Saturday, January 14, 2006

Book Review: How We Believe

Michael Shermer is the director of The Skeptic Society and in How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God he explores 'how and why humans put their faith in a higher power, create rules of morality, turn to apocalyptic myths, and negotiate compromises between science and religion.' There is some fascinating material in Shermer's book. In particular, he reports on the research he has carried out on why people believe in God. The reasons and variations amongst different groups are intriguing. It would appear that those of us who believe ascribe to ourselves more rational reasons for that belief than we ascribe to others who believe. We tend to suggest emotional or psychological reasons to others! How We Believe is divided into two parts. Part I is a discussion of 'God and Belief' and Part II explores the relationship between 'Religion and Science'. Shermer begins the first part with a discussion of the significance of the differences in the answers we give to the question Do You Believe in God? He goes on to criticise the conclusion of Nietzsche and Time magazine that God is dead, arguing that, according to the evidence, the belief in God is very much alive and perhaps greater now than ever. Shermer describes his idea of a 'Belief Engine' in humans which leads them to naturally look for, and find, patterns in everything. This Belief Engine leads humans to explain apparent regularities in nature by attributing meaning to those regularities. After surveying various theories of how people come to believe in God, Shermer concludes, on the basis of his research, that the reasons people believe can be summarised as two sides of a coin. 'For believers, the heavens declare God's glory; for other believers He provides strength in their time of need.' Following this conclusion, Shermer then surveys a number of logical proofs for God and critiques them, demonstrating their flaws. I'm not sure why Shermer included this chapter in his book -- it is well known that logical proofs for God's existence don't ultimately prove that God exists. They rather support am already existing belief in God showing that this belief is compatible with reason. In the second part of the book, Shermer turns to his attempt to explain how religious beliefs come about. He begins with a discussion of the relationship between faith, reason and religion and science. He argues that science and religion answer two different sets of questions and should essentially keep to their own questions. Shermer spends quite a bit of space describing what he understands to be an evolutionary process of the development of religion. Then he delves into disparate chapters on the 1890 Ghost Dance and the constant recurrence of the Messiah Myth across cultures and groups; the tendency for humans to attach eschatalogical significance to the millenium; and Stephen Jay Gould, contingency and necessity. Shermer is most interesting when he discusses his own research and his notion of a Belief Engine is worth contemplating. But when he turns to the evolutionary development of religion, a good deal of the process is merely conjecture, although he attempts to bolster his description with ideas from neuroscience, psychiatry, epidemiology, contemporary evolutionary theory. Significantly, the one possibility that Shermer ignores is that God actually exists. This is to be expected given that Shermer is an agnostic - although it seems, from what he writes, he would be better described as an agnostic atheist. As others have pointed out, despite Shermer's attempt to be non-confrontational (he is not against religion - he just wants to understand it along with those who are religious), the language he uses throughout the book (e.g. consistently calling the belief in God a myth) will not endear himself to all Christians. He also seems to assume that anyone who believes in God must be a fundamentalist who reads the biblical narratives about creation in a literalistic fashion. He does not seem to appreciate the wide diversity of belief within the monotheistic religions. And despite the intention to deal with religious belief generally, the book most definitely focuses around the concept of God as held by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. There is some very interesting material in sections of How We Believe but it probably won't convince anyone who believes in God to alter their opinion. Someone has suggested that this book is the equivalent of Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict (an evangelical apologetic for Christianity) for the skeptic. That is probably a good way to view the book. Related Links There is an incredible amount of literature on the relationship between science and religion. Here are just a few. As always, the listing of a source does not imply agreement with all the ideas. Read and think for yourself!

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