure logic or objective facts. It is simply easier to keep track of a complex argument if it includes people, places, and events rather than propositions, syllogisms, and symbolic logic.

The real source of the dragon myth may be frilled lizards, or reptiles that spit a toxic venom. But more likely it comes from a prebiblical Babylonian myth of the prime female deity who was a dragon named Tiamat. She was associated with the flooding of the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the beginning of the growing season, and her ritual killing by Marduk is possibly the source of many of the dragon and dragon-slayer stories in the world.

Morality most likely evolved in these tiny bands of 100 or 200 people as a form of reciprocal altruism, or I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine.

That is to say, religion evolved as the social structure that enforced the rules of human interactions before there were such institutions as the state or such concepts as laws and rights.

Conservatives need not bemoan the decline of families. They will be around as long as the species continues.

Since Ussher's book became the most widely read and frequently quoted source for the creation of the world, it was believed by many that the end would come 6,000 years later on October 23, 1996. Since you are reading this book it would appear the end has once again been postponed.

The Jehovah's Witnesses must hold the record for the most failed dates of doom, including 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, and others all the way up to 1975.

Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible it is not until the book of Daniel-- the latest addition to the canon-- that one can find reference to humans ascending to heaven.

The eventual rise of Homo sapiens, is even more contingent with millions of antecedent states in our past. Each event in the sequence has a cause, and thus is determined, but the eventual outcome is unpredictable because of contingency, not randomness or chance.

But what else could evolution have done?, Gould asks. In the spread of life, there is a left wall of simplicity-- any simpler and it would not be alive. For life to evolve it could only have gotten more complex-- evolution reflects "an increase in total variation by expansion away from a lower limit, or 'left wall' of simplest conceivable form."

The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest.

But for me, and not just for me, a world without monsters, hosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back.

If we are nothing more than star stuff and biomass, how special life becomes.

Table of Contents

Preface: The God Question,
A Moral Dilemma for Dr. Laura
Part I. God and Belief
Chapter 1. Do You Believe in God?
The Difference in Our Answers and the Difference It Makes
Chapter 2. Is God Dead?
Why Nietzsche and Time Magazine Were Wrong
Chapter 3. The Belief Engine
How We Believe
Chapter 4. Why People Believe in God
An Empirical Study on a Deep Question
Chapter 5. O Ye of Little Faith
Proofs of God and What They Tell Us About Faith
Part II. Religion and Science
Chapter 6. In a Mirror Dimly, Then Face to Face
Faith, Reason, and the Relationship of Religion and Science
Chapter 7. The Storytelling Animal
Myth, Morality and the Evolution of Religion
Chapter 8. God and the Ghost Dance
The Eternal Return of the Messiah Myth
Chapter 9. The Fire That Will Cleanse
Millennial Meanings and the End of the World
Chapter 10. Glorious Contingency
Gould's Dangerous Idea and the Search for Meaning in the Age of Science
Appendix I. What Does it Mean to Study Religion
Scientifically? or, How Social Scientists "Do" Science
Appendix II. Why People Believe in God-- The Data and Statistics
A Bibliographic Essay on Theism, Atheism, and Why People Believe in God

To obtain this book, click below:

How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

How We Believe, Audio Cassette (Abridged)

Other books by Michael Shermer:

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997 (hardback), (cassette [abridged])

Teach Your Child Science : Making Science Fun for the Both of You, 1995 (paperback)